One of the greatest leaps in technology employed aboard Virginia is the increased use of automation. This is easily seen in the control room at the ship’s control station. On a Los Angeles- or Seawolf-class submarine, one would normally see four watchstanders at the ship’s control station, but on Virginia there are only two. The other two have essentially been replaced by computers. This system has been designed for reliability, with quad-redundant computers on a tri-redundant network system that is continually computing the required inputs to the ship’s control surfaces to keep her on depth and on course. The computers do not fatigue, and they can perform indefinitely at a level of precision simply unattainable by humans. Although this automated aspect of Virginia’s design initially was a cause of concern for some, Cmdr. Cramer feels “very comfortable” with it, having operated it and watched it perform in a variety of scenarios, and he “would continue to put this design out to sea.” Nevertheless, in the unlikely event that something should fail, there is also a manual mode that the crew is trained to use and practices with constantly. The pilot controls the ship via a joystick that can be held in any manner that is most comfortable to the operator. While Cmdr. Cramer says that he and the older crew members tend to hold the joystick in front of them or in its cradle, some of the younger pilots take advantage of the flexible cable it is attached to hold it in more comfortable positions, informed by their experience with video game controllers.
Virginia’s fly-by-wire controls have also shown off their performance capabilities in high-speed testing. According to Cmdr. Cramer, the ship is extremely stable in the water. He recalls performing guaranteed material inspection (GMI) trials for the survey board whose senior member was a captain.
The captain was worried because we were going to do high-speed runs at flank, and we were going to put the rudder over as hard as we could. He said “Captain, if you want to practice on this ahead of time, we’ll just work up slowly, because I know these can be risky evolutions.” And I told him “we don’t need a whole lot of practice, this ship is very stable.” And he was very concerned. So we executed a maneuver in control for a high speed, large rudder turn. And he said “Alright, Captain, enough of the practice run, are you ready to go with the largest rudder you’ve got?” I responded “Captain, that was the largest rudder there.” He was surprised how well the computers kept the ship on depth.
The hydrodynamic characteristics of a submarine are such that when it executes those kinds of turns, the ship can rapidly change depth. The computers detect this depth change, as well as changes in acceleration, and they automatically compensate. This fly-by-wire system interfaces directly with the hydraulic rams, which made some people nervous initially. However, the operators constantly monitor everything the computers are doing, the crew can see the response of the ship, and at any time, with the simple push of one button that is at the operator’s thumb at all times, the submarine can be shifted to manual mode so that human operators are in full control of the ship. Cmdr. Cramer has never needed to take such measures, and in fact notes that the computer will automatically shift to manual mode on its own when it detects it has a problem. When any of the four main computers do not agree, the computer will tell the operator to take manual control. And although the origins of why sailors refer to their ships as “she” are obscured in myth and age-old tradition, Virginia’s crew has perhaps a more immediate rationale – in the event of a computer failure, it is a female voice that orders the pilot to “take manual control of the planes.”
The automation found at the ship control station is also one of the aspects that makes Virginia such an appealing platform for special operations forces. Cmdr. Cramer describes one of his submarine’s most important SOF capabilities:
I’ve had this ship at periscope depth, and we were able to hover, and we were able to hold it for three hours. Imagine trying to do this in a 688, doing that with the most junior sailors manning the planes, a young seaman or fireman, 18-19 years old, sitting there for three hours trying to hold the ship on depth. The computer is much better at anticipating changes. If you elevate the sea state a bit, that fight becomes even more challenging, and the computer can predict what the seas will do based on acceleration and velocity, and can counter the action of Mother Nature to hold the ship on depth. This keeps it safe for the SEALs to exit via the lock-out trunk. Our SOF capabilities are really unique. The ship is designed with a lock-out trunk designed to hold nine personnel through a flood-up cycle and an exit cycle. That capability effectively allows you to deploy an entire platoon or squad, depending on what your needs are, and they all go out at the same time. If you look at the old system where they can only send two out at a time, you have two guys in the water waiting for the next two guys to come out. That time in the water is exposure to the environment, so if it’s cold water, their stay time is now ticking down while they wait for the rest of their team. Here, the whole team has relatively the same stay time, so they work together as a team. We have the capability to keep the majority of their gear in the lock-out trunk itself, so their combat rubber raiding craft are stored in there, the motors can be stored in there, the fuel is stored up in the sail, and we have specially designed SOF bins where the gas bladders are stored, so they open those from the outside while submerged, they pull the gas bladders out, that’s how they fuel their motors. So again, the ship has been optimized to support SOF without reduction in capabilities in other warfare areas.
The lock-out trunk itself extends the width of the submarine, minus a few feet on the port side where the passageway is located. Tie-down bars are located on the bulkhead to secure the rafts and motors. Grating on the starboard side of the chamber has high-security locks for the storage of ammunition, C-4, and any other explosives that might be carried. The SEALs enter the chamber, plug in to connections for air, shut the hatch, the chamber is flooded, and the water rises to the level of skirt. Once flooded, the chamber is pressurized to match sea pressure. The SEALs manually open the outer hatch, and once out, they shut the hatch and the water is drained out. When the submarine is not using the lock-out trunk for special operations, it is used as an escape hatch. In an emergency, removable walls are used to decrease the volume of the chamber so that the chamber fills with water faster while matching the rescue rate of two sailors per cycle the ship’s escape trunks were designed for.
Another one of the unique capabilities on Virginia is the photonics mast. This is a non-penetrating mast, so it does not extend physically into the control room. Everything is digitally recorded by cameras up in the mast and transmitted via fiber optics into the ship and processed with on-board image processors. Each photonics mast has three cameras in it; a high-resolution black and white camera, a color camera, and an infrared camera. Virginia’s designers did not originally envision that the infrared camera would be used 24 hours per day, as it was designed as a night-vision camera. However, Cmdr. Cramer and his crew quickly discovered how versatile the photonics system is. While transiting down the Thames River to Block Island Sound during the day, “we would use infrared on the surface, and my team became accustomed to using it because it allowed us to see lobster pot buoys much quicker than the naked eye because the markers reflect heat differently than the adjacent water does, so the ship could easily maneuver around lobster pots or debris in the water.” Similarly,
We learned that the infrared allowed us the capability to detect and classify contacts at night because we could see the entire hull shape, whereas color cameras or normal optics on periscopes only allow you to see light, even low-level light ones; you can only see the light coming off of the contact, but with the infrared camera, I was able to see the heat signature of the entire ship. We were able to pick up an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and classify her based on the shapes we were seeing, we could see her entire superstructure because her superstructure had a different heat signature than the air and water around it. We could also see which way she was pointing, so we knew what her angle on the bow was, therefore we knew what course she was on, so we could easily maneuver around her.