The Navy’s next attack submarine will feature technology in the Columbia-class program and be significantly larger than the current class of the Virginia-class attack submarines, the chief executive of BWX Technologies said on Monday as part of the company’s third-quarter earnings call.
The head of the company that builds the nuclear reactors for the Navy’s aircraft carriers and submarines said the follow-on to the Virginia SSN would be significantly larger than the current crop of attack boats.
“We do expect it will be a larger type of submarine, probably in the size class of the Columbia, but there’s not much more to tell than that. But we’re working with our Navy customer in what that would look like and how we could take that into production,” Rex Geveden said.
“It has the moniker SSN(X) until it gets a class name, and there’s some thought, discussion and analysis. It would be the follow-on to the Virginia fast-attack submarine, and it would feather in sometime in the late 2030s.”
USNI News understands that Geveden was referring to the submarine’s diameter rather than its underwater displacement. The Columbia class is planned to displace about 20,000 tons – about 2,000 more than the current Ohio ballistic missile submarines. The current Virginias displace about 8,000 tons. The Columbia-class hulls are about 42-feet in diameter, while the Virginias are 36-feet wide.
A wider hull for submarines can improve characteristics like stealth, allowing ship designers to build in more sound-deadening technology and allow room to develop systems to increase a boat’s speed, but it is more expansive to build.
The comments are in line with remarks from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, who called for the development of a more aggressive attack submarine as a lynchpin of future fleet build-up.
“The advantage we have in the undersea is an advantage that we need to not only maintain, but we need to expand. I want to own the undersea for forever because I know that I can be really lethal from the undersea,” he said last month.
“When you think attack boat, you’re thinking, that can move around the timing and tempo of an operational commander’s need to deliver ordinance on target in a timely fashion. And so it’s got to be a fast sub as well.”
After the Cold War, the U.S. submarine fleet pivoted from the deep-diving, heavily armed Seawolf-class of attack submarines to the Virginia-class, which was optimized to perform signals intelligence and special operations missions in the littorals.
“Specifically, the Navy indicates that the next-generation attack submarine should be faster, stealthier, and able to carry more torpedoes than the Virginia class—similar to the Seawolf-class submarine,” the CBO said in late 2018.
The return to a more heavily armed, faster submarine is in line with the latest National Security Strategy that places Russia and China at the top of the threat list.
Geveden was optimistic on BWXT’s outlook for work to build reactors for the Navy’s carriers and submarines well into the future.
“The nuclear operations groups has really ramped up on the first Columbia, and we are having expectational performance on that program for the Navy customer, and we anticipate another order in the next multi-year pricing agreement,” he said.
“We also had an exceptional year of performance on aircraft carriers benefitting from the acceleration of the Ford-class and believe this program will continue for decades as the U.S.’s main force projection asset.”
While the company is bullish on the outlook for submarine work, it remains unclear at what rate the Navy will be buying them.
Like General Dynamics Electric Boat, which briefed investors last week, BWXT has not received a clear signal from the Navy that it would need to build submarines at the rate of three a year, in line with a call from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper as part of his Battle Force 2045 plan.
“In the previous shipbuilding plan, there were 48 fast attack submarines. In the current one, it went to 66. Esper said he was looking at something like 70 to 80 fast attack submarines in the fleet,” Geveden said.
“When we last discussed any capital needs around that, what we said was if there was a single year of a third Virginia, we could probably accommodate that without any additional buildout. We haven’t evaluated a permanent three-Virginia tempo, and we haven’t discussed any capital needs around that, but we would have to invest in that case.”