The Buzz

Why America's Nuclear Submarine Fleet Has No Equal

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.

In general, Jabaley said that the new modifications are the first major improvements to the Virginia-class’s acoustical performance since SSN-774 became operational in 2004. The Navy was spurred into action by the advent of Russia’s new Project 885 Yasen-class SSGNs, the first of which—called Severodvinsk—has greatly impressed the service’s leadership.

“We’re continually developing new technologies and new combat capability to ensure our submarines maintain our significant advantage in the undersea domain,” Jabaley said. “That includes the stealth of our submarines, that includes sensor performance—in terms of sonar arrays—and that includes our significant advantage in combat system electronics—the processing and the basically computer algorithms that aid the crew in solving the tactical situation. And we are developing technologies that are being prototyped and will be included in future Virginia-class submarines, are being evaluated for inclusion on Ohio Replacement submarines, are being evaluated for inclusion for backfit on the Virginia and even the Ohio-class SSBNs. That includes advances in sonar, in quieting, and in combat capability.”

Incremental improvements have been an integral part of the Virginia-class program from the outset. Every new Block of Virginia-class boats has improved on the previous one. Indeed, after the first two Virginia-class submarines were delivered, Jabaley pointed out that the program rapidly improved its performance and delivered boats months ahead of schedule while reducing costs. Even the first Block III boat—USS North Dakota (SSN-784)—which included a twenty percent redesign of the entire submarine to facilitate the inclusion of a new water-backed Large Aperture Bow (LAB) array sonar and two large payload tubes to replace a dozen individual cruise missile tubes—came in ahead of schedule. “And we expect to continue to deliver below contract,” Jabaley said. Indeed, that’s while increasing performance—the LAB offers improved capability over the original air-backed spherical bow array, added Capt. Michael Stevens, the Navy’s Virginia-class program manager, who was present during the interview with Jabaley.

The Block IV Virginia-class submarines—the first of which are currently in the initial stages of construction—focus on reliability and maintenance improvements, Jabaley said. Indeed, because they will require far less time in dry dock, the boats will be available for extra deployments (an SSN normally deploys 14 times during its 33-year lifespan)—which will help the Navy with its mission to maintain a global submarine presence. “Once you wrap all of those changes into the ship’s maintenance plan, it allowed us, starting with the Block IV submarines, to reduce four depot level maintenance periods down to three and increase the deployments from 14 to up to 15,” Jabaley said.

However, the biggest improvement to the Virginia-class will come with the Block V vessels—the first of which will start construction in 2019 as the second submarine (SSN-803) built that year. The Block V submarines will add a Virginia Payload Module (VPM) that will add four additional payload tubes amidship, each of which can accommodate seven Tomahawk cruise missiles for a total of 28 weapons. Overall, the Block V Virginia-class will be capable of launching 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles from its payload tubes.

“The Navy’s program of record [which will likely be increased] includes Virginia Payload Module on every Virginia-class submarine beyond that,” Jabaley said. “So that make 19 submarines with VPM—makes 20 if we add that second submarine in 2021—and that act of adding the VPM to those 19 submarines provides a significant mitigation for the loss of the [four Ohio-class boomers, which were converted into] SSGNs. It’s not exactly 100 percent, but it absolutely mitigates the fact that OhioMichiganFlorida and Georgia decommission in the mid-20s.”