Navy Hopes to Stay in Front of Russian & Chinese Submarine Advances

Navy analysis now says the service can increase the pace of construction for new Virginia-class attack submarines to better keep pace with Russian and Chinese undersea advances.

The Navy and Huntington Ingalls Industries have completed initial Sea Trials for the newest Virginia-class submarine as part of a broader plan to bring new submarine technology to the fleet and accelerate attack submarine acquisition to address an anticipated shortfall. 

“The ship and its crew performed exceptionally well,” Matt Needy, Newport News’ vice president of submarines and fleet support said in a written statement. 

All systems, components and compartments of the new Washington (SSN 787) were tested during the trials.

"The submarine submerged for the first time and operated at high speeds on the surface and underwater. Washington will undergo a round of acceptance trials before delivery to the Navy by Newport News," a Newport News shipbuilding statement said. 

Virginia-Class Attack Submarine Acceleration

News of developments with the Washington comes as Navy leaders now say it will be possible to build more Virginia-class attack submarines at a faster pace than currently planned as part of an aggressive move to address and counter Russian and Chinese submarine expansion. 

Senior Navy officials and industrial partners say there is an ability to build 2 Virginia-class submarines per year once production of the Ohio Replacement Program nuclear-armed submarines begins in the 2020s. 
The current status-quo effort to build two Virginia-Class boat per year, however, will drop to one as construction of the new Columbia-class nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines begins in the early 2020s.
Last year, the Navy completed a special analysis of strategic imperatives and industrial base capacity on the issue; service leaders said the analytic underpinning now exists to support the possibility of building two Virginia attack-class submarines once construction of the Columbia-class submarines begins. 
Navy developers explain that Congressional budget approvals and additional developments will need to happen in order for this plan to formally go forward, but that the ability to accomplish this was there. The acquisition success of the Virgina-class submarine program, Navy leaders say, isone of the key reasons why the ability to build more would be possible. 
His comments are of particular value and significance as many have previously raised the question as to whether the submarine-building industrial base would have the capacity to accomplish this. 

Navy leaders have consistently talked about an expected submarine shortfall in the mid 2020s and that more attack submarines were needed to strengthen the fleet and keep stay in front of near-peer rivals such as Russia and China. Building two Virginia-class submarines in the 2020s would address at least 30-percent of this expected shortfall. 

Addressing the US Navy submarine shortage is now of critical or growing importance given China's growing ability to hit the United States with a nuclear-armed missile. The Navy, naturally, seeks to maintain its considerable technological advantage in the undersea domain, something which could increasingly be challenged in coming years. In particular, Navy leaders have consistently expressed concerns that China now has the maritime ability to strike directly at the US homeland. 

 Virginia-class technology, including quieting abilities, Large Aperture Bow sonar and increased Tomahawk firepower with the upcoming integration of Virginia Payload Modules -- can likely help Navy submarines challenge or overcome anti-access/area-denial challenges posed by potential adversaries. 

 The Navy is still working on its 2018 five-year spending plan called a Program Objective Memorandum, or POM. Navy officials tell Scout Warrior the POM deliberations will be "open" until the President formally submits next year's service budget proposal. 

The Virginia-Class Submarines are built by a cooperative arrangement between the Navy and Electric Boat, a subsidiary of General Dynamics and Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries.

Each industry partner constructs portions or “modules” of the submarines which are then melded together to make a complete vessel, industry and Navy officials explained. 

Various sub-building industry executives have indicated that this might be possible. One industry source told Scout Warrior that the submarine building community would support whatever the Navy and Congress call for.

“We’ll support Navy programs,” the source said.

Navy Leaders Want More Attack Submarines

The prospect of an acceleration comes as Navy commanders tell Congress they would like to see the fast arrival of more Virginia-Class attack submarines added to the Pacific Fleet.

Pacific Commander Harry Harris told Congress last year that he would like to see more submarines in his area of operations.

“The Pacific is the principle space where submarines are the most important warfighting capability we have. As far as Virginia-Class submarines, it is the best thing we have,” Harris told lawmakers in 2016. “As I mentioned before, we have a shortage in submarines. My submarine requirement is not met in PACOM (Pacific Command).”

With their technological edge and next-generation sonar, the platform can successfully perform crucially important intelligence and surveillance mission in high-risk areas inaccessible to surface ships.  For this reason, Virginia-Class attack submarines are considered indispensable to the ongoing Pentagon effort to overcome what’s talked about in terms of Anti-Access/Area-Denial wherein potential adversaries use high-tech weaponry and sensors to prevent U.S. forces from operating in certain strategically vital areas. 

Virginia-Class Attack Submarine Technology

Virginia-Class subs are fast-attack submarines armed with Tomahawk missiles, torpedoes and other weapons able to perform a range of missions; these include anti-submarine warfare, strike warfare, covert mine warfare, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance), anti-surface/ship warfare and naval special warfare, something described as having the ability to carry and insert Special Operations Forces, Navy program managers have said.   

Compared to prior Navy attack subs like the Los Angeles-Class, the Virginia-Class submarines are engineered to bring vastly improved littoral warfare, surveillance and open ocean capabilities, service officials said.

For instance, the ships can be driven primarily through software code and electronics, thus freeing up time and energy for an operator who does not need to manually control each small maneuver. This allows submarine commanders additional flexibility, meaning that can be in shallow water or periscope depth for longer periods of time without being detected, Navy developers said. 

The Virginia-Class submarine are engineered with this “Fly-by-Wire” capability which allows the ship to quietly linger in shallow waters without having to surface or have each small move controlled by a human operator. Developers explain that, while a person is always in the loop, software is used to control the rudder to maintain a certain course or depth. 

Also, unlike their predecessor-subs, Virginia-Class subs are engineered with what’s called a “Lock Out Trunk” – a compartment in the sub which allows special operations forces to submerge beneath the water and deploy without requiring the ship to surface, service officials explained.

The Block III Virginia-Class submarines also have what’s called a Large Aperture Bow conformal array sonar system – designed to send out an acoustic ping, analyze the return signal, and provide the location and possible contours of enemy ships, submarines and other threats.

Unlike their “SSBN” Ohio-Class counterparts armed with nuclear weapons, the Virginia-Class “SSN” ships are purely for conventional attack, Navy officials said.

Thus far, more than ten Virginia-Class subs have been delivered to the Navy.  Like other programs, the Virginia-Class submarines are broken up into procurement “Blocks.”

Blocks I and II totaling ten ships, have already been delivered.

The program has also delivered its first Block III Virginia-Class Submarine, the USS North Dakota.

The Block III subs are being built with new so-called Virginia Payload Tubes designed to lower costs and increase capability.

Instead of building what most existing Virginia-Class submarines have -- 12 individual 21-inch in diameter vertical launch tubes able to fire Tomahawk missiles – the Block III submarines are being built with two larger 87-inch in diameter tubes able to house six Tomahawk missiles each.

The idea with this plan is to allow the missile tubes to accommodate any new weapons, other than Tomahawk, which may emerge. 

Although the new tubes were conceived and designed as part of what the Navy calls its “Design for Affordability” strategy to lower costs, the move also brings strategic advantages to the platform, service officials say.

Also, for Block V construction, the Navy is planning to insert a new 97-foot long section designed to house additional missile capability. In fact, the Navy has already finished its Capabilities Development Document, or CDD, for what’s called the “Virginia Payload Modules.”

The Block V Virginia Payload Modules, or VPM, will add a new “module” or section of the submarine, increasing its Tomahawk missile firing capability from 12 to 40.

The idea is to have additional Tomahawk or other missile capability increased by 2026, when the “SSGN” Ohio-Class Guided Missile Submarines start retiring in larger numbers, Navy planners say.

Navy engineers have been working on requirements and early designs for a new, 70-foot module for the Virginia-class submarines engineered to house an additional 28 Tomahawk missiles. 

While designed primarily to hold Tomahawks, the VPM missile tubes are engineered such that they could accommodate a new payload, new missile or even a large unmanned underwater vehicle, Navy officials said.

The reason for the Virginia Payload Modules is clear; beginning in the 2020s, the Navy will start retiring four large Ohio-class guided-missile submarines able to fire up to 154 Tomahawk missiles each. This will result in the Navy losing as much as 60-percent of undersea fire power capability.

From 2002 to 2008 the U.S. Navy modified four of its oldest nuclear-armed Ohio-class submarines by turning them into ships armed with only conventional missiles -- the USS Ohio, USS Michigan, USS Florida and USS Georgia. They are called SSGNs, with the “G” designation for “guided missile.”

Shipbuilders currently working on Block III boats at Newport News Shipyard, Va., say Block V will involve a substantial addition to the subs.

 Block V will take another cylindrical section and insert it in the middle of the submarine so it will actually lengthen the submarine a little and provide some additional payload capability, Huntington Ingalls Industries executives said.

The first Block V submarine is slated to begin construction in fiscal year 2019, Navy officials said.

Early prototyping work on the Virginia Payload Modules is already underway and several senior Navy leaders, over the years, have indicated a desire to accelerate production and delivery of this technology – which will massively increase fire-power on the submarines.

 

Virginia-Class Acquisition Success

The official baseline for production of Virginia-Class submarines calls for construction of 30 boats, Navy officials told Scout Warrior. However, over the years, many Navy officials have said this number could very well increase, given the pace of construction called for by the Navy’s official 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan.

The submarines are being built under a Dec. 22, 2008, the Navy awarded a contract for eight Virginia Class submarines. The third contract for the Virginia Class, or Block III, covering hulls numbered 784 through 791 -- is a $14 billion Multi-Year Procurement, Navy officials said.

Multi-year deals are designed to decrease cost and production time by, in part, allowing industry to shore up supplies in advance and stabilize production activities over a number of years.

The first several Block IV Virginia-Class submarines are under construction as well -- the USS Vermont and the USS Oregon. The Navy awarded General Dynamics' Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding a $17.6 billion deal to build 10 Block IV subs with the final boat procured in 2023.

Also, design changes to the ship, including a change in the materials used for the submarines' propulsor, will enable Block IV boats to serve for as long as 96-months between depots visits or scheduled maintenance availabilities, service and industry officials have said.

As a result, the operations and maintenance costs of Block IV Virginia-Class submarines will be much lower and the ships will be able to complete an additional deployment throughout their service live. This will bring the number of operational deployments for Virginia-class submarines from 14 up to 15, Navy submarine programmers have explained.

Overall, the Virginia-Class Submarine effort has made substantive progress in reducing construction time, lowering costs, and delivering boats ahead of schedule, Navy leaders say.

 At least six Virginia Class Submarines have been delivered ahead of schedule, Navy officials said.

The program’s current two-boats per year production schedule, for $4 billion dollars, can be traced back to a 2005 challenge issued by then Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen.  As mentioned, deliberations are already underway to consider stepping up this production schedule.

Mullen challenged the program to reduce production costs by 20-percent, saying that would allow the Navy to build two VCS-per year. This amounted to lowering the per-boat price of the submarines by as much as $400 million dollars each.

This was accomplished through a number of efforts, including an effort called “capital” investments wherein the Navy partnered with industry to invest in ship-building methods and technologies aimed at lowering production costs.

Other cost-reducing factors were multi-year contract awards, efforts to streamline production and work to reduce operations and sustainment, or O&S costs, Navy officials explained.

The U.S. Navy is working to adjust the documentation paperwork regarding the size of its fleet of Virginia Class Submarines, changing the ultimate fleet size from 30 to about 51 ships, service officials have said.

Visit Warrior

(Some elements of the ending segments of this story have previously appeared in prior Scout Warrior stories and a former report (also by Kris Osborn) in Military.com)


Warrior Top Stories