Why the U.S. Navy's Virginia Class Submarines Keep Getting Better
Here are the new upgrades coming.
The U.S. Navy is making progress in the early phases of building a new Block V variant of Virginia-class attack submarines which massively increase firepower, incorporate advanced new sonar technologies and leverage the latest advances in automation and AI.
The development deal took a large step forward last December through a $22-Billion contract between the Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat. Eight of the new Block V deal are being engineered with a new 80-foot weapons section in the boat, enabling the submarine to increase its attack missile capacity from 12 to 40 on-board Tomahawks.
While many of the technical specifics regarding emerging attack submarines are naturally not available for security reasons, new innovations will build upon cutting-edge systems now deployed on the most advanced attack submarine ever to deploy—the USS South Dakota. The South Dakota, which is now operational, began as a prototype, test-bed platform to evolve new technologies.What all of these USS South Dakota innovations amount to is that, Navy officials say, they are informing current engineering regarding Block V as well as early conceptual discussions for a new Block VI submarine to begin in 2024. While many details are not available, generally speaking the USS South Dakota is engineered with additional engine-oriented quieting technology, advanced antennas for reconnaissance and less-detectable external “coating” for the submarine, Navy developers explain.
Looking at the multi-year trajectory of Virginia-class development; each Block has incorporated several impactful new technologies not yet present when the previous boats were built. For example, unlike Blocks I and II, Virginia-class Block III boats significantly increase firepower with the introduction of what’s called Virginia Payload Tubes, adding new missile tubes able to fire 6 Tomahawks each. Block III also includes a new Large Aperture Bow “horseshoe-shaped” sonar, which switches from an “air-backed’ spherical sonar to a “water-backed” array, making it easier to maintain pressure, according to a 2014 report in “NavSource Online.”
The LAB sonar, which is both more precise and longer range than its predecessor, also advances the curve in that it introduces both a passive and “active” sonar system. Passive systems are used to essential track or “listen” for acoustic pings to identify enemy movements. This can help conceal a submarines position by not emitting a signal, yet can lack the specificity of an “active” sonar system which sends an acoustic “ping” forward. The submarine’s technology then analyzes the return signal to deliver a “rendering” of an enemy object to include its contours, speed and distance. In concept, sonar works similar to radar except that it sends acoustic signals instead of electronic ones.
Yet another area of innovation informing Block V includes Block IIIs “Fly-by-Wire” navigational controls; instead of using mechanically operated hydraulic controls, the Fly-by-Wire system uses a joystick, digital moving maps and various adaptations of computer automation to navigate the boat. This means that computer systems can control the depth and speed of the submarine, while a human remains in a command and control role.
This technology, using upgradable software and fast-growing AI applications, widens the mission envelope for the attack submarines by vastly expanding their ISR potential. Using real-time analytics and an instant ability to draw upon an organize vast data-bases of information and sensor input, computer algorithms can now perform a range of procedural functions historically performed by humans. This can increase the speed of maneuverability and an attack submarine's ability to quickly shift course, change speed or alter depth positioning when faced with attacks.
The technical elements of undersea command and control, quite naturally, are also being engineered with a mind to an expected increased use of underwater drones. The Navy is now moving quickly with efforts to build an entire new fleet of UUVs able to destroy mines, conduct lower risk forward surveillance, deliver supplies or even fire weapons with a “human-in-the-loop.”
Newer Virginia-class attack boats are also tailored to optimize Special Operations Mission. Elements of Block IIIs “Lock Out Trunk” were built-upon or expanded for Block V; the Lock Out Trunk introduces a new specialized area which fills up with water for departure, enabling SOF forces to more easily and quietly exit the submarine while remaining submerged.
With improved SOF and surveillance capacity, the Navy is naturally expanding its attack submarine strategy to further emphasize enhanced “spy” like intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance missions to quietly patrol shallow waters near enemy coastline - scanning for enemy submarines, surface ships and coastal threats.
Improved undersea navigation and detection technology, using new sonar, increased computer automation and artificial intelligence, enable quieter, faster movements in littoral waters where enemy mines, small boats and other threatening assets often operate.
A closer-in or littoral undersea advantage can increase “ashore attack” mission potential along with ISR-empowered anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare operations.
Kris Osborn is the new 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.