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The Right Ship for the Future

Today, the Navy is facing the challenge of adjusting to the post-Cold War world. Much of the current fleet was designed and built during the last decades of the Cold War. It is a tribute to the force planners of years gone by that their hard work has proven itself flexible and effective enough to meet the new set of challenges in a world no longer dominated by a struggle between two superpowers.

Nevertheless, many of the assumptions that guided planners in the past no longer apply. Two realities significantly affect the emerging shape of the post-Cold War Navy. First, the Service’s focus is no longer on global war at sea, but rather on ensuring America’s access to key areas of the world and on affecting the course of events ashore in those regions. Second, budgetary constraints mean that every Navy asset must be cost effective as well as operationally effective. In other words, every platform and system must provide a wide range of capabilities to the nation, and do so at a reasonable cost.

As a key part of the Navy, the Submarine Force is also striving for the optimal balance between cost and capabilities. Nuclear powered attack submarines (SSNs) in particular are already one of the most cost-effective components in the U.S. arsenal. Because of their stealth and survivability, their ability to carry out a wide range of missions, and their low operating costs, attack submarines offer American taxpayers a tremendous return on their investment. With their unique combination of endurance, agility, firepower, and stealth, U.S. attack submarines can project U.S. military power into and from all maritime areas including areas denied to other naval forces by military threats or diplomatic constraints.

Even with this proven cost-effectiveness, the Submarine Force must still work to maintain its undersea dominance in the most economical way possible. Somewhat surprisingly, we have found that an up-front investment in newer, less labor- and maintenance-intensive platforms and their systems will be required for longer term force effectiveness. New submarines have lower operating costs and increased design flexibility. two factors that reduce the Navy’s total cost of ownership over the life of the class.

These are the types of advantages offered by the Navy’s newest, highly capable, and most affordable attack submarine the VIRGINIA (SSN 774) class. Built in sufficient numbers, Virginia class submarines will form the backbone of tomorrow’s undersea force. enabling it to face near- and long-term operational challenges effectively and affordably.

Revitalizing the Force

The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review stated that “contingent on a reevaluation of peacetime overseas presence requirements. submarines will be procured at a long-term rate of one-and-one-half to two per year, consistent with a target force level of 50 attack submarines.” In March 1998, the Deputy Secretary of Defense directed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) to conduct the reevaluation. The subsequent 1999 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Attack Submarine Study determined that the Navy will need 68 attack submarines by the year 2015 to meet all of the Commanders in Chief (CINCs) and national intelligence community’s highest operational and collection requirements. Moreover, the CJCS report projected that a force level of fewer than 55 attack submarines, just one less Than the current fleet of 56, would leave the Service with insufficient capability to “meet urgent critical demands.”

Just maintaining a force level of 55 attack submarines in the current budgetary climate will be difficult. Seven Los Angeles (SSN 688) class submarines are now scheduled for early inactivation (vice refueling) between 2002 and 2008. Early inactivation was planned to meet the QDR level of 50. One way to maintain force level in the near term is to refuel these seven submarines.

Another possibility is converting four Trident ballistic missile submarines into platforms that can carry as many as 154 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, as well as support large-scale Special Operations Forces insertion. Just one of these guided missile submarines (SSGNs) would carry the equivalent of an entire battle group’s Tomahawk load-out, providing joint force commanders with a huge secure repository of precision strike weapons. However, the launcher configuration for the proposed SSGNs is still under review. Depending on the configuration chosen, the subs’ launchers might be counted under existing START II arms control treaties, an outcome that OSD and the Navy are working to avoid. SSGNs would have a unique mission and are not planned as one-for-one replacements for SSNs. SSGNs would help reduce pressure in meeting some SSN mission requirements.

Modifying and retaining current classes of submarines will help solve the Submarine Force’s resource issues in the near term. To ensure that the Navy meets long term submarine missions and plans, it needs to build attack submarines that are capable of meeting today’s operational challenges; that can be modified easily in light of changes in threats, missions or technology; and that reduce the Service’s maintenance and support burden costs. In short, it needs to build a sufficient number of Virginia class submarines.

The CJCS SSN study implies that the Navy will have to build more of these subs than it currently plans. As the current forces of Los Angeles (SSN688) class submarines, which were built at a rate of three to four hulls per year during the 1970s and 1980s, continue to be decommissioned, construction of Virginia class boats has to accelerate to maintain minimum force levels.

For this reason, a balanced SSN building program will be the key to maintaining U.S. Submarine Force levels in the years ahead. The Virginia class submarines will be more than just gap fillers. With their advanced capabilities they will be key to maintaining America’s undersea dominance-a pillar of U.S. national security-in the decades ahead. These submarines are the first boats specifically tailored for the operational environment that the Navy faces in the post-Cold War world. They will have the capability, flexibility, and affordability to ensure continued U.S. undersea superiority as is examined in more detail below.

Virginia Class Building Profile

Fiscal Year Subs Procured
1998 1
1999 1
2000 0
2001 1
2002 1
2003 1
2004 1
2005 1
Based on FY 2001 President’s Budget

Advanced Capabilities

The new Virginia class attack submarines will be able to conduct a broad range of missions, all critical to achieving the overall U.S. goal of securing access to and influencing events ashore. In particular, these subs will have unparalleled capabilities in the area of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; sea control; power projection; mine warfare; and special operations.

Stealth and state-of-the-art sensors lie at the heart of these capabilities. The Virginias will have more integrated stealth than any attack submarine at sea or under construction, ensuring that the United States can gain and sustain access to contested and otherwise politically denied areas. Optimized for quiet, unobtrusive littoral operations in congested or confined littoral waters, these boats will feature automated ship control, a high-performance hovering system, and an advanced, variable-speed, quieted outboard motor for slow-speed maneuvering. They also will carry Improved High Frequency Arrays (IHFA) that will enable them to penetrate defended areas and carry out covert mine warfare, underwater mapping, other battlespace preparation functions.

The sophisticated surveillance system onboard the Virginia class boats will also enable the comprehensive location, monitoring, and tracking of enemy communications and forces in important ocean and littoral regions. The subs will employ the advanced Lightweight Wide Aperture Array (LWAA), towed arrays, and hull arrays for long-range passive detection and ranging. Acoustic information gleaned from these systems will be processed and analyzed to unprecedemed levels of detail-indeed, the lead ship of the Virginia class by itself will have more processing power than today’s entire submarine fleet combined. Other non-acoustic sensors carried by the class will include a next-generation electronic surveillance suite, associated antennas, and a revolutionary fiber-optic photonics mast that will replace traditional periscopes.

The tactical and operational information the Virginias collect will be invaluable to other U.S. naval and joint forces. Consequently, the state-of-the-art communications aboard these subs will enhance the flow of information between the subs and other forces. In addition, these and other systems will be easily upgraded through the use of an architecture that will allow for plug and fight capabilities with future systems.

Offensively, the Virginias will have the ability to make a significant impact on events ashore. Each boat will have 12 Vertical Launch System (VLS) tubes (in addition to a full horizontal launch capability) that can generate a high launch rate for Tomahawk cruise missiles. To support the underwater insertion of special warfare teams, these subs also will be able to host a Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) and the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS). They will have large nine-man lockout chambers to launch and recover SEAL teams covertly, as well as reconfigurable torpedo rooms from which they can deploy large numbers of special operation troops and underwater delivery vehicles.

Design Flexibility

The Virginia class attack submarines will be an important component in the Navy’s emerging concept of operations for the post-Cold War world. However, to remain operational and cost effective through their service lives, these boats must be able to evolve technologically in response to changes in the character of the threats they must face and the missions they will be called upon to conduct.

Consequently, the Virginia design readily allows the insertion of new systems. One of the more significant innovations is the shock mitigating structural concepts allowing use of commercial computers that are wired into a flexible network, permitting the affordable incorporation of new technology as it is developed. Likewise, the modular construction techniques used in the Virginias facilitate new systems and technology in future ships.

Other areas of design flexibility include a reconfigurable torpedo room that will allow the subs to carry new weapons, or to tailor their weapons load-outs to meet the demands of new, unforeseen missions in the future. The Virginias’ sail configuration also supports the future installation of special masts for special missions.

All told, this type of system flexibility will allow the class to be upgraded both in the near and the long term. Unlike older subs that forestall obsolescence through expensive, labor-intensive upgrades, the very design of the Virginias will allow them keep pace with technological advances quickly and economically.


The last factor that defines a submarine, or any platform, designed for the post-Cold War world is affordability. The Virginia class SSNs will bring advanced capabilities to U.S. naval and joint commanders, yet they will cost approximately 30 percent less to procure and operate than their immediate predecessor, the SEA WOLF (SSN 21) class.

Since the outset of the Virginia class design process, millions of dollars in cost avoidance have been realized through the innovative application of concurrent engineering, integrated design and build ceams, and computer-aided paperless design tools. Thus, while operational war-fighting capabilities remain the paramount objective, reducing design, acquisition, and life-cycle costs also have been a major consideration. Accordingly, the Virginia class Submarine Program earned the Department of Defense David Packard Excellence in Acquisition Award in May 1998.

The Virginia Class: Key to the Future

The reductions in the defense budget that followed the end of the Cold War have required the Submarine Force-along with the rest of Navy-to make do with less. However, the missions that our submarines are called upon to perform have not gone away. If anything, they as are critical to the security of The United Scaces as ever. This has led to innovation in design, processes, and technology that resulted in the Virginia class.

Innovation and hard work cannot fully compensate for a continuing shortage of funding and resources. In the short to midterm, the construction rate of Virginia class submarines must increase over that which currently prevails. In the long run, building enough Virginia class submarines is the most cost-effective way to maintain required SSN force levels, ensure continued U.S. undersea superiority, and provide an affordable, capable, and flexible attack Submarine Force for The future.

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