Chief of Naval Operations
Submarine Warfare Division

Submarine Themes: Submarine Innovation

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Submarine innovation, including an aggressive long-term technological development and insertion program, promises to dramatically improve submarine capabilities in the 21st century.

Submarine Innovation Summary

  • Innovation Track Record. The submarine force has a history of innovation that has exploited the inherent strengths of submarines to provide revolutionary warfighting capabilities in response to current or emerging threats. Examples include the transformation of submarine warfare during World War II, the advent of nuclear power, and the placement of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on submarines - the third and most survivable leg of the strategic triad.
  • Warfighting Modernization. Current modernization programs are equipping our submarines with the state-of-the-art technology and warfighting capabilities - particularly in the areas of sensor improvements, communications, and onboard processing−to ensure they are thoroughly prepared to support joint operations today.
  • Submarine Challenges. Despite the SSN's superior balance of stealth, endurance, and agility, the limited volume of a submarine hull has traditionally resulted in relatively smaller weapon and sensor payloads and inventory compared to surface ships.
  • The Road Ahead. Submarine innovation, including an aggressive long-term technology development and insertion program, promises to overcome this challenge by dramatically increasing submarine sensor capabilities and payload in the future.
  • SSGN−Transformation Opportunity. The Navy is considering an opportunity to convert up to four Trident submarines to an SSGN configuration, which would carry large numbers of Tomahawks and Special Forces troops. By forward-deploying and dual-crewing these extraordinary platforms, we would provide our CINCs, for the next 20 years, with extraordinary firepower, and much-needed submarine mission capability and versatility in-theater. PB01 provided $37 million to continue studying this concept. A decision must be made this year.
  • VIRGINIA Technology. The VIRGINIA Class submarine program has been designed with technological innovation in mind. The built in flexibility of VIRGINIA, including incorporation of modular design, open architecture and COTs components, allows for rapid and affordable technological insertion and innovation.
  • Future Capabilities. Current development efforts are demonstrating progress in many key areas including unmanned vehicles, network centric operations with real-time reachback, and "smarter" weapons. Greater system and ship modularity along with long-term development programs, such as "electric ship" and offboard sensors, payloads and networks, will provide extraordinary flexibility and advances in future submarine warfighting capabilities.

Discussion: Submarine Innovation

The near-term strategy for submarine modernization and innovation places an emphasis on connectivity and payload (including sensors and processors), focused principally on littoral warfare aspects. The far-term strategy involves meaningful investment toward offboard sensors and vehicles, fully netted operations, complete submarine modularity in design and construction, and development of electric drive and an all-electric ship, including the enhanced capability these brings to stealth and warfighting. In conjunction, submarine initiatives will pursue and incorporate transformational capabilities and concepts (e.g., SSGN, submarine modularity, and offboard vehicles) to make our contribution to joint warfighting more efficient, effective and relevant.

History of Innovation

The advent of the submarine in the U.S. Navy 100 years ago was itself a revolutionary step in naval warfare. Since then, the submarine has consistently exploited its inherent strengths as an undersea warfighting platform to provide innovative and necessary capabilities to meet current and future threats. Examples include transformation of submarine warfare from coastal defense to forward-deployed interdiction in World War II, the advent of nuclear power which gave our submarines dominance on the seas because of their submerged endurance, speed, and stealth, and the placement of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on submarines providing a third, and the most survivable, leg of the strategic triad - the cornerstone of our national security strategy during the Cold War.

The Challenge

Nuclear powered attack submarines traditionally have been characterized by their superior blend of stealth, endurance, agility, and firepower. Endowed with these attributes, submarines play a key role in our warfighting and forward-presence strategy. As an example, SSNs comprise a surprisingly high percentage of the total Tomahawk capability in each U.S. Battle Group (about 20 percent) and launched approximately 25% of all Tomahawks during the Kosovo conflict1. Their capabilities as submarines were also critical to their ability to provide sustained presence and conduct critical surveillance prior to the conflict and to surge to the Adriatic Sea with other naval forces when hostilities commenced. Nevertheless, submarine design has traditionally placed limitations on submarine volume, which consequently limits submarine sensor and weapon payloads. Additionally, the dramatic explosion and proliferation of technology will make highly capable weapons systems affordable and easily accessible to potential adversaries that would not otherwise be able to pose a credible threat to U.S. forces. Increasingly, pursuit and implementation of rapidly changing warfighting capabilities will be essential to keeping up with emerging threats. Submarine innovation, including a long-term technological development and insertion program, promises to overcome these challenges and dramatically improve submarine capabilities in the 21st century.

Ongoing Innovation: Modernization and Incorporation of Technology

The Submarine Force is making significant, rapid improvements in acoustic sensors and processing by using commercial technology implemented through innovative system design and acquisition processes. In real-world exercises and operations, both the TB-29 towed array and Acoustic Rapid COTs Insertion Sonar system (ARCI) demonstrate the ability to restore a remarkable acoustic advantage to U.S. submarines. Use of COTS in ARCI (and in a modified TB-29 array) results in substantially reduced costs with significantly improved processing capability. For example, each ARCI shipset costs about 20% of the price of its predecessor, yet improves processing power by an order of magnitude. A key advantage of ARCI is the Advanced Processor Build (APB), which uses improved processing capability to provide new tactical capabilities and powerful new algorithms that have resulted in much improved towed array detection ranges in testing and actual fleet operations to date. Additionally, the ARCI program improves the commonality/interface among submarine systems while enabling future upgrades to be installed significantly quicker. An aggressive phased installation plan will provide continuously improved versions of ARCI across the entire submarine force by FY06.

Connectivity with other naval and joint forces is essential to effective decision-making, operations, and warfighting with submarines. Consequently, another major priority for the Submarine Force is the modernization of submarine communications capabilities. The submarine High Data Rate (HDR) antenna is the top C4I initiative and is the Navy's first multi-band dish antenna. The HDR antenna will provide worldwide high data rate satellite communications capability and enable access to a variety of systems including the secure, survivable Joint Milstar Satellite Program in the Extremely High Frequency (EHF) band and the Global Broadcast Service (GBS). All SSNs will have HDR antennas by FY04, thereby greatly enhancing SSN connectivity with the Battlegroup. Another development, the Multi-element Buoyant Cable Antenna (MBCA), will enable UHF transmit and receive capability while submerged at speed and depth. These initiatives are key to providing the data throughput necessary for network-centric operations in the 21st century.

TRIDENT SSGN−A Transformation Opportunity

A 1998-99 Navy study reviewed the concept of modifying Trident submarines to an SSGN configuration, which would carry large numbers of Tomahawks and Special Forces troops. Per the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), four Trident hulls will no longer be required for strategic deterrence and will be removed from strategic service beginning in FY03. These four hulls represent an enormous capital investment by the United States; will have over 20 years of service life remaining; and could alter our maritime capabilities in an extraordinarily innovative and cost-effective way. The SSGN Study clearly demonstrated that SSGN would provide our CINCs, in the near term, with extraordinary firepower, capability and versatility. Moreover, by forward-deploying and dual-crewing these highly capable submarines, the CINCs would gain additional resources to accomplish unfilled submarine missions in-theater while concurrently providing continuous 2.0 strike presence and much-needed relief for over-taxed naval strike forces. The SSGN concept also affords the Navy an unprecedented opportunity to experiment with submarine payloads.

At a modest investment of about $600M/ship, the Navy would acquire a modified Ohio Class submarine capable of carrying 154 Tomahawk missiles as well as Special Forces. With such massive firepower present in-theater continuously, SSGNs would increase our Global Naval Forces Presence Plan (GNFPP) for Tomahawks by nearly 60%, without buying a single missile. Put differently, this is about an additional Battle Group's equivalent of Tomahawk cruise missiles during a crisis. SSGN also provides the CINCs and Battle Group commander a large SOF contingent (4 platoons) capable of carrying out a sustained and continuous level of Special Forces missions. Using these extremely capable submarines to accomplish other traditional "SSN" missions while in-theater (4 SSGNs conducting approximately 350-400 mission days per year) would be an extraordinarily efficient use of existing submarine force structure. The Navy has a limited window of opportunity to conduct the conversion prior to inactivation of the Tridents, which is scheduled to start in FY03. Congress appropriated $37 million in FY01 to continue the initial design work on the SSGN concept. The Navy has not made a final decision on whether to conduct the SSGN conversion.


The VIRGINIA Class submarine program has been designed with long-term technological innovation in mind. The built-in flexibility of VIRGINIA, including incorporation of modular design techniques, open architecture, and COTS components, allows for rapid and affordable technological insertion and innovation. The initial low-rate production of VIRGINIA Class SSNs also provides an exceptional opportunity to progressively insert and test advanced technologies in these submarines as they are built. Accordingly, when VIRGINIA Class production must ramp up later in the decade, the Navy will have an optimized design that includes state-of-the-art technology and capabilities. As an example of the flexibility inherent in the design of VIRGINIA, the Navy anticipates placing an advanced sail on the FY06 VIRGINIA Class submarine. The new sail shape and size might well provide the required volume for advanced future payloads. Other technology "bundles" will be integrated (such as electric drive) as the concepts/systems are developed, allowing the ship to maintain its technological edge and warfighting superiority despite the rapid change in technology and the uncertainty of future requirements.

Future Capabilities: Sensors and Processing

In addition to improvements being made through ARCI, other sensor developments also promise near-term improvements in submarine capabilities. Based on recent research in high frequency sonar applications, the Submarine Force is incorporating precision undersea mapping capability both in ARCI and the Long-Term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS) (discussed below under payloads). This innovation provides for unparalleled imaging and knowledge of the undersea battlespace, ensuring superior mine hunting and mine avoidance capabilities as well as preparation of special forces/amphibious assault ingress routes.

Another key submarine innovation is development of the photonics periscope. The combination of low light TV, infrared capability, a laser range finder, and improved stealth will significantly improve SSN effectiveness in the littoral environment. The new Electronic Support (ES) system, AN/BLQ-10, as well as an improved Type 18I periscope and Integrated Electronics Mast (IEM) will also contribute to superior performance in the littorals. The Type 18 antenna improvement is expected to provide a 200% increase in performance against SIGINT targets of interest and will increase the ship's covert standoff range. Additionally, the new SIGINT exploitation suite, CLASSIC TROLL, offers a 500% improvement in probability of intercept in support of CVBG, fleet and National operational requirements.

Tactical Integrated Digital System (TIDS) is a key innovation that will enhance future submarine combat capability. TIDS is a fiber optic open architecture data bus that ties major electronic systems on a submarine together. Data can be rapidly transferred between sonar, the fire control system, electronic support measures (ESM) and radio. This allows, for example, digital imagery from the periscope or new signals detected by ESM to be retransmitted off the ship for immediate analysis. TIDS will not only enable future submarine crews to conduct their missions more efficiently, it will also play a key role in supporting development of a "common tactical picture" among naval forces in the coming years. TIDS will be backfitted in all submarines starting in FY00, completing in SSNs by FY04.

A long-term objective for our sensor and processing initiatives is the incorporation of off-board sensors and distributed networks that will dramatically expand the "reach" and effective battlespace of operations for submarines.

Future Capabilities: Payloads

Advances in component miniaturization, computer processing power, and submarine communications capabilities provide the opportunity to markedly change the nature of future submarine payloads. Several programs and recent tests demonstrate how technology can radically change submarine payloads, giving the submarine new capabilities. As an example, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) provide unprecedented opportunities to detect mines. The submarine-launched Long Term Mine Reconnaissance system (LMRS), under development with initial operational capability projected for 2003, will provide precise, autonomous, and long-range mapping of mines and other ocean bottom features. Future UUVs will include reconfigurable payload sections allowing submarines to employ them in a number of autonomous "collection" missions at lower risk to U.S. forces−a particularly important capability in hostile or extremely shallow waters. In another example demonstrating the possibilities for future submarine payloads, improvements in submarine communications connectivity allowed the successful test of a submarine-controlled Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in 1996. USS CHICAGO (SSN 721) was able to control a Predator UAV over simulated enemy terrain and provide near real-time imagery to the Battle Group staff for several periods during a week-long demonstration.

Other near-term weapons/payload improvements promise significant combat capability enhancements. The Advanced Seal Delivery System (ASDS) incorporates a dry environment allowing long-range (125 NM) covert insertion of Special Forces from submarines. The first ASDS was delivered in FY00. Development of Tactical Tomahawk will allow for Battle Damage Assessment, in-flight loitering, and retargeting while cutting missile costs by 50 percent. MK-48 torpedo development is focused on making the torpedo acoustically stealthier with much improved performance in the difficult littoral acoustic environment. Finally, the Improved Submarine Launched Mobile Mine (ISLMM) is a long-range offensive mining capability that employs a modified MK-48, capable of maneuvering (with waypoint insertion) for optimum placement, to deliver two warheads/mines.

The Navy conducts Large Scale Vehicle Modeling at Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho. The innovative use of submarine models (approximately 1/4 scale) allows for substantial improvements in submarine hydrodynamic performance. LSV-2, delivered in FY00, will also be used to test alternate sail sizes and placement. Because the new photonics mast removes the need to place the sail over the control room, sail design can be modified both for improved hydrodynamic performance and, potentially, for carrying large future payloads outside the hull. The LSV program is one of several key projects that provide substantial opportunities for long-term technological and payload enhancements. The implementation of new systems and payloads (including future weapons) would be further facilitated by SSGN because of its large payload capacity and extremely large "ocean-interface" through each of its 24 missiles tubes. The VIRGINIA Class submarine's modular design and construction is ideally suited to the implementation of new systems and payloads as they become available to the fleet.

As noted, historical submarine design and construction provided limited volume for large payloads. The 1998 Defense Science Board "Submarine of the Future" studied this problem and recommended that future submarine designs focus on improving submarine payload as well as sensors. As a result, the Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have a Memorandum of Agreement to study advanced payloads and sensors systems in preparation for a long-term development effort. Based on the reports and recommendations following the initial concept development phase, the two contractor teams are now pursuing many promising concepts−including adjunct vehicles and offboard sensors−for further development.

Future Capabilities: Electric Ship

Stealth is the sine qua non requirement for submarines. The Navy and industry have concluded that electric drive will be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for retaining stealth margins (i.e., standoff and counterdetection) into the far future. This assumes our potential adversaries will possess sensor and processor technology in the 2015 timeframe, which is similar to that which we are developing now. Furthermore, electric drive provides the opportunity to use all (rather than only about 15 percent) of the useful reactor power for a wide range of high power, high energy, and high endurance payloads, which the future will bring. Today, some 85 percent of the design reactor power can only be used for propulsion. Other benefits include the flexibility that electric drive brings to naval architecture (eliminate the tyranny of the shaft through use of external motors), on-the-fly reapportionment of power to deal with casualties, battle damage, or countermeasures (for high-speed incoming weapons), and growth potential in related technologies. It is important to develop the long lead supporting technologies today so that they will be available when required. We expect to incorporate electric drive into the VIRGINIA Class submarine starting with the ships to be authorized in the 2010 timeframe.

1. Submarines fired 25% of all Tomahawks launched by NATO at Serbian targets during Operation Allied Force.


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