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U.S. Navy’s undersea supremacy led by Super stealthy Virginia class Attack submarines, with Nuclear weapons capability

US Navy  plans to add as many as 32 attack submarines in just the next 15 years. Overall, the addition of attack submarines represents the largest overall platform increase within the Navy’s ambitious plan to grow the fleet to 355 ships. “Battle force inventory reaches 301 in 2020 and 355 in 2034,” Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Chambers, told Warrior Maven. New Navy submarines are hosting an array of breakthrough technologies designed to carve a path into future maritime war; these include more firepower such as Tomahawk missiles and torpedoes, added electrical power for emerging systems such as drones and AI-enabled sensors, navigation and ship defenses.


There are many reasons why attack submarines are increasingly in demand; undersea vehicles are often able to conduct reconnaissance missions closer to targets than large-draft surface ships can. Forward positioning enables them to be “stealthier” in coastal areas, inlets or islands. By leveraging an ability to operate closer to enemy shorelines and threat areas than most surface ships, attack submarines can quietly patrol shallow waters near enemy coastline – scanning for enemy submarines, surface ships and coastal threats.As part of this, they can also move substantial firepower, in the form of Tomahawk missiles, closer to inland targets.


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 U.S. Navy commissioned, the USS Colorado, on March 17, 2018, the Navy’s 15th Virginia-class attack submarine.


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.


Virginia-class underwater vessels have now been upgraded  to  fire nuclear-armed cruise missiles, shifting into a nuclear deterrence role. “While Virginia-class submarines can use conventional deterrence to keep adversaries in check, a sub-launched cruise missile with a nuclear warhead would be incorporated into Virginias and give national command authority additional escalation control,” US navy director of undersea warfare Rear Admiral John Tammen said. Currently only larger ballistic missile submarines are equipped to fire nuclear weapons.


He said a sea-launched cruise missile option was needed to combat the rapid technological progress of adversary air-defence systems. “To drop a gravity bomb that is low-yield means a bomber would have to penetrate air defences. Air defences are very different than they were 20 years ago,” he said. Admiral Tammen said adding nuclear weapons capability would give combatant commanders new options to access high-risk areas and coastal regions previously unreachable by surface ships.


In addition to added nuclear capabilities, future Virginia-class submarines will be engineered to bring greatly improved coastal water warfare, surveillance and open ocean capabilities. Part of this will be removing the need to manually control each small manoeuvre, with ships to be driven primarily through software code and electronics.


The Naval Sea Systems Command awarded a nine-ship — eight with Virginia Payload Module (VPM) — Block V contract to General Dynamics Electric Boat (GDEB) in Dec. 2019. The contract includes an option for one additional submarine with VPM. The Block V contract is a $22.2-billion fixed-price incentive fee, multi-year procurement contract for fiscal years 2019 through 2023. Navy has taken delivery of 18 Virginia-class submarines, and all 10 Block IV submarines are under construction. Contract delivery of the first Block V submarine is FY 2025.


“Block V Virginias and Virginia Payload Module are a generational leap in submarine capability for the Navy,” said Program Executive Officer for Submarines Rear Adm. David Goggins. “These design changes will enable the fleet to maintain our nation’s undersea dominance.”

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.


The Navy’s next class fast attack submarine will be designed for a return to blue-water great power competition, where the ability to support forces ashore is less important than operating in the open ocean hunting rival submarines, according to an analysis of the Navy’s 30 Year shipbuilding plan conducted by Congressional Budget Office (CBO).


The Navy plans to start purchasing this new class of submarine in 2034. Previously the SSN(X) class were assumed to be a successor to the current Virginia-class submarine, complete with the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) – a vertical launch system that increases the number of Tomahawk-sized weapons from 12 to 40 – and other acoustic and technological design improvements, according to the CBO analysis released Thursday.


However, the new SSN(X) will take the place of a Block 7 Virginia-class, and the planned design appears to prize increased torpedo storage over the VPM vertical launch capability. The new SSN(X) plans do not include VPM capability. When compared to the Block V Virginia-class submarines – the first built with the VPM – the CBO states the new SSN(X) will have 25 more torpedoes and Tomahawk missiles in the torpedo room. “Specifically, the Navy indicates that the next-generation attack submarine should be faster, stealthier, and able to carry more torpedoes than the Virginia class—similar to the Seawolf class submarine,” the CBO report states.


“In light of the recent shift in the strategic environment from the post-Cold War era to a new situation featuring renewed great power competition that some observers conclude has occurred, Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) against Russian and Chinese submarines may once again become a more prominent mission for U.S. Navy SSNs,” O’Rourke wrote in July.


Virginia class Attack submarine

Virginia-class submarines are built to dominate the world’s littoral and deep waters while conducting anti-submarine warfare; anti-surface-ship warfare; strike warfare; special operations forces support; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; irregular warfare and mine warfare missions. Their inherent stealth, endurance, mobility and firepower directly enable them to support five of the six maritime strategy core capabilities: sea control, power projection, forward presence, maritime security and deterrence.


The Navy’s   Virginia-Class attack submarine is engineered with a host of new, unprecedented undersea technologies, Navy officials said. Many of these innovations, which have been underway and tested as prototypes for many years, are now operational as the USS South Dakota enters service. Service technology developers  said the advances in undersea technologies built, integrated, tested and now operational on the South Dakota include quieting technologies for the engine room to make the submarine harder to detect, a new large vertical array and additional “quieting” coating materials for the hull, Navy officials have told Warrior Maven. Navy developers say, they are further refining technical advances before deploying what many call “the stealthiest submarines ever built” in the early 2020s.


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.


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.


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.


With “Fly-by-Wire” technology, a human operator will order depth and speed, allowing software to direct the movement of the planes and rudder to maintain course and depth, Navy program managers have told Warrior Maven. The ships can be driven primarily through software code and electronics, thus freeing up time and energy for an operator who does not need to manually control each small maneuver.


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.


More importantly, the subs will feature a “lockout trunk” which will remove the need for the ship to surface to allow special operations forces to deploy. By 2020, the Virginia-class will also have a new 26m-long section designed to house additional missile capability — the number of tomahawks will increase from 12 to 40.


Sub builder General Dynamics Electric Boat has been awarded a $696.2 million contract modification for long-lead materials for the next for Virginia-class submarines – the first of the Block V attack boats. 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.


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.


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 duration.


The Virginia class submarines  have brought back the  lost advantage that 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.


Delivering Open System Flexibility For Rapid Technology Insertion

Also, in Virginia-class SSNs, traditional periscopes have been replaced by two photonics masts that host visible and infrared digital cameras atop telescoping arms, which are maneuvered by an Xbox controller. Through the extensive use of modular construction, open architecture, and commercial off-the-shelf components, the Virginia class is designed to remain at the cutting edge for its entire operational life through the rapid introduction of new systems and payloads


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 (VPM)

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, 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.


The U.S. Navy has granted a contract to British company to produce payload tubes for two of the service’s Block V Virginia-class subs. Each will be extended in length with an additional mid-body section to create additional room for payloads and, in turn, for greater firepower. One large-diameter payload tube can store and launch up to seven Tomahawk cruise missiles. The four new tubes per sub will add to the existing firepower of the two large-diameter, 87-inch Virginia Payload Tubes on the bow, each capable of launching six Tomahawk cruise missiles.


The Virginia Payload Module is “critical to the Navy’s undersea presence,” according to Joe Senftle, vice president and general manager of weapon systems at BAE. Senftle added that the new VPM will increase firepower by “tripling their payload capacity.”


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).


The US Navy has reportedly demonstrated launching  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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