The Navy’s plan to boost the combat clout of attack submarines
in the decades ahead would have these boats launch multiple types
of unmanned vehicles and fire tactical ballistic missiles on a moment’s
The submarine of 2020, according to the Navy’s long-term
blueprint for undersea warfare, will interact with unmanned underwater,
surface and air vehicles. Further, it will be equipped to launch
non-Navy weapons, such as Army tactical missiles.
One scenario, for example, would have the submarine lay sensors
on the ocean floor, creating an “information grid” that
would feed the naval battle group commander valuable intelligence.
The sensors would be linked to unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs)
and pilot-less drones (UAVs) that would fly over the battle zone.
The information grid would help the commander, who may not even
be anywhere near the submarine, gain control of the situation.
Making the submarine a centerpiece of the “network-centric”
approach to fighting wars and elevating its role in the naval battle
group has been the gospel preached by Adm. Frank L. “Skip”
Bowman, the director of Navy reactors. He has been pushing the submarine
technology developers to stop studying futuristic concepts on Powerpoint
briefings and start building real hardware.
Some real hardware is in the works, in the form of “technology
demonstrations” that will test the submarine’s capabilities
for “time-critical strike,” said Rear Adm. John D. Butler,
deputy chief of the Naval Sea Systems Command and head of the Naval
Undersea Warfare Center, at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard.
The first of such demonstrations is planned for January. It will
involve the USS Florida, an Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine
that soon will be refurbished to carry special-operations troops
and to fire conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Florida and
three other Ohio-class boats will become the SSGN class.
Butler sees the SSGN as a “stepping stone, a bridge to the
future SSN force.” The SSN, or attack submarines, of the future
will be the nuclear-powered Virginia class. The Navy so far has
ordered four new SSNs, to replace the Los Angeles-class boats.
The SSGN experiments with new technologies will help the Navy decide
how it should equip the next batch of Virginia class submarines,
Butler said in an interview. “Those technologies we want to
test for SSN will be on SSGN.”
In the January demo, off the Atlantic coast, the Florida will serve
as the operations center for Navy SEAL commandos conducting a mission
ashore. In addition to serving as the means of transportation for
the SEALs, the Florida will launch, from its missile tubes, a UUV
that will be part of a network connecting the SEALs and the submarine
via a small UAV, equipped with a communications node. The UAV will
be the Scan Eagle, made by Boeing. A team led by Raytheon and General
Dynamics are responsible for managing the overall demonstration.
After the demonstration, the Florida will undergo a four-year overhaul
for SSGN conversion and refueling. It will join the fleet in 2007.
Even though the UAV will not be launched from the SSGN this time,
it’s conceivable that it could be done in future demonstrations,
The expectation, he said, is that the experiment will prove that
a submarine can support SEALs directly—with a UAV overhead
and a submarine in the area, “uncontested, controlling the
events,” Butler added.
These experiments are being funded with money from existing programs,
he noted. “We hope to do annual demos to show that we are
serious about transformation, without having to create new acquisition
This month, Butler’s office was slated to award a contract
for a 2004 demo.
Depending on how these technologies progress in SSGN tests, they
would be incorporated into the Virginia class. As part of a naval
battle group, the SSN would help not only secure portions of the
ocean from enemy attack but also pinpoint targets on land. “Eventually,
I want to have some kind of an ocean grid in place so the submarine
can operate uncontested in littoral areas,” said Butler. “We
can link it, we can image, we can put weapons on target.”
In a contested area, he said, the submarine would stand off and
monitor the grid. “The submarine can position itself to intercept
the enemy, pass the information for someone else to intercept or
let them go.”
In situations when targets are moving and have to be struck quickly,
the Tomahawk is not the answer, because it takes too long to program
and to fly to its destination, he explained. That is why Butler
supports the “encapsulation” of Army tactical missiles,
so they can be fired from the SSGNs and later from the Virginia-class
“The real answer for time-critical targeting is to use an
ATACMS ballistic missile,” he said. “The Tomahawk is
valuable, but if you have a mobile target, you really want something
that is on a ballistic trajectory. It gets there faster.
“If you need wide area control, you need a sensor grid. If
you want local control, you need a submarine with the surveillance
reconnaissance module and a weapon that will fly ballistically.”
Besides the ATACMS, Butler’s office also is interested in
a so-called “low-cost missile” in early development
by the Office of Naval Research. “That may be an answer down
the road,” he said. The ONR missile is a ballistic weapon
that could be fired from a submarine canister.
Whatever weapon ends up being used on SSGNs and SSNs, they should
be existing weapons from Navy or other services’ inventories,
said Butler. “I never want to develop a submarine-unique weapon
again, with the exception of a torpedo.”
The Navy plans to fund a program to develop a “universal
canister” that would be adaptable for any weapon. It goes
to the surface, “so you never worry about the water interface
anymore,” said Butler. “We can take Army and Air Force
weapons, as long as it’s propelled flight, you can launch
them from a submarine.”
That may be easier said than done, however. An industry source
noted that the “universal canister is a great sounding concept
but fails the reality check given the ranges of weapons considered.”
That is because the launcher has to be tailored based on the weapon
and ship interfaces with the fire control system, for example, the
source said. “A universal canister would fail from an economic
standpoint as well. ... Differences in weapon sizes, launch requirements
and concept of operations preclude a ‘one size fits all’
Northrop Grumman received a $16 million contract to develop a so-called
“multiple, all-up round canister” (MAC) that would be
used to fire up to seven Tomahawks. The canister will be part of
the January SSGN demonstration. The MAC architecture is adaptable
to other weapons, said company officials.
In the future, the company will be working on technologies to launch
both UAVs and UUVs, said David J. Beck, a program director at Northrop
Grumman. One of the plans is to develop a “super MAC”
launcher for weapons other than Tomahawk. The TACMS and the Tomahawk
could not use the same launcher, Beck said, because the TACMS has
a much larger diameter. Only six would fit in a MAC canister.
A competing system, being developed by Raytheon and General Dynamics,
is called the broaching universal buoyant launcher. It encapsulates
the weapon and launches it from the canister. It then floats to
the surface. When it hits the surface, it can either launch immediately
or loiter. The buoyant capsule concept is similar to the so-called
“stealthy affordable capsule,” currently in development
by Northrop Grumman.
Butler wants to see UUVs and UAVs that can operate in submarines
like an old torpedo room. “Instead of the torpedo you have
UUVs and UAVs,” he said. “This shouldn’t be hard.
If it’s hard, then we probably implemented it wrong.”
Looking ahead, Butler said the Navy should focus more research
efforts into the design of a new batch of Virginia-class boats,
with a modular makeup that would be more adaptable to multiple missions.
The current design of the Virginia class is a conventional cylindrical
boat, so if the Navy wants a new mission added, the submarine has
to go into the shipyard for structural overhaul work that can take
Upgrade for Virginia Class
“Right now, if I want to change payloads, I have to go into
overhaul—cut wires, restructure the submarine,” said
Butler. In the future, “I want to go to plug-and-play payloads,
grab modules and be able to change payloads within 24 hours, as
opposed to one-year or six-month overhauls.”
Under the modular concept, there would be pre-fabricated submarine
sections equipped for strike, surveillance or special-warfare missions,
for example. A module would be inserted as needed. “We wouldn’t
have to go to a shipyard,” said Butler. “We could do
the swapping alongside a pier. Modules would be pre-existing.”
A group of Navy and contractor engineers have been sketching proposed
concepts for the modular submarine. The challenge, said Butler,
is in making modules that can be removed and inserted without disrupting
the integrity of the boat’s functions. For that, he said,
the key technology is wireless power transfer. “Today, you
have to do hardwiring for the data transfer.” High data-rate
wireless capabilities are needed, “so when the module slips
out, the power and the data connections are not broken—without
hardwiring or re-cabling.”
Other improvements to the SSN could flow from the SSGN experiments,
he said. “You should envision the SSGN as the transition platform
to the batch two of SSN. ... A lot of things we want to have in
submarines in the future, we’ll be able to install on SSGN,
put them to sea, test them, before we start building batch two SSN.”
Butler predicted that the current design is likely to be used in
at least the first eight to 10 boats of the Virginia class. The
modular design would come after that.
The modularity is not easy to achieve, he said. “I have to
overcome how I’m going to design that hull section, where
the modules fit and figure out how to design modules so they are
Asked how much all this new technology will cost, Butler said it
is hard to say. But he warned contractors to not get too wild with
new ideas, if they are not affordable. “I don’t have
a lot of money. I am carving this out of my existing budget. ...
My intent is to figure out how to do this through demonstrations,
to minimize the cost impact.”
It is unlikely that current Navy budgets for submarine procurement
and upgrades will go up in the foreseeable future, particularly
in light of the high cost of submarines. Each Virginia class boat
will cost about $2 billion. Vice Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the deputy
chief of naval operations for resource, requirements and assessments,
told reporters this summer that the submarine community will not
get any special treatment in the budget allocations.
“We cannot answer every request across the board,”
he said. The submariners, he added, have to “be able to balance
their requirements for war fighting with the ability to support
But even if more money were available for research, there are still
technologies that are not up to speed, such as unmanned undersea
vehicles. The UUVs still are limited in their ability to operate
autonomously, said Butler.
Between 2000 and 2007, the Navy will have spent $1.3 billion on
UUV research, development and procurement. The Navy officer responsible
for the procurement of UUVs agreed that much work remains to be
done to make these vehicles useful in combat operations.
During a conference of the Society of Naval Engineers, Rear Adm.
Michael Sharp, program executive officer for mine and undersea warfare,
said that current UUVs can pass very little information in real
time. “Computer-aided detection, target recognition is the
holy grail,” he said. Autonomy is not just navigating and
avoiding obstacles. “We want it to be smarter than that, to
respond to what it sees.”
A UUV expert from the Boeing Co., Margaret Calomino, noted that
UUVs are five to 10 years in front of unmanned aircraft as far as
design goes. However, she said, “The UAVs have done better
in defining their utility. We need to define what we want our UUVs
to do for us.”