The submarine community is focused on maintaining access and boosting acoustic superiority after operating in relatively permissive environments for several years, two Navy officials told USNI News.
Director of Undersea Warfare Rear Adm. Charles Richard told USNI News in a March 22 interview that the submarine community knows how to operate in a stealthy mode, but “we’re not taking our stealth for granted and we’re not taking this competitive advantage we have for granted.”
To that end, he said, the Navy is building an upcoming Virginia-class attack submarine, the future USS South Dakota (SSN-790), with acoustic superiority features for the fleet to test out and ultimately include in both attack and ballistic missile submarines in the future.
Richard said the under-construction South Dakota will feature a large vertical array, a special coating and machinery quieting improvements inside the boat. The boat is on track to deliver early despite the changes, he said. Once South Dakota joins the fleet – in 2018, according to the boat’s commissioning committee – lessons learned from the acoustic superiority features will help inform enhancements built into future Virginia class boats and the Ohio Replacement Program boomers, as well as the legacy Ohio-class ballistic missile subs and some Virginia-class boats.
“Stealth is the cover charge, stealth is the price of admission, and while we have great access now we don’t take that for granted either,” Richard said.
“Making the right investments to maintain acoustic superiority over a potential adversary” is of high importance to the Navy today, and the South Dakota project represents “a clear national investment in acoustic superiority.”
Program Executive Officer for Submarines Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley told USNI News in a March 3 interview that acoustic superiority items, some of which will be built into the ship and some of which will be added during the ship’s post shakedown availability, “will kind of become the standard for what we do in various forms between Ohio Replacement, future Virginias and even backfit some on the Ohios and some of the delivered Virginias to make sure that submarine force is pacing the threat of these new highly capable submarines that are being delivered” from other navies like Russia and China.
Jabaley added that as the Navy looks at its next class of attack submarines, the SSN(X), stealth will be a key factor in the design and could lead to the Navy selecting an electric drive or other advanced propulsion system to eliminate as much noise as possible.
“I’m not just talking about the propeller or propulsor, it’s the whole propulsion system from power generation to motion through the water,” he said in the interview.
“How am I going to get beyond the limitations of a rotating set of blades and the unavoidable noise that I just can’t get below?”
Richard said that operational concepts were also important to maintaining a stealth advantage. The Navy is capable of operating in a stealthy manner but hasn’t had to in recent years, making it important for submariners to practice command and control in anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) type environments, where the submarine may not be able to report back up the chain of command to minimize its electromagnetic signature. Thinking about undersea warfare in the context of a peer competitor will help the Navy learn where submarines fit into various scenarios, whether it means getting into a restricted area and sharing information back to the fleet that other assets couldn’t access, or remaining stealthy and reporting back only after a mission is accomplished.