Navy Considers Future After Virginia-Class Subs

Virginia-Class SubThe Navy’s Virginia-class fast attack submarines are slated to serve for the next 50 years, but service leaders are already debating what submarine or system might replace it.

The Navy’s 2014 30-year shipbuilding plan calls for the construction and delivery of Virginia-class submarines through at least 2043, an acquisition strategy which plans for a total of 48 to 50 boats, Adm. David Johnson, Program Executive Officer, Submarines, told

Since the expected service life of a Virginia-class submarine is 33 years, the timeline means they will be expected to serve well beyond 2060, Johnson explained.

“We are starting to think about what upgrades do you need to make to the Virginia class to keep it relevant and competitive out into the mid-century. We’re also looking at options and concept studies of what should the new SSN (attack submarine) do,” Johnson said.

Given the importance of payloads to the future, Johnson said Navy developers are making moves today in order to prepare for the payloads of tomorrow.

“I think a couple things are pretty clear, acoustic quieting and non-acoustic quieting – they matter and payload matters. I don’t envision a small ship.”

Alongside early conceptual discussions of what a submarine platform should look like in 2060, Navy leaders have also engineered the Virginia-class attack submarines so they are upgradeable and can accommodate new technologies, such as payloads or electronics, as they become available, Johnson added.

“The Navy looked to the future with the Virginia-class and designed the submarine to be flexible enough to adapt to and address new requirements and technologies,” Johnson added.

Navy engineers are now working on requirements and early designs for a new, 70-foot module for Virginia-class submarines engineered to house an additional 28 Tomahawk missiles. The Virginia Payload Modules, or VPM, are slated to enter production in fiscal year 2019 as part of a Virginia-class Block V contract. While designed primarily to hold Tomahawks, the VPM is being engineered to handle different and potentially emerging payloads as well.

“You want to build inherently flexible platforms that you can plug in and out payloads as the demand and threat environment changes. You build a very flexible host platform,” Johnson said.

With the VPM, Block V Virginia-class submarines will increase the vertical launch missile capability from 12 to 40, Johnson explained. The missile tubes are engineered such that they could accommodate a new payload, new missile or even a large unmanned underwater vehicle. The fiscal year 2014 budget includes $59 million dollars for VPM development, he said.

Virginia-class submarines, engineered to replace the 1980s-era Los Angeles-class attack submarines, are being built in block increments. Blocks I and II, totaling 10 ships, have already been delivered to the Navy. Block III boats are currently under construction. The first Block III boat, the USS North Dakota, was christened this past November and is slated for delivery this coming April.

The fiscal year 2014 budget passed by Congress appropriated $3.8 billion for two Virginia-class submarines to be built in 2015 and $2.3 billion more for advance procurement dollars for two more submarines to be built in 2016 and 2017.

In total, all eight Block III boats are being built under a $14 billion Navy deal with General Dynamics Electric Boat from December 2008.  A contract for Block IV construction is currently being finalized and Block V is slated to begin construction in fiscal year 2019. Blocks VI and VII are planned for the mid to late 2020s and early 2030s.

The Navy plans to build two Virginia-class submarines per year for less than $2.5 billion each and build the Ohio Replacement Program submarine, a next-generation nuclear-armed submarine,  for less than $5 billion.

Virginia-class submarine developers have also implemented a software and hardware upgrade rotation in order to ensure that the ships keep pace with technological change and incorporate the latest technical designs and developments, Johnson said.

A program known as Submarine Warfare Federated Tactical Systems model, or SWFTS, involves upgrading all attack submarines (SSNs) and guided missile submarines (SSGNs) sonar, combat system, and imagining systems once every four to six years, Navy officials said. This upgrade utilizes commercial hardware, called technology insertions which are delivered on even years, and open architecture software upgrades every odd year.

“We do an upgrade of the ship. That way we stay ahead on capability because the threat keeps evolving. We’re able to incorporate new sensors like a new towed array,” Johnson explained.

This approach, which involves examining on-board electronics, sensors, combat control systems and imaging, to ensure the submarine avoids obsolescence and remains effective, he said.

This upgrade approach will also be applied to the Navy’s guided missile submarines, or SSGNs, as well as its next-to-be-built nuclear-armed Ohio Replacement ballistic missile submarines, or SSBNs.

The Virginia-class boats will serve alongside the the Ohio Replacement ballistic missile submarines slated to enter service in 2031. Once the Ohio Replacement begins construction, there are several years wherein one of each, one Virginia-class submarine and one ORP, are slated for production.

“We’re going to try to contractually tie those two programs together so that we can use the volume benefit of a multi-year procurement,” Johnson said.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • wjcollinsaz

    Shouldn’t we be working on a replacement for the F-35 instead? Just asking.

  • Rocky Johnston

    The future is Chinese. As more and more of the federal budget goes to social programs less and less goes to the US military. On the other hand, the Chinese military continues to grow, will surpass the US likely by 2020 and cause problems for the US around the world for decades to come.

  • hibeam

    Social Justice is all we need. We don’t need a defense department. Social justice is all we need. And this lamp. Social justice and this lamp and that’s all we need.

    • give-me-a-break

      “Social Justice” code for theft, tyranny and mass murder.

    • $20MIKE


      WHAT DID I WIN ???$$$

    • Tom

      Nice! I get the movie reference and the humor…. seemed to go over the heads of a few others.

    • gdadl

      The Chinese, North Koreans and Iran will give hibeam his social justice — at the labor camp !!!!!

    • mrmustangaz

      Awesome reference to one of my favorite “boat flicks” starring Steve Martin. OK, I really watched it for Bernadette Peters!

  • Dave Simon

    Everything underwater after 2050, and probably long before, will be unmanned. Including SSBNs.

  • PolicyWonk

    The newer class (Virginia replacements) will probably take advantage of the direct electric drive design being put together for the ORP boats. Removing the gears and going with a direct drive will simplify the boat and make then quieter.

    Silence is golden…

    • anonymous

      Gears are loud, main engines are loud, reactor cooling pumps are loud, TDU ops are loud, steam generator blowdowns are loud, water slugs are loud, . . .

  • So how do they do upgrades on a submarine? Does everything go thru the hatch or does the sub get spit in two?

  • Lance

    Called blowing much depleted money on things we wont need for 30+ years! Yes more VA class boats are fine but looking beyond now is pointless. Wee need to trash the JSF and look faster into that future than worry about subs. heck the LA class is still soldering on strong today no complaints.

  • blight_

    ““You want to build inherently flexible platforms that you can plug in and out payloads as the demand and threat environment changes. You build a very flexible host platform,” Johnson said.”

    Uh oh, more modularity yakyak.

  • Benjamin

    Be interesting to see what is in the Block VI and VII’s. The discussion the Navy is having from what I see is something where they think a technology is going to come along that they cannot place in a modified Virginia class boat. If they can keep on putting new technology in the Virginia class, they may never need to build a genuine replacement

    • Rob C.

      I think its all about the cost savings. Continuing produce and improve the same proven design helps to keep some aspects of the cost down while still introducing innovations to the basic design. Frankly, i think Block # system is same as new class of ship. They used do that with older generation submarines like the Sturgeons and Permit Class ships. Some mechanical differences and improvements, but they were similar enough you could call them Block II and Block I respectively.

  • Moondawg

    How bout working on a good modern diesel-electric boat. More bang for our scares defense $$.

  • PaulH

    IMO unmanned vehicles (water and air) are already on their way to becoming the next disruptive technology our military will face. We have the upper hand for the next few years. After that the technology for asymmetric responses against monolithic systems will start entering the pipeline. We are working on a UUV capable of tracking a sub for months at a time. Enabling offensive capability on the same UUV is an obvious adaptation. So UUVs capable of tagging or eliminating our ‘new’ multi billion dollar platforms will be available long before the last ‘new’ attack sub is deployed.
    It will be risky to use these costly platforms in high threat environments 20 years from now. That begs the question what will we be using?
    In the computer industry a disruptive technology comes into play about every four years. Tech giants adapt to these changes or become impotent at best. UV and other technologies will move the military into a similar cycle. What we will need to use 20-30 years from now can’t be answered with certainty today. But I doubt we’ll be able to field new sub modules fast enough to keep up. Clearly the way we design, build, procure and test new systems needs significant modification. If we fail in this very pragmatic task, during the life cycle of the next generation of conventional weapons (sea and air) we will be bringing a knife to a gun fight.

  • Tiger

    No money till new subs named for sea creatures & fish again. Plus I want a yellow Flying mini sub…

  • wtpworrier

    “The Navy’s Virginia-class fast attack submarines are slated to serve for the next 50 years, but service leaders are already debating what submarine or system might replace it.”_____________________Hopefully something that will fly in outer space and at light speed.

  • Rob C.

    I’m looking forward also to what General Electric has in store for what their next generation design could entail. Virginia is pretty successful design, which was based on the Seawolf Class. Seawolf development cost allot more, basicly got cancelled. However, the development done on the class translated into the Virginia Class. I wonder if that maybe needed again, with prototype class work out the bugs. You can do only so much with simulations on a computer.

    Having Unmanned Attack Submarines is bad thing, underwater environment is complicated, you need experienced and thinking people to trouble shoot problems that can be coded and programmed. Supplementing manned ones seems to be more way to go, with the VPM system, they can launch some parasites to be force multiplier if future SSN get into trouble by itself.


    Speed, weapons and stealth, it’s all about surprise and destructive power and first strike delivery if needed….new space weapons are going to become a priority if they not already. Forearmed is a great defense…

  • CAllenDoudna

    If the Navy would like flexibility and upgradability they should consider a submarine carrier. A hundred minisubs would allow a carrier sub to simultaneously strike from a hundred different locations over 10,000 square miles of ocean (100 miles by 100 miles)–and that would DEFINITELY make life much more interesting for the enemy. Each squadron of minisubs could be tailored for a range of related missions–which would make a lot more sense than trying to have ONE Big Submarine serve as a jack-of-all trades. With the submersible equivilants of each of the birds on an aircraft carrier we would have full command of the seas and could swiftly upgrade and increase flexibility faster than anybody can keep up with.

  • It strikes me that the idea of a drone-sub could offer many benefits for long term patrol, reconnaissance and off-shore attack missions. Think of all the extra tech you could employ once you broke free of the shackles of human life support systems…

  • Allen EM1-SS

    Yeah, that is all we need. An unmanned nuclear armed SSBN that get tangled up in some trawler’s net….

  • hey we have small unmaned subs. they go out the torpedo doors. they look for other subs with active onar. they swim 100 miles away and ping away from the moter ship and relay the stuff back. thay way the know if it’s safe to move in an area. you guys are way behind the times.