Virginia Block VI Subs Will Focus on Special Operations, Unmanned

May 13, 2019 7:13 PM
USS Washington (SSN-787). HII Photo

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The Virginia-class attack submarine program office is in the early stages of determining what its Block VI design might look like and what payloads it would need to accommodate, the program manager said last week.

After some concerns that the Virginia-class hull design was beginning to run out of margin to add new capabilities, the program office is now spending 2019 looking at its options and will begin to make some final decisions next year, Capt. Chris Hanson said during a panel presentation at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference.

“We’re currently in the phase of looking at various concepts and capabilities and determining their feasibility for the rest of this year. In about the next year we’ll start going through the decision points in terms of requirements of what we want to have in that lot and out,” Hanson said of the Block VI design, which would go into production in Fiscal Year 2024.

The Tactical Submarine Evolution Plan (TSEP), a plan that maps out desired capability additions and monitors their technical readiness, will guide decisions surrounding what to include in the Block VI requirements. What the program office does know, Hanson said, is that the next iteration of the SSN will focus on special operations forces integration and will add interfaces for unmanned systems and other new undersea weapons.

Hanson said his office is looking at all manner of potential payloads that could be used by the submarine and determining what they would need in terms of power, heating and cooling, communications and more.

“As we work through the Block V design and head into Block VI, we’re trying to optimize the designs so that … we minimize any changes or interfaces, special interfaces, that we have to use” as new payloads are developed and fielded later in the sub’s life.

Hanson said there is likely a gap between today’s subs – all the Block I and II Virginia-class subs have delivered, along with all but one Block III boat – and the payloads the Navy will want to field in the near- to mid-term. He said the goal of Block VI was to identify those gaps as early on as possible and bridge them where possible so that the Block VI sub is as flexible as possible to keep up with future fleet needs as undersea warfare evolves.

The Navy had previously planned to build seven blocks of the Virginia class SSN before moving into what it then called SSN(X). However, plans have become murkier in the past few years, as an emphasis on unmanned vehicles and offensive weapons appear to have pushed up plans to move into the “New SSN,” which is the current term for the follow-on sub class.

During the panel presentation, Hanson also addressed delays in the Block IV submarines. Blocks III and IV both attempted to reduce the cost of the program – Block III by redesigning parts of the boat to reduce construction time, and Block IV by extending the time between major maintenance availabilities. Block IV also sought to reduce the construction time down to 60 months and deliver at a pace of two per year, further reducing the cost of the boat, but builders General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding have struggled to reduce their delivery timelines and keep in line with the Navy’s plans.

“We’ve not come up to that six-month cadence evenly across the whole production system,” Hanson said.
“To me, I view the whole production system as more of a factory with a bunch of conveyor belts that, in an ideal world, come perfectly together at the perfect time; and if one or two conveyor belts is off just a little bit, that has large consequences to the entire system. So we’re currently, in Block [III] we’re currently delivering our submarines between 66 and 70 months … and in Block IV we go down to 62 months for the first three boats, down to 60. So my goal is to stabilize the system” through additional focus on hiring and training at the builder yards, and hit 60 months by the end of the block contract.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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