WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is preparing to ink one of the largest contracts in its history with General Dynamics Electric Boat and the firm’s partner shipyard Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News that will make the new generation of attack submarines a major force in strike warfare.

The Block V Virginia contract is expected to produce 11 boats with eight Virginia Payload Modules, and will triple the Virginia’s Tomahawk Land Attack Missile capacity to 40 missiles per hull. Experts say that the new Virginia Payload Module will also be large enough to accommodate boost-glide hypersonic missiles like those the Navy is developing with the Army.

But the logic for the Virginia Payload Module has always been about replacing the Ohio-class guided missile submarines retiring in the 2020s. Because submarines have been the Navy’s go-to asset to penetrate areas threated by Chinese and Russian surface-to-surface and anti-ship missiles, attack submarines loaded with strike missiles would have to be the ones to get close enough to be able to launch land-attack strikes.

That model upends decades of the surface Navy’s supremacy in the world of strike warfare from the sea, but experts are beginning to question the logic of giving the strike warfare mission to submariners in an era of great power competition. With Russia and, to an even greater extent, China investing heavily in anti-submarine technology, does it make sense to give a stealthy asset a mission that will blow its cover?

Bryan Clark, a retired submariner and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, wonders if the surface fleet is the best place inside the force to house the strike mission.

“I think the requirement may be changing,” he said in an Oct. 22 phone call with Defense News. “Over the past 10 years there has been a real emphasis on the submarine as the one tool we have that may be able to get into contested areas — the East and South China seas, up in the north Atlantic, etc.

“That’s changing now: These countries are investing in their own anti-submarine warfare systems. China has put a lot of money into ASW systems, they are installing surveillance systems akin to our SOSUS [sound surveillance system]. So the idea that our submarines are our go-to asset to gain access, that may not be true in the next few years as it was in the past 10, so there is a question as to whether we should be investing in submarines to maintain the undersea strike capacity.”

‘Increasingly vulnerable’

The issue is not just that submarines run the risk of being detected, which is an ever-present risk anytime a submarine leaves the pier, but that it won’t be able to create the volume of fires that the surface fleet could, especially with new concepts in development such as a large unmanned surface vessel that could act as a kind of arsenal ship.

“The surface fleet is likely going to be our best strike capacity asset in the next decade,” Clark said. “Submarines are going to be increasingly vulnerable, so the question becomes: Do I want to take my [Virginia Payload Module]-equipped SSN, put it inside the South China Sea to launch strikes, get counter-detected and harassed for days afterward? I lose it from the fight for a long time just evading attacks.

“Whereas if you used unmanned surface vessel[s], those can launch just as many cruise missiles as a Virginia class, many times cheaper; they can rotate, get reloaded and just keep launching strikes at a much higher rate of fire as you would ever get out of the SSN force.”

Jerry Hendrix, a retired naval flight officer and analyst with The Telemus Group, agreed that the surface fleet is likely going to be the place to house a strike capability, especially in the era of mass hypersonic fires, because of the cost it would impose on the U.S. to try to match Chinese capabilities on subs.

“I think there is a powerful argument to distribute these weapons across the surface force,” Hendrix said. “If you can create a strike weapon that allows the surface force to stand outside of DF-21 and DF-26 range and shoot three-pointers from outside, then yes. To create mass and volume in the submerged force is twice to three times as expensive as it is to create that volume from the surface force.

“So there is a solid argument just from the standpoint of cost. If I was trying to create 2,000 tubes of hypersonics — which are much more massive than Tomahawks, wont fit into a Mark 41 vertical launch system and hence will have to go into a different configuration — to create that mass in the submerged force is going to be very expensive.”

The Navy is looking at back-fitting destroyers with larger vertical launching system tubes to accommodate so-called prompt-strike weapons, Defense News reported in June. But some analysts say the mission is better suited for a large unmanned surface vessel.

“I think this is going to one of the main things driving the design of the large unmanned surface combatant,” said Dan Gouré, an analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank. “We’re back to arsenal ship: long-range, park it into a surface action group of carrier strike group — kind of like a surface version of the SSGN.”

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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