On May 1, the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics GD -0.14% and the Newport News Shipbuilding unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries began construction of the first vessel in a five-year, ten-boat contract to build Virginia-class fast attack submarines. It is the biggest shipbuilding contract the Navy has ever awarded, and at $2.7 billion per boat, the 50+ subs the Virginia program will eventually produce rank it among the Pentagon’s top technology investments for the new millennium.
(Disclosure: General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls Industries contribute to my think tank; GD is a consulting client.)
The Virginia class has been America’s only active submarine construction program for about ten years now, but it barely gets noticed outside the Navy and the communities where it is built because it has unfolded so smoothly that there is little basis for controversy. That’s an amazing feat considering the complexity of the processes involved in assembling the subs — there are 4,000 suppliers — and the unforgiving environment in which they are destined to operate. In some ways, the challenges of building submarines are more akin to producing spacecraft than surface warships. It is a unique calling, and Electric Boat has been doing it for over a century.
If the word “submarine” makes you think of undersea warfare and protecting surface ships, then you only have the Old Testament part of the story. Modern attack subs do a whole lot more, like covertly collecting intelligence that can’t be obtained any other way, precisely striking distant land targets, delivering special operators ashore on secret missions, and the like. The Navy has good reason not to talk about such missions in public, but because the Virginia program runs silent and runs deep in popular culture, most people don’t realize that it is more than just a very big and successful weapons program — it may be the face of future warfare. Here are five reasons why.
Stealth. Stealth is the ability to elude detection by enemies. Submarines are the stealthiest combat systems ever built, which enables them to go places in a covert, non-provocative manner that no other U.S. warfighting platform can match. When war threatens on the Korean Peninsula or in the Levant, there is usually a U.S. attack sub nearby listening in on the communications of potential aggressors and prepared to strike critical targets both on land and at sea. Because adversaries typically cannot detect the presence of U.S. undersea warships they are powerless to counter them. This has a deterring effect on their behavior, one which is being amplified by the unprecedented capacity of the Virginia class to operate secretly in littoral areas near enemy coastlines.
Endurance. America faces its biggest security challenges far from home. For instance, the entrance to the Persian Gulf is literally on the opposite side of the world from San Diego. Nuclear-powered attack subs are ideally suited to sustaining a global military presence because their means of propulsion affords unlimited range. That is especially true of the Virginia class, which unlike previous nuclear subs has a life-of-the-ship reactor core – meaning it requires no refueling during its entire 33 years in service. The only real constraint on Virginia-class endurance is the availability of food for the 130-person crew. Thus, while most of the joint force must be followed around the world by a massive logistics tail, Virginia is an autonomous operator.
Versatility. The Virginia class was conceived as a successor to Los Angeles-class attack subs built between 1972 and 1996. Like the Los Angeles class, the Virginia class will conduct sea control, power projection, intelligence gathering and other missions in support of joint warfighting objectives. But the Virginia boats offer considerably better warfighting performance than their predecessors, and that performance is being further enhanced with each new production contract. For instance, the Virginia class has a more sophisticated array of sonar and eavesdropping sensors, a control system that facilitates shallow-water operations, a lock-out chamber for inserting special operators ashore, and an improved capacity to launch land-attack munitions.
Leverage. When you combine the stealth, endurance and versatility of the Virginia class, the result is a genuinely unique combat system providing potentially decisive warfighting leverage against even the most capable adversaries. It can deny the Chinese or Russian navies access to the sea, destroy targets deep in the Eurasian or African interiors without warning, and intercept the most sensitive communications of dictators and terrorists. It can even potentially blunt nuclear attacks on the American homeland by destroying the sea-going strategic forces of other nations. This is a form of leverage no other nation will be able to claim in future conflicts, due mainly to the fact that only America plans to field such a large and capable fleet of attack subs.
Evolution. The Navy is revising its shipbuilding plans to reflect the likelihood that Virginia-class subs will remain in production through 2043 — meaning they will be the only subs in the U.S. fleet other than a dozen ballistic-missile boats dedicated solely to nuclear deterrence. Recognizing that some Virginias might be in service until 2070, the Navy has committed to a process of continuous adaptation and improvement that will import new technologies into the vessel’s design with each successive production contract. This process began with the “Block III” contract awarded in 2008, which led to the redesign of bow sensors, land-attack missile launchers, and other features. The Block V contract to commence in 2019 will triple the capacity of each boat to attack targets ashore, further contributing to Virginia’s technological evolution.
An important aspect of the program’s evolution has been the constant effort to reduce costs by redesigning parts, refining construction processes, and awarding multiyear contracts that facilitate long-term planning. The Navy says that the five-year contract funding construction of two boats per year between fiscal 2014 and 2018 will save $2 billion, compared with buying the same number of subs on an annual basis. A continuous focus on efficiency has resulted in the cost of the subs falling steadily in each successive production contract, with most of the boats delivered well ahead of schedule. The program has won several awards for acquisition excellence.
Considering the astounding complexity of the final product, the Virginia-class submarine program deserves recognition as one of the supreme technological achievements of American civilization. However, there is at least one metaphorical reef looming on the horizon. Los Angeles-class boats are retiring so quickly due to age that the size of the attack-sub fleet will dip below the Navy’s goal of 48 vessels in the next decade. Considering that the goal itself represents only half the number of attack subs in the fleet at its peak a generation ago, the prospect of having barely 40 attack subs to cover the world circa 2028 is alarming.
The smartest way to fix this problem is to increase Virginia-class construction from two boats per year to three until serial production of a next-generation ballistic missile sub commences ten years hence. That would mean increasing the shipbuilding budget above historic levels, but naval ship construction only claims about 2% of defense spending today, and failure to buy more Virginia-class submarines virtually guarantees that one day vital warfighting capabilities at sea will not be available when and where they are needed.