The Buzz

The Simple Reason Why America's Virginia-Class Submarines Are So Good

The United States Navy might defer developing a new next-generation SSN(X) unless such a design holds the potential to provide a revolutionary leap over a modernized variant of the current Virginia-class attack submarine (SSN).

While the Virginia-class was developed in the 1990s to be a cheaper alternative to the much more capable and expensive Seawolf-class (SSN-21-class), the SSN-774-class was designed to be as stealthy and to have greater multi-mission capabilities than its larger counterpart. Over the years, the Virginia-class has proven to be an adaptable and versatile design with plenty of room for growth. Indeed, the Virginia-class submarine—or VCS as many senior U.S. Navy officials call it—may prove so capable that a future SSN(X)—which is tentatively planned for 2034—might prove to be unnecessary.

“When is the transition from Virginia-class submarine to SSN(X)? And it’s currently scheduled for about 2034.” Naval Sea Systems Command’s program executive officer for submarines Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley told The National Interest during a Sept. 16 interview in his office. “So we have Blocks V, VI and VII on the Virginia and at some point in the future, we’ll have to sit down and make that decision. And the decision will be: Ok, has our science and technology and research and development work to date shown there is enough there to warrant designing a new submarine and starting to built it at that point or should we move that point—most probably out to the right—and keep building Virginia because with Block VIII we can insert the most promising technologies and make it still be the best submarine out there and perhaps wait for some phenomenal technological development to come to fruition.”

The Navy will have to make the decision on developing a new SSN(X) with potentially game-changing technologies or continue building advanced Virginia-class variants roughly seven or eight years from now, Jabaley said. Though Jabaley didn’t address what kinds of “phenomenal technological developments” it might take to justify developing a future SSN(X), during his earlier testimony before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) in July, he suggested that a future SSN might act as an underwater mothership for unmanned underwater vehicles.

Moreover, in order to drastically improve acoustical performance, a next-generation submarine would need to dispense with moving parts. “At some point we’re going to have to move beyond a rotating mechanical device to push the ship through the water,” Jabaley told the HASC. “Although we’re not there yet on the oceans being transparent, one of the biggest things that causes noise to be radiated into the water is the rotating machinery and the propulsor itself moving through the water and exciting various parts of the stern and the submarine to radiate noise.”

The Navy has essentially reached the limits of what is possible for acoustic signature reduction with a purely mechanical system. While the future Ohio Replacement Program ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) are expected to use a permanent magnetic motor to increase stealth, Jabaley wants to take a step further. “The field of biomimetics is very interesting to me when you look at nature in action and you think: ‘Boy, it would be great if we could design something that would take that leap forward and get us into a realm that would be acoustic-self unlike anything we’ve ever done before,’” Jabaley said told the Congress.

In the nearer term, some of the advanced technologies that could be incorporated into a future Virginia-class derivative could include a version of the permanent magnet motor that is slated for the Ohio Replacement Program SSBNs. But most of the refinements to the Virginia-class are likely to be more modest. The service is already gearing up to test prototypes of some acoustical modifications the Navy hopes will keep the VCS ahead of the competition onboard a new Virginia-class boat that will be delivered late next year. While Jabaley has spoken about some of the details publicly before, he requested that The National Interest not further publicize the specifics about that effort.