Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Mr. Patrick Bevins has 35 years experience in submarine operations and design, and is currently the Program lead/or future submarine rolls and missions at General Dynamics Electric Boat. CAPT Karl Hasslinger, USN(Ret) is a former attack submarine commander who is now the Director of Washington Operations/or General Dynamics Electric Boat.

The Virginia-Class submarine is the first warship designed completely on computers, and the first U.S. Navy ship designed for post-Cold War security challenges. For General Dynamics Electric Boat, the lead design yard, VIRG INIA represents the culmination of more than a century of submarine innovation. The legacy of innovation that helped Electric Boat to deliver the Navy’s first submarine, the Navy’s first welded-hull submarine, the Navy’s first nuclear submarine and the Navy’s first ballistic missile submarine remains firmly imbedded in the culture at Electric Boat, and will help ensure U.S. dominance in undersea warfare for decades to come.

A History of Submarine Design and Innovation Leadership

In 1952 Captain Hyman Rickover approached Electric Boat with his vision for a nuclear powered submarine after another shipyard told him it was impossible. Having built the Navy’s first submarine in 1900 and many more during two World Wars, Electric Boat enthusiastically accepted the challenge. When USS NAUTILUS went lo sea in 1955 it was the world’s only real submarine, possessing unprecedented submerged endurance even while operating at high speed. It was a technological marvel that immediately supplanted all anti-submarine warfare platforms, tactics and weapons.

In the years after NAUTILUS the Navy engaged in what can only be described as an era of heady experimentation. It built nuclear submarines with new hull forms, propulsion plants, sensors and even new mission capabilities in rapid succession. While the Submarine Force was still experimenting with NAUTILUS, Electric Boat inserted a large missile section into a follow-on SSN already under construction and created the world’s first SSBN. Armed with 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads, USS GEORGE WASHINGTON was by far the most powerful ship afloat. Once underway, it was nearly impossible to locate, making the SSBN the most survivable leg of the U.S. strategic triad-a distinction that endures today.

At the other end of the mission spectrum Electric Boat designed and built the tiny Submarine NR- 1, the world’s first nuclear powered research submarine. Her small but powerful reactor freed her from the endurance restrictions that batteries imposed on conventional submersibles. She carried no weapons, but for decades she crawled along the seabed conducting valuable search and recovery, oceanographic research missions and the installation and maintenance of underwater equipment.

Throughout the Cold War, Electric Boat designed and built numerous follow-on attack and ballistic missile submarines. Most were members of large classes, but some were unique efforts to experiment with new capabilities. Ships such as TULLIBEE, NARWHAL, LIPSCOMB and TRITON were prototypes that pioneered new sonar arrays, passive ranging capabilities, propulsion systems and machinery quieting techniques that today’s submariners take for granted.

Overall, of 19 U.S . nuclear submarine classes, Electric Boat designed and built 15 of them. 0 f note, the recently commissioned USS HAW All (SSN 776) has the distinction of being the 1OOth nuclear powered submarine built by General Dynamics Electric Boat. HAW All is also the third ship of the Virginia class. While significantly more capable than NAUTILUS, this class shares a proud heritage of design innovation.

Electric Boat, or EB as it is known among its employees, didn’ t have a monopoly on good ideas. But there is a unique innovative spirit at EB that is based in the company’s culture. For more than a century, EB designs have set trends or shifted paradigms perhaps not an unexpected outcome for a company formed by a group of people who had confidence in a small submersible vessel that was little more than a curiosity to naval officers at the time.

Culture and Organization Matter – Management consultants often say that culture trumps strategy, meaning that an organization is more likely to go where its culture guides it than where management directs. Without a culture of free thinking, an organization won’t produce innovative designs or solutions just because it is directed to do so. EB has endured because innovation and creativity arc valued and remain a way of life as part of the company’s inherent culture. Between 1952 and 1963 the Navy invested heavily in submarine designs, averaging almost two new or modified designs per year. But, when the Polaris program design was completed, the pace slowed and a now-larger EB found itself looking for more work. In response, management created the Advanced Engineering and Program Development department to focus on new submarine concepts as well as commercial applications the company’s skilled workforce could pursue. The new department comprised engineers of various disciplines, naval architects, operations analysis personnel and even a financial analyst, all led by an engineering program manager.

The department’s first submarine effort was the Undersea Long-range Missile System (ULMS) study that eventually produced the OHIO class SSBN. Commercial ideas included nuclear power plants encapsulated in submarine-like hulls and operated on the seabed to avoid land based safety and security problems. Another commercial application was the design of nuclear powered submarine tankers to ship oil from Alaska to the cast coast via polar routes. While economically feasible, it would have taken tremendous capital and the project didn’t gain momentum as fast as the competing Alaska pipeline.

In the late 1960s the Advanced Engineering and Program Development department morphed into the Concept Formulation or CONFORM (accent on the first syllable) group. The term co11cept formulation came from a stage of defense program development introduced by then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his systems analysis experts. However, unlike the dictionary definition of conform, the CONFORM group at EB has been responsible for some of the company’s most revolutionary and non-conforming submarine and undersea warfare concepts.

CONFORM-The earliest CONFORM efforts focused on attack submarine improvements including greater speed, acoustic isolation of machinery, external weapons, alternative control surface configurations like the X-stern, and the elimination of the fair water structure to reduce drag and noise. While some of these innovations weren’t used, in each case EB personnel increased their understanding of esoteric disciplines vital to good submarine designs such as acoustic quieting, shock mitigation and hydrodynamics. Other studies included Dry Deck Shelters and Swimmer Delivery Vehicles, improved propulsion machinery performance and vertical launch systems for cruise missiles.

Coincident with its design work, CONFORM developed tools and processes that supported its enduring success. Among them arc publications listing ship characteristics and power requirements for various hull configurations. These arc useful references for naval architects assessing early concepts for new designs. Also, CON-FORM developed a design process that extends beyond a single innovation and mandates a whole-ship integration review. Working with the Navy, CONFORM developed a software program, called SUBCODE that allows new ideas to be evaluate d quickly but also thoroughly for their overall effects on a submarine’s characteristics and operating parameters. These design tools and processes provide EB and Navy decision makers with a high degree of technical credibility and confidence in the results.

Among its many new ship designs CONFORM evaluated new hull forms and other innovations to increase submarine payload capacity. This effort in particular led lo some of the most unusual designs. In the mid 1990s an elliptical hull form was evaluated. Flat-Fish as it was referred to, provided more useful payload space at reduced navigational draft however it had several disadvantages that kept the idea on hold.

Other non-traditional concepts included a very large payload module that would be towed behind an attack submarine to a forward location. Once in position it would take station on the seabed where it would wait for firing commands. Towed modules could break the relationship between submarine size and payload capacity. They could increase submarine payload capacity by an order of magnitude and could even be deployed by legacy ships that make-up the majority of the submarine fleet. One early concept was a strike module that carried over 250 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Later concepts looked at tandem tows of smaller modules that would be dropped off at different locations to enhance their survivability. Concepts like this could change traditional deployment timelines by providing Combatant Commanders with a stealthy, survivable, high volume fire capability that could strike immediately and from close-in positions with no risk to operators. There would be no delay waiting for traditional platforms to take station in launch baskets. And adversaries would not have time to shelter or relocate high value personnel or systems, further enhancing the effectiveness of the strike. The advent of the SSGN however has temporarily reduced the value of such concepts due to its significant payload capacity.

During the late 1990s CONFORM supported a major Submarine Force effort to look at extending a submarine’s sensor reach. Deployed or leave-behind sensors placed on the seabed, and sensor packages carried by unmanned aerial and undersea vehicles were all evaluated for compatibility with submarine designs. Studies concluded that submarines using off-board payloads can monitor and influence significantly greater areas than any planned improvement to traditional hull or mast mounted sensors.

Software Development Is a Key Aspect of 2111 Century Designs

When the Cold War ended abruptly, the Seawolf attack submarine program was cancelled just as it was moving into production. The Navy wanted a smaller, more affordable submarine that could operate in the world’s littoral areas where conflict was presumed to be more likely. In response, EB designed the Virginia class attack submarine with multi-mission capability but optimized for littoral warfare. And while Virginia represents a leap forward in undersea warfare capability, EB pioneered innovative design and construction processes that are themselves worthy of discussion.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of VJRGINIA ‘s design was the decision to eliminate a mockup. In the past, EB would build full scale wooden mockups so engineers and designers could visualize sections of the ship and installed systems. With VIRGIN IA, this visualization is done electronically. The Electronic Visualization System (EVS) allowed engineers, equipment suppliers, builders, maintenance personnel and Navy representatives to work collaboratively and update the overall design. This state-of-the-art system provided not only visualization, but also tools to ensure equipment movement didn’t interfere with structures and allowed for the safe passage of personnel. The EVS software enhanced EB ‘s design capability and reduced labor hours required to complete it, not lo mention the cost avoided by not having to build or maintain mockups. By the end of the Virginia class design process, the drafting table and t-square had been replaced by a computer screen and a mouse.

Another important advance in VIRGINIA ‘s design was enhanced automation supporting crew reduction. Sailors are expensive: crew size dictates messing and berthing arrangements as well as equipment capacities for making fresh water, storing and cooking food and even air conditioning. Also, the crew occupies space that could otherwise increase payload capacity. Moreover, personnel costs arc a major factor in today’s Navy. For all these reasons crew reduction is a worthy goal that makes advances in automation essential.

EB stepped up to this challenge and proposed aggressive but reasoned crew reductions, with automated ship control being the best example. The traditional submarine ship control party included a Diving Officer of the Watch, Chief of the Watch, Helmsman, Planesman, and Lee Helmsman. On Virginia class submarines those positions were consolidated into a two-man team: Pilot and Co-Pilot. This change broke a 100-year paradigm where the ship’s control surfaces were directly controlled by mechanical linkages and/or hydraulic actuators in the hands of crew members. On Virginia, they arc controlled by computers or a joystick, but in each case commands arc sent lo control surface actuators electronically in a fly-by-wire system. Just like modern aircraft and the space shuttle, the system required tremendous reliability and much improved visualization systems so that two men could stay abreast of the ship’s status and operate systems formerly controlled by five. In order to develop these systems, EB had to move into another new technology area: software development.

EB ‘s software development group now manages multiple programs related lo the development, refinement and maintenance of computer code that supports automated ship control systems on OHIO class ballistic missile submarines, guided missile submarines and Virginia attack submarines. Its internally developed software code also contributes to design systems, weapons and payload handling, the integration of wireless technologies in submarine systems, vehicle monitoring and control systems, non-lactical data processing and simulation systems. Software development is a natural follow-on that has allowed EB to keep pace in an information-based world.

Construction Process Improvements-In addition to improved submarine design methods, EB has continued to pioneer modular construction processes that reduce labor hours and drive out cost. Highly automated material storage, retrieval, cutting, coating, movement and welding systems have made its Quonset Point facility a world class, state-of-the-art manufacturing complex. Submarine hull cylinders now leave Quonset Point in excess of 90 percent complete-including major foundations, heavy equipment, piping, wiring and even lighting systems. These process enhancements arc still ongoing and are helping to further reduce construction time. Whereas early ships of the Virginia class were assembled from I 0 hull sections, today they are assembled from only four sections as large as 1,800 tons. This process improvement not only reduced labor hours at the building yard, but also contributed significantly to reducing planned construction time from more than 100 months originally, towards a goal of 60 months.

A highly successful capability that resulted from new modular construction techniques was the Command-and-Control Off-Hull Assembly and Test Site (COATS). Located in the shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, this facility allows each new ship’s command and control module-the control room with all its combat systems to be assembled and tested outside the ship, while other construction activities arc taking place. This permits an entirely new sequence of construction events. Previously, command and control systems were completed in the latter part of the construction sequence, often making them the controlling path for sea trials. Now, command and control systems are tested early, allowing time to identify and correct deficiencies without impacting schedules. It also allows crewmembers to train on the actual system their ship will go to sea with-it’s not a simulator. A refresh prior to sea trials ensures the ship has the latest software updates. As a result of this process, commissioning crews go to sea so skilled in the operation of the ship that VIRGINIA and HAW All have conducted real-world missions during what was supposed to be a shakedown period.

DARPA Hard Projects-In the first years of the 2 I ” century CONFORM provided innovative solutions to some technically challenging problems posed by the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency or DARPA. DARPA prides itself on taking on only the most challenging problems, those it considers DARPA-Hard. Under the Tango Bravo program DARPA challenged participants to identify technology barriers (thus the acronym Tango Bravo) to reducing the displacement, and thereby cost, of nuclear submarines. CONFORM responded in true fashion and developed two ship designs that replaced higher cost systems with innovative alternatives. Specifically, EB identified several aspects of current submarine designs as cost drivers including the sonar sphere, mechanical drive line components, the torpedo room, and manning. DARPA embraced EB’s concepts and funded follow-on studies to develop external weapons, shaft-less propulsion, and a large bow sonar array in place of the current sonar sphere.

Leveraging the Tango Bravo work, EB proposed radical changes to the Virginia class submarine bow arrangement for Block III and follow-on ships. The new bow has a Large Aperture Bow array in place of the traditional sonar sphere. Now, instead of the sonar sphere and twelve vertical launch tubes (VLS), there will be two larger Vertical Payload Tubes (VPTs) similar to those in OHIO class ships. The VPT arrangement breaks the tyranny of the 21 inch torpedo tube or VLS tube as the only ocean interface on an attack submarine. With that change, new payloads developed for SSGN can be exploited by Block Ill and later Virginia class attack submarines, enhancing their relevance to combatant commanders. Potential payloads include large, high-endurance unmanned undersea vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, special operations support vehicles, a range of strike weapons and ocean engineering apparatus. The sequence of conceptualization, studies, engineering and design work leading lo funded at-sea hardware, or “concepts to capabilities” is an EB hallmark.

Into the Future – Throughout the company, designers and engineers combine creativity with rigorous analysis and engineering discipline to enhance submarine design, construction and life cycle support capabilities. Shipbuilders continue to refine every aspect of the construction process, while engineers and designers are working on far-reaching programs such as the DA RP A sponsored shaft-less propulsion system, and conceptual studies for a follow-on ballistic missile submarine to replace OHIO class ships when they retire.

Other undersea warfare technologies and operational concepts arc being studied as well, including very-high-speed vehicles based on super cavitation phenomenon. Super cavitation has enabled small vehicles like torpedoes to travel at hundreds of knots underwater. With DARPA sponsorship, EB is now looking at using similar technology to propel other undersea vehicles. Hundreds of concepts for future submarines and other undersea warfare systems line the walls of the CONFORM War Room at EB. This gallery contains everything from electric toilets with no plumbing to submarine launched satellites and radically different hull forms. When the Navy calls for a new submarine or spiral improvements to existing ships, there will be no lack of ideas.

EB continues its focus on undersea warfare innovation and its relentless drive for quality and more efficient design-build processes. At the heart of its undersea warfare innovation effort is the small but powerful CONFORM organization that serves as an idea incubator for follow-on programs. The company leadership has continued to invest in overhead functions like CONFORM and also in identifying and recruiting the right people across the company and providing them with an environment that values creativity over conformity. Innovation has flourished at Electric Boat because it is an enduring part of the company’s culture. It is a place where talented individuals arc challenged by difficult problems, and can contribute to ensuring that the U.S. Navy maintains its pre-emi-nence in Undersea Warfare.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League