Mr. Hamilton is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. A member of the League, he has kept himself abreast of activities with the submarine community. As a member of the working press he was embeded in submarines during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
When you walk into the control room of USS VIRGINIA, it’s hard to believe you’re in a submarine. No periscopes, no helmsman and planesman stations, no levers and switches to fill and flush the ballast tanks, and very little of the functional but unattractive mil-spec electronic equipment. The changes underscore the fact that this submarine represents as dramatic a change in undersea warfare as has been seen since USS HOLLAND 105 years ago.
In the week before it was ushered into the fleet in October, VIRGINIA made a leisurely three-day cruise from Groton, Conn., to Norfolk, Va., and for the second time in my career as a reporter I got a chance to spend some underway time, pre-commissioning, on a first-of-a-kind submarine (I spent several days on USS SEA WOLF in 1997 traveling from Port Canaveral, Fla., to Groton).
Where SEA WOLF was palpably powerful, VIRGINIA is subtle and sophisticated (though still robust by any other undersea standard). With the ability to carry a mix of 38 missiles and torpedoes, VIRGINIA has a smaller payload than SEA WOLF, but it has a lockout trunk that will allow it to deploy up to nine commandoes and can carry the Advanced Swimmer Delivery System, so it will be able to get the intelligence it needs to place those weapons with pinpoint accuracy.
VIRGINIA is reported to be slower than SEA WOLF, but it has precision of control that will allow it to perform missions in the littorals that would be challenging for any other submarine. VIRGINIA also cannot dive as deep, but the Navy acknowledges it can operate at depths greater than 800 feet, so it’s going to have no trouble finding the thermal layers it needs to hide with pride .
Captain David J. Kem said he has noticed VIRGINIA tends to be more stable surfaced than the 688-class submarines it will replace, and as someone who has served on four of the older boats, and commanded one of them, his opinion carries some weight. In addition, VIRGINIA tends to plane a bit as it drives through the water, giving it a smoother ride than older boats that tend to push down and take more water over the bow, he said. On the trip to its namesake state, VIRGINIA ran into some rough weather on the way out of Groton and on the way into Norfolk with chop of up to 10 feet, but there was a barely noticeable roll inside.
Most submariners had some reservations when they learned that VIRGINIA would have a fly-by-wire computerized control system that you operate with a joystick instead of a steering yoke, giving it more the look of a cockpit than a control room -in fact, the terms helmsman andpla11esman, have been replaced by pilot and co-pilot.
On previous classes of submarines, two of the most junior enlisted people on board handled the helm and plane steering-wheel type controls, while two more senior people sat behind them and made sure they did it properly. On VIRGINIA, two senior enlisted people use joysticks to drive the ship. Senior Chief Torpedoman Joseph Blackwell said that eliminated two positions in the normally crowded control room. And it gets the young people to work through their qualifications more rapidly.
“It allows them to get into their divisions, it allows them to go do the job they were trained to do,” Blackwell said. “If the Navy is paying them to be mechanic, they should be a mechanic.”
Chief Fire Control Technician Damon Rubin admits he was a bit wary, even after several trips to a simulator that showed it working just fine.
“We still weren’t going to be convinced until we could get it to sea and see for ourselves that it operated as good as the trainer,” Rubin said. “It turned out it operated even better.”
In the past submarines have relied primarily on speed and planes to reach and maintain depth, gliding through the water and angling the planes up to rise, down to submerge. But operating with Special Forces, a submarine has to be nearly dead in the water for them to enter or exit the boat. VIRGINIA has solved the dilemma with a hovering system that allows maneuvering at speeds of less than 2 knots. A series of pumps can move up to 350 pounds of water a second to raise or lower the ship and keep it steady even in rough seas. At one point in sea trials it maintained its depth to within about six inches while at periscope height-for 90 minutes.
“There isn’t a 68 8 in the fleet that could do something like that, even with the best planesman in the world,” said Chief of the Boat Casey White. “Computers don’t get tired or distracted. More than 7 ,000 tons of steel and a guy with a joystick can lock it right in the water.”
On the trip from Connecticut to Virginia, Kern gave the order to go from 200 to 300 feet while maintaining just two knots of forward movement. Rubin maneuvered a barely moving VIRGINIA 100 feet down through the water, on an even keel, stopping within two inches of the 300-foot depth, the computer filling and emptying ballast tanks to accomplish the task in about three minutes.
Kern said as submarines move more and more into the littorals, the key question has changed from “how fast can you go and how deep can you dive?” to “how slow can you go and how well can you maintain your position?” VIRGINIA is going to enable the Submarine Force to answer, “We’ 11 go as slow as you want, and hold it rock solid in the water column.”
“We’ve always had depth control on submarines, but we’ve never had the fine control we have with this system,” Kern said.
VIRGINIA also has built on the lessons the Navy learned building the Seawolf class, with control surfaces that allow it to maneuver tightly at any speed, and at any heading. Sonar Technician l 11 Class Daniel Braman, who has qualified as a copilot on VIRGINIA, said during sea trials the ship was put through several high-speed turns to see how it would react.
“We tried to get it into a snap roll, and it just wouldn’t do it,” said Braman.
The Submarine Force has a history of being pretty conservative about accepting new technology, particularly in areas such as ship control, preferring systems that have proven to be safe over many years. But submariners seem to have embraced the radical changes of VIRGINIA. Machinist Mate 1st Class Robert Arsego, the auxiliary division leading petty officer who is also qualified as a pilot, said the extraordinary capabilities that VIRGINIA has delivered have won over most.
“I know the ship control system has gone through a lot of testing, and I know they wouldn’t put it out there if it wasn’t safe,” Arsego said. “It’s a lot different. There’s no force feedback like you get with a yoke, for instance. But once you get used to it, you can make it do anything.
VJRGINIA’s ability to deploy Special Forces has also improved significantly. It is the first submarine with a special chamber that will allow up to nine commandoes with full gear to exit the submarine while it is submerged, and it is designed to deploy with a special mini-submarine for special missions. It is the first submarine with the capability to recharge SEALS’ scuba tanks, and a hot-air blower to dry their gear when they get back to the boat.
“This is going to be SEAL heaven,” White said. “It was built to take those guys to sea, help them do their mission, and bring them back safe. This ship is going to make its money in the littorals. In the global war on terror, we have to go places we’ve never gone before, and this ship is going to be able to do it.”
Long-time submariners are no doubt going to be more shocked by what is missing in the control room, however. Gone are the twin periscopes in the control room, which have long been probably the most recognizable feature of any class of submarine (sometimes the only familiar feature in a Hollywood submarine when directors take too much liberty with the layout). They have been replaced with a new photonics mast that can be raised and lowered from the sail, which uses a video camera to capture images from the surface and relay them via cable to television monitors in the control room, where the junior officer of the deck can scan the horizon and snap hundreds of still images or high-quality video with the click of a button on a joystick.
That has freed submarine designers to put the control room where it makes sense, rather than right below the sail where the periscope entered the hull. It also means no hole in the hull for the scope, long a source of potential leaks into the “people tank.”
More important, the new photonics system incorporates an infrared imaging system, which gives a monochromatic image as clear as daylight even on night with solid cloud cover; and a laser rangefinder that automatically calculates the distance to whatever it’s pointed at.
“You can actually see people smoking topside on the surface ships you pass from quite a ways off,” said Blackwell. “Infrared is wonderful.” Combined with the laser, it’s an impressive new capability that will help to avoid collisions at sea, which can ruin any sailor’s day. More important, in a combat situation that ability to sneak up on a target at night, and know the exact range and bearing, is going to give VIRGINIA a significant edge,
Gone also from this ship is the traditional sonar shack, typically a separate room right off control, because sonar, radar and weapons control are all managed from three dozen large touchscreens in the control room of this highly computerized submarine.
VIRGINIA was designed to be at least as quiet as the SEA WOLF, a goal that has been achieved, multiple Navy officials have said, and even with a smaller reactor it is supposed to be nearly as fast, because of improvements in its propulsor design and its hydrodynamics.
VIRGINIA will also be reliable, White said, with some of the critical systems having three backups, a level of redundancy that should allow it to come through even a serious combat situation with its capabilities intact.
VIRGINIA also boasts one of the quietest torpedo launching systems in the world.
“When I stand in control, if someone flushes the head in the forward berthing areas, that makes more noise than firing a torpedo,” Kem said. “And by the way, when we were doing sound tests I made sure flushing the head was undetectable also,” he added with a smile. Other quieting improvements have also been incorporated, he said.
“Some of our biggest pumps and motors are so quiet, you can rest your hand on them and can’t tell if they’re running,” Kem said.
The three-day trip was consumed with drills, as the men of VIRGINIA rush to learn the capabilities of the ship. One advantage they had was that the entire VIRGINIA command module was constructed in a building at the north end of the Electric Boat shipyard a year before it was installed on the boat, and tested there under conditions so real that most of the navigation team earned preliminary certification at their job, and the weapons and sonar divisions were able to get experience as well.
“We made sure they all knew the systems there, before they came down here and had to do it for real, and it made a huge difference,” said Senior Chief Electronics Technician Bradley Johnston. That’s an advantage the crew needed, because the Submarine Force has reduced the size of several departments as it simplified the systems. Blackwell, for instance, supervises just three men in the torpedo department, where five or six would have been needed on older boats.
So far, the smaller crew size seems to be working just fine. The leaky and temperamental hydraulic systems in the weapons room have been replaced with a network of electromagnetic actuators that move torpedoes or missiles from tray to tube, said the weapons officer, Lt. Joseph Santos. That eliminates a lot of maintenance and repair, and even if the motors break down a technician can move them manually with a 3/8-inch-drive socket set.
“It’s a lot easier to move weapons around the room, there’s a lot less maintenance, and it’s just a lot more user friendly,” said Machinist Mate 111 Class Shane Johnson. “I came on board, and learned the system so quickly, within two weeks I was training my younger guys on it. I’d go so far as to say it’s the best weapons-handling system in the fleet.”
Even more important is how quickly the entire torpedo rack system can be removed and replaced with alternate equipment. During sea trials, when the complement more than doubled with all the riders, the VIRGINIA crew removed the torpedo racks and set up a specially designed 50-person berthing setup in just an hour.
VIRGINIA was also designed to accommodate the vertical launching system for missiles that was backfit into the Los Angeles class of submarines that it will replace, so the controls are more logically laid out, easier to reach, and don’t share a space that is also used for spare parts storage.
In the machinery spaces, Machinist Mate l ‘1 Class Derrick Jones proudly showed off an oxygen generator designed to be started in just eight minutes, compared to 24 hours on the 688 where he worked last, and which operates at low pressure, which reduces the risk of explosions from hydrogen gas buildup.
Machinist Mate 1st Class Chris Frank said one of the improvements he appreciates most in the machinery spaces is the new 12-cylinder Caterpillar diesel that provides emergency power. For the first time the engines have preheaters that keep them ready to go on a moment’s notice, so the 30-minute startup process had been trimmed to about a minute.
Frank said one of the chief creature comfort improvements on VIRGINIA, though, has to be the toilets. Older submarines had a gravity system that required you flood the bowl, turn a valve to flush it, and then refill it. People new to the ship who tried to flush when the system was pressurized got an unpleasant surprise as the toilet spouted sewerage back at them. VIRGINIA has a vacuum system that is nearly foolproof.
White, the Chief of the Boat, said he’s also pleased so much thought went into making life easier for the sailors. On older boats as many as 80 men would share a common berthing area, which meant there was always someone coming or going, making noise that would keep others awake; on VIRGINIA, most men are berthed in l 2-and 18-man spaces, and some as few as three to a room.
Culinary Services Chief Frank Chandler said he has a kitchen about three times as large as on a 688, with a dining area that serves more men and is not part of the main passageway for the first time so they can eat in peace.
He also has storage room to bring aboard provisions for as much as l 00 days; on 688s, the only way to accomplish that is to cover the floors with food cans, and walk on them until you have eaten down the excess.
Considering the complexity of VIRGINIA, the crew seemed amazed at the minor problems they have encountered so far. The supply officer, Lt.j.g. Timothy Bartha, said on the computer design every spare part had a storage space, for instance.
“When we brought the stuff down here, though, we found some of it didn’t fit on the ship the same as it did on the computer,” Bartha said. So the crew quickly devised some temporary storage bins, and during a repair period after VIRGINIA’s first year at sea the storage systems will be fixed.
VIRGINIA incorporates some older technology as well, however, including some that was developed for 688s or the Seawolf class, he noted.
“We tried to focus all the VIRGINIA investment to where we would get the most bang for the buck, in making it quiet or improving its combat effectiveness or reducing its life cycle costs,” Kern said. “And we’re right on track.”
The manual backup valves that force high pressure air into the ballast tanks to send the submarine shooting to the service in an emergency are the same on VIRGINIA as have been installed on submarines for more than 30 years, White said.
“Some things they got right many years ago, and there’s no need to change them.”
But White also points out some bright orange cutouts in the walls between the berthing areas and the passageways, which can be quickly removed and are the right size to fit a fire hose through.
Those were backfit onto VIRGINIA when the crewmen realized a firefighter in full protective gear would have a tough time making it through the berthing area doors. The cutouts are being designed right into follow-on ships.
“That’s a good example of the guys on the deck plate working on the boat, figuring out a shortcoming, making a suggestion and then getting it fixed,” White said. “That’s the way things should work.”
Kern said one of the key advantages of VIRGINIA will be noticed in years to come, as modifications are introduced. Given the submarine’s modular design, new equipment can be added and old equipment taken off quickly. In fact, Congress has provided preliminary design funding for a multi-mission module that could be added to future flights of the Virginia class, a special hull insert that could be reconfigured over a weekend to whatever mission the submarine will undertake: missiles for a strike operation; unmanned underwater vehicles for coastal surveillance; a Special Forces compartment; and so on.
“I’m not sure we’re going to need another submarine class for a long time, because as needs change, as the technology changes, we can just keep adapting this one,” Kem said.
“Whether you’re talking about the performance of the propulsion plant, or the weapons, or the combat system, we are at the cutting edge of submarine technology,” Kern said. “But it’s not the technology that is going to win the war, it’s the sailor. We’re just putting the technology in their hands to go do that.”