May 7, 2010

Future of U.S.Submarines Fleet : “Doing as much work, but with fewer sub’s”

US SSN sub’s (Wanting 48 at the minimum when now they have money for 30...)

Currently, the U.S. Navy aligns +/- nearly fifty nuclear submarines, which may have split into several class/sub-class :

- 11 “Los-Angeles Flight-I”, without VLS (among the SSN688-718, are still in service: Philadelphia, Memphis, Bremerton, Jacksonville, Dallas, La-Jolla, City-of-Corpus Christi , Albuquerque, San-Francisco, Houston, Norfolk, Buffalo, Olympia). In service since 1976/1985, all will be retired by 2017, (Philadelphia first in june 2010) and +/- partially replaced by the last 4 “Virginia Block-II”.

17 others olders sub’s (USS Los-Angeles, Baton Rouge, Omaha, Cincinnati, Groton, Birmingham, New-York-City, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Boston, Baltimore, Portsmouth, Minneapolis-Saint-Paul, Atlanta, Salt-Lake-City, Honolulu) have already been retired since 1995, some are already scrapping, others are awaiting scrapping. And 2 others are in reserve, probably not meet again the high-seas and will be disarmed as soon as possible: (USS Hyman-G.-Rickover, Augusta).

- 8 “Los-Angeles Flight-II” (SSN 719-725, 750: Providence, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Key-West, Oklahoma-City, Louisville, Helena, Newport-News), with VLS and upgraded reactor core which does not require refueling, +/- 30/33 years service life expected. Commissioned from 1985-1989, to be retired around 2018-2021 and +/- replaced by 7 Virginia Block-III.

- 23 « Los-Angeles Flight-III », (SSN 751-773: San-Juan, Pasadena, Albany, Topeka, Miami, Scranton, Alexandria, Asheville, Jefferson-City, Annapolis, Springfield, Columbus, Santa-Fe, Boise, Montpelier, Charlotte, Hampton, Hartford, Toledo, Tucson, Columbia, Greeneville, Cheyenne). Much quieter, VLS, with more advanced sonar, forward diving planes moved into the sail structure, and sail strengthened for Ice operation. With a lightly more longer expected service life, 33 full years. Commissioned 1988-1996, to be retired 2021-2029, and partially replaced by +/- 15 Virginia Block-IV/V.

- 3 “Seawolf” (SSN21-23: Seawolf, Connecticut, Jimmy-Carter). These submarines, extremely expensive, were the culmination of "high-tech-ships strategy” (the sub counterpart for the recent DDG-1000 Zumwalt program), but the U.S. Navy realized after the Cold War, that she could no longer afford it in large number. With a probably 33 years service-life, commissioned 1997-2005, to be retired around 2030/2038. Will be replaced or not by the first SSN (X), it will depend on the state of the SSN (X) program.

…In the next 19 years, more than 40 SSN will be decommissioned (of wich, the remain of the entire Los-Angeles class) !

- 4 “Virginia Block-I” (SSN 774-776: Virginia, Texas, Hawaii, North-Carolina). This new class was intended to replace the Los-Angeles class (but not 1 for 1 basis; 62 Los-Angeles replaced by +/- 30 Virginia’s), and as cheaper ($ 1,8 vs $ 2,8 billion, 1990’s estimates) alternative to the very expensive Seawolf class. To reduce cost, the Virginia’s uses many “commercial off the shelf” components (especially in their computer, data networks). But infortunatly, the first four ships reached 2.5/2.8 $ billion without difficulties. Probably 33 years service life. Commissioned 2004/2008, to be retired around 2037/2041.

- 6 “Virginia Block-II (SSN 778-783: New-Hampshire, New-Mexico, Missouri, California, Mississippi, Minnesota). This new “Block” has several enhancements : Electronics, sensors, building process: (Ships built in 4 sections, compared to the 10 sections for the Block I, this enables a cost saving of +/- $300 million per boat). But with inflation and rising cost of construction in the US Shipbuilding industry, these economy attempts, have, ultimately, not really lowered the coast of the submarine, but probably just slowed the continual increase of the cost. (actually 2,2/2,5 $ billion). Commissioned 2008/2014, to be retired around 2041/2047.

And the US Navy has currently planned to build :

- 7 “Virginia Block-III” (SSN784-791: North-Dakota, John-Warner, others not yet named...). This Block-III will feature a revised subs bow, including some technology from Ohio SSGN class. The FY 2010 budget estimates the total procurement cost for the 12th Virginia-class boat (USS John Warner, Block-III) at $ 2,75 billion. Commissioned 2015/2019, to be retired around 2048/2052.

The last 15 Virginia are “expected on paper”, but not precisely defined:

- 9 “Virginia Block-IV”. The shipbuilder (Electric Boat) expected (as of late 2007) the RFP for Block-IV to be released in 2012 with an award in 2014. Design changes might include new sensors, a new sail design, capabilities for communications at higher speed and greater depth, (electric drive, externally mounted weapons, maybe unlikely with this “Block”). Commissioned 2019/2023, to be retired around 2052/2056.

- 4 “Virginia block-V”. The shipbuilder (Electric Boat) expected (as of late 2007) the RFP for Block V to be released in 2017 with an award in 2019. This timing is a bit puzzling, since it would appear that only four boats would remain in a 30 boat program. Design changes might include new sensors, a new sail design, capabilities for communications at higher speed and greater depth, electric drive [first brooded in Bundle 2, once slated for the 2010 timeframe], and externally mounted weapons, if these are not introduced in Block IV. Commissioned 2024/2025, to be retired around 2057/2058.

In fact, it seems that when the latest Los-Angeles Flight-III, the USS Cheyenne, to be retired +/- around 2029, it will be replaced by one of the last (or THE last ?) Virginia Block IV/V submarine or the first (or one of the first) sub of the new SSN (X). That means that around 2030, the U.S. fleet will consist of approximately +/- 35 submarines, and this because the older submarines will not be replaced 1 for 1 basis. The U.S. Navy, to avoid a heavy fall in submarine number, is trying to:
- Desperately accelerated construction of Virginia’s submarine (2 sub’s per year from FY 2011).
- Reducing Virginia-class shipyard construction time to 60 months (since Block-II).
- Navy also lengthens the service lives of 16 existing SSNs by periods ranging from 3 months to 24 months (many 9/15 months), this would reduce the fall number of the SSN force by a few more boats (but partially and for a short period).

This dramatic reduction in the number of submarines, may seem brutal,
but in reality, it is quite normal, because:
- The U.S. submarine fleet was +/- still current format of the Cold war (+/- 80/90 during the 1980’s, now +/- 50 sub’s)
- But the Cold War is over, his huge military budgets too, and new submarines is much more expensive (+/- 2,5 $ billion for a Virginia), the us navy is therefore obliged to reduce its Sub’s fleet size.

In fact, the big problem is the obstinacy almost obsessive of the American high-command to have a minimum of 48 submarines (they say it is the minimum needed for decent patrolling all around the world). Wanting 48 submarines that can not finance 30, it necessarily will there be a small problem…a foolish obstinacy…

Toward the future, after the Virginia? (2020's-2030's…) : First Steps…Tango-Bravo

Because of the slow rate of Virginia production, the Navy entered into a program with DARPA to overcome Technology Barriers (TB or Tango Bravo) to lower the cost of attack submarines so that more could be built to keep up the size of the fleet. These include:
- Propulsion concepts not constrained by a centerline shaft.
- Externally stowed and launched weapons (especially torpedoes).
- Conformal alternatives to the existing spherical sonar array.
- Technologies that eliminate or substantially simplify existing submarine hull, mechanical and electrical systems.
- Automation to reduce crew workload for standard tasks.
All these innovations are probably in advanced studies or in experimental test aboard a handful of Los-Angeles/Virginia sub’s, and some of these innovations (probably the less radical) are likely to incorporate the Virginia Block-III/IV/V.

It is very likely that a new generation of nuclear submarines appear in the late 2020s, to ensure the following of Virginia SSN. But the military budgets are tight, and the US Navy is at this point in the SSBN (X) program, it is clear that the US Navy will not have the financial means to build (in mass) along the SSBN and SSN.
For this it is possible that after the “Mass built of the Virginia’s” (FY 2011 through 2010’s decade, 2 boat/year), the constructions of Virginia are slowing (1 boat/year) around 2020 so that sufficient resources are put on future SSBNs (8/12 to be built around 2020/2035). Around 2024/2026, the Virginia program is +/- completed and the purchase of future SSNX happen.

Future trends of the “Virginia Successor”: the SSN (X):
- Cheaper nuclear submarines (very unlikely).
- Modular Submarines (external armament, modular and external payloads, modular compartments)
- Submarines without a main “centerline-Shaft”, but with propulsors pods, to dramatically improve its maneuverability. The removal of the main central shaft will be extraordinarily change the appearance of submarines of the future (less elongated, less “torpedo-shaped” form, but much more shaped drop of water, more compact).
- A more automated submarines, with far fewer crew (Actually “Los-Angeles”: 127; “Seawolf”: 133; “Virginia”: 134 sailors). The ultimate aim is likely to fall below 100 or ideally even 80 sailors per SSN, to reduce the operational cost. Don’t forget than some latest models of foreign nuclear sub’s (British “Astute”: 98/109; Russian “Akula”: 73; Russian “Graney”: 50; Chinese type 93: +/- 100; Future French “Suffren”: 60/70); or conventional submarines (German “214 type”: 27, Swedish “Gotland”: 33, French “Scorpene”: 31, Russian “Lada”: 34/38) all have much less crew, a giant operational cost savings !
- A smaller submarines than the actual Virginia’s (7900 tons, 115x10), with a X-shaped stern planes (or any stern planes if pods ?), more maneuverable than a bigger similar sub (for more coastal capabilities…).

Some “pro-conventionnal” (or anti-nuclear) fan’s campaigning for U.S. conventional submarines, but this is a big mistake, because:
- In all cases, a nuclear submarine has a much longer endurance than a conventional submarine (even with an excellent AIP system)
- Lobbying from US nuclear-industry will do everything to prevent a breach is made in their monopolies/business…

SSBN "Forget the 12, be happy if you have 10, do not cry if you have only 8”

Currently, the U.S. Navy align 18 large “Ohio” SSBN/SSGN submarines:

- The 4 oldest (SSBN 726-729: Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Georgia), entered service in 1981-1984, have been converted to SSGN between 2002-2007 during their mid-life refits. The Navy estimates the total cost for refueling and converting four Tridents (including R & D, procurement costs…) at about $4.0 billion, or $1 billion per boat. ($2.4 billion in 1999-2000 estimation……). Refueling and converting four Tridents avoids a near-term expenditure of about $440 million to inactivate and dismantle them......Their 24 Trident nuclear missiles had been replaced by equipment for 66 special forces and 98 to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Well suited for deal with rogue state (but not in coastal area, because the very big size of these SSGN’s), this 4 ships to be retired without being replaced around 2022/2027.

- The 14 other “Ohio” (SSBN 730-743: Henry-M. Jackson, Alabama, Alaska, Nevada, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, West-Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, Rhode-Island, Maine, Wyoming, Louisiana), embark 24 Trident missiles each (each with up to 12 nuclear warheads). Entered into service between 1984-1997, they have a expected service life of 42 years (40 years of operation, 2 years of mid-life overhaul) and must be retired from service around 2026-2039. Except that with the recent new requirement for the US Navy (from 14 to 12 SSBNs) could mean that on the 14 Ohio’s, probably ??? the two older (USS Henry M. Jackson, Alabama), could have been prematurely disarmed in the second half of the 2010’s decade…The remaining 12 was to be replaced by a new class, the project SSBN (X). But as it takes time to develop these new submarines (13/16 years, from initial choice to first sea trials), the choice must be made now !

Factors to consider for future SSBN (X):
- The issue of nuclear disarmament is becoming more important (A world without nuclear weapons). With the actual and future disarmament treaties, there will be fewer and fewer nuclear warheads loaded on SSBN.
- The latest official documents show that the US Navy wants to replace the actual 14 Ohio’s by 12 new SSBN (X).
- Such as the Ohio’s, future SSBN (X) will probably have a long expected service life (around 40 years). This means that these future ships, to enter service around 2026/2039, will remain in service until +/- 2070, and, if trends in international politics in terms of nuclear weapons is moving in the right direction (nuclear disarmament), it is very likely that the SSBN (X) would be the last U.S. SSBNs !
- Actually, the U.S. Navy is working with Britain on the future generation of missile-compartments.
- Advance in sub’s technologies (Externally weapons, radical alternative to the existing spherical sonar array, propulsion concepts not constrained by a centerline shaft (ie…pods), much bigger automation (ie. Great crew reduction), Technologies that eliminate or substantially simplify existing submarine hull, mechanical and electrical systems.
- Americans want to maintain nuclear deterrence on 2 oceans (on Pacific, with the strategic base of Bangor, and on the Atlantic, with the strategic base of Kings-Bay), which means a strict minimal requirement of 8 future SSBN (X). Although with the rising tensions with China, it is likely that two-thirds of the ships will be based in the Pacific…at Bangor
- The first cost studies of future SSBN (X) suggest an ASTRONOMICAL cost (80/100 $ billion for the whole program and 5/7 $ billion per unit !!!). With a annual "buying" budget of +/- 15 $ billion for the US Navy, this program may use a substantial portion of the budget (and severely interfere with other programs : CVN, DDG, LCS, LPD, F-35…). Moreover, the situation is so serious that some have proposed to draw a portion of the money in other U.S. departments (transport, energy) or slow the program…

For me, the future American SSBN (X) have the following characteristics
- They are less numerous (currently 12 planned, but really probably only enough money for 8/10 will eventually be built).
- They embark fewer missiles than the Ohio, probably 16 instead of 24. Because Americans are studying in common with the UK's next generation of missile compartment (and is very doubtful that the UK ensure more than 16 missiles per SSBNs). And with actual and future treaties in nuclear weapons, useless to have 24 missiles per submarine. For me, It is clear that future Americans SSBN (X) will embark 16 missiles each.
- Each missile will carry fewer warheads. Currently, the Trident-II missile carries 8 to 12 nuclear warheads. In the future, with treaties reductions, it is very likely that these missiles no longer carries more than 4/6 warheads.
- With fewer missiles, these SSBN X will be smaller and more maneuverable than the Ohio’s (16760 tons surfaced/18750+ tons submerged, 171x13m). And do not forget the only others Trident SSBN is the British “Vanguard” (15680/17560 tons, 150x12,8m). For this, It is very likely that these future US SSBNX will be around 15750/17750 tons, 150/155x13m ). Being given that the missiles compartments will be identical for future U.S and British SSBNs.
- It could be, as worries of economy, these two countries jointly develop the same class, a UK/US SSBN (X). But this must wait future british choices British (general elections, 2010 defence review…). At best, this hypothetical collaboration could be announced in 2011/2012. But this possibility will be primarily a political/budgetary choices. This potential joint-project (3/4 British SSBN(X) and 8/12 U.S SSBN(X)) would ultimately build 11/16 identical (or almost identical) new SSBNs and would make huge savings in research and development.
- But this possibility of a joint British-American SSBN class still quite difficult. Because Americans have their nuclear reactors, the British have a different model. And each country will want to work on his own industry (for preserving expertise). The next 24 months will be decisive for a hypothetical future joint british/american SSBN (X)’s. But it is not impossible that finally the new US and UK submarines are meant to share much of the same technology, including their Trident missile compartments, navigation systems and fire controls. The countries have also been working closely together to develop the kind of nuclear reactors that will power the submarines.
- They should have the latest model of nuclear reactor, maybe the new “A1B” nuclear reactor (the same as the future aircraft-carrier “Gerald.R.Ford” class) or probably a improved version or a new one (in collaboration with the British) ?. In all case, this new reactor did not need refueling after 20 years of use. This means that future SSBN (X) will not need to make a very expensive mid-life nuclear refueling.
- Boasting the most modern technologies of 2010’s-2020’s, the future SSBNX should receive a high degree of automation and a strong crew reduction, with far fewer crew (Actually on “Ohio’s”: 155). The ultimate aim is likely to fall around 100 sailors per SSBN, to reduce the operational cost. Don’t forget than some latest models of foreign SSBN submarines have smaller crews (British “Vanguard”: 135; French “Triomphant”: 110; Russian “Borei”: 107; Russian “Delta IV”: +/- 135).
- The ability to be even much more easily converted into SSGN than the Ohio SSGN conversion. Yes, because with possible international developpements in the next 40 years (nuclear disarmament, treaties), it is possible that these future SSBN, during their careers, are transformed into SSGN. To do this, it appears certain that the missile compartment can be easily reconfigured in order to carry cruise missiles, commandos, UUV, and even anti aircraft missile, ect ...
- Maybe ? a SSBN Submarines without a main “centreline Shaft”, but with propulsors pods, to dramatically improve its maneuverability. The removal of the main centreline shaft will be extraordinarily change the appearance of submarines of the future (less elongated, less “torpedo-shaped” form, but much more shaped drop of water, more compact). But I'm not sure the Americans adopt this very innovative solution for the future SSBNs, because the cost of the submarines would explode again (maybe 8/10 billions per copy !)

Or a third solution ? Toward a radical revolution: See further toward a hybrid SSN/SSGN/SSBN to meet the New Wars !

With the Virginia Block-III, the American incorporate some SSGN/SSBN technologies (replace the 12 VLS by 2 “Multiple-All-Up-round-Canister” similar to the strategic-missile-launcher-tube of the SSBN). This allows a considerable much more flexibility and a more modular design. Simply because with the older VLS concept, 12 VLS can carry only 12 cruiser-missiles. This new missile tubes are based on the 7-foot diameter D-5 Trident-ballistic-missile-tubes, but the tubes, wich will be newly built and somewhat shorter than the Ohio’s tubes. With this new “Multiple-All-Up-Round-Canister”, each tube can carry 6 tomahawk cruise-missile or the missile canister will be removable from the tube, allowing flexibility to fit different weapons or underwater vehicles (UUV) or special-forces. The Virginia’s installation omits the 7th missile in the center, leaving room for an access tube. At the final, the new tubes +/- double the payload space compared with the older VLS installation (from 1200 cubit feet to 2300).

In the future, it is understandable why the four big Ohio’s SSGN will not be replaced by other very large SSGN. In fact, they will be indirectly by more modular and flexible Virginia Block III/IV/V !. It is therefore clear that the SSGN/SSN concept will merge in the US Navy.

The next step would be to enlarge slightly the canister to allow them to receive Trident Strategic Missiles, and the revolution begin !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

With predictable reductions in nuclear weapons and very Tightened budgets:
- Why do you want a new series (10/12) of very expensive (5/7 $ billion per copy) SSBN’s with very likely 16 missiles-tubes.
- Why do you want 30/48 SSN/SSGN (2,5/3 $ billion per copy), with 2 tubes.

When we could merge the SSN/SSGN/SSBN concepts by a single class:
- +/- 30/45 Hybrids-submarines, with 6/8 tubes (2 forward, at the bow, and 4/6 after the sail). Slightly larger than Virginia, but much smaller than the hypothetical future SSBN’s.

This would be:
- Either a Pure Attack-Submarine (2 canister carrying UUV, 4/6 others carrying missiles or mines or maybe vertically launched torpedoes or anti-aircraft missiles, vertically launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicle…)
- Either a Pure Special-Force-Reco-Submarine (4 canister for Special-Force, 2 canister for UUV or 12 Cruise-Missiles)
- Either a Pure Strike-Submarine (all canister carrying cruise-missile: 6x 6/8 = 36/48 cruiser-missiles)
- Either a Pure Strategic-Deterrence-Submarine (with 6/8 Trident missiles, each with 4/6 warheads, for a total of 24/48 nuclear warheads)

Obviously with such a modular, mix and combinations are possible ! the tremendous advantage of this principle is that you can easily ajust/modify a sub’s fleet (in the case of tension, slip SSBNs from 8 to 14, or SSN from 22 to 34, in just a few days or week, by replacing weapons modules). This principle of submarines hybrid (modular), would:
- To make huge economies in R & D
- Standardizing maintenance, reduce operational costs

The Indians themselves are beginning to apply this same principle with their new and first nuclear submarines: the INS Arihant, which is SSN/SSGN see even strategic submarines with nuclear missiles capable......

And don’t forget the Logistic, the submarine tender !
- The 2 submarine tender of the “Emory-S-Land class”, commissioned 1979 (from very old 1940-1950’s vintage design) were now nearly worn-out. Any expected replacement ?

It may be that in my opinion, I forgot programs, details or made few mistakes ?, then said it ! Feel free to comment and give your opinion !
In all cases, it is clear that :
- US SSN submarines pass under the 40 (and this, whatever tips or tricks of the us navy to avoid this)
- The SSBNs could reach 10 Have as many missions (on as oceans), but with fewer submarines, it will require U.S.:
- Either to reduce their number of missions
- Or to use faster the new submarine

Next episode: "Future of the French Navy"


  1. Mike,
    Really quite excellently done. I'd looked at some of the numbers a few months back and saw the same problem. Nice considerations of the many relevant factors.

  2. Hi "CBD"
    Many many thanks !
    very pleased that you like my analysis
    others will come gradually
    Best regards