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A View of Submarine Developments

“The future is ever a misted landscape, no man foreknows it, but at cyclical turns there is a change felt in the rhythm of events.” Robinson Jeffers, U.S. poet – Prescription of Painful Ends “So the rule of military operations is not to count on opponents not coming, but to rely on having ways of dealing with them: not to count on opponents not attacking, but to rely on having what cannot be attacked”.

Sun Tzu – The Art of War


W. G. Cridlin, Jr.
Vice President and General Manager
Submarine Programs, Northrop Grumman Newport News

The submarine community is at a significant crossroads, underscored by the events of September 11, 2001 and ongoing developments. In a nation at war for an undefined period, multiple challenges lay ahead for submarine platforms, and due to the community’s recent hard thinking and diligent articulation of future submarine roles, multiple opportunities for future submarine contributions will likely begin to emerge. As options for Ohio class SSGN conversions, Los Angeles class refuelings, electric drive and integrated power systems, USS JIMMY CARTER delivery, Virginia class future procurement, and major Virginia class variant concepts are weighed, decision makers and supporters alike will need both wisdom and resolve. No less is at stake than making possible the family of platforms and supporting technologies available to the joint force today, tomorrow, and in the Navy After Next. From delivering the first Virginia class submarines to striving for the vision articulated in Submarines … The Road Ahead, and beyond, decisions made in the near term will impact our adaptability and breadth of options for many decades. As one viewpoint in navigating this critical crossroads, the following observations are offered from the perspective of a nuclear submarine provider, innovator, and technology integrator, Northrop Grumman Newport News.

The Landscape

Payloads: The Hot Topic. In the October 2001 SUBMARINE REVIEW, Rear Admiral Young succinctly outlined initiatives in place to foster technological innovation in support of the Submarine Joint Strategic Concepts. These initiatives support and are heavily influenced by the 1998 findings of the Defense Science Board Panel on the Submarine of the Future. It is clear that a renewed focus on payload capacity and flexibility, one of the salient recommendations of the panel, has indeed been invigorated. The successful transition of the Payloads and Sensors work from DARPA to Navy cognizance is a positive step in this direction. There is now a related, more near term movement to identify, characterize, and implement additional payloads for SSGN, again, a positive step in enhancing the submarine’s relevance. Taking the cue from this approach, the concepts being developed for major Virginia class technology bundle variants such as a 2012-authorized payload modular, all-electric ship should be matched with a characterization of potential payloads. Without this characterization, it’ s difficult to imagine a compelling CONOPS for such a ship. The keyword is characterize. not design. After all, given an uncertain future there is no way to specify exactly what will be needed to fulfill the Strategic Concepts, but the community ought to be setting the parameters as much as possible, and as early as possible. Thankfully, there appears to be good forward motion in starting to match promising payloads such as small, medium, and large missiles, UAVs, UUVs, and other devices to future submarines, and thereby progress in getting the payload and future requirements communities better linked to the platform and technology communities!

Inherent Submarine Attributes. So, the payload message has been received loudly and clearly. What about all the other findings of the DSB panel? Future submarines, like present submarines, will be total warfare systems, and as such, deserve total system consideration. All the flexible, modular payloads one could imagine may not be effective if the platform cannot deliver them in a timely, safe, and operationally effective manner. Other future desired attributes called out by the panel, such as increased littoral capability, improved low speed maneuvering, evasion capability, higher tactical speed, signature masking, and large aperture antennas, are all good examples of parts of the total system that may end up being as important as payload considerations. These capabilities should be familiar to most readers as linking strongly to the inherent attributes of the submarine platform, Stealth, Agility/Mobility, Endurance, and Firepower. To reiterate, recent focus on Firepower is an excellent trend. There should be a concurrent focus on the other attributes of the system.

So, what are the implications of an uncertain future and enemy for submarine platforms in the coming decades? What will the country need? The most prudent course would seem to be: maintain a focus on Payloads/Firepower, but keep our eye on the ball regarding the other fundamental enduring attributes of a submarine-Stealth, Agility/Mobility, and Endurance as well. A sacrifice in the pursuit of advances in any of these areas may ultimately result in a Jess relevant and less effective platform.

Let’s address Firepower first, as this is really a recently invigorated submarine attribute that has received well-deserved significant attention of late. What is the progression for advancing submarine Firepower? The current thinking seems to be aligned chronologically as follows:

  • Aggressively explore potential additional payloads and payload modularity concepts for SSGN.
  • Use the Virginia class Advanced Sail to explore further employment of modular payloads, at a relatively modest cost increment.
  • Keep investigating Virginia class technology bundles that include a large payload bay (significant improvement over VIRGINIA payload capacity, with vastly more flexibility).
  • Continue to strive for concepts that provide an Order of Magnitude payload capacity increase in the 2020+ time frame.

This appears to be a logical and promising progression. There is still a clear need, as discussed earlier, to begin characterizing candidate payloads now for SSGN and beyond. This will require some help from the requirements community. Encapsulation of existing non-marinized payloads should continue to be aggressively pursued, to obviate the need for costly payload customization programs. Smaller, more affordable, and more agile future submarine payloads should be examined for cost/benefit tradeoffs, and the findings from this examination should be shared among payload providers, Submarine Force leadership, and shipbuilders.

A similar look at Stealth might reveal that there is a lack of consensus on the need for improved acoustic stealth, for instance. This is evidenced in the quest for secondary justification of moving to Submarine Electric Drive. The concomitant benefit of Electric Drive and Integrated Power Systems (i.e., supporting an all-electric submarine) seems to be desired. However, keeping the low RPM, improved acoustic stealth option viable in the coming decades, should it be deemed necessary, means pursuing Electric Drive in the near term for its primary benefit, Stealth, perhaps the single-most inherent submarine attribute. Non-acoustic aspects of stealth that particularly support littoral operations, and the DSB-identified future desired capability for signature masking, should not be ignored. The visually, hydrodynamically, and electromagnetically revealing littorals demand a platform that can remain coven.

If one examines the historical and projected advancement of Agility/Mobility, it’s pretty clear that the trend in submarine design for a few decades has been away from maneuverability and speed. Why should we be concerned about these attributes? For the very reasons outlined in Rear Admiral Holland’s discussions on littoral operations in April 2001. We need to keep the ability to provide a platform that thrives in a crowded, restricted environment. There are some positive signs. There appears to be some growing interest in improving slow, near surface maneuverability now. The point really is, let’s not lose sight of a possible future need for higher speeds and corresponding maneuverability at those speeds. There is no doubt that reliance on increased agility of boards and ordnance in the future will be a key to this part of the puzzle, but the platform itself may at some point need a higher degree of overall mobility.

Nuclear power breaks the dependence of Endurance upon energy generation, so the weak links in potential greater endurance, if such a capability should be needed in the future, would appear to lie in Habitability. Environmental quality, increasing the sailor’s Quality of Work, reach back to family and friends without sacrificing stealth, and all other aspects of improving the human existence while submerged are called into play. There has been some increasing interest in this area, but it’s probably safe to say that the technologies which could provide solutions have barely been tapped.

Electric Drive is worthy of separate mention here, as it supports nearly all the submarine attributes, providing the foundation not only for acoustic stealth progress, but also for an All-Electric Submarine, which in tum paves a path to agility in platform movement (responsive changes in speed) and power management (responsive distribution of power among propulsion, payloads, and platform loads), and adaptability to evolving payload types and deployment techniques (directed energy weapons and electromagnetic launch of a wide variety of ordnance, sensors, and unmanned vehicles). Although many of these are still mere ideas, we need to strengthen the pursuit of an all-electric submarine. Clearly, a concomitant benefit of the Electric Drive/Integrated Power Systems/Electric Auxiliaries combination is Affordability. For example, as fewer systems employ hydraulics and other fluids running through metal piping systems, previously required maintenance of piping, valves, and other components due to corrosion will be avoided. The ability to produce a truly platform-modular submarine, the importance of which is discussed below, will also be enabled.

Technology Insertion

Today. Tomorrow. and Beyond. How well is the submarine community identifying, developing, and integrating technologies to advance the platform? There appears to be good overall progress, and Northrop Grumman Newport News has joined the community in embracing and helping shape the submarine vision with the following elements: Targeting of Payload and Sensor Insertion Opportunities, Pursuit of Flexible Interface Concepts, Electric Drive Development, Challenging of Hull, Mechanical and Electrical (HM&E) Paradigms, and integration of these elements into Virginia class Major Advances or Technology Bundles. In addition, we have noted with great encouragement the community’s hoisting aboard of the Joint Strategic Concepts, and Admiral Bowman’s now well-established tenets of Getting More Modular, Electric, Connected, Innovative, and Affordable. We continue to be optimistic regarding all these developments, and have actively contributed resources and innovative ideas to the shaping of this common vision during the past few years. Following are some views of how this is unfolding, from our perspective.

Today. The shipbuilders continue to operate effectively in a technology insertion environment of competition for ideas and collaboration on implementation. This environment remains mutually beneficial to the shipbuilders and the submarine program. Planning is in progress for technology bundling, but funding is still to be determined. It is clear that multiple submarine initiatives potentially competing for the necessary funding remain. It is important to note that Virginia class technology insertion, outside the C41 arena, is still not robustly funded, and therefore is proceeding at a relatively slow pace. From an industry perspective, this condition creates a challenging business case for releasing Independent Research & Development (IR&D) funds to generate further ideas. Improvement in funding levels will be required to make more dramatic progress on incremental technology insertion. In spite of this challenge, industry is investing resources and generating ideas that will help advance the Virginia class. A few representative technologies brought to the table by Northrop Grumman Newport News and our industry and government partners are:

  • Blown Optical Fiber Technology to reduce installation cost and enable more flexible and adaptable shipboard information system architectures (leveraged from aircraft carrier technology).
  • Towed Array Advanced Control System to avoid current fleet array problems and reduce array maintenance costs.
  • Thermal Spray Coatings for increased component service life and decreased maintenance costs.
  • Universal Launcher Concepts to provide a versatile means of accommodating a range of payloads.
  • Multifunction Integrated Laser System to enhance wake detection, sound velocity profiling, and covert communication with off-board vehicles.
  • Low Cost Fastenings for insulation materials, which replace volatile adhesives with commercial pressure sensitive adhesives.
  • Fiber Optic Lighting to reduce weight and maintenance cost of traditional lighting systems.
  • Composite Universal Modular Mast to significantly reduce weight and enable advanced sail modular payloads.
  • Control Surface Louvers to enhance stem plane effectiveness.
  • Micro-Vortex Generators which employ NASA’s aerodynamics technology to improve maneuverability and control.
  • Powder Coat technology for affordable construction.

Reflection: Today’s Progress. Following are several observations on the current state of the process in submarine technology insertion:

  • The SUBTECH process has recently revitalized a focus on the platform, after very appropriately aligning toward anticipated critical submarine capabilities (Joint Strategic Concepts). This is a positive step, and will enable renewed emphasis on key platform configurations and technologies which support the needed capabilities.
  • Payload Modularity concepts are undergoing further development. To help predict, measure, and articulate the military value of payload modularity, a Submarine Force level system engineering analysis was undertaken, and the results should prove invaluable in weighing the cost versus benefit of such concepts.
  • Virginia class Technology Bundles to increase warfighting capability are being more precisely defined, and in support of these initiatives, POM issue papers are in progress.
  • Funding for Submarine Payload/Sensor Demonstrations appears to be forthcoming. This is a positive step. However, in order to fully develop concepts for payload modularity now, necessary and viable payloads for the future need to be characterized now.
  • Interest in possible acceleration of SSN23, SSGN, and Virginia class deliveries continues to germinate. While these are likely necessary and positive actions, we believe prudence should be exercised in not sacrificing the advancement and invention of incremental and major technologies to the Virginia class.
  • As Navy funding for Virginia class technology intention continues to be constrained, the pace of intention remains slow, and, as stated above, the corporate business case for IR&D investment in further new ideas becomes a greater challenge.
  • Where technology may be commonly applied across submarine platforms, or even among surface and submarine platforms, cost sharing on technology insertion among program and fleet sources has the potential to initiate or accelerate motion. However, we have observed that this cost sharing can also delay action, as funding decisions can evolve into a wait and see approach as to which program office will provide funding first. This situation requires vigilance. Early signs of such hesitation should be acted upon.
  • Due to funding constraints, maximum Total Ownership Cost (TOC) benefits will not be realized in the Virginia class in the most timely fashion. TOC reduction is generally not afforded significant priority or funding unless a front end acquisition cost saving is involved. This inherently limits realization of the potential life cycle savings over the submarine platform’s life.

Tomorrow. Northrop Grumman Newport News continues to explore other advanced technologies that could lead to more significant warfighting capability improvements to Virginia class in the future, in the areas of Payloads and Launchers, Embedded Sensors, Maneuvering and Drag Reduction Innovations, Flow Sensing, Hull, Mechanical, and Electrical (HM&E) Simplification, Advanced Materials, Electric Drive, and Automation. We are supporting the Virginia class and DD(X) Gold Team efforts for Electric Drive development, which positions us at the forefront of that technology. We also recognize that an ongoing priority for the Navy is personnel retention, and we are exploring technology that could improve the submariner’s Quality of Work and reduce their workload, which could contribute to a higher retention rate. An example of this technology is Automated Information and Data Collection, which has the potential to reduce workload by electronically capturing and networking component maintenance information. In seeking improvement ideas, Northrop Grumman Newport News remains in a unique position to leverage nuclear aircraft carrier technology developments, and continues to do so wherever possible. Example technologies that hold promise for contributing to the above areas are advanced materials, composites, drag reduction, paint·on conformal antennas, and encapsulation of payloads to break dependence on marinization.

Beyond. There is now a window of opportunity for another facet of the submarine vision to be revitalized. Namely, a modest, but focused, conceptual look at the next generation submarine could be undertaken, in order to ensure the current critical mass of submarine design experts is tapped in a timely fashion, and most importantly to open the door for an even more agile, payload·rich future submarine platform option that could be responsive to a spectrum of unknown future threats. As evidenced in the dynamic world situation, emerging threats will not provide a grace period for development of new technologies, nor advance notification. Therefore, to maintain the ability to provide the country with a full spectrum of submarine options in the future, some level of conceptual activity is appropriate now.

Looking Ahead

Technology Refresh Cycles. As the Virginia class baseline hulls and later technology bundles begin to provide the fleet with increasingly capable, flexible, and affordable assets, the community should be looking beyond the current horizon to a next generation highly responsive, adaptable future submarine option. Perhaps the next significant challenge in being able to conceive of and produce this advanced platform will be the breaking of paradigms, namely in platform configuration, and in technology refresh cycles. New, agile, highly maneuverable hullforms, fabricated from advanced materials, employing novel propulsion and warfare systems, with a high degree of modularity, may be required to address future, as-yet-unknown threats. The key to actualizing useful technologies and putting them to work on a submarine platform is timeliness.

If one examines submarine technology evolution in major categories, it could be argued that approximate submarine technology refresh cycles today would be:

  • Command, Control, Communications, Computers about 0-2 Years
  • HM&E about 2-5 Years
  • Payloads about 5-20 Years
  • Propulsion aboutl0-20 Years

Clearly, through careful planning and rapid, frequent insertion of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) electronics, the Command, Control, Communications, and Computers category has experienced major improvements in aligning the technology cycle with the insertion cycle on submarines. This is highly evident in the Virginia class technology insertion plan.

However, two of the most critical areas of major submarine technology insertion, payloads and propulsion, are historically the most difficult, time-consuming, and costly to implement. New payloads typically have a lengthy design cycle, are dependent upon platform-payload interfaces for launching, and as a result, progress can suffer from the chicken/egg syndrome. Likewise, new platform-payload interfaces and launching systems do not typically receive much-needed attention until new payloads to populate them are developed or at least conceived. This creates a paralysis in the advancement of submarine payload development and deployment. It is becoming clear that payload modularity may very well provide a mitigation path for this paralysis, by allowing payloads of different sizes, shapes, weights, and interface requirements to be accommodated on demand. This approach could effectively decouple new payload development from new platform development, and allow or either to proceed as necessary at any time. Key technology challenges to overcome to achieve payload modularity are the passing of power and data between the platform and the modules containing various payloads. In the propulsion arena, which we will broadly address as including propulsion plant, propulsor, and hydrodynamic development, advancements are extremely hullform-dependent and also carry the burden of long design cycles.

The above conditions highlight the need for strategies to facilitate technology refresh in these major areas. In the payload area, the development and exploitation of concepts for payload modularity, universal interfaces, and parallel payload/launcher design cycles are paramount to a successful strategy. In the propulsion and hydrodynamics areas, the future concept of platform modularity, increasing use of modeling and simulation where appropriate, and the continued use of scaled testing where required will provide the most successful path forward.


Futures. To help reinforce why the community should even bother with non-payload thoughts for future submarines, one need imagine no further for examples than Captain Tangredi’s recent discussions (April, July, and October 2001 issues of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW) on the conceivable range of military/political futures we may have in store. Here Captain Tangredi talks about asymmetric threats, weapons of mass destruction, and malicious use of technology in a manner that can be chilling at times, given recent events. These are not new ideas to most readers, but literally overnight have become starkly real. In the tricky business of attempting to align possible future submarine platforms with likely futures, perhaps a useful analogy is the meteorologist’s hurricane chan. There is a pretty narrow range of likely required submarine characteristics in the near term (for example, it’s likely we will not need a faster, more agile, more acoustically stealthy submarine in the next few years), but over time the cone of possible required platform types spreads to include a broader range. We need to continually ask ourselves the question, “What will be the submarine’s ongoing and future role in the war against terrorism, in other conflicts, and in new scenarios of peacetime, and how will this influence the platform’s characteristics?”

In our view, the business model for looking at future submarine possibilities must include a facet that addresses the timeframe beyond 2020, at a modest level of investment. We can’t stop innovating and advancing toward the next generation of submarines. Initiatives such as Submarine Payloads and Sensors, ONR’s Swampworks, and other attempts to push the envelope are promising, and the SUBTECH process continues to provide the much-needed rigor for focusing current and near term R&D and S&T, but we owe it to ourselves to strive for a view over this horizon, and to ensure that whatever needs are found there can ultimately be satisfied.


The submarine community faces significant challenges, as well as significant opportunities, in the near term. Initiatives such as SSGN Conversion, USS JIMMY CARTER Modification, and Los Angeles class refuelings are critically important. Virginia class construction is proceeding well, and the increase in submarine production rate to achieve required force structure levels continues to be planned. Virginia class technology intention is being executed steadily and efficiently, albeit at a slow pace due to funding constraints. There is now an opportunity to look further ahead and begin laying out options that may be needed for the future. As the Submarine Force scans down the path of metamorphosis in an environment of competing interests and constrained funding for technology insertion, the following considerations are offered to the community:

  • Ensure the ongoing advancement of all submarine platform inherent attributes, Stealth, Endurance, Agility, and Firepower with the end goal being an effective, adaptable total system that survives and thrives over the long haul.
  • Maintain focus on electric drive/integrated power system implementation to enable further stealth gains, and to provide the pathway to an all electric submarine.
  • Further develop payload modularity and platform modularity concepts to keep future warfighting options as open as possible.
  • Define or characterize future desired payloads to the extent possible.
  • Provide as much technology insertion funding as practical to further incentivize industry in generating more and better ideas.
  • Begin exploring next generation submarine concepts and rethink paradigms of platform and process, in order to address high likelihood capability needs as well as to challenge and thereby preserve the dwindling submarine design industrial base.
  • Support the development of advanced technologies that make all of the above possible.

As evidenced in our dynamic world situation, emerging threats will not provide a grace period for development of new technologies, nor notification of a need far in advance. Therefore, it will be prudent to continue introducing new incremental technologies to the Virginia class as appropriate, bundle major warfighting technologies into discrete packages for Virginia class major advances, and to begin exploring the ability to provide the country with an even more responsive, stealthy, payload·rich submarine option in the future.

The “translation effort between developing concepts and bending steel” mentioned by Captain Tangredi in October 2001 is now a fertile and critically important field. Northrop Grumman Newport News is proud to be an integral part of this effort to shape and achieve the submarine vision, and will continue to seek new and innovative ways to meet the Navy’s submarine needs.

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