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Revealed: Inside the U.S. Navy’s Lethal Virginia-class Attack Submarines

Early discussions about increasing production of Tomahawk-armed Virginia-Class submarines are underway as the Navy and lawmakers look for ways to more quickly deliver new high-tech attack submarines to the force, Congressional sources told Scout Warrior.

The discussions, involving lawmakers and senior members of the Navy, are still very preliminary and in the early stages. The possibility being considered includes the prospect of building more Virginia-Class submarines per year – instead of the amount called for by the current ship-building plan.

The current status-quo effort to build two Virginia-Class boat per year, however, will drop to one as construction of the Ohio Replacement Program, or ORP, begins in the early 2020s.

The possibility now being deliberated is whether, at this future point in time, the Navy and industry could produce two Virginia-Class boats and one Ohio Replacement submarine per year, increasing the current plan by one Virginia-Class boat per year.

Increasing production hinges on whether the submarine-building industry has the capacity to move up to three submarines per year, the Congressional source said.

Current budget constraints and industrial base capacity limitations may make building three submarines per year too difficult to accomplish, even if the desire to do so was there from both Congressional and Navy leaders.

While Navy officials, including Navy Acquisition Executive Sean Stackley, did tell lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee Sea Power and Projection Force Subcommittee, production changes could emerge in the future, depending upon funding and industrial base capabilities.

(This piece first appeared in Scout Warrior here)

Stackley explained that the service would like to maintain a two per-year production schedule for Virginia-Class attack submarines, even after production of the ORP begins.

“We are working today, and we hope and expect you to work with us, to determine how can we keep two Virginias a year proceeding within all the fiscal constraints and within the limitations of the industrial base, to address this compelling requirement for the nation," Stackley told lawmakers.

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. 

In the past, various sub-building industry executives have indicated that this might be possible, however such a prospect has not yet been formally confirmed as it would likely involve an increase in resources, funds and man-power.

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 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. “As I mentioned before, we have a shortage in submarines. My submarine requirement is not met in PACOM (Pacific Command).”

Virginia-Class attack submarines are necessary for the U.S. to maintain its technological superiority over rivals or potential adversaries such as Chinas, Harris added.

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.

“What enables this is the ship control system that we use. You can drive the ship electronically. This allows you the flexibility to be in littorals or periscope depth for extended periods of time and remain undetected,” former Virginia-Class attack submarine program manager Capt. David Goggins said several years ago.

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