Last updated: 25 May 2021
Attack submarines are designed to seek and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships; project power ashore with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Special Operation Forces (SOF); carry out Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions; support battle group operations; and engage in mine warfare.
With the number of foreign diesel-electric/air-independent propulsion submarines increasing, the United States Submarine Force relies on its technological superiority and the speed, endurance, mobility, stealth and payload afforded by nuclear power to retain its preeminence in the undersea battlespace.
The Navy has three classes of SSNs in service. Los Angeles-class (SSN 688) submarines are the backbone of the submarine force, with approximately 40 now in commission. Thirty of those are equipped with 12 Vertical Launch System (VLS) tubes for firing Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The Navy also has three Seawolf-class submarines. Commissioned July 19, 1997, USS Seawolf (SSN 21) is exceptionally quiet, fast, well-armed, and equipped with advanced sensors. Though lacking VLS, the Seawolf class has eight torpedo tubes and can hold up to 50 weapons in its torpedo room. The third ship of the class, USS Jimmy Carter (SSN 23), has a 100-foot hull extension called the multi-mission platform. This hull section provides for additional payloads to accommodate advanced technology used to carry out classified research and development and for enhanced warfighting capabilities.
The Navy continues to build the next-generation attack submarine, the Virginia (SSN 774) class. Nineteen Virginias have been commissioned to date, and they will replace Los Angeles Class submarines as they retire. The Virginia class has several innovations that significantly enhance its warfighting capabilities, including in littoral -- or coastal -- operations. Virginia class SSNs have a fly-by-wire ship control system that provides improved shallow-water ship handling. The class has special features to support SOF, including a reconfigurable torpedo room which can accommodate a large number of SOF and all their equipment for prolonged deployments and future off-board payloads. The class also has a large lock-in/lock-out chamber for divers. In Virginia-class SSNs, traditional periscopes have been supplanted by two photonics masts that host visible and infrared digital cameras atop telescoping arms. With the removal of the barrel periscopes, the ship's control room has been moved down one deck and away from the hull's curvature, affording it more room and an improved layout that provides the commanding officer with enhanced situational awareness. Additionally, through the extensive use of modular construction, open architecture, and commercial off-the-shelf components, the Virginia class is designed to remain state-of-the-practice for its entire operational life through the rapid introduction of new systems and payloads.
As part of the Virginia-class' third, or Block III, contract, the Navy redesigned approximately 20 percent of the ship to reduce their acquisition costs. Most of the changes are found in the bow where the traditional, air-backed sonar sphere has been replaced with a water-backed Large Aperture Bow (LAB) array which reduces acquisition and life-cycle costs while providing enhanced passive detection capabilities. The new bow also replaces the 12 individual Vertical Launch System (VLS) tubes with two large diameter 87-inch Virginia Payload Tubes (VPTs), each capable of launching six Tomahawk cruise missiles using Multiple All-up Round Canisters (MACs) already employed on SSGNs . The VPTs simplify construction, reduce acquisition costs, and provide for more payload flexibility than the smaller VLS tubes due to their added volume. The Block III design changes will continue on all future Virginias and were successfully proven out during USS North Dakota's (SSN 784) builder sea trials in August 2014. Block III hulls include the eight ships procured from 2008 through and 2013 (SSNs 784-791).
Block IV submarines (SSNs 792-801) incorporate design changes focused on reduced total ownership cost (RTOC). By making these smaller-scale design changes to increase the component-level lifecycle of the submarine, the Navy will increase the periodicity between depot maintenance availabilities and increase the number of deployments. Blocks I-III Virginias are planned to undergo four depot maintenance availabilities and conduct 14 deployments. Block IV RTOC efforts are intended to reduce planned availabilities by one to three, and increase deployments to 15. The Navy refers to this as 3:15.
The next major change is the incorporation of the Virginia Payload Module (VPM), starting with the second Block V ship, SSN 803, currently under construction. VPM incorporates four additional large diameter payload tubes in a new hull section located amidships. Due to their location, each VPM payload tube is capable of carrying seven Tomahawk cruise missiles adding 28 missiles per VPM. VPM reconstitutes the ability to host dry deck shelters further enhancing SOF capability, and allows the Navy to host additional advanced payloads via multiple ocean interfaces.. Block V hulls include the ten ships procured from 2019 through and 2023 (SSNs 802-811).
Two additional future Blocks, Blocks VI and VII, will leverage Block V modifications and future changes.
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