President Obama’s recent trip to the Far East was intended to underscore this country’s determination to remain a Pacific power. But political symbolism is not enough, particularly given this administration’s track record in foreign policy. Credibility requires that words be backed up by actions.
One of the most important ways of adding credibility to the President’s assurance of support to U.S. Pacific allies, is by maintaining a strong military. Unfortunately, this is particularly difficult in a period of declining defense budgets. Many at home and abroad are concerned that the administration is allowing the U.S. military to decline below the size at which it can address rising threats in multiple regions of the world.
If the Department of Defense cannot invest in quantity, it can pursue areas of qualitative advantage. One area where the U.S. continues to maintain a significant asymmetric advantage over potential adversaries is in undersea warfare. U.S. attack submarines, SSNs, have dominated the undersea domain for more than half a century posing a primary challenge to hostile submarines and surface ships. Strategic missile boats or SSBNs have provided a secure and survivable deterrent of nuclear attack. Submarines also provide unequalled intelligence and strike capabilities for dealing with threats ashore.
The Virginia-class SSN constitutes the state of the art in undersea capabilities. It is quieter than any other class of attack boat. It has a pair of photonics masts located outside the pressure hull, each containing high-resolution cameras, along with light-intensification and infrared sensors, an infrared laser rangefinder, and an integrated Electronic Support Measures array. Another feature is the boat’s sonar systems which include a bow-mounted spherical active/passive sonar array, a wide aperture lightweight fiber optic sonar array, two high frequency active sonars mounted in the sail and keel and advanced towed sonar arrays. Then there is the fiber optic fly-by-wire Ship Control System, a new integrated combat system and a nine-man lockout chamber for special operations. Finally, there is the SSN’s evolving weapons suite. In addition to its ability to launch torpedoes and Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles, the boats currently being built have two Vertical Launch System tubes, each capable of carrying up to six missiles.
The Virginia SSN program is one of the Pentagon’s most efficient and cost effective. Since its inception, each set of submarines have been less costly to build and has been delivered not merely on time but ahead of schedule. One key to the program’s success is the willingness of the program office to invest in process improvement measures and technologies. Another is the ability of the two shipbuilders, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding, to wring costs out of the program, reducing the man hours needed to deliver a boat. As a result, the Navy is able to double the acquisition program from one to two boats a year.
The U.S. Navy just announced the next block buy of Virginia-class SSNs. According to Navy sources, the Block IV award, for 10 boats, is the largest shipbuilding contract in U.S. Navy history in terms of total dollar value. In addition, the Block IV ships will have reduced acquisition costs and lower life cycle expenses. This new block of submarines will require less maintenance, meaning they will be able to spend more time at sea.
Starting with Block V boats in 2019, Virginia-class SSNs will be lengthened to incorporate the Virginia Payload Module. Each boat will have four of these large diameter tubes, capable of carrying up to seven Tomahawk cruise missiles, advanced undersea vehicles or new generation weapons.
The Block IV buy of Virginia-class SSNs is a down payment on the U.S. commitment to its allies, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region.
Find Archived Articles: