The largest shipbuilding contract in the history of the service — in excess of $22 billion — the Navy has big plans for Block V. It is destined to be a true multimission submarine, with a strike capability and the ability to delivery large-diameter unmanned underwater vehicles in addition to the more traditional surveillance mission.
Here’s are the four things you need to know about the vessel:
1. A bigger boat
Most of Block V is going to be bigger (much bigger) than its older sisters in the class. Of the nine — potentially 10 — boats in the class, eight of them will have 84-foot sections plugged into the hull that will include four large-diameter tubes rated for seven Tomahawks each. In addition to the 12 in the bow, that means each Block V will have the capacity for 40 cruise missiles.
But it’s not just the traditional Tomahawk land-attack missiles that will be stuffed in the payload module. Submariners are envisioning a whole range of missions for the big tubes, such as:
- Deploying large-diameter unmanned undersea vehicles for various missions.
- Launching hypersonic prompt-strike missiles.
- Launching Tomahawk’s new maritime strike iteration against ships in addition to the existing Harpoon missile.
- Really anything they can get to fit in there that could benefit from being deployed off a submarine.
2. Responsibilities galore
Because the Navy designed a lot of versatility in the platform, the Block V will act as a Swiss Army knife for undersea warfare, taking on a range of missions that traditionally have gone to the retiring guided-missile submarines, or SSGNs, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
That’s going to require a cultural change inside the submarine community, Clark said.
“The Block V will be a marked difference in terms of the concept of operations for a multimission ship,” he said. “For strike, that mission has largely been sent off to SSGNs: They’ve focused on Tomahawk missions and SEAL delivery; the rest of the attack submarines have focused on focused on traditional intelligence-gathering missions.
“With the introduction of Block V, those missions are going to expand to a larger percentage of the force.”
Much of that is already part of submariner training, but the emphasis will have to be increased, Clark predicted.
“Submariners were always trained on Tomahawk missions, anti-ship missions and swimmer delivery: Those are all things you train for in case you have to do them,” he said. “But with the advent of Block V, those missions are going to have to be a bigger part of submariner training. And with [the] Tomahawk maritime strike missile coming into the fleet, they are going have an anti-ship mission alongside the older [Los Angeles-class] 688s having the torpedo-tube launched harpoon.
“So in a lot of ways the submarine community is going back in [the] direction it was during the Cold War — it was a much more expansive mission then back then. Then It narrowed with the introduction of the SSGN. Now its set to expand again.”
The Block V incorporates what they Navy calls an acoustic superiority program, which is basically a comprehensive effort to both improve listening capabilities to find other ships and submarines as well as make the submarine much quieter in the water.
The improvements include a new vertical array, coatings and machinery-quieting technology throughout the boat.
4. It’s expensive as hell
As one might expect for a big multi-mission attack submarine, the Virginia Block V is mind-bogglingly expensive. With a total value of the program sitting at $35 billion when government- furnished equipment is added, each sub will cost in excess of $3.5 billion per hull, should the Navy buy all 10 of the Block Vs.
The Navy has recognized that with the proliferation of long-range anti-ship missiles, the service will need to put more missiles than ever in the air to strike launchers inland and to defend major assets such as aircraft carriers from attack.
But relying on submarines for the strike component is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, superior submarines mean a higher chance that the Block Vs will be able to operate inside Chinese and Russian anti-access windows — or areas where surface ships would be vulnerable. The problem is that the Navy might go bankrupt before it creates the volume of fires it would need to combat a massive missile power like China.
Jerry Hendrix, a Navy analyst with Telemus Group, explained it in an interview earlier this fall: “I think there is a powerful argument to distribute these weapons across the surface force,” he 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, won’t 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.”
Navy leadership is increasingly looking to concepts such as a large unmanned surface combatants that could work as external missile magazines for larger manned surface combatants as a model for more affordably boosting its capacity to put missiles in the air.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.