ABOARD THE NUCLEAR ATTACK SUBMARINE USS SOUTH DAKOTA – A banner over the sonar operators in the control room of one of the Navy’s most technologically advanced submarines declares the attack boat is the service’s “Apex Predator.”
The sign – complete with a portrait of the alien from the 1987 sci-fi adventure film “Predator” – refers to a package of sensors and quieting technology the service installed for testing aboard USS South Dakota (SSN-790). Commissioned in 2019 as one of the last Block III Virginia-class attack boats, five years ago the Navy chose South Dakota to be the service’s acoustic superiority test ship.
“Stealth is the cover charge, stealth is the price of admission,” then-director of undersea warfare, now U.S. Strategic Command head, Adm. Charles Richard told USNI News at the time.
The boat received coatings that keep the ship quieter, a quieter water jet propulsor and additional sonars mounted on the sides of the hull to increase the crew’s ability to detect enemy ships and submarines, USNI News reported in 2016.
On Monday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday toured the boat as part of a day-long trip to Naval Submarine Base New London, Conn., and submarine builder General Dynamics Electric Boat.
Speaking to USNI News en route to the submarine, Gilday said the trip would help him assess the progress in building the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine and the Virginia-class attack boat, as the Navy weighs the direction of its next crop of attack boats.
While the upgrades over the baseline Block III boat make South Dakota among the most dangerous submarines in the fleet in 2022, its basic design and mission set is more than 20 years old.
The Virginia attack boats were a post-Cold War departure for the Navy to develop multi-mission submarines that had an expanded land-attack capability and special operations and signals intelligence capacity to operate closer to shore. The class was a departure from the bigger, faster and more heavily armed Seawolf-class boats that are still widely considered to be the most dangerous submarines in the world.
Now, with Russia and China both expanding their submarine forces, the Navy is again looking to build an attack boat that looks more like USS Seawolf (SSN-21) than South Dakota. The service wants larger hull diameter and more horizontal weapons like torpedoes to take on ships and submarines, rather than vertically launched land-strike weapons like Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles.
“We don’t know the specific characteristics that will be in SSN(X). But we do believe that the next submarine will have a large horizontal payload capacity. You can read that as it’s going to carry a lot of torpedoes,” Rear Adm. Doug Perry, the current director of the undersea warfare division on the chief of naval operations staff (OPNAV N97) said in November.
“The heavyweight torpedo will remain the weapon of choice for the submarine for this for the foreseeable future, primarily due to its inherent stealth, its destructive effects in the battlespace, and [it’s] pretty difficult to defend against and it also [preserves] the stealth of launch platform.”
“Submarines are for the foreseeable future going to continue to be our most survivable, lethal strike platform. We’ve taken great pains during constrained budgets in the past several years to eliminate that divot in attack boats that we’re going to see in the late 2020s,” Gilday told USNI News.
EB and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding are now working through the Block IV Virginia attack boats that have suffered months-long delays in delivery due to complications from the COVID-19 pandemic and other shortfalls. There was more than a two-year gap between the delivery of the first Block IV Virginia – USS Vermont (SSN-792) on April 17, 2020 – to USS Oregon (SSN-793), two weeks ago.
While the Block IVs are still under construction, EB and Newport News have started the construction of the Block V Virginias that will push the limits of the existing Virginia design by including the Virginia Payload Module, which installs an 84-foot-long extension that will have the capacity for the submarines to field more Tomahawks and eventually hypersonic weapons.
“We go from 12 tubes to 40, which is a significant increase and we start bringing those online in 2025-2026. The third hull will be configured for hypersonics,” Gilday said.
But like the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, the Navy is pushing the limits of Virginia’s 1990s-era design and has to decide when it will need to develop a new hull.
“There’s the possibility that this Virginia line gets extended beyond the Block V and the planned 10 Block V submarines. There’s the possibility we continue that line,” Gilday said.
“We’re also looking at SSN(X). That would be a mid-2030s [start]. In the Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal to Congress, we had [$98] million in [research and development] requested for SSN(X). That’s with respect to advanced propulsion, plant machinery, acoustic superiority that we want to maintain. We need to stay ahead of China and Russia and we sure we can’t lag them. So that’s an important effort, the exact timing when we start building those boats is yet to be determined.”
However, development of SSN(X) comes at the same time the Navy is looking to design the new DDG(X) guided-missile destroyer to succeed the Arleigh Burkes and the aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and develop the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, the service’s sixth-generation fighter meant to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in the next decade.
“That [SSN(X)] aim point is important for the bigger picture as we take a look at other lethality upgrades,” Gilday said.
“We’re working our way through the late 20s with respect to NGAD and DDG(X), but there needs to be progress in both of those. In terms of priority, they’re both important. I think what we’ll come down to is the pace that we move through both of those programs.”
While there is a chance the Navy could get more money to develop the new programs as a result of a recently reported budget expansion for Fiscal Year 2023, last year’s assessment from then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker was bleak.
“The Navy cannot afford to simultaneously develop the next generation of air, surface, and subsurface platforms and must prioritize these programs balancing the cost of developing next-generation capabilities against maintaining current capabilities,” a June 2021 memo from Harker reads. “As part of the POM23 budget, the Navy should prioritize one of the following capabilities and re-phase the other two after an assessment of operational, financial, and technical risk.”
Faced with three major acquisition projects, in addition to the introduction of new unmanned systems into the surface, air and undersea domains, Gilday said he’s committed to a measured approach to the new programs.
“We’re not looking for consecutive miracles here like we’ve done in the past. It’s just too much,” Gilday said. “We’ve seen it from Zumwalt, Ford, even [Littoral Combat Ships], obviously LCS. I’m trying to avoid that with unmanned. I just prefer to get it right, rather than rushing,”