The Navy is outfitting a prototype Virginia-class attack submarine platform with a series of upgrades designed to improve sonar detection and make boats less detectable and more stealthy.
The work includes the addition of a large vertical array, special coating materials for the exterior of the submarine and special noise-reduction technologies for the engine room, Rear Adm. Joe Tofalo, director, submarine warfare, said Oct. 23 at the Naval Submarine League annual symposium, Falls Church, Va.
The innovations are being worked on the USS South Dakota, a Block III Virginia-class attack submarine, or SSN, now in development.
“The USS South Dakota is a platform for three crucial aspects of our efforts to work on acoustic superiority. The large vertical array is about 60-percent designed with a preliminary design and we are installing a similar array on the USS Maryland that is 75-percent complete,” Tofalo said.
The USS Maryland is an existing nuclear-armed Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, or SSBN. The larger array will extend the detection range and provide the submarine with an improved intelligence picture regarding threats, undersea terrain and what might be operating in a given area.
The external coating technology now being engineered onto the USS South Dakota, designed in part by the Office of Naval Research, is intended to decrease the signature of the boat by making it less detectable to enemy sensors and sonar.
In addition, about a dozen special noise reduction technologies are being added to the engine room.
The idea is to stay in front of fast-moving technological progress on the part of potential adversaries and help ensure undersea dominance for the U.S. Navy, Tofalo said. Making a submarine harder to detect and increasing the range of its on-board sonar is designed to provide a technological advantage to U.S. submarines looking to operate beneath or behind barriers erected by the weaponry and sensors of potential adversaries.
Many countries such as China, North Korea and Iran have or are developing long-range anti-ship missiles designed to prevent surface ships from operating within a certain distance of the shoreline. These technologies and weapons could be intended to deny access or deny an area to U.S. forces, making it much harder to operate and project power.
Vice Adm. Mike Connor, commander of the Navy’s Atlantic submarine force, Atlantic, said anti-access, area-denial efforts are increasingly expanding into the undersea domain.
“We need to be ready for a Russia, China, Iran or whoever else who – recognizing the superiority we have today – seeks to develop an A2/AD like network underwater to match what many of them currently have on the surface and in the air. We know that is going to happen,” Connor said.
Tofalo said the Navy intends to implement these technical upgrades across the fleet of existing and future attack and ballistic missile submarines. The extent of integration of these new technologies, however, may largely depend upon budget considerations.
“It is my intention to pursue all of these acoustic superiority technologies for in service and future SSNs and SSBNs. The submarine force is the key that unlocks that A2/AD bubble. We are the folks who are expected to get in underneath and – at the time and place of our choosing – do what needs to be done. A significant part of our ability to do this is an acoustic advantage,” Tofalo added.