“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,” CBO’s report said of the projected design as a whole. “CBO therefore assumed that the SSN(X) would be a Seawolf-sized SSN, which displaces about 9,100 tons when submerged, and would have an all-new design in keeping with the Navy’s description of it as a ‘fast, lethal, next-generation attack submarine.’”
It also makes good sense that the companies working with the Navy now on SSN(X), such as BWX Technologies, would be looking to leverage any features from the Columbia class design that could offer improved performance and increased stealthiness for the SSN(X). This all raises the distinct possibility that the Navy’s future attack submarine could have a shortened derivative of the Columbia hullform at its core, but one optimized for the hunter-killer mission rather than nuclear deterrence patrols.
That being said, attack and ballistic missile submarines have very different mission sets with very different general performance requirements. The former needs speed and maneuverability to hunt, while the latter is expected to cruise at lower speeds for extended periods of time while endeavoring to stay undetected at all costs. As such, the SSN(X) could easily have a markedly different configuration even if shares a significant portion of its hull and subsystems design with the Columbia class.
In addition, there have been discussions about developing a Large Payload Submarine, also derived from the Columbia, as something of a successor to the four Ohio class submarines converted into guided missile boats, which also have significant additional multi-mission capabilities that you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone feature. Any significant additional commonality between the Large Payload Submarine and SSN(X) might also raise the possibility of potentially merging the two designs.
No matter what, the SSN(X) design, and the requirements driving it, are likely to evolve, at least to some degree, in the future. The Navy is still very early in the process of crafting this submarine, requesting a very small $1 million for the project in the research and development portion of its most recent budget request for the 2021 Fiscal Year.
There also remain very real questions about how the Navy plans to budget for the design and construction of a new class of advanced and potentially very expensive attack submarines together with its other priorities. The service had run into similar issues with the Seawolfs and, together with general defense spending drawdowns following the end of the Cold War, ended up only buying three of those submarines. The first-in-class USS Seawolf and its sister USS Connecticut both cost $6 billion in the end, while the Jimmy Carter, which, as already mentioned, is a unique subclass unto itself, was even more expensive.
They remain the costliest attack submarines ever built anywhere in the world. However, their advanced capabilities, including their especially good performance while operating under thick ice, such as in the Arctic region, mean they are in very high demand within the Navy.
All of this also comes as the Navy is now pushing a proposal to expand the size of its overall fleet to 500 ships and submarines, up from less than 300 now, by 2045, another questionably ambitious plan that you can read about more in these past War Zone pieces.
Still, the Navy is clearly very committed to its new attack submarine plans, at least at present, which it feels are critical to countering expanding and increasingly active Russian and Chinese submarine fleets, as well as other naval developments in both of those countries. China has been on a naval construction blitz in the past few years, including the stunningly rapid construction of large capital ships, including aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and destroyers, as well as various submarines.
“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,” Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday said in October, according to USNI News. “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.”
As it stands now, the Navy’s next class of attack submarine is set to be even larger and far more advanced than the Navy’s prized Seawolf class, which remains among the most capable submarines in the world.
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