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U.S. Navy deploying Next Generation super stealthy Virginia class Attack submarines in Pacific, capable of launching UAVs and UUVs

The U.S. Navy took delivery of the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine USS Washington (SSN-787), the 14th sub of the Virginia-class sub, on May 26, the service said in a statement.  According to a May 27 U.S. Navy press release, it completed the so-called Board of Inspection and Survey trials at the beginning of May receiving a score of 96 out of 100, “the highest score to date on any new construction Virginia-class submarine.”

The Virginia class is the U.S Navy’s next-generation attack submarines that provide the Navy with the capabilities required to maintain the nation’s undersea supremacy well into the 21st century. They have enhanced stealth, sophisticated surveillance capabilities and special warfare enhancements that will enable them to meet the Navy’s multi-mission requirements.  The submarine is designed to dive to to depths of 240 meters–800 feet–and beyond. Nearly 28 Virginia-class submarines have been either delivered, are authorised for construction, or are under contract for the US Navy. Overall, the service is planning to acquire 48 Virginia-class subs.

The Virginia class submarines  have brought back the  lost advantage of  submarine sophitication as was mentioned by report by Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments:  “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare,” which warned that the technological margin of difference separating the U.S from potential rivals is expected to get much smaller. This is requiring the U.S. to re-think the role of manned submarines and prioritize innovation in the realm of undersea warfare, the study says.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy now has about 70 submarines – very close to the US’ total – with 16 of them nuclear-powered, according to the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress last year on China’s military and security development. Fifteen of China’s non-nuclear submarines are stealthy, equipped with quiet Stirling air-independent propulsion (AIP) engines that also allow them to stay submerged for long durations.

Pacific Commander Harry Harris told Congress that he would like to see more submarines in his area of operations. “The Pacific is the principle space where submarines are the most important warfighting capability we have. As far as Virginia-Class submarines, it is the best thing we have,” Harris told lawmakers. “As I mentioned before, we have a shortage in submarines. My submarine requirement is not met in PACOM (Pacific Command).”Virginia-Class attack submarines are necessary for the U.S. to maintain its technological superiority over rivals or potential adversaries such as China, Harris added.

U.S. Navy Submarines

The U.S. Navy operates three types of submarines—nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), nuclear-powered cruise missile and special operations forces (SOF) submarines (SSGNs), and nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). The SSBNs’ basic mission is to remain hidden at sea with their nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and thereby deter a strategic nuclear attack on the United States. The Navy’s four SSGNs are former Trident SSBNs that have been converted (i.e., modified) to carry Tomahawk cruise missiles and SOF rather than SLBMs. Although the SSGNs differ somewhat from SSNs in terms of mission orientation (with the SSGNs being strongly oriented toward Tomahawk strikes and SOF support, while the SSNs are more general-purpose in orientation),

The SSNs are general-purpose submarines that can (when appropriately equipped and armed) perform a variety of peacetime and wartime missions, including the following:

  • covert intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), much of it done for national-level (as opposed to purely Navy) purposes;
  • covert insertion and recovery of SOF (on a smaller scale than possible with the SSGNs);
  • covert strikes against land targets with the Tomahawk cruise missiles (again on a smaller scale than possible with the SSGNs);
  • covert offensive and defensive mine warfare;
  • anti-submarine warfare (ASW); and
  • anti-surface ship warfare.

General Dynamics‘ mission systems business unit has received a $36.7 million contract modification to continue to help the U.S. Navy modernize software for tactical control system of the military branch’s submarines. The Tactical Control System (TCS) portion of BYG-1 integrates sensor inputs to provide a common operational picture and improved situational awareness in an information assurance compliant environment that exploits the power of sonar, electronic support measures, radar, navigation, periscopes and communication.



Virginia class Attack submarine has

Virginia-class submarines are 7,800 tons and 377 feet in length, have a beam of 34 feet, and can operate at more than 25 knots submerged. They are built with a reactor plant that will not require refueling during the planned life of the ship – reducing lifecycle costs while increasing underway time.

Virginia-Class subs are fast-attack submarines armed with Tomahawk missiles, torpedoes and other weapons able to perform a range of missions; these submarines have the capability to attack targets ashore with highly accurate Tomahawk cruise missiles and conduct covert, long-term surveillance of land areas, littoral waters or other sea-based forces.

Other missions include anti-submarine, anti-surface/ship warfare; covert mine warfare (mine delivery and minefield mapping). They are also designed naval special warfare, something described as having the ability to carry and insert Special Operations Forces, Navy program managers have said.

The ship contains automatic control system which can drive the ship electronically. “This allows you the flexibility to be in littorals or periscope depth for extended periods of time and remain undetected,” former Virginia-Class attack submarine program manager Capt. David Goggins said The Virginia-Class submarine are engineered with this “Fly-by-Wire” capability which allows the ship to quietly linger in shallow waters without having to surface or have each small move controlled by a human operator, Goggins added.

Virginia-Class subs are engineered with what’s called a “Lock Out Trunk” – a compartment in the sub which allows special operations forces to submerge beneath the water and deploy without requiring the ship to surface, service officials explained. “SEALs and Special Operations Forces have the ability to go into a Lock Out Trunk and flood, equalize and deploy while submerged, undetected. That capability is not on previous submarine classes,” Goggins added.

The Block III Virginia-Class submarines also have what’s called a Large Aperture Bow conformal array sonar system – designed to send out an acoustic ping, analyze the return signal, and provide the location and possible contours of enemy ships, submarines and other threats. General Dynamics Electric Boat said the new LAB Array eliminates hundreds of hull penetrations and replaces transducers with lower cost hydrophones.

Block IV  design changes  included a change in the materials used for the submarines’ propulsor, that enable Block IV boats to serve for as long as 96-months between depots visits or scheduled maintenance availabilities, service and industry officials have said. As a result, the operations and maintenance costs of Block IV Virginia-Class submarines will be much lower and the ships will be able to complete an additional deployment throughout their service live. This will bring the number of operational deployments for Virginia-class submarines from 14 up to 15, Navy submarine programmers have explained

General Dynamics (GD) Electric Boat has subcontracted BAE Systems to start work related with the production readiness of Virginia Payload Module (VPM) tubes for the US Navy’s Block V Virginia-class (SSN 774) submarines. BAE Systems weapon systems vice-president and general manager Joe Senftle said: “The new VPM will bring an additional 28 missiles to each Virginia-class submarine, tripling their payload strike capacity. The VPM is an additional mid-body section which will be fitted into the Virginia-class submarines, starting from the second boat of Block V. It comprises four large-diameter payload tubes, each of which can launch up to seven Tomahawk cruise missiles.

While designed primarily to hold Tomahawks, the VPM missile tubes are engineered such that they could accommodate a new payload, new missile,  large unmanned underwater vehicle, or even a UAV. As part of the Fiscal Year 2017 budget submission to Congress, the Navy is asking for small Blackwing UAVs to be launched from attack and guided missile submarines, the Navy’s director for undersea warfare Rear Adm. Charles Richard told USNI News. “So there are 150 small unmanned aerial systems coming in on submarines, so we’re now buying them,” Rear Admiral Richard told US Naval Institute News.


Delivering Open System Flexibility For Rapid Technology Insertion

The AN/BYG-1 modernization program develops commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software and hardware upgrades to integrate improved tactical and weapons control capabilities for multiple submarine classes. The program integrates the tactical control, weapons control, and tactical network subsystems. The AN/BYG-1 is installed on the U.S. Navy’s Los Angeles, Seawolf, Virginia and SSGN-class submarines, as well as on the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins-class submarines.

Submarine crews equipped with the AN/BYG-1 combat control system are able to analyze submarine sensor contact information to track submarine and surface vessels in open-ocean and coastal waters; aim and fire heavyweight torpedoes against submarine and surface ship targets; receive strike warfare orders, plan strike missions and employ Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles; and receive and synthesize sensor data and external tactical intelligence to produce an integrated tactical picture for situational awareness.

The contract involves the AN/BYG-1 open-architecture submarine combat control system that enables ballistic-missile and fast-attack submarines to analyze and track sonar contacts from other submarines and surface ships for situational awareness, as well as for aiming and firing torpedoes and missiles

The TCS portion of BYG-1 integrates sensor inputs to provide a common operational picture and improved situational awareness in an information assurance (IA) compliant environment that exploits the power of sonar, electronic support measures, radar, navigation, periscopes, and communication. The result is a constantly updated tactical picture providing the commanding officer and his crew with the knowledge they require to most effectively operate their ship.

The system was designed using commercial off the shelf (COTS) equipment and open standards that provide interoperability, portability, scalability, and supplier independence for all hardware and software components. The TCS system architecture allows for rapid COTS insertion to accommodate and integrate additional functionality and sensors.


Block V and Virginia Payload Modules

The Navy plans to build one of the two Virginia-class boats procured in FY2019, and all Virginia class boats procured in FY2020 and subsequent years, with an additional mid-body section, called the Virginia Payload Module (VPM). The VPM, with a reported length of 83 feet, 9.75 inches,21
contains four large-diameter, vertical launch tubes that would be used to store and fire additional Tomahawk cruise missiles or other payloads, such as large-diameter unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).
The four additional launch tubes in the VPM could carry a total of 28 additional Tomahawk cruise missiles (7 per tube), which would increase the total number of torpedo-sized weapons (such as Tomahawks) carried by the Virginia class design from about 37 to about 65—an increase of about 76%.

Building Virginia-class boats with the VPM would compensate for a sharp loss in submarine force weapon-carrying capacity that will occur with the retirement in FY2026-FY2028 of the Navy’s four Ohio-class cruise missile/special operations forces support submarines (SSGNs). Each SSGN is equipped with 24 large-diameter vertical launch tubes, of which 22 can be used to carry up to 7 Tomahawks each, for a maximum of 154 vertically launched Tomahawks per boat, or 616 vertically launched Tomahawks for the four boats.

Twenty-two Virginia-class boats built with VPMs could carry 616 Tomahawks in their VPMs.


Launching UAV’s and UUVs

The 12 individual launch tubes in earlier design have been replaced with two large-diameter Virginia Payload Tubes, each capable of launching 7 UGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The missile tube replacement nearly doubles the payload space available.

However, the real strength lies in the ability of these tubes to hold other payloads. Alternative payload modules, both in development today and in the future, can replace the standard Tomahawk compartment. Sensor payloads under development include a submerged launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and a remotely launched Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV).

Last year, The US Navy has reportedly launched and recovered an underwater drone, REMUS 600, from USS North Dakota, which is said to be its first such mission. The submarine-launched unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV) are considered to be cost-effective alternative to extend the reach of the US Navy’s submarine fleet.


REMUS 600 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle

REMUS 600, manufactured by Hydroid, a Kongsberg subsidiary is highly versatile, fully modular system that can operate in up to 600 (or 1500) meters of water. The vehicle diameter is 32.4 cm (12.75 inch), 3.25 m (128 in) long and weighs 240 Kgs (530 lbs).

It is powered by 5.2 KWh rechargeable Lithium ion battery (the second identical capacity battery is optional). Its increased size and power capacity can handle larger power hungry sensor payloads to meet increasing mission demands. Its speed is 4.5 knots, endurance is 24 hours.

Its navigation systems utilize LBL, DR, Global Positioning Systems (WAAS & P Code), Inertial Navigation Systems, Doppler velocity Log and HiPAP. Doppler velocity Log has become a standard instrument for underwater robotics because of the quality of the solution and ease of use. Dead-reckoning with a DVL consists of fusing the measured velocity over the seafloor with an accurate heading reference to estimate distance traveled.

HiPAP family offers High Precision Acoustic underwater positioning and navigation system. Under LBL, principle for measurement the calculation of position is based on range measurements only. The AUV, a subsea module and the vessel are positioned relative to a calibrated array of transponders.

It can communicate using acoustic modems, WiFi and Iridium satellites. The drones deployed by the USS North Dakota can carry payloads like video cameras, GPS devices, advanced sonars like Dual Frequency (300/900 KHz) Sidescan Sonar and Multi-Beam Sonar and can be configured for various missions like mapping ocean floor, mine detection, intelligence gathering and even anti-submarine warfare.

USS North Dakota commanding officer captain Douglas Gordon was quoted by Associated Press as saying: “We can do a dual mission.”UUVs do their thing while we do other operations.” A shelter attached to the top of the submarine was used to launch the Hydroid-manufactured Remus 600 drone.


US Navy’s Blackwing drones launch from underwater

The US Navy  has revealed plans to purchase a set of small drones that can be launched into the air from submarines and other underwater vehicles. The Blackwing drones are launched from a three-inch canister aboard submarines or unmanned underwater vehicles, as part of already installed systems used for acoustic countermeasures. They could be daisy-chained to boost communications and potentially even weaponized as a self-defense option.

The aircraft was developed by AeroVironment and builds on one of the company’s earlier drone designs, the Switchblade unmanned aerial system which was first deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011. Looking to offer the Navy a low-cost surveillance tool for contested environments, the company developed the Blackwing under a Navy technology program called “Advanced Weapons Enhanced by submarine UAS against mobile targets.”

The aircraft comes with electro-optical and infrared sensors, GPS modules, digital and encrypted communications capabilities and can fly for more than one hour at a time.

Ultimately, they will be the replacement for the Ohio SSGNs, except they will be hybrid vessels that can perform equally well as either a fully capable SSN, nuclear-powered attack submarine, or as an SSGN, nuclear-powered guided missile submarine carrying forty SLCMs each. VIRGINIA Class Submarine will counter the potential threats of the next century in a multi-mission capable submarine that has the ability to provide covert, sustained combat presence in denied waters.


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