Well ahead of the curve, the US Navy and key industry partners have started planning on the next-generation of fast nuclear attack submarines to succeed the Virginia Class, with design lessons, technology and capabilities drawn from the future Columbia Class ballistic missile submarines, hinting at a shift in the capability and mission-profile of the future boats.
Throughout the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union engaged in a series of unrelenting arms races. While much of the public focused upon the high-profile programs like strategic bombers and land-based nuclear forces for example, silently, both superpowers secretly sought to develop and field ever more deadly, silent and persistent submarines capable of influencing the tactical and strategic calculus in their favour.
This arms race delivered some of the most lethal weapons systems ever conceptualised by humanity, silent, deadly, fast attack submarines and the strategic insurance policy, ballistic missile submarines, which remain in service to this day.
Much like the submarine competition between the US and Soviet Union, there is a new arms race simmering away at the periphery of public consciousness, as the US, China, Russia, the UK, France and India all rush to design, build and field increasingly capable, survivable and lethal submarine forces.
While America's ageing, Cold War-era fleet of Los Angeles and small number of Seawolf Class fast attack submarines, and the Ohio Class ballistic missile submarines, have undergone a series modernisation and life-cycle extensions, the US Navy has recognised a growing need to replace the fleet, resulting in the Virginia Class submarines and the subsequent block variants of the fast attack submarines.
Replacing the Ohio Class ballistic missile submarines has presented a longer burn process up until this stage, with the succeeding Columbia Class submarines entering the next stage of delivery, the lead ship, the future USS Columbia, has recently begun construction.
US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, explained the importance the US Navy places on the acquisition of the Columbia Class: "The Navy’s first acquisition priority is recapitalising our Strategic Nuclear Deterrent – Electric Boat is helping us do just that. Together, we will continue to drive affordability, technology development and integration efforts to support Columbia’s fleet introduction on time or earlier."
The future Columbia Class is expected to have a 42-year service life (with each submarine conducting 124 deterrent patrols) and incorporates a through-life nuclear fuel core – designed to minimise through-life support costs and the necessity for a costly, time-consuming mid-life nuclear refuelling procedure – advanced sonar systems, optronics and stealth technologies developed for the Virginia Class to cut research and development and acquisition costs.
Further spreading the development costs is a renewed collaboration with the British Royal Navy on their own Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarine program, which, like its American counterpart, will use common launch systems to accommodate D-5 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles as well as the potential for shared integrated electric propulsion systems.
Learning the lessons and incorporating technology developed throughout the Virginia class build has supported the US Navy's push to lower costs and incorporate next-generation, yet proven technologies into the Columbia Class and has provided a model for the future development of America's next-generation attack submarines.
Bigger, faster, more weapons
The increasing qualitative and quantitative capability of peer competitor submarine platforms, namely those of both Russia and China, has resulted in a renewed push by the US Navy to design, develop and build the next-generation of US fast attack submarines.
While the highly secretive world of submarines is increasingly well known by the public both in Australia and around the West, many of the complexities of contemporary submarine programs remain hidden to ensure the tactical and strategic supremacy of the platforms, nevertheless, the US Navy and key industry partner BWX Technologies, the company responsible for building the nuclear reactors for the US Navy's aircraft carriers and submarines, have revealed some details about the Virginia Class successors.
Speaking to Sam LaGrone of the US Naval Institute, BWX Technologies chief executive Rex Geveden has shed some light on the nature of the future attack submarines, currently in the early planning stages, explaining, "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.
"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."
Adding to this, LaGrone expands on the details identified by Geveden, explaining, "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," LaGrone said.
Each of these comments, were further expanded upon by ADM Gilday, who explained the driving force behind the race to develop and field a next-generation attack submarine, stating, "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.
"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."
Building on this, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has already placed some hard limits on the capability profile the SSN(X) platform will bring to the future fight, namely that the future submarine will pack significantly more firepower than the Virginia class which had a scaled back armament profile then the previous Seawolf Class.
The CBO detailed in late-2018, "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."
This critical detail was expanded upon by LaGrone who added, "After the Cold War, the US submarine fleet pivoted from the deep-diving, heavily armed Seawolf Class of attack submarines to the Virginia Class, which was optimised to perform signals intelligence and special operations missions in the littorals.
"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."
This early planning stages for the next-generation of US Navy fast attack submarine not only sets a cracking pace for the future of the US Navy submarine force, but also an interesting model of government, service and industry collaboration for Australia to emulate in order to sustain a consistent and cost effective submarine pipeline, building on the shoulders of programs that have preceded the SSN(X) program.
The rapidly developing qualitative and quantitative capabilities of regional surface warship and critically, submarine fleets, namely by Russia and China – combined with the increasing proliferation of surface vessels and submarines designed and built by the aforementioned nations by emerging peer competitors – serve to stretch the tactical and strategic capabilities of the RAN.
Additionally, the increasing proliferation of advanced anti-ship ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles, combined with the growing prominence of naval aviation – again led by China but also pursued by Japan and India – is serving to raise questions about the size and the specialised area-air defence, ballistic missile defence, power projection and sea control capabilities of the RAN.
Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely, oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.
Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN.