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Federal bill bolsters CT defense companies, nuclear submarine deal

The Virginia-class submarine USS Minnesota (SSN 783) heads up the Thames River toward Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton.
U.S. Navy/Chief Petty Officer Joshua Karsten
/
CT Mirror
The Virginia-class submarine USS Minnesota (SSN 783) heads up the Thames River toward Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton.

Connecticut’s defense companies and submarine industrial base will once again see major investments in a bill that Congress needs to pass annually to authorize military spending.

In addition to the typical boosts for Connecticut-based companies like Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney, the legislation also approves the sale of three Virginia-class submarines manufactured in part by Electric Boat through a major international alliance.

The details of the AUKUS defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States were announced in March, but Congress needed to implement the agreement. The defense bill authorizes parts of AUKUS, which includes Australia initially buying three nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S. But the first transfer is not expected to happen until the early 2030s.

“That’s never happened before. There’s a lot more work to be done in terms of making that a reality, but Congress gave its blessing to allow this very unique and unprecedented step to be taken amongst the three countries,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who serves as ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.

After bipartisan approval in the Senate, the House similarly passed the National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday, sending the measure to President Joe Biden to sign into law. The bill authorizes a total of $886 billion including a 5.2% pay raise for service members — the largest one in two decades — as well as an increase in how housing allowances are determined for lower income service members and more funding for military child care.

Courtney noted that there are 9,000 sailors and officers who work on the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton that will stand to benefit from these measures.

Connecticut’s three big defense contractors — Sikorsky, Electric Boat and Pratt & Whitney — will see major investments once Congress passes its spending bills next year.

The NDAA authorizes funding for Sikorsky to build 15 CH-53K heavy lift helicopters and 50 Black Hawk helicopters. Courtney also requested another $22 million to upgrade the Army’s Black Hawk current fleet.

The bill also enables $431 million for the F135 Engine Core Upgrade. The U.S. Department of Defense approved new contracts for Pratt & Whitney to remain as the sole provider of the military jet engine following a decades-long push by Connecticut’s congressional delegation.

And if the spending is approved next year, Electric Boat gets $2.4 billion for the Columbia-class submarine and $10.3 billion for the Virginia-class subs with most of that going toward two subs in 2024 and the rest of the funding for future construction in 2025 and 2026.

Overall, the legislation authorizes $647 million for the submarine industrial base with another $1.2 billion for research and development.

“It also supports our domestic industrial base, particularly the union workforce right here in Connecticut, while strengthening our military readiness through support to our allies and partners and paving the way for investments in innovation and technology,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.

The wide-ranging legislation also includes provisions led by Connecticut lawmakers to improve conditions in honor of service members from the state who have died.

Courtney’s proposal, named after Sergeant First Class Michael Clark who was from eastern Connecticut, extends the military’s health care program. It provides TRICARE benefits for three years to family members of personnel who were killed less than 30 days after being activated.

And legislation by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., enables junior sailors to reside in commercial housing while their ship gets extended maintenance in a shipyard. It also increases the number of mental health counselors on Navy ships.

The measure is named after Xavier Sandor, a Master at Arms Seaman Recruit from Connecticut who was one of three crew members on the USS George Washington to die by suicide in 2022. The ship frequently lost power, heating and air conditioning as it underwent an overhaul.

Murphy said the measure aims “to make sure junior sailors aren’t forced to endure the horrible conditions of a ship undergoing extended maintenance overhauls.”

“I’m grateful to the Sandor family for sharing their son’s heartbreaking story and working with me to ensure the Navy takes better care of its brave men and women,” he added.

In regards to AUKUS, Congress approved the first two pillars of the agreement.

That includes the sale of the Virginia-class submarines to Australia with two from the Navy’s inventory and one new sub. The bill also authorizes Australia’s payment to the U.S. of about $3 billion to increase production and capacity.

Electric Boat locations in Connecticut and Rhode Island handle much of the Virginia-class shipbuilding along with Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. Australia will buy at least three of those subs, but has the potential to purchase two more.

The NDAA also eases the transfer of advanced technology and information sharing between the three countries. But Courtney, who has played a big role in shepherding AUKUS through Congress, said there is “not a complete carveout” for exemptions for the two countries as it relates to the U.S. rules around restrictions and export control of defense-related technologies known as ITAR.

In order for Congress to approve the NDAA authorizations, lawmakers still need to pass fiscal year 2024 spending bills. Those appropriations bills face tough votes early next year and need to pass before mid-January and early February deadlines to avoid a government shutdown.

Plus, Congress has yet to approve Biden’s national security supplemental package on aid for Ukraine, Israel, humanitarian aid for Gaza and the Indo-Pacific region. The administration wants to achieve the latter by improving the U.S. Navy’s public shipyards as well as supporting a wide range of needs for the industry. Biden has requested about $3.4 billion in additional funding for the submarine industrial base.

The emergency funding has been held up as Republicans condition Ukraine funding on passing measures that could place some limits on immigration. Murphy is currently involved in talks with GOP members to see if a border deal can be reached to unlock Ukraine aid, but they are facing time constraints and some bipartisan pushback.

“The issue of the supplemental request that came over from the White House and the Navy is something that is very important to make AUKUS a success, because it’s all tied to increasing industrial base capacity,” Courtney said.

“Capacity is the name of the game,” he added. “I’m personally hoping the Senate is going to find the Da Vinci code to get that supplemental to move forward and get it over to the House.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.