Not Just Nukes: MK 48 Torpedoes Make Columbia-Class Submarines Lethal
The MK 48 variant has been upgraded to include improved propulsion, explosives, electronics, and quieting technologies.
The U.S. Navy’s first Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) will carry not only Trident II D5 nuclear-capable missiles but also MK 48 torpedoes for a variety of missions at sea.
Avoiding detection is critical for the U.S. Navy’s SSBNs, which is one reason why the new Columbia-class submarines are expected to be the quietest ever built. Indeed, the Navy has engineered the Columbia-class with an x-shaped stern for less turbulent maneuvering, a quieter electric-drive propulsion system, and quieting technologies built into its MK 48 heavyweight torpedoes. These innovations are critical for ensuring that the locations of Columbia-class submarines remain unknown to adversaries. This is also one reason why the nuclear-capable boat is armed with heavyweight torpedoes with advanced datalinks and targeting technology, ensuring it can eliminate threats and defend itself against an attack. A report from the Federation of American Scientists further explained that the torpedo uses a high-explosive conventional warhead.
“The MK 48 is propelled by a piston engine with twin, contra-rotating propellers in a pump jet or shrouded configuration. The engine uses a liquid monopropellant fuel,” the FAS analysis stated.
Submarine operators are able to initially guide the torpedo toward the target as it leaves the launch tube by using a thin wire designed to establish an electronic link between the submarine and the torpedo.
“This helps the torpedo avoid decoys and jamming devices that might be deployed by the target. The wire is severed and the torpedo's high-powered active/passive sonar guides the torpedo during the final attack,” FAS wrote.
In 2018, Lockheed Martin was awarded a new deal to work on guidance and control technology on the front end of the torpedo, while SAIC was awarded the contract for the afterbody and propulsion section, Naval Sea Systems Command officials announced at the time.
The MK 48, a heavy weapon launched under the surface, is quite different from surface-launched, lightweight MK 54 torpedoes fired from helicopters, aircraft, and surface ships. The MK 48 variant is more lethal and has been upgraded to include improved propulsion, explosives, electronics, and quieting technologies.
And it’s not just the U.S. Navy that gets to arm its submarines with the powerful torpedoes; the MK 48 is also in service with Australia, Canada, Brazil, and the Netherlands.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy.