The future of the strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region and, perhaps, that of the U.S. Navy as well could hang on the fate of one major procurement program: the Virginia-class nuclear submarine. Simply put, the Virginia-class is the Navy’s single most capable platform, able to conduct anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, land attack, intelligence collection and special operations missions with almost equal effectiveness and sophistication. In addition, the program is the poster child for how to do major systems acquisition the right way. The Navy’s current plan to build two boats a year throughout the Future Years Defense Program is a national security imperative.
As an oceanic power that must send its military thousands of miles from home waters to protect its vital interests against threats that are difficult to anticipate, the United States needs a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Conventional-powered SSNs are okay for navies that need not venture far from home or who have to perform only a limited set of missions. There is no substitute for the speed, time on station, payload and flexibility provided by nuclear power.
The Virginia-class also is extremely well suited to meet the security challenges of the 21st Century. Larger than its predecessor, the Los Angeles-class SSN, the Virginia class is nevertheless faster and quieter. It also boasts a number of improved capabilities. One of these is 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 improvement 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 next group of boats will have an improved launch capability, the Virginia Payload Module (VPM). The VPM adds four large vertical launch tubes in the mid-section, each capable of carrying up to seven Tomahawk missiles apiece. VPM could potentially carry (non-nuclear) medium-range ballistic missiles or large unmanned, underwater vehicles.
Not only does the Virginia-class program offer a major leap in capability, but it has done so at decreasing cost to the Navy. Together with the Navy, the two companies that build the submarine, General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls, have squeezed thousands of man hours out of production, as well as lowering the cost by $400 million dollars per boat and bringing them in by up to six months ahead of schedule. These feats have been accomplished while continuously evolving the platform’s design and improving its capabilities.
Cost reduction has been achieved through a number of common sense strategies. The first of these is the establishment of a predictable, steady procurement rate that allows for the most efficient purchasing of long-lead items such as the nuclear reactors and materials. A second strategy is the use of block buys of up to ten SSNs during which the design is frozen to avoid costly changes. A third technique is the pursuit of capability-neutral design changes that improve performance while lowering costs. Two examples of these are the Large Aperture Bow (LAB) array and the Payload Integration Module (PIM). The LAB is a “wet” sonar system with cheaper but equally capable components that need less maintenance, last longer, and are less complicated to install. The PIM is a modularized, mission configurable weapons bay. Both the LAB array and the PIM are outside the pressure hull, hence permitting maintenance and modernization without costly hull penetrations. Finally, the Navy and the two companies have invested in production innovations, including capital equipment, to improve performance and reduce man hours.
America’s ability to ensure its influence and interests in the vast Asia-Pacific region will depend to a large extent on its ability to maintain technological and operational preeminence in the air and at sea. But preeminence does not come free. Many nations are acquiring advanced military capabilities, including robust naval and submarine forces, precisely to assert their own security interests. Some of these capabilities, notably so-called Anti-Access/Area Denial systems, are intended to counter U.S. forward presence and power projection capabilities. There is no better platform for maintaining U.S. preeminence under, at and from the sea than a robust fleet of Virginia-class SSNs.
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