Technology, Budget Constraints Tug at New "plug and play" Virginia-class submarines

(c) K.B. Sherman, 2003

The US Navy’s new Virginia-class guided missile sub (SSGN) is experiencing simultaneous technological praise and cost criticism. Being built to be the Navy’s first 21st century attack submarine and a specialist in littoral warfare support, it will replace the older Los Angeles-class boats. The construction contract for the first four Virginia-class submarines was awarded on September 30, 1998, to Electric Boat Corporation, with Newport News Shipbuilding serving as the major subcontractor.

In July, RADM John Butler, the Navy's program executive officer for submarines, gave an interview in which he said the Navy is investigating a novel modular system that could make Virginias "plug and play" boats. He said he foresees at least a half-dozen different types of modules that could be installed and deinstalled almost overnight by a sub tender, away from land, with no need to dry-dock the boat for weeks or months at a cost of millions of dollars. According to Maria Zacharias, spokesperson for the Naval Sea Systems Command, design work for specific concepts has not begun. Consequently, there are no definitive details available and while any large modular approach would likely require modification to the current Virginia design, the particulars of the required modifications remain to be determined. The Multi Mission Module (MMM) concept, initially put forth by Electric Boat, is one approach to incorporating "flexible payload modules" into Virginia.

That said, the Navy is discussing modular payload options for the Virginia-class which might include at least six variants: intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition; special operations forces (SOF) support; strike weapons; undersea communications and sensor network systems; unmanned air vehicles (UAVs); and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). Adapting the Trident D-5 missile tubes to be placed in a compartment aft of the sail on the Virginia might accomplish this. A technology that would allow such modular work to be done within a modified, U-shaped pressure hull should be available within the next five to ten years. The other critical element in such a scheme involves 100% dependable data transfer and communications between the sub’s command and the mission modules, probably along fiber optic cables. The Virginia’s vertical missile launch system (VLS) would permit future installation of such weapons as a navalized version of the 160-mile range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). The torpedo tubes will support launch and recovery of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), such as the Long-Term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS), or the deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

While there are no plans yet to issue an RFP for this development, NAVSEA notes that there is a potential Congressional funding plus-up for FY04 that would be utilized to further explore the concept. Electric Boat Corporation as the design agent for the Virginia- class would be the prime. Some of the proposed payloads would also be retrofitted to some Los Angeles- and Seawolf-class boats.

Such a modular mission configuration is tentatively planned for the Batch 2 Virginias, starting with hull 9 or 10 in about 2012. A total of thirty SSN-774-class boats were planned as of FY04. The 377-foot, 7,800 ton, nuclear-powered, electric-drive USS Virginia is scheduled to be commissioned in 2004.

And while the Soviet Union may be gone, a black cloud on the horizon still threatens current plans for the Virginia-class. The plan to buy seven new Virginias through a five-year contract suffered a setback in July when Senate appropriators limited the multiyear buy to five boats. The Senate action comes just as the Navy and industry are finalizing a contract for the Virginia-class buy that supporters say will generate savings of $155 million per ship through 2008 — a savings of more than $1 billion. Since the cost per boat decreases the more are built at any one time, this latest development is probably at best only a short-term savings in the war against terrorism.