The Virginia-class, nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine, USS North Dakota (SSN 784), transits the Thames River as it pulls into its homeport on Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn – file photo.
(U.S. Navy photo by Cmdr. Jason M. Geddes)
Bringing massive amounts of firepower closer to enemy targets, conducting clandestine “intel” missions in high threat waters and launching undersea attack and surveillance drones are all anticipated missions for the Navy’s emerging Block V Virginia-class attack submarines.
The boats, nine of which are now surging ahead through a new developmental deal between the Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat, are reshaping submarine attack strategies and concepts of operations — as rivals make gains challenging U.S. undersea dominance. Eight of the new 22-billion Block V deal are being engineered with a new 80-foot weapons sections in the boat, enabling the submarine to increase its attack missile capacity from 12 to 40 on-board Tomahawks.
“Block V Virginias and Virginia Payload Module are a generational leap in submarine capability for the Navy,” Program Executive Officer for Submarines Rear Adm. David Goggins, said in a Navy report. “These design changes will enable the fleet to maintain our nation’s undersea dominance.”
The Navy report also said that Virginia Block V submarines will “incorporate acoustic superiority design changes.”
“Block V has some additional equipment we are developing, which will be added to the USS South Dakota,” Capt. Christopher Hanson, Program Manager, Virginia Class Submarines, said in April of 2019 at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Symposium.
While many of the technical specifics regarding emerging attack submarines are naturally not available for security reasons, various new innovations will, according to Hanson last Spring, 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, Hanson said, 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 essentially track or “listen” for acoustic pings to identify enemy movements. This can help conceal a submarine’s 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.
Interestingly, this conceptual framework expanding to Blocks V, focused on engineering “upgradeable” platforms, was anticipated in the earliest days of the Virginia-class program more than 15 years ago. A 2005 Naval War College Review essay cites Virginia-class submarines as a platform benefiting from a modular, or “open architecture” approach. Since its inception, the Virginia-class was built with a mind to prepare for future upgrades, as evidenced in the essay.
One example referenced in the essay is a modernization effort called the Acoustic Rapid COTS Insertion (ARCI) program which, among other things, pushed “toward modularity for the Virginia-class, the SSGN (large Ohio-class submarines configured as guided missile submarines) and subsequent classes,” the essay states. The success of the ARCI program has continued for more than a decade since its beginning; the program’s success was cited in a 2015 DOT&E report. The DOT&E report recommended that the program begin to emphasize countermine missions, due to its track record of successful upgrades.
From a technical or engineering perspective, modularity means building a boat with a software and hardware foundation able to adjust as needed. For instance, while attack submarines currently fire Torpedoes and Tomahawks, it is entirely feasible, if not likely, that new submarine-launched weapons will exist 10 years from now.
The Naval War College Review essay, interestingly, aligns with the Navy’s strategic effort (emphasized by Hanson last Spring) about the need to engineer for future technologies to permit quick integration of new systems. The essay describes it as “yet-unenvisioned equipment to be installed to counter unimagined threats, and an insistence that core enabling characteristics such as stealth never be compromised.” (From “The Submarine as a Case Study in Transformation: Implications for Future Investment,” James H. Patton Jr, 2005)
Yet another area of innovation informing Block V includes Block III’s “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 upgradeable software and fast-growing AI applications, widen 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 databases 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.” Capt. Pete Small, the Program Manager for Unmanned Maritime Systems, addressed this phenomenon at Sea Air Space in April of 2019. He said the service’s now in development Orca XLUUV – Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle – is being configured to fire torpedoes. (The Orca program has progressed substantially since last April)
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 that 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, Navy strategy documents explain, can increase “ashore attack” mission potential along with ISR-empowered anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare operations.
“From essentially a “lone wolf” a decade ago, the submarine is now nearly universally accepted as a key node within network-centric warfare, the purveyor of “undersea dominance,” and an essential element of Sea Power 21 (a previously articulated Navy attack vision emphasizing information dominance),” the 2005 Naval War College Review essay writes.
For Warrior’s Previous report on Block VI Virginia class — Click here.