Virginia Pivot: The USA’s Multi-Year Block IV Sub Deal
March 23/15: Navy commanders are pushing for improved firepower for the the Virginia-class submarines through the addition of four vertical launch tubes, representing a 76% increase in strike capability.
A 5-year, $17 billion deal will build 10 Virginia Class Block IV fast attack submarines for the US Navy, bringing production to 2 boats per year at long last. The USA’s nuclear submarine fleet gives it unmatched flexibility, but it’s confronted with rising submarine numbers in China and around the Pacific, even as its Los Angeles Class submarines are beginning to exit the fleet. Aircraft carriers may dominate in peacetime, but as anti-ship missiles gain longer reach and greater lethality, and sensors improve, some analysts are coming to see submarines as the key to wartime naval power…
The Submarines and the Contract
The US Navy has taken delivery of 10 of the 7,800t Virginia Class submarines since 2004 (SSN 774 – 783), with 8 more currently under construction. They’re derived from the lessons of the SSN-21 Seawolf Class, an extremely advanced submarine whose expense per boat ended production at 3. The Virginias achieved excellent flexibility and a reputation for extreme quietness, but changes have continued since the first boat, as the US Navy tried to drive costs down.
Block III submarines (SSN 784 – 791) took a big step forward by replacing the 12 vertical launch tubes with a more flexible “6-shooter” approach, and swapping a water-backed, horseshoe-shaped LAB sonar array for the existing air-backed spherical array.
The Block IV is the next increment, and so far, few details have been released. PEO Submarines Rear Admiral David Johnson has said that the new design would reduce the submarine’s lifetime number of major maintenance visits from 4 to 3, raising full-length deployments during their lifetimes from 14 to 15.
Beyond that, a number of improvements have been discussed over the years, from stretched versions to a new composite sail with space for more special forces. Other clues to possible future changes come from the Pentagon’s FY 2013 DOT&E report, which seem to stress special warfare and arctic operations.
For special operations, the Navy modified the SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Auxiliary Life Support System (ALSS) to handle increased air pressure, allowing longer missions. Unfortunately, the Virginia Class needs to upgrade its air supply system before it can support those pressures. This is an important mission in the present environment, which makes this shortcoming a good Block IV improvement candidate if it can be done at reasonable cost.
In the Arctic, the Virginia Class needs better methods of removing carbon dioxide and hydrogen waste gas, insulation improvements to avoid “excessive condensation” that can interfere with electronics, and a hardened sail that can handle the same ice thicknesses as Improved Los Angeles Class and Seawolf Class SSNs. This isn’t a crisis yet. In the short term, it’s easy to just bias Virginia Class deployments toward locations like the Pacific Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Indian Oceans, leaving the Los Angeles and Seawolf boats to spend more time up north. As Virginia Class submarines become a larger and larger share of the US Navy’s submarine force, however, those kinds of gaps will begin to matter more. It’s be up to the US Navy to decide when that day comes.
Navy officers are pushing for improved firepower for the Virginia-class submarines through the addition of four vertical launch tubes, representing a 76% increase in strike capability.
April 28/14: General Dynamics Electric Boat Corp. in Groton, CT received the $17.646 billion fixed-price incentive multi-year contract, which runs from FY 2014 – 2018 to order submarines 792 – 801. HII Newport News, VA will remain as the sub-contractor, and options for on-board repair parts in support of each submarine could bring the cumulative value to $17.828 billion. SSN 801, the last boat under this contract, is scheduled for delivery in 2023.
Work on this contract will be performed in Newport News, VA (24%); Groton, CT (18%); Quonset Point, RI (16%); Sunnyvale, CA (8%); Cheswick, PA (1.7%); Annapolis, MA (1.2%), and various sites throughout the United States (31.1%). Work is expected to be complete by August 2024.
This contract was procured sole source from Electric Boat Corp., pursuant to 10 United States Code 2304 (c)(1) and Federal Acquisition Regulation 6.302-1. US NAVSEA in Washington, DC manages the contract (N00024-12-C-2115). See also GD, “General Dynamics Awarded $18 Billion by U.S. Navy for 10 Virginia-Class Submarines” | Reuters, “General Dynamics, Huntington win huge U.S. Navy contract”.