Navy Wants New 'Seawolf-Like' Attack Submarines To Challenge Russian And Chinese Threats

The boats would be a key part of the service's plans to revitalize its anti-submarine capabilities, but at a price of more than $5 billion each.

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The U.S. Navy appears to be leaning toward developing a new, advanced fast attack submarine that focuses more on hunting maritime threats above and below the waves than on stand-off strikes against targets ashore. The decision would reflect growing concerns about Russian and Chinese submarine activity, but could come at a steep price of more than $5 billion per sub.

USNI News was one of the first to spot that the Congressional Budget Office explored the Navy’s shifting priorities in its analysis of the service’s latest shipbuilding plan for the 2019 through 2048 Fiscal Years, which it released on Oct. 18, 2018. Purchases of the Virginia-class attack submarine are supposed to end in 2033, after which the Navy expects to begin buying new boats to succeed that design at a rate of two every year through 2048. This would result in a fleet of 30 of the new subs, presently referred to simply as SSN(X).

“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 analysts wrote in their review. “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.’”

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The Seawolf-class submarine USS Connecticut.

In 1983, General Dynamics Electric Boat began designing the Seawolf-class for the Navy as a successor to the Los Angeles-class attack submarine. Significantly more advanced, the Seawolfs were also much costlier to build. Their unit cost of more than $3 billion – closer to $5 billion in 2018 dollars – made them the most expensive attack submarine ever designed and the second most expensive submarine of any kind, ever, at the time.

With the apparent need for the boats gone after the end of the Cold War, the United States canceled the program in 1995 and ultimately purchased just three of the 29 examples it had originally planned to buy. The Seawolf-class submarines have since been assigned a number of secretive special duties that make good use of their enhanced performance and deep-diving capabilities, which make them particularly well suited to operations under the ice in the increasingly strategic Arctic region. The last example, the USS Jimmy Carter, also received significant modifications to operate as a spy submarine.

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A graph showing the planned shift in the Navy's attack submarine fleets between 2018 and 2048, which also shows the older Los Angeles-class boats out of service by around 2033 and the Seawolfs heading into retirement by 2038.

The Navy subsequently moved on to the Virginia-class, a smaller, less expensive, multi-mission design with 12 vertical launch system cells for firing Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles and features allowing them to more readily work in littoral environments to collect intelligence and insert and extract special operations forces. Starting with the Block V Virginias, the submarines will also gain the Virginia Payload Module (VPM), which adds four large diameter tubes for additional Tomahawks, other long-range weapons, or unmanned undersea vehicles.

The Navy had originally described SSN(X) as an evolution of the late model Virginia-class boats with the VPM. Now, the plan appears to be to return to a design better suited for conducting missions against enemy surface ships and submarines that has the capacity to carry more torpedoes, according to CBO.

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A 2013 briefing slide explaining the VPM modifications to the Block V Virginia-class submarines.

Based on information the office received from the Navy and its own analysis, the new submarines will have space for 25 additional weapons in the torpedo room compared to the existing Virginia-class, for a total of 62 weapons, and could leave out the VPM entirely. CBO's review noted that this could allow for additional torpedoes or Tomahawks, but it could also allow the submarines to carry torpedo tube-launched anti-ship missiles

This is a long-dormant capability the Navy recently demonstrated for the first time in years during the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise off Hawaii. The SSN(X) will almost certainly have other improvements in terms of its ability to avoid detection and perform important secondary missions, such as intelligence collection and network connectivity, and still have the ability to conduct strikes against surface and land targets using some form of VLS array, such as the ones found on Block III and IV Virginia-class boats. There is a possibility any remaining VLS cells could launch supersonic or hypersonic weapons in the future, which could be important as improving defenses on opposing ships will only make it harder for submarines to get close enough to engage a ship with a torpedo as time goes on.

A submarine with a revised bow design able to hold more torpedoes could also point to a design with more torpedo tubes in total. The Virginias only have four torpedo tubes, while the Seawolfs have eight.

Concerns about increased Russian and Chinese submarine activity seem to be the primary drivers behind the Navy’s renewed desire for a Seawolf-like boat and raises the question of whether it has turned out to be a short-sighted decision to cancel that program in the first place. President Donald Trump and his administration have focused heavily on “great power competition” and the potential for large-scale conflicts against near-peer adversaries in the latest official National Security and Defense Strategies.

“I think Russian submarines today are perhaps some of the most silent and lethal in the world, with the exception of our own – I think we still in the United States Navy hold the edge,” U.S. Navy Admiral James Foggo, who presently serves as the head of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples, said in an official podcast on Sept. 30, 2018. “We know that Russian submarines are in the Atlantic, testing our defenses, confirming our command of the seas and preparing a very complex underwater battlespace to try to give them an edge in any future conflict. And we need to deny them that edge.”

There have been reports that Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic has increased to levels not seen since the end of the Cold War. Foggo himself has described this new reality as the “Fourth Battle of the Atlantic,” a reference to anti-submarine campaigns, or preparedness for those types of operations, during the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War.

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Russia's Yasen-class nuclear-powered attack submarine Severodvinsk.

We at The War Zone, among others, have called into question just how large Russia’s increase in submarine operations is overall and whether this has come at the expense of its ability to operate elsewhere. However, the Kremlin maintains and is expanding its array of novel undersea capabilities, including deep sea-capable special mission submarines able to interfere with information-carrying cables along the seabed, emplacing sensors of its own at the bottom of the ocean, or otherwise collecting intelligence. 

Even a limited number of Russian submarines could lay mines, hold targets ashore at risk, or otherwise present a threat in strategic bottlenecks, such as the Baltic Sea or the Black Sea, or in important maritime shipping lanes in the Atlantic during an actual crisis. Russia also claims to be working on nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed long-range torpedoes and unmanned undersea vehicles. By their nature, subs can be difficult to track and monitor, allowing for individual boats to have an outsized impact on an opponent’s operations and potentially drawing valuable resources away from other missions in order to conduct sub-hunting activities.

China, eager to move beyond being a regional power, is also stepping up its submarine activity. Though Chinese submarine activity in the Atlantic may be limited, that they're operating there at all reflects a significant shift in how the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operates and a new challenge to America’s long-standing naval supremacy along its eastern seaboard. Regardless, China's submarine fleets are growing and will continue to present a significantly more pronounced threat throughout the Pacific, and potentially elsewhere, as the PLAN continues to transition into a force with global reach. 

A new advanced American attack submarine could definitely help in countering these challenges, but it's also unlikely to come cheap. By the Navy’s own estimates, the SSN(X) unit cost will be approximately $3.1 billion, which would be cheaper than the price point for the Seawolfs when adjusted for inflation.

However, CBO is warning that this cost estimate may no longer be valid, since the Navy based it on the premise of buying a submarine design derived largely from the existing Virginia-class. If the service’s requirements demand more extensive modifications or a clean-sheet design, this could significantly raise the cost of the program, with the average cost per sub possibly coming out to around $5.5 billion – closer to what a new Seawolf would cost today. It could also increase the strain on already over-worked shipyards to actually build the boats.

“The large difference between the Navy’s and CBO’s estimates under the 2019 plan suggests widely different assumptions about the submarine’s size, capabilities, and design,” the CBO noted in its review. “As a result, its final capabilities and costs are highly uncertain.”

Qiao Tianfu/Color China Photo/AP

A Chinese Type 091 nuclear-powered attack submarine. 

Even if the shipbuilding plan proceeds without any problems, the Navy's goal of a 66-submarine fleet, with a mix of high and very high-end designs that will be expensive to operate and maintain, may not necessarily be able to provide the coverage necessary to respond to potential threats, especially from China. The PLAN has nearly 80 submarines, including a variety of smaller diesel-electric types.

These include a growing number of boats with advanced air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology that can give them performance closer to nuclear-powered submarines both in terms of quiet operation and the ability to remain underwater for extended periods of time. The United States may eventually have to consider buying new, lower-cost diesel-electric types itself for more regional missions in order to free up larger nuclear-powered boats for longer-range patrols.

SSN(X) is only one part of the Navy’s growing plans to revitalize its anti-submarine warfare capabilities. This push also includes unmanned surface and undersea vessels, surface ships and maritime patrol aircraft with new weapons and sensors, and improved communications systems and data links to quickly share this information between assets at sea and in the air. There are also plans for increased cooperation with NATO allies and other U.S. partners on anti-submarine warfare capabilities will be able to work together more seamlessly in a multi-national setting.

“We have to continue to put a capital effort into the development of our technologies and antisubmarine warfare,” Admiral Foggo told reporters on Oct. 5, 2018 briefing. “This is not just submarines, it's maritime patrol aircraft, it's sensors of all types, and it's the surface Navy with their multifunction towed arrays, and the training and the professionalism that goes along with it, for us to have the knowledge and the awareness of where the adversaries operate.”

But while they’re just one part of this equation, a new attack submarine more focused on traditional underwater missions definitely seems to be a core part of the Navy’s present plans to counter increasing Russian and Chinese undersea activities.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com