The US Navy has abruptly suspended submarine repair work at four dry docks on the West Coast, raising new concerns about the Ocos agreement just weeks before Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States declared the “optimal path” for Australia to develop nuclear-powered submarines.
The Navy announced over the weekend that it will temporarily suspend operations at three docks at the Puget Sound marine basin near Seattle in Washington state, as well as at a fourth dock at the nearby Trident Revit facility, citing the need to strengthen them to handle possible future earthquakes.
“The recently conducted seismic assessment, which was carried out as part of the Naval Shipyards Long Range Infrastructure Improvement Program (SIOP), identified potential issues associated with the remote possibility of a large-scale earthquake occurring simultaneously with the availability of submarine maintenance,” the statement said. .
“With this new information, the Navy is taking additional measures to ensure the safety of the shipyard workforce, sailors, the local public, the environment, and submarines.”
The US Navy statement doesn’t explain exactly what the “potential problems” are, the work required to fix them, or the likely cost.
Vice Adm. Bill Galenis, commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, said the Navy “will begin implementing these mitigations immediately and will safely restore our dry docks to full capacity as soon as possible,” but did not say how long operations might be suspended.
The Navy stressed that the decision “does not affect the country’s strategic deterrence capacity or the fleet’s ability to continue its comprehensive mission.”
But the shutdown still makes it difficult for the US Navy to operate and maintain nuclear-powered submarines and then decommission them, and could raise renewed concerns about constraints facing the US industrial base ahead of the Okus announcement in March.
The United States is already struggling to meet its Navy’s requirement to build two new nuclear-powered submarines each year, while more than one in three submarines in its current fleet is currently under maintenance or awaiting maintenance.
While the three Ocos nations have not yet determined how to develop nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, there has been speculation that the US will sell, transfer or otherwise sell Virginia-class submarines to Australia to help it bridge the “capacity gap” that will emerge when the current fleet of eight is retired. Collins class conventionally powered submarines.
Late last year, two high-profile senators wrote to President Joe Biden warning that taking such a step could push the US industrial base to “breaking point” — provoking a strong response from bipartisan lawmakers in Washington who have thrown their weight behind Australia and Ochos.
And in August last year, a senior US Navy officer said building additional submarines could place an unsustainable burden on US shipyards.
And in recent days, a report from the congressional watchdog also highlighted problems with the Navy’s future Columbia-class submarine program, finding it “lacks basic timeline vision” amid construction challenges.
The latest development comes as Foreign Secretary Penny Wong and Defense Secretary Richard Marlis prepare to meet their British counterparts in the UK for annual talks likely to focus heavily on the Okus agreement and the impending nuclear submarine declaration.
Mr. Marlies will then fly to the United States to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for high-level discussions ahead of the joint declaration in March.
The former senator and submariner Rex Patrick said the US Navy’s decision to suspend operations at dry docks on the West Coast highlighted the pressures facing the US system and the huge risks inherent in Australia’s ambitious push to build nuclear-powered submarines.