The US Navy this week awarded its largest-ever shipbuilding contract to General Dynamics Electric Boat for construction of nine Virginia-class attack submarines, eight of which will have an 84-foot section that boosts the boat’s strike missile capacity, Defense News reported.

The contract for the Block V Virginia-class subs, worth US$22.2 billion, could grow by another US$2 billion if the Navy exercises an option for a 10th boat. The contract is for two fewer boats than the 11 proposed by the fleet in this year’s budget submission.

The massive contract comes just months after the head of the US Navy in the Pacific warned of a massive Chinese naval buildup and his trouble in getting enough submarines to counter it, CNN reported.

The deal “marks the US Navy’s latest response to China’s growing military power and aggressive actions in the Western Pacific,” said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

“The PLAN (Chinese Navy) is getting better and larger so the US Navy has to respond,” he said. “It doesn’t make China an enemy, but China’s actions do bear watching.”

“A lot of hard work across the whole team to structure the contract in such a way as to balance risk between the government and the shipbuilder,” James Geurts, the Navy’s top acquisition official, said during a roundtable with members of the media to announce the contract signing, Defense News reported.

“If the shipbuilder delivers on target, the multiyear savings will be 16.5 percent, or US$4.4 billion in savings. So it’s a pretty important day for us.”

Guerts, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, acquisition and development, said that when you add government-furnished equipment into the contract, the total value of the program swells to about US$35 billion, the report said.

The first boat in Block V, SSN 802, is currently under construction but does not have the Virginia Payload Module, or VPM. The next boat, 803, will have VPM. All of the boats will have an upgraded acoustics suite.

In the briefing, Navy officials said that if the service opts for all 10 boats, six of the boats would be constructed at Electric Boat’s partner yard, Huntington Ingalls Newport News, and four would be built at Electric Boat.

Experts say the US is facing unprecedented pressure in the Pacific, largely from a Chinese navy that has been making huge leaps in the numbers and quality of its submarine fleet. Credit: US Navy.

The move to put most of the work in Newport News was done to balance the increased workload at Electric Boat with the start of the Columbia class, the next generation of ballistic missile submarines slated to begin construction this year.

In a statement, Electric Boat President Kevin Graney said the contract provides stability for his shipyard, the report said.

“This contract allows for our shipbuilding team, our suppliers and our employees to plan ahead so that we can continue to deliver submarines of unmatched quality, stealth and lethality,” Graney said.

Rear Adm. David Goggins, the Navy’s program executive officer for submarines, called them “a generational leap in submarine capability for the Navy” in a statement on the Navy’s website Monday.

They’ll be bigger, displacing 10,200 tons compared to 7,800 on the current subs; they’ll be longer, 460 feet compared to 377 feet; and they’ll have substantial more firepower, with the ability to launch strikes with 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles, compared to just 12 on the current ships, CNN reported.

The subs, which can generate their own water and oxygen, can stay submerged for months at a time.

Experts say the US is facing unprecedented pressure in the Pacific, largely from a Chinese navy that has been making huge leaps in the numbers and quality of its submarine fleet.

The May 2019 China Military Power Report from the US Defense Department said the People’s Liberation Army Navy will field 65 to 70 submarines by 2020.

Beijing’s force is expected to grow from there, with China in the next five years expected to begin churning out advanced nuclear-powered attack subs similar to the US Virginia class.

An August report from analysts in Australia questioned the US’s ability to keep up with China’s advances and warned that Washington is facing a crisis of “strategic insolvency.”

The report from the United States Study Center, at the University of Sydney, warned of the burden on the US Navy’s attack subs.

“Put simply, as the environment above the surface becomes more deadly because of Chinese deployments of cruise missiles, hypersonic technologies and anti-air defenses, America’s enduring advantage in undersea warfare will become increasingly important in the regional balance of power,” the report said.