image caption follows image caption follows image caption followsimage caption follows image caption follows image caption follows  
(left to right) USS Virginia returns from Alpha Trials (photo by General Dynamics Electric Boat);
sonar screens in the Command and Control Center of
Virginia (U.S. Navy photo);
USS
Texas (SSN-775) during Alpha Trials (photo by Northrop Grumman Newport News);
Virginia
’s radar screens during a surface transit (U.S. Navy photo);
USS
Hawaii (SSN-776) departs for Alpha Trials (photo by General Dynamics Electric Boat);
the photonics display board on
Virginia (U.S. Navy photo).
 

title voices from virginia, early impressions from a first-in-class

Much has been written about USS Virginia (SSN-774) and the current and future ships of the class. It has been well established that the Virginia-class submarine was the first submarine, and the first warship, designed by the U.S. Navy specifically to face post-Cold War threats. These threats dictate that Virginia, while retaining blue water supremacy, must also be able to conduct a wide range of littoral missions that emphasize an entirely new set of capabilities. Although the first crews of Virginia sailed aboard her confident in the integrity of her design and eager to test her advertised capabilities, they were pleasantly surprised to discover that, with a little ingenuity and a willingness to experiment, they were able to coax a few surprises out of Virginia.
 
by Thomas Holian
 

While Virginia can still go fast and deep to counter traditional blue water surface and sub-surface threats, she has been optimized for littoral missions. These could range from Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) to Tomahawk strike to deployment of Special Operations Forces (SOF), such as Navy SEALs. This is a wide range of missions, and the crew must be able to execute all assigned mission requirements.

Virginia’s hallmark is adaptability. Crucial to this adaptability are the many ways in which she has been designed with reconfigurable capabilities. For example, like the Los Angeles-class submarines, Virginia is designed with four torpedo tubes. These can potentially deploy MK 48 ADCAP torpedoes, Tomahawk missiles, mines, and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs). However, that is where the similarities end between the classes’ torpedo rooms. Virginia’s new reconfigurable torpedo room allows her to carry only the weapons and systems needed for a particular mission, or to reconfigure quickly between a wide variety of mission requirements even when forward deployed. According to her current commanding officer (CO), Cmdr. Todd Cramer, the torpedo room is so large and versatile that all torpedo handling gear can be stored at the extreme perimeters of the room, opening a space in the middle large enough to fit the entire crew. In fact, the torpedo room has been used on several occasions for ceremonies requiring the presence of all 134 crew members. While underway in 2005, Cmdr. Cramer routinely took advantage of the torpedo room’s ability to reconfigure to accommodate extra bunking modules with only a small load-out of torpedoes. While this capability was conceived specifically with SOF in mind, Cmdr. Cramer used the extra bunks to ensure that Virginia’s civilian technicians would have their own accommodations while conducting at-sea tests. Virginia’s Sailors also appreciated this feature, as the submarine was designed with only enough bunks for the crew. With the civilian guests in their own torpedo room bunks, the crew was relieved of the need to hot-rack (where three Sailors share two bunks).

Cmdr. Cramer relates how the Director of Naval Intelligence came aboard Virginia, and was interested in the reconfigurable torpedo room and the ship’s unique communications capabilities. Previously, the CO had the opportunity to provide input for improved communications. For radio communications, the typical submarine only has voice communication handsets in the radio room and the control room. For the Virginia-class design, Cmdr. Cramer asked for that capability in his stateroom, the Executive Officer’s (XO) stateroom, the wardroom, and the torpedo room. According to Cmdr. Cramer,

Everyone looked at me funny and said “well why would you want voice radio communications capability in the torpedo room where all the weapons are?” Well it all goes back to this flexibility and adaptability. I envision that the torpedo room can be used as a command and control center and I want the ability of a team down there to be able to talk to both their operators ashore and their bosses. So if we at least put the cabling in and wire it with the connectors, they can bring their own gear, and we just tell them what the specification is and they wire it up into our system, and now they have immediate access to our communications room. Now my radiomen still control the path leaving the ship, but once they line it up, now these guys can talk in a secure mode to whoever they need to talk to, depending on who we’re supporting. My focus in my recommendations is to keep the ship adaptable and flexible for the evolving missions that are out there. I cannot predict what we are going to want to use a submarine for in the future, but if we keep it flexible, we can keep this submarine as a viable tool regardless of the situation that the combatant commander is faced with. We’re only bounded by our own imagination. And that was why it was a joy to have the Director of Naval Intelligence come down, because I wanted him to envision what we could do, and he’s the guy who reads the intelligence stuff trying to figure out “how do you respond to this.” So if his viewpoint is based not on older warships and but instead on what the latest capabilities are, he may tailor his intelligence products, he may say “hey maybe we want to share this with the sub force because I think they have a capability that can counter this threat that we’re worried about now.”

illustration caption follows
A diagram showing many of Virginia’s capabilities. A U.S. Navy graphic.

Virginia’s control room is also very flexible. The sonar operators and their equipment have moved from a separate room into the control room, and take up most of control’s port side. This eliminates the need for the CO to communicate with sonar via speaker box. Furthermore, this design improvement allows the sonar supervisor to have full tactical awareness while assisting the Officer of the Deck (OOD). The control room itself is reconfigurable; the configuration of its many tactical displays can be changed to support whatever mission is being undertaken at the time. The crew has tested several configurations, and has an optimum line-up it normally goes with, but if a component were to fail, the crew could quickly reconfigure the room with no loss of capability.

Virginia employs a different layout for Electronic Support Measures (ESM) than previous submarine classes. On older classes, ESM always shared space in the radio room. On Virginia, ESM has been separated from radio, giving each group its own space. This design change has freed six empty bays, or racks, for special operations gear storage. The increased storage constitutes a true “plug-and-play” type system. Virginia provides rack space, electrical power, and cooling for any special equipment that may be needed to conduct a particular mission. This flexibility gives Virginia a unique capability to assess and adapt quickly to new threats and enemy vulnerabilities, and allows Virginia-class submarines to provide the on-scene commander more intelligence to more effectively conduct operations.

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