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This is an e-newsletter, originally published Nov. 19

ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters

I suppose, at first, I found virtual conferences depressing. Conferences generally are always a little depressing. It usually involves travel, so you are coming off a flight and a night in a hotel off the bat. Some people really enjoy business travel but for me, to paraphrase the Athenians: organizations hold conferences where they can and the reporter travels where he must. But anymore I’m starting to enjoy the virtual conference thing.

At a virtual conference, there is no expectation that I mingle or attend a happy hour. There is no glad-handing or bad wine shared over plastic model representations of weapons of war. It’s all right there on my computer, in the comfort of my own home.

But for as annoying as conferences can be, be they virtual or live, there’s one that I always look forward to: Sub League. It’s the only time you hear anything about what’s going on with submarines. It’s always a news-rich environment, so much so that you can really only write about a third of the stuff you hear that strikes you as interesting.

We’re going remedy that right here and now, however.

Those of you who have followed The Drift for a while will remember the Show Roundup feature. Well, it’s back. So, welcome to The Drift: Sub League 2020 edition. Time for a show round-up of all the things I found interesting but didn’t write about (yet).

Let’s Drift!


Sub League 2020

Sub League is the day the submariners have their picnic. It’s the one time when the submariners put their head above water, so to speak, and tell us all what’s going on in their world. So, without further ado, here’s a quick round-up of interesting things they said.

Adm. Frank Caldwell, Nuclear Reactors

Ah, the fabled NR: The House that Rickover Built.

Some interesting things that Caldwell talked about: Well, there was an interesting update on the Columbia’s electric drive.

The Quote: “In August, we completed full scale testing of the prototypical Columbia electric drive components. We call it the integrated power system. Think of it in terms of power generation switchboards, distribution controllers, and a full-size electric motor. During a full power run, the fully integrated system was operated under the most stressing conditions that we think we would encounter. And I'm proud to say that the system performed flawlessly. It exceeded all of our design expectations. Now this is a huge milestone for the submarine force. And it's a huge milestone in our efforts to deliver Columbia on time or early. It proves out over a decade of effort and proves that our systems can be integrated and deliver and electric drive for Columbia.”

Caldwell went on to take a victory lap for prototyping, and the kind of deliberate testing process that is a “hallmark” of the submarine force. Funnily enough, this is exactly the kind of rigor that some in Congress believe is missing in the Navy’s other efforts, including unmanned systems.

The Submarine force is heading for a dip in force structure, as we all know. We’re heading down to an attack sub force of about 42 boats from today’s 50, but the Navy is trying to push that curve up a little by extending the lives of some LA-class attack boats. The latest from Caldwell:

The Quote: We are progressing on refueling select 688-class submarines. The first will be Cheyenne starting in February 2022. Currently there are six 688s which will be refueled. This will help with our upcoming SSN for structure dip, and we will extend these boats out for another operating cycle to get after this.

Over the last two years we've been making the required investments in cranes equipment and facilities to support these refuelings at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. This is a big effort. And I have to say there's a lot of work going on. And that too is very impressive if you got the chance to see it.”

Caldwell also addressed something we’ve discussed here on The Drift: The public shipyards modernization plan. Using that age-old metaphor of building the airplane in fight, he acknowledged it was going to be a challenge but said it will be a worthy effort.

The Quote: We must recapitalize vital facilities and infrastructure on our public yards. A great example of this is what we're working on at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard that I discussed earlier. Here is a case where infrastructure upgrades are tightly connected to executing deep submarine maintenance. It's absolutely like the analogy of building an airplane in flight.0

The outcome of this effort will be terrific. We will go in one area of the shipyard from one dock to three docks. And overall the yard will go from three docks to a total of five docks with a much more efficient layout, with margin to our requirements. And we will also remove dependency on the tides, for bringing ships in and out of drydock by the inclusion of a super flood base. And these facilities will provide decades more of repair much needed repair capacity.

And finally, Caldwell threw some cold water on the idea that the Navy has any real idea what it’s moving toward with the next-generation Fast-attack submarine. Here’s what he had to say:

The Quote: “What happens after Columbia? Is it continuing to build additional Virginia blocks? Can we build on the Virginia hull form for future needs? What about building on the Columbia hull form? Or does it require an entirely new hull form? I want you to know that we are considering all of these alternatives. Key in all of this will be our focus on speed, warfighting capability, greater energy, lethality, and sensors. And, yes, the next level of stealth. I want you to know that we are working on this very actively as an enterprise.”


Vice Admiral Daryl Caudle, Commander, Naval Submarine Forces

The most interesting thing SUBFOR talked about was an initiative to increase the means by which submarines and unmanned undersea vehicles can communicate, an effort to make it so that submarines never have to break the surface of the water again.

The Quote: “We're improving our ability to communicate at speed and depth. That’s always been the holy grail of submarine forces: never having to break the air/water interface – the initiative to never go to periscope depth again. And we're really making great strides in that. We're doing that through things we call non-traditional acoustic communication systems.

We're doing it through special buoys that we can actually launch. We're doing it through all sorts of different ways that are different classification levels. But all of those ways will eventually utilize and leverage the undersea constellation. And the undersea constellation … will be critical in our long-term ability to communicate undersea. It will be critical to get targeting from; it will be critical to actually track adversary submarines; it will be critical to power UUVs from. So, this undersea constellation is really something we're putting a lot of energy in.”

More on that in the future.


Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwait

Oh, man, did SECNAV ever make a stir. You probably saw this first but I thought it was worth rehashing.

So, SECNAV believes that the Navy needs a new numbered fleet to focus on the area that runs from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, perhaps out of Singapore. Here’s what he said:

The Quote: “We want to stand up a new numbered fleet. And we want to put that numbered fleet in the crossroads between the Indian and the Pacific oceans, and we’re really going to have an Indo-PACOM footprint. We can’t just rely on the 7th Fleet in Japan. We have to look to our other allies and partners like Singapore, like India, and actually put a numbered fleet where it would be extremely relevant if, god forbid, we were to ever to get in any kind of a dust-up.

More importantly, it can provide a much more formidable deterrence. So, we’re going to create the First Fleet, and we’re going to put it, if not Singapore right out of the chocks. We’re going to look to make it more expeditionary-oriented and move it across the Pacific until it is where our allies and partners see that it could best assist them as well as to assist us.”

So, an unnamed Defense official told USNI that U.S. 1st Fleet was an idea he had discussed with Mark Esper, who has now been fired by tweet, but it was not cleared yet with the new acting Secretary of Defense whose name I’m not sure I need to learn.

Two additional pieces of information popped today on this.

One was this statement from the Secretary of the Navy’s office:

“No decisions have been made on timing or location for the establishment of an additional numbered fleet in the Indo Pacific. The Navy continues to review our organizational structure and force posture, in coordination with combatant commanders and our allies, to ensure we can most effectively meet the maritime challenges we face around the world.

And the other was this statement from Singapore, which isn’t very subtle:

“As agreed and announced in 2012, by the Minister for Defence (Singapore) and Secretary of Defense (US), MINDEF had agreed to the US' request to deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore on a rotational basis. This remains the standing arrangement with no further requests from or discussions with the US Department of Defense (DOD) on additional deployment of US ships in Singapore.”

SECNAV perhaps got over his skis a bit. We’ll wait to see on 1st Fleet.


On to The Hotwash!

The Hotwash

Just the links this week.

More Reading

French Navy puts fresh focus on high-intensity combat training

So many new frigates! Japan launches first ship of new frigate class

Mission Creep Alert: US Navy destroyer shoots down an ICBM in milestone test

We’ll see about this one: Navy Officials Reveal Details of New $100M Light Amphibious Warship Concept

Unexpected present: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson Pledges $32B Military Build-Up

Navy Makes Major JADC2 Push, Linking Sensors & Shooters

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

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