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Navy Preparing for Next-Generation Attack Submarine SSN(X) Decisions in 2024

Sailors man the rails as they bring the ship to life during the commissioning ceremony for the Virginia-class attack submarine USS John Warner (SSN-785) at Naval Station Norfolk on Aug. 1, 2015. US Navy photo.

Sailors man the rails as they bring the ship to life during the commissioning ceremony for the Virginia-class attack submarine USS John Warner (SSN-785) at Naval Station Norfolk on Aug. 1, 2015. US Navy photo.

Though the Virginia-class attack submarine program (SSN-774) is still going strong, delivering boats ahead of schedule and below original cost estimates, the Navy needs to start planning the next generation of attack submarines soon, according to the program executive office for submarines.

PEO Subs executive director George Drakeley said last week at the annual Naval Submarine League symposium that an analysis of alternatives for the next-generation sub, or SSN(X), would take place in 2024.

To prepare for that milestone, PEO Subs has created a future capabilities group to begin studying what the operating environment might look like in the 2050 timeframe, what technologies submarines would require to be successful in that environment, and what enablers the research and development community can start working on now to set up the future program for success, he said.

“We’re already putting together a team to look at, what does the future submarine after Virginia need to look like? This is looking forward just as the Ohio Replacement Program is looking forward, but it’s important that we do this now,” Drakeley said.
“We need to identify the technologies that we’re going to need out in the future years in the attack submarine business. … This is going to be a submarine that will have to be better integrated with [unmanned underwater vehicles] and other sensors and other capabilities that we maybe haven’t even thought of yet.”

In 2013 the Navy expanded the Virginia class from a 30-boat program to 48, which now puts the last Virginia-class sub at delivering in 2034, he said. The SSN(X) analysis of alternatives will take place in 2024, the authorization for the lead ship in the new class will happen in 2034, and the new class will reach initial operational capability in 2044, according to current PEO Subs plans.

Starting the SSN(X) discussion nearly a decade ahead of the AoA will help ensure that mature technologies and design tools are ready when the program starts, which reduces risk and cost; will help the Navy understand the impact of external factors and other programs on the SSN(X) design and mission; and build affordability into the program, Drakeley said during his presentation.

For example, he said the program will need to understand how the Navy expects the submarine to interact with off-board assets, and whether a single design can meet all mission needs or whether a mixed-class approach might be more appropriate.

On the Virginia class, the Navy is about to deliver the third Block III sub, Illinois (SSN-786), later this year. Block III included a 20-percent design change and is still expected to deliver in 66 months, compared to the 84 months for the first block of boats. The service has already authorized several of the Block IV boats, which will begin delivering in 2019 and will boast increased operational availability and decreased total ownership cost. Block V, which will include the Virginia Payload Module, is in the design phase now and will be authorized beginning in Fiscal Year 2019.

  • Rob C.

    It’s good their making progress. I wasn’t ware they were expanding production run of the Virginia Class to 48 though. Hopefully the costs will stay well within manageable range. The UIS Submarine program has been always lucky in those regards, given that the Seawolf took blunt of the development costs off the shoulders of the Virginia Class Probram.

    • sferrin

      When you fund things consistently, instead of dicking around with the budget every year, great things can happen to production efficiency.

      • Tired_Libertarian

        The way that the government budget is treated companies have absolutely no chance of predicting and planning for production cycles. Billions of dollars are wasted by on again-off again weapons research programs that are supposed to be amortize across many combat units only to have the number slashed and the cost per unit go through the roof.
        Too many politicians playing political football with national security.

  • NavySubNuke

    Last VA in 2034, first authorization for SSN(X) in 2034 with IOC in 2044 —-> that seems to leave a 10 year gap in SSN deliveries.
    I recognize we will have the OHIO Replacements in full production then so the industrial base can weather the storm but any plan that leaves us with a 10 year gap in SSN deliveries seems foolish from a force structure standpoint.
    Particularly since you will start retiring VA SSNs in 2037 (assuming a 33 year service life). So if we build 48 VA’s and don’t get SSN(X) until 2044 we will drop to 40 SSNs since SSN-774 – SSN781 will all retire in 2037-2044 (again assuming 33 year service life).

    • bobbymike34

      I don’t think that necessarily means we have stopped building Virginias but I could be wrong.

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  • bobbymike34

    Although ideally I would increase the ship building budget, if that wasn’t possible I would trade a carrier for 6+ more Virginias. The incredible underwater expertise we possess is a major asymmetrical warfighting advantage for the US.

    I would also take the final 4 or 6 Ohio’s to be retired and covert to SSGNs but add hypersonic and/or prompt global strike systems to them like ATK’s once proposed SLIRBM.