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.