Home » Budget Industry » Navy Considering Mid-Block Virginia-Class Upgrades, SSGN Construction in Late 2030s

Navy Considering Mid-Block Virginia-Class Upgrades, SSGN Construction in Late 2030s

The Virginia-class attack submarine USS North Dakota (SSN-784) arrives at the Trident Refit Facility’s Magnetic Silencing Facility (MSF) in August 2017. US Navy photo.

The Navy has developed a Tactical Submarine Evolution Plan that looks at rapidly inserting capability upgrades into the Virginia-class attack submarine mid-contract and considers long-term undersea warfare priorities such as converting the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) production line into a guided-missile submarine (SSGN) line in the late 2030s.

The Navy’s Undersea Warfare Directorate (OPNAV N97) started the plan under previous director Vice Adm. Bill Merz, who now serves as the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems (OPNAV N9), and has been continued under current acting director Brian Howes.

Howes, speaking Thursday at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium, said the next iteration of the Virginia-class submarine program, Block V, begins in Fiscal Year 2019, but currently if a new capability were developed after the design is complete, it would have to wait to be fielded in the next Block VI in FY 2023.

“We need to have the opportunity to have mid-block insertions into our platforms,” he said.
Much like the Submarine Warfare Federated Tactical Systems that inserts combat upgrades into submarines every other year, Howes said the Tactical Submarine Evolution Plan (TSEP) would create “a ready menu of mature and maturing technology that we will insert when ready.”

Though headed by OPNAV N97, the Program Executive Office for Submarines and the Virginia class program office are involved and wholeheartedly onboard.

“There’s a continuous conveyor belt running, and developers who have an idea get on that conveyor belt, and if they can develop it and achieve the requisite reliability and producibility by the time that conveyor belt comes around for production then they can get into the next version … that’s going to be fielded. If they miss that one, then the conveyor belt goes back around again and they get another shot at it in two years,” PEO Subs Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley said at the conference of SWFTS and the Acoustics Rapid Commercial-off-the-shelf Insertion (ARCI) program that does the same thing on the computer processor side.
“So we want to try to implement that into shipbuilding. The time sequence is different of course – we’re somewhat constrained by five-year multiyear procurement contracts, and we have previously tried to hold to a tech baseline letter at the beginning of the block that says the most efficient way to build 10 ships, all per this plan. One of the things that the TSEP looks at is, under the [chief of naval operations]’s theme of getting faster, waiting five years to insert the next technological development may not be the best thing for us to do. So we’re willing to take risk, we’re willing to look at breakthrough technologies that come, and if it makes sense to insert them mid-block then we’re willing.”

This concept somewhat blurs the lines of future Blocks VI and VII and the eventual move to the SSN(X) attack sub program. The Virginia class has been upgraded in each block to improve manufacturing, reduce lifecycle costs, and add a mid-body Virginia Payload Module with additional missile tubes. Though two more iterations of upgrades are planned, the submarine community is finding they’re running out of space to add more capability.

“We are running out of design margin in this great platform, and there are some fleet needs which this platform cannot do. So as a result, under Adm. Merz’s leadership, we’ve started the discussion of how we’re going to leverage our block improvement conveyor belt to wring out as much as we can for future blocks of Virginia, while setting us up for success after Virginia,” Howes said. TSEP would identify “capabilities that we are going to demand our shipbuilders inject into this platform, and if it can’t be injected into this platform we’re going to design it into [SSN(X)].”

Jabaley said the Virginia program had already had its acquisition program baseline extended from 30 boats to the current 48, which the program is scheduled to reach in FY 2033 – but will likely hit even sooner, as the Navy looks at speeding up Virginia-class submarine construction.

“Then we’ll make the decision, do we extend the APB again or will it be time to move on to a future submarine design?” Jabaley said. Though old assumptions point to moving to SSN(X) in FY 2034, as TSEP inserts more capability upgrades into the subs at a faster pace, “if technology, threat, environment, budget all conspire to say it makes more sense to start it earlier, start it later, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Howes told USNI News that “there is a need for a dedicated funding line to support this conveyor belt, and we are in discussions inside the Navy and with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] as to what that would look like. Ideally, first we’d get those resources from within, through cost-savings. One way or another we’re going to start this up – the design effort, the technology development, it gets faster with resources; there is a need for resources and we are having those discussions today as part of our [FY 2019 budget] deliberations.”

The TSEP doesn’t just look at adding the capability to the Virginia-class subs and its successor SSN(X). It also looks at the SSGN concept: the fleet’s four SSGNs are set to decommission by 2028, and while the Virginia Payload Module and its extra missile tubes are meant to mitigate the loss, they don’t make up for the full strike capability – nor the special operations forces support – the fleet will lose at the end of the SSGNs’ life.

The guided-missile submarine USS Ohio (SSGN 726) moors alongside the submarine tender USS Emory S. Land (AS 39) in November 2015. US Navy photo.

To address that firepower gap, the TSEP looks at the possibility of using the Columbia-class SSBN design and production line to flow into an SSGN production line in the mid-2030s. General Dynamics’ Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls’ Newport News Shipbuilding will build a dozen SSBNs – one in 2021, one in 2024, and then one a year in 2026 through 2035 – and talks are underway about keeping that production line warm by building more guided-missile subs.

“There is value in keeping two product lines going,” Howes said of the large SSBNs and SSGNs and the smaller SSN and SSN(X) attack subs.
“You never want to start up and shut down product lines, so the big-volume ship is one we’re interested in exploring after we complete our buy of Columbia. Conceptually, there is a value in recapitalizing our SSGN ship that is a different mission task, and then if you keep the line warm eventually we’ll have to recapitalize the SSBN line. So then you don’t have to start from scratch, which is what [Electric Boat] and Huntington Ingalls are having to do right now with Columbia because the last Ohio [class SSBN] came out in 1998.”

On top of the TSEP concept, the Navy has also worked on an Alternate Futures Study, Naval Reactors director Adm. Frank Caldwell said Nov. 1 at the conference. The submarine community has worked with the Naval War College to look at future demands on the force, where it might be asked to operate, doing what missions, against which adversaries and with which allies, and more.

“We will use the Alternate Futures Study to inform our decision regarding future capabilities and operational requirements, not only for the next platform but for other investments in the undersea domain,” Caldwell said, noting the study doesn’t point to a single future but rather a range of 2040 potential futures for which the force can plan.

  • PolicyWonk

    To address that firepower gap, the TSEB looks at the possibility of using the Columbia-class SSBN design and production line to flow into an SSGN production line in the mid-2030s.
    I’d suggested this idea on these very pages months ago, to address the loss of firepower resulting from the retirement of the Ohio SSGN variants. Now if they can only get DoD acquisition fixed to make it all affordable!

    • Marauder 2048

      Which merely bumps into the same Strategic Arms Treaty entanglements we went through and continue to go through with the Ohio SSGNs.

      • NavySubNuke

        You are correct that SSGNs were still part of the arms control process under START.
        However, you are completely incorrect as of the New START treaty. We successfully exhibited the SSGNs to the Russian’s years ago and they are no longer accountable under New START.

        • Marauder 2048

          And what concessions did the US offer to get SSGNs removed from treaty accounting? SSGNs and SLBM conversion are still part of the treaty protocol.

          Exhibitions are part of the problem; don’t give a hostile power too many looks at a platform that also serves as your strategic deterrent if you don’t have to.

          • NavySubNuke

            I don’t know what led to it but I do know that the treaty allows us to convert things in such a way that they can’t easily be restored to service and then to demonstrate that conversion to them 1x and if they accept it it is then removed from accountability. That is why the SSGNs, the B1 bombers, and a number of the B52 bombers, and 4 of the tubes on the remaining SSBNs are no longer in strategic service and don’t count towards are deployed launcher limit or our deployed+nondeployed launcher limits.

    • NavySubNuke

      Others have been saying it for years too. Especially if we shift to a carrier like cost center where we buy a large diameter submarine every 4 – 5 years. As you say getting DoD to buy off on it is the hardest part.

      • DaSaint

        I’d propose that they not wait until completion of the 12 SSBNs to start production of the SSGN variant. Instead, find a way to insert an SSGN in every 3rd boat built, otherwise you’re going to have a 10 year gap between decommissioning the last Ohio SSGN and commissioning their first replacement. Either that or extend their service lives by another 10 years…yikes!

        • I’d prefer to get all the SSBN’s first – an SSGN gap can be covered with other TLAM shooters but nothing can replace an SSBN.

          • DaSaint

            Hopefully we won’t be discussing TLAMs in 2038.

          • vegass04

            Holly s..you’re right. I can’t believe that there’s still no official program of record to replace those grandpas. TLAM is a great platform, and it served us well against a 3rd world class enemy we’ve been fighting for the last 25 years, but since now Pentagon has shifted to a near peer conflict scenario I think its about time to move on. No amount of upgrades can improve the basic Tomahawk design which is slow and not stealthy . Next gen cruise missile is a must. Also we’re investing billions into the Columbia class and replacing our ICBMS and air launched nuclear tipped missiles but there’s not a single word about the next gen SLBM. Trident is a beast but I don’t think it will be capable of penetrating future air defense systems, especially with the S-500 on its way. There’s no MARVs in Trident, its just a basic missile with a ballistic arch path, the kind we’re managing to knock out with our anti missile systems for years. Guess why the Russians felt threatened and thought their deterrant doesn’t work anymore.? We’ll have a next gen super duper boomers with 40 year old SLBMs on board. Not good at all.

        • NavySubNuke

          I’d rather have a gap in our SSGNs than a gap in our SSBNs. If we turn every third boat into a GN (which will increase production risk tremendously by the way) our SSBN inventory will fall far far below what it needs to be to meet our strategic requirements and we risk losing SSBN force structure forever when shortsighted politicians say things like – well you are successfully deterring Russia and China today with 7 operational SSBNs why can’t you do it with 7 forever? And then they cut the last 5 SSBNs.
          12 is already too few – we really need at least 14 so we can have 12 operational boats during the midlife overhaul (which even though it is non-refueling is still going to take years).

        • Duane

          The Columbia class SSBN production is baked into the cake. We have to have all 14 boats built and operational in time to replace the retiring Ohio class.

          Building more SSGNs is something that would be above and beyond the need for SSBNs. We can, as the post says, begin building SSGNs before we’re done building the Columbia class.

          • DaSaint

            We’re more likely to need the tactical conventional loadout of an SSGN for a potential conflict within the next 10 years. If you think that we’ll miss the usable loadout of the nukes on an SSBN in the interim, then it doesn’t really matter as none of us will be here if there’s ever all out nuclear war, and building the rest wont matter either.

            I think we can have our cake and eat it too, to mitigate risk, which is why I proposed inserting the SSGNs amongst the SSBNs. We should know how to chew gum and walk at the same time.

            If we can’t then maybe we don’t need the SSGNs at all, because we have enough capability and distributed lethality in the SSNs, then that’s fine with me too. Saves money for other needs, but I’m sure then folks will just advocate for more SSNs to compensate.

  • Ed L

    guess the nuclear submarine community killed the non nuclear submarine enthusiasts. The Swedens and Japanese make a fine non nuclear submarine

    • sferrin

      This may have escaped your attention, but we’re not Sweden or Japan.

    • Hugh

      And the Germans and French.

    • Rocco

      Age old subject!! Range!!!

      • Ed L

        my brother in law was on the last SS-582 Bonefish History has forgotten him. He receive the Navy commendation medal for dragging crew members to the hatch so they could be lifted out. I have seen the Citation, met his old XO when I was on Staff duty. The Barbel-class submarine design influence Submarine design in The Zwaardvis-class submarine of the Netherlands and the Hai Lung-class submarine of the Republic of China (built and sold by the Netherlands) were developments of the Barbel class design. The Japanese Uzushio class and its successors were also influenced by the Barbel class. Fine Boats, While on staff duty, i use to watch hold down exercises by FFG and DDG’s our SS would always manage to get away the majority of the time. Being 140 feet shorter than an LA class SSN. They could hide easier. range isn’t every thing.

  • NavySubNuke

    Tactical Submarine Evolution Plan (TSEB) —- shouldn’t that be TSEP? **Note – glad to see all the TSEBs were updated as of this morning to TSEP —- you’re welcome 😉 **

    Either way, great forward thinking by the Navy. Nice to see them thinking proactively rather than just reacting at the last minute (usually too late) like we did with VPM.

    • Rob C.

      Wish they had done that for the surface fleet. They come up with concepts and couple years later they drop it because the original people who came up with are gone. This program is far more far reaching in thinking ways of handling problems with the Fleet’s diminishing capacities and lag time to replace it.

  • Is there really a need for a SSGN? Just triple or quadrople the TLAMs or LRASMs on SSNs.

    • sferrin

      How? Hand-waving doesn’t work in the real world.

    • Duane

      It’s a matter of hull size. A Virginia with a VPM is basically a small version of a SSGN. Akin to a frigate being a smaller version of a destroyer.

      It’s best to maintain a mix of SSNs and SSGNs, and we don’t need a huge number of SSGNs.

      One reason, however, to possibly increase the number of SSGNs is if we are able to network our sensors in with the SSGN, and be able to communicate quickly to a submerged submarine (not via VLF, which is pretty slow), then an SSGN could possibly provide anti-missile fires to augment our DDGs and CGs. I rather imagine that the Navy is working on that already, as part of their NIFCCA infrastructure.

      The great thing about SSGNs as compared to DDGs and CGs is they are not subject to attack by large salvos of anti-ship cruise missiles, which theoretically could make missile defense surface warships obsolete.

      • why have tw0 classes instead of one with both TLAMs and torpedoes?

        • Duane

          The SSGN is too large to serve as an effective attack submarine. It’s a stealthy missile platform. SSNs are purpose built to be, first and foremost, sub hunters and sub killers. Everything else they do is supplemental to their main role in ASW. The very best ASW platform is another submarine, if is properly equipped.

          Adding a 30 foot hull section to a Virginia class boat slightly degrades its performance as an ASW platform, but not enough to make a significant difference.

  • bobbymike34

    I sleep better at night knowing Los Angeles’, Seawolf, Virginia’s and Ohio’s are prowling the seas keeping us safe.

    • vegass04

      I only wonder how capable Virginias are in 2018. We always had a superior submarine force, especially where it counts – stealth. But now I wonder if we still have that edge with Virginia. Especially compared to brand new Russian Yasen class. After all Virginia is a 15 year old design with little to no upgrades on her. I think its time to speed up the SSN(X) development and introduce them in late 2020s…Also SSNGs are a must. Virginia payload module can never replace 150 missile tubes on a SSGN. Imagine that salvo? Even if a target was defended by the S-400 coupled with Pantsir and BUK, they would have no chance against a 20,30, even 40 incoming TLAMs. 5th gen stealth air force and submarine force are the only 2 departments where our military still has an edge and we should not loose it, we should widen the gap..

  • bobbymike34

    Also have an intermediate ranged prompt global strike missile with a hyper-accurate boost glide RV ready for the new SSGNs.

    • sferrin

      For sure. Too bad ATK isn’t pushing their KEI-based IRBM. Four to a D-5 cell.

      • NavySubNuke

        Feb 2017 CRS report says the solution the Navy is working on could put 2 or 3 in a D5 tube.

        • vegass04

          So what you’re saying is that we could put 2 or 3 of these IRBMs into one Trident tube? That would be awesome. Anyway it’s about time we produce soemthing tangable in hypersonics after dozens of tests by dozens of agencies.

          • NavySubNuke

            I can’t post the link due to USNI rules but just google “Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues”
            By Amy Woolf.
            The IRBM solution will apparently be able to put 2 or 3 missiles per SSGN tube. it isn’t clear if that is still true for the 4 VPM tubes since they are shorter but I would guess it is since they are still 87inch tubes and it would seem the diameter of the tube is a bigger constraint on how many IRBMs you could carry vs. the total length.

    • NavySubNuke

      According to DoD budget documents and CRS reports the work is still on going and should have a flight test this year. The last test launch, in 2014 according to CRS, ended in a failure 4 seconds after launch due to a booster/launch pad problem.

      • bobbymike34

        Look at InsideDefense apparently DARPA just had a successful launch of a BG RV.

        • NavySubNuke

          Not DARPA – but yes I just saw DoD announced yesterday that a successful flight test of the intermediate range solution occurred this week.

  • Rob C.

    I hope their plans get approved. This is to me properly most well thought out way of remedying the problem.

    I would thought of it as a no-brainer to use the SSBN to be the basis of replacements for SSGNs. Their useful platforms and not as exposed to attack as the surface ships are. Given the surface fleet is diminishing in large platforms, would need double up number ships with just TLAMs. A Burke not going clean out all it’s 90+ tubes of missiles just launch Tomahawks. SSGN doesn’t need SAMs per say, it thre pump out strike packages out.

    Few years ago they were just talking about Block IV, V Virginia Class SSN being given extra Plug tubes to handle the gap of SSGNs retiring. I thought it was foolish, until i realized it won’t be cost effective to just new Class of SSGN. With Columbia now on it’s way to be designed and made, this would be the time to get SSGN newly made going by basing it on existing design.

    • vegass04

      You’re right, especially since our “buddies” the Chinese have recently stole 650 GB of classified data on our submarines. Why is that good you ask? Well we found out that the Navy is secretly working on a submarine launched supersonic anti ship missile. With those on board who needs an aircraft carrier. Of course, I’m joking. Cruise missiles can’t replace the sortie generation rate of a carrier wing but they are much more effective and destructive for a first day scenario where high values targets will have to be destroyed for us to b able to enter into their airspace with fighter jets. If only we’re working on a TLAM replacement with similar or greater capabilities (hypersonic for example). But who knows, maybe we’ll find out about it one of these days when the Chinese manage to steel more classified data.

  • Centaurus

    Navy to launch Atlas II from Columbia Class inupcoming Defense Review…

  • bobbymike34

    IMHO the Navy needs long range strike missiles beyond slow moving cruise type systems. New Columbia’s would be great but too late for my liking. I’ve always advocated an LHA conversion just add a few hundred VLS cells and ATKs Intermediate Range Global Strike Missile.

    We’ve given up too much range to Chinese ballistic missiles for my liking.