Just a few days before Christmas, on December 21, President Joe Biden issued a Presidential Determination with little fanfare under the Defense Production Act of 1950 (DPA) that, despite its muted announcement, has an important and direct connection to the state of Connecticut. It was an extraordinary action by President Biden, and it’s the latest in a series of events that will resonate in our region’s growing economy for years to come.
In a memorandum to the Secretary of Defense, Biden noted that “ensuring a robust, resilient, and competitive domestic defense industrial base that has the capability, capacity and workforce to meet the Virginia-class submarine undersea warfighting mission is essential to our national security.” To accomplish that mission, the President invoked DPA authorities to expand the domestic production capability for “large-scale fabrication, shipbuilding industrial base expansion for resilience and robustness, and maritime workforce training pipelines.”
The Defense Production Act of 1950 is a Korean War-era law that allows the government to boost and accelerate production of critical materials and technology. It’s the same law that Presidents Trump and Biden have used to stimulate production of COVID-related ventilators and PPE during the pandemic. Since the general contractor for the Virginia-class program, Electric Boat, is headquartered in Groton, CT and Quonset Point, RI, this historic action by President Biden goes hand-in-hand with our region’s economy and workforce.
As Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, which has overseen the explosive growth of the Virginia-class program in the last ten years, I strongly support the President’s decision because it’s based on both strategic national defense considerations, and industrial base demand.
Indeed, just a few days after Christmas, the President signed into law the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). That bill contained provisions my subcommittee authored that are completely aligned with the President’s DPA “industrial base” order. Specifically, the new 2022 NDAA added funding for new facility construction for submarine production, as well as a boost for workforce training and supply chain development. All these provisions were “plus-ups” from the Navy’s initial budget request last February, based on our own analysis of strained shipyard capacity.
The more consequential issue contained in the DPA, I believe, is its finding that the Virginia program “is essential to our national security.” That finding is a blaring signal to the Congress and the entire country that there is bipartisan consensus to bolster our undersea deterrent capability to counter aggressive, coercive actions in the maritime domain. Specifically, the behavior of both the Chinese and Russian navies that has been overwhelmingly repudiated by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention—the former in the South China Sea, and the latter in the Black Sea.
In both cases, despite the International Court’s scathing rejection of both countries’ intrusion on protected waters, there is no sign that lawlessness has abated. China’s encroachment on territorial waters in the Philippines and Vietnam continues, as does its illegal island building and militarization of artificial land masses that the court has condemned. In the Black Sea and the North Atlantic, Russian claims to sea control and seizure of Ukrainian naval ships are blatantly in violation of the international rule of law.
For the U.S. Navy, what is particularly concerning in this new tension is the development of sophisticated missile technology by both countries that increase the vulnerability of our surface fleet that has been working in conjunction with allies like Japan, India, and Australia to reassert the post-World War II principle of Freedom of Navigation visibly and peacefully. The joint sea patrols in the international waters of the Indo-Pacific and Black Sea are a reassertion of principles that, since the end of that catastrophic war, have successfully reduced the risk of conflict while enhancing trade and prosperity.
To counter ongoing threats to rule of law, the Biden Administration has been diplomatically reconnecting all throughout 2021 with U.S. allies in both regions, as well as reevaluating the highest and best use of limited defense spending. The DPA issued on December 21st is a logical extension of that process. Given the new challenge posed by missile technology to our surface fleet, stepping up production of the Virginia-class program makes perfect sense since those submarines are not at risk from even the most sophisticated airborne missiles—and the Chinese and Russian navies know that.
The announcement last September of the new AUKUS security alliance between the U.S., Australia and the U.K.—whose centerpiece is sharing of nuclear propulsion technology for a new class of Australian submarines— is another example of a joint policy of deterrence that utilizes the unique skills and experience that Southern New England engineers and shipyard workers possess. On the floor of the House, during debate of the 2022 NDAA, I specifically cited the AUKUS agreement and the new demands it could add to our submarine industrial base as justification for expanded shipyard capacity. That measure passed by a vote of 363-70, and that vote, along with President Biden’s DPA Order, are ringing endorsements of the work the women and men at the Groton shipyard and engineering offices are doing every day.
Right now, today, there are approximately 18,000 shipbuilders and engineers employed in eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island in support of submarine shipbuilding contracts for our U.S. Navy —that’s before the Columbia-class has even fully gotten underway, and before new opportunities from AUKUS have fully emerged. Based on the milestone decisions this past December, that work, and our growing workforce, will continue for years to come.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney represents Connecticut’s Second Congressional District.