Navy sets sights on new submarine weapons
The Navy has begun building new weapons to massively increase attack options for its Virginia-class attack submarine, a move that is expected to change the mission scope for the boats and enable more extensive offensive strike possibilities, improving the Navy’s armed defense of its surface fleet.
The weapons increase, which has been progressing with prototyping for several years now, will lengthen the submarines with a new section to rev up the firepower from 12 to 40 on-board Tomahawk missiles. Speaking at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Symposium earlier this year, Capt. Christopher Hanson, Program Manager, Virginia Class Submarine, indicated that formal construction of Block V will begin this year and continue through at least 2023. Most recently, the construction efforts have recently been extended through a "follow-on" deal between the Navy and BAE systems.
In addition to an increased weapons capacity, the Block 5 Virginia submarines will be equipped with a host of new mission-performing technologies.
Over the years, senior Navy weapons developers have explained some of the key areas of modernization focus; these include new coating materials to make the submarines stealthier, new antennas for longer-range, more accurate undersea surveillance missions and new “quieting” engine propulsion technology, among other things.
All of these technologies, in fact, already exist in the USS South Dakota attack submarine -- the most advanced submarine ever to be delivered to the Navy. The new boat, which is now operational, began as a prototype, test-bed platform to evolve these new technologies. What all of these USS South Dakota innovations also amount to is that, Hanson said, they are informing both Block V as well as current conceptual discussions now underway regarding a future generation Virginia-class submarine now only in early conceptual development - called Block VI. Block VI, according to Hanson, is not likely to begin to materialize until the mid-2020s.
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“Block 5 has some additional equipment we are developing, which will be added to the USS South Dakota. Our expectation is that this is going to continue into Block V as we determine what Block VI will look like. We can’t say what exactly is going to be on a submarine 10-years from now, but we expect to continue that,” Hanson said.
Yet another area of innovation quite likely to lay a foundation for 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. It seems almost self-evident, given rapid advances in AI and computer automation, that Blocks V and VI will include a new generation of these kinds of technologies.
Also, according to Congressional testimony in 2016, cited in a report from SeaPower magazine, former PEO Submarines Rear Adm. Michael E. Jabaley Jr., the USS South Dakota includes a DARPA-engineered Hybrid Propulsor “which brings new acoustic advantages.”
From a technical or engineering perspective, the Navy is building the submarine to enable modularity, a method of building a boat with software and hardware foundations 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.
“It is all about how we bring change and increase capability. Capability comes in two ways. One is the design and how we build the submarine, and another piece is how we have interface requirements so that future payloads that may only now be in the powerpoint stage, can be accommodated,” Hanson said.
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A Naval War College Review essay, interestingly, aligns with Hanson’s comment 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)
Also, 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.
With this essay in mind, there is a substantial precedent for of this kind of modular approach, 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.”
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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 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.
When it comes to tailoring submarines for Special Operations missions, it would not be surprising if elements of Block IIIs “Lock Out Trunk” were built-upon or expanded for Block V & VI; 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.
The technical elements of undersea command and control, quite naturally, are 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 and said the service’s now in development Orca XLUUV - Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle - may be configured to fire torpedoes.
Most of all, it seems apparent, some plans for Block V and Block VI are likely to both remain flexible and explore a wide range of options.
“We have a CONOPS *Concept of Operations” ground that brings in operators of other vehicles on a periodic basis so we can show them what we are looking at,” Hanson said.
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Hanson indicated that the Navy’s submarine production capacity is quickly improving and that these Block V boats were on the fast-track. “I like aggressive schedules because it is how you get people to perform well,” Hanson said.