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The following article is excerpted from a Naval Strike Forum white paper, a project of the Lexington Institute, which was published in December 2003. The Lexington Institute is a public policy think tank located in Arlington, Virginia. For more information please visit their website at or contact them at 703-522-5828.

For the purposes of this publication, the paper is presented here in two parts. The first part was published in the April 2004 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. The entire document as originally published is available online at Hard copies are available upon request to the Lexington Institute.

Part Two:


The Current Shipbuilding Program

With the fiscal year 2004 budget, the Department of Defense proposed a plan for submarines that would acquire one new Virginia-class SSN a year in 2004, 2005 and 2006. These SSNs will join the five already approved and under construction, and with the 22 planned for the years beyond fiscal 2006, will be part of an overall inventory of 30 Virginia-class boats.

The plan also funds the conversion of one strategic SSBN to the SSGN configuration in 2004, and another in 2005, added to two earlier conversions funded in fiscal year 2003.

With this fiscal 2004 plan, the Defense Department also proposed a long-term program of shipbuilding that would increase the Virginia-class procurement to two SSNs a year in 2007, 2008 and 2009. This increase in the procurement rate was intended to support a fleet objective of 55 attack submarines, consistent with the 2001 QDR as discussed above. As this chart shows, through 2015 this objective will continue to be met based primarily on refueled Los Angeles-class submarines as the new Virginia-class slowly enters the inventory.

“Composition of the Non-Strategic Submarine Force”

Around 2015, however, these older boats will begin reaching the end of their 33-year service life at the rate of 2.7 each year. In order to maintain the QDR force objective of 55 SSNs by 2025, the Navy must buy three submarines per year for much of the next decade. And, to meet the minimum JCS goal of 62 SSNs by 2025, it must begin buying three per year in 2008. According to the most recent Congressional Budget Office analysis, the Navy would have to more than double its current submarine budget to meet the JCS goal. Even meeting the more conservative QDR goal of 55 represents the “greatest procurement challenge facing the U.S. Navy. 8 With its final approval of the 2004 Defense Appropriation, the U.S. Congress further complicated this picture by refusing to approve the plan to increase submarine procurement to two per year in 2006 and 2007.

The table below shows the picture of a rapidly aging submarine fleet that must be replaced equally rapidly by a new generation of boats in order to sustain force structure goals. It also displays clearly the implications of failing to meet the procurement challenge of funding more than the two submarines per year in the Future Year Defense Plan.

How the SSGNs will factor into this SSN force goal remains an open question. The conversion program was not yet in place and thus not directly addressed by either the 1999 JCS study or the 2001 QDR. However, even including the four converted submarines in the SSN force number would delay by only two years the requirement to procure three boats annually.

The year 2025-indeed the year 2015-seems far away now, and the necessity of deciding on a force for that time frame perhaps doubtful. But again in their uniqueness submarines stand apart, requiring more time to manufacture than almost any other weapon system.11 Starting with two years for advance procurement of long-lead time materials, largely for the nuclear reactor, and adding six years for actual construction, it takes eight years to add a new submarine to the fleet. Careful advance planning therefore is crucial to ensuring continuing American dominance of the undersea environment and its ability to affect operations ashore from under the sea.

Programs and Technology

The force numbers are half of the equation-simply reflecting the logistics of having a platform in place when you need it. The other half reflects the capabilities behind each platform, and here America is fortunate to be on the verge of realizing the benefits of years of research and development in the areas of submarine design and manufacturing, sensor and communications technology and operational innovation.

The three Seawolf-dass SSNs were designed to be significantly more capable in anti-submarine warfare than their predecessor Los Angeles class, as befitting their Cold War orientation. The final boat of this class, USS JIMMY CARTER, will be delivered in 2005 with modifications to directly address today’s requirements for tactical surveillance, mine warfare and special operations. The other two platform components of the future non-strategic Submarine Force structure are exciting for different reasons-the Virginia-class, because it is the first submarine to be designed with littoral warfare in mind, and the SSGN, because of the opportunities presented by its enormous payload volume. Additionally, recent work in the areas of sensors, payloads, and communications will lend even greater capability in the future to these platforms.

Virginia Class Attack Submarine

The Virginia program emerged in the early 1990’s, out of the Navy’s re-examination of the submarine mission after the collapse of the Soviet Union and termination of the Seawolf program. It is different from every other submarine in the world because it is designed to be dominant in both the open ocean and in shallow (littoral) waters. It will have a number of improved sensors mounted on its bow, hull and sail, as well as towed sensors, which will allow it to detect large objects such as quiet diesel electric submarines, and smaller objects including mines. In another.first, VIRGINIA will not have a traditional periscope. Instead, two photonic masts mounted on the exterior will provide digital images, including color and infrared, directly onto screens in the central command station.

From the beginning VIRGINIA has been envisioned as a special operations platform. The design includes a special chamber that can house up to nine special operations personnel. With a lock-in and lock-out capability, the chamber allows people to both come and go while the submarine is submerged. If more people are needed to augment the Special Forces team, VIRGINIA ‘s torpedo room can be reconfigured for more people and less weapons. Alternatively, the torpedo room can be reconfigured to accommodate other weapons or sensor payloads. All Virginia-class SSNs will be able to transport a dry deck shelter for special operations’ mini-subs, including the new Advanced SEAL Delivery System, discussed below.

The first four Virginia-class submarines-commissioned in 2006 through 2009-will include all these capabilities. Future Virginia-class SSNs will boast even more improvements, with several significant enhancements now in development. Using a modular approach and emphasis on commercial components, the engineers have crafted a submarine design that could accept such major design changes as an advanced new reactor to fuel ever-growing energy demands, and an integrated all-electric drive propulsion system.


This designation has been given to the four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines that are being converted to fire only non-nuclear missiles. These four boats were made available by a 1994 review of U.S. nuclear posture that determined 14, rather than 18, SSBN’s were sufficient for strategic nuclear targeting. Instead of retiring the extra four boats, as originally had been planned, the United States will convert them for other missions.

The first step of conversion involves removing the 24 ballistic missiles from their tubes in the middle section of the submarine. The huge space left behind-the tubes are contained in an area equal to the size of about four four-bedroom colonial houses-will be used to launch cruise missiles and both launch and recover special operations forces. The SSGN will carry 154 cruise missiles (com-pared to 38 weapons on the Virginia-class)12 and at least 66 SEALs and their equipment. Two of the former missile tubes will be reconfigured to hold special forces undersea vehicles and large-diameter lock-in/lock-out chambers for access outside the submarine.

The tremendous carrying capacity of the SSGN presents many opportunities for future enhancements to the land attack, intelligence gathering and special operations missions of submarines. Ideas under consideration include unmanned air and sea vehicles launched from the SSGN to deliver supplies or gather information; long-range non-nuclear ballistic missiles for global strike; and a laboratory for analyzing samples for evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

Advanced SEAL Delivery System

The ASOS is a key program in the potentially transforming partnership between special operations forces and submarines. It is one of the Special Operations Command’s top priority programs, and addresses the greatest weaknesses of earlier versions of swimmer delivery vehicles that included extremely austere conditions for the swimmers who get wet inside the vessel. Within the ASDS, divers can stay warm, dry and at atmospheric pressure until it is time to leave the vehicle and swim. This advantage expands the scope of potential missions to include those with long transit times and in very deep and/or cold water.

In development since the early 1990’s, the ASDS program has experienced challenges but is now on track with delivery of the first craft in June 2003. The ASDS is more than 65-feet long, is battery operated and has a range of 125 miles. It is designed to carry special operations forces from the submarine to an offshore location where they can exit and swim to shore, later returning to the ASDS for the trip back to the mother submarine. The Navy plans to buy a total of six of these vehicles, but the second one will not enter service until 2009. It can be carried by specially modified SSNs, by the Virginia-class or by the SSGN’s.

Sensors and Payloads

The 1998 Defense Science Board Study on the Submarine of the Future recommended a collaboration between the Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to look beyond the focus of traditional submarine research and development to emphasize sensors, associated vehicles and other interfaces with the water. Out of this recommendation DARPA’s Advanced Sensors and Payloads program was born. This two-year program coincided with the decision to convert the four older SSBNs. Between these two initiatives, a variety of new options have emerged to enhance submarine operations of the future. Some of these options can be netted together to provide entirely new levels of situational awareness and operational effectiveness.

Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs)

Concepts for UUVs span the range of imagination. Both the Navy and industry have used UUVs-primarily vehicles connected to a manned platform via a tether-for years. The emphasis has been on communications and reconnaissance. More recently, research and development has expanded to include mine hunting capabilities, advanced intelligence gathering, high speed data transmission and logistics support.

In the recent Giant Shadow experiment with SSBN USS FLORIDA, the U.S. Navy demonstrated several of these missions using a large, autonomous UUV called SEAHORSE. More than 28 feet long and three feet wide, this experimental vehicle was launched from the SSBN and went on to both detect mines and ferry supplies between FLORIDA and special operations forces ashore.

SEAHORSE plotted a course through a simulated minefield using forward searching sonars. A smaller UUV, about the size of a torpedo employing similar technology is currently being deployed to the attack submarine fleet. The Long-Term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS) has a forward and side searching sonar that scans both the bottom and the water ahead. The information can be relayed back to the submarine through a radio-frequency link or stored aboard the UUV.

With the information provided by mine-plotting UUVs, submarines as well as surface ships can plot a course to avoid mines. Submarines once again provide the ideal platform for such an activity where secrecy is desired. Covertly deployed special forces or small UUVs could silently de-activate mines and maintain operational surprise for early-entry forces. Taken together, these technologies allow the preparation of safe transit routes for American vessels without the potential adversary ever being aware of the activity.

A derivative of the LMRS called the mission-reconfigurable unmanned undersea vehicle, or MRUUV, is being designed to exploitthis underwater capability for missions beyond mine-hunting. By changing the sensor packages on the MRUUV, the vehicle can be adapted to best support the overall mission of the submarine carrying it. The MRUUV will be capable of clandestine intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance. The first MRUUV will be operational in fiscal year 2007. An even larger vehicle, two to four times larger than the MRUUV could be deployed by 2010. This vehicle would dock to a SSN, or could be carried inside a SSGN missile tube. Possible missions include launching UA Vs and smaller UUVs.

Anti-Submarine Warfare

Already a top priority for the U.S. Navy, the ASW mission will only increase in importance as modern diesel-electric submarine technology continues to proliferate. Today 12 countries other than the United States produce submarines. Most of these are U.S. allies, but many export their products to third parties. About 40 countries operate a total of 300 submarines worldwide. The capabilities of these forces vary a great deal, but several represent current and growing challenges for the United States, especially when operated in the complex environment of the littorals where interferences such as currents and shipping undermine acoustic signal processing.

The Littoral ASW (LASW) program within the Office of Naval Research serves as a focus for the Science and Technology efforts to counter these evolving threats to American power projection from the sea. The program is developing technologies to better locate, characterize and neutralize diesel electric submarines as well as other enemy capabilities such as UUVs. While SSNs are just one of the ASW platfonns in the U.S. arsenal (others include surface ships and aircraft), once again their covert nature allows only submarines to perfonn the ASW mission at all times and under all circumstances.


Building on the success of the Anny Tactical Missile System (ATAMS), the Navy has put together an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration designed to test naval adaptations of this system. A submarine launched version, planned for deployment later in the decade, will have the ability to carry a penetrating warhead for use against hard and deeply buried targets such as underground storage or command and control bunkers, or area munitions for softer, mobile targets.

A key advantage of the semi-ballistic missile system is its speed once launched. With advanced targeting technologies, an ATACMS-type missile can reach a target up to 250 miles inland within 10 minutes. ln the case of targets like mobile missile launchers, which may be active-and thus observable-for only a short while, time is of the essence.


The stealth, endurance, firepower and special operations capabilities of the newest American submarines are truly remarkable. However, their full contribution to joint operations in both peacetime and in conflict cannot be realized without effective communication links. In this new era of rapid decision-making based on real-time intelligence and targeting chat rooms, the Silent Service must be an integral part of the force network.

The Navy’s Forcenet initiative intends to join together all naval sensors, platforms, command and control and data bases in an overarching information network to support joint operations. Submarines must, and can, be a part of this naval-wide network. The new high data rate antennas used by U.S. submarines during Operation Iraqi Freedom proved that submarines can be on the net, sending and receiving large amounts ofinformation in real-time. The Giant Shadow exercise with FLORIDA networked a P-3 aircraft, acting as a surrogate Global Hawk UA V, small UA Vs like the SCAN EAGLE and SEAHORSE UUV, allowing Navy special operations forces operating from the submarine to successfully complete their mock mission to destroy weapons of mass destruction.

Weapons of Choice

The future threat environment facing the United States is murky at best. It is clear the global war on terrorism will continue for some time, and regional conflicts or imminent threats will emerge. What isn’t clear is where or when these things will happen. Keeping their consequences as far from the U.S. homeland as possible will be a key objective. In this environment, forward deployed forces with the stealth, persistence and capability inherent in submarines are destined to prove essential. Whether defending the homeland, deterring aggression overseas, or participating decisively in combat, submarines will continue to be a weapon of choice. Decades of commitment and investment have given America an overwhelming advantage in submarine technology, and continuing commitment and investment will ensure that advantage extends for decades.

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