Virginia-class submarine

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Virginia-class submarine
USS Virginia (SSN-774)
USS Virginia underway in Groton, Connecticut, July 2004.
Class overview
Name: Virginia
Builders: General Dynamics Electric Boat
Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company
Operators:  United States Navy
Preceded by: Seawolf-class attack submarine
Cost: $2.644 billion per unit (FY2015)[1]
Built: 2000–present
In commission: 2004–present
Building: 5[2]
Planned: 48
Completed: 13
Active: 11
General characteristics
Type: Attack submarine
Displacement: 7,900 metric tons (7,800 long tons)
Length: 377 ft (115 m)
Beam: 34 ft (10 m)
Propulsion: S9G reactor 40,000 shp (30,000 kW)
Speed: 30–35 knots (56–65 km/h) or over
Range: unlimited
Endurance: Only limited by food and maintenance requirements.
Test depth: +800 ft (240 m)
Complement: 135 (15:120)
Armament: 12 × VLS (BGM-109 Tomahawk (missile)) tubes

4 × 533 mm torpedo tubes (Mk-48 torpedo)

27 × torpedoes & missiles (torpedo room)[3]

The Virginia class, also known as the SSN-774 class, is a class of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines (hull classification symbol SSN) in service with the United States Navy. The submarines are designed for a broad spectrum of open-ocean and littoral missions. They were conceived as a less expensive alternative to the Seawolf-class attack submarines, designed during the Cold War era, and they are planned to replace the older of the Los Angeles-class submarine, twenty-one of which have already been decommissioned (from a total of 62 built). The class was developed under the codename Centurion, renamed to NSSN (New SSN) later on.[4] The "Centurion Study" was initiated in February 1991.[5] Virginia-class submarines will be acquired through 2043, and are expected to remain in service past 2060.[6] Based on recent updates to the designs, some of the Virginia-class submarines are expected to still be in service in 2070.[7]


The Virginia class incorporates several innovations not found in previous US submarine classes.[8]

Photonics masts[edit]

Instead of a traditional periscope, the class utilizes a pair of AN/BVS-1 telescoping photonics masts[8] located outside the pressure hull. Each mast contains high-resolution cameras, along with light-intensification and infrared sensors, an infrared laser rangefinder, and an integrated Electronic Support Measures (ESM) array. Signals from the masts' sensors are transmitted through optical fiber data lines through signal processors to the control center.[9] Visual feeds from the masts are displayed on Liquid-crystal display interfaces in the command center.[10]

Photonics Masts are built by L-3 KEO[11] (previously Kollmorgen)[12][13]

The design of earlier optical periscopes required them to penetrate the pressure hull (reducing the structural integrity of the pressure hull as well as increasing the risk of flooding) and required the submarine's control room to be located directly below the sail.[14] Implementation of Photonics Masts (which due not penetrate the pressure hull) enabled the submarine control room to be relocated to a position inside the pressure hull which is not (necessarily) directly below the sail/fin/conning tower.[15]

Due to their unique visual appearance (which, if detected, distinctly identify the submarine as a U.S. Navy submarine) Photonics Masts will be replaced with Low-Profile Photonics Mast (LPPM) which better resemble traditional submarine periscopes.[15]

In the future a non-rotational Affordable Modular Panoramic Photonics Mast may be fitted enabling the submarine to obtain a simultaneous 360° view of the sea surface.[16][17]

Photonics Masts are mounted to the Universal Modular Mast (UMM), first installed on the USS Memphis (SSN 691) (Los Angeles-class submarine)[18] The UMM is an integrated system for housing, erecting, and supporting submarine mast-mounted antennas and sensors. The UMM on Virginia class submarines is used to accommodate eight mast-mounted sensors.[19] Apart from two Photonics Masts UMM also accommodates:[15]

  • two (tactical) communication masts[15]
  • one or two high-data-rate satellite communication (SATCOM) masts,[20] built by Raytheon,[21] enabling communication at Super High Frequency (for downlink) and Extremely High Frequency (for uplink) range[22][21]
  • radar mast (carrying AN/BPS-16 surface search and navigation radar)[23]
  • electronic warfare mast (AN/BLQ-10 Electronic Support Measures) used to detect, analyze, and identify both radar and communication signals from ships, aircraft, submarines, and land-based transmitters[24][25][26]
  • snorkel mast


In contrast to a traditional bladed propellor, the Virginia class uses pump-jet propulsors (built by BAE Systems),[27] originally developed for the Royal Navy's Swiftsure-class submarines.[28] The propulsor significantly reduces the risks of cavitation, and allows quieter operation.

Improved sonar systems[edit]

Sonar arrays aboard Virginia class submarines have an Open System Architecture (OSA) which enables rapid insertion of new hardware and software as they become available. Hardware updates (dubbed Technology Insertions) are usually carried out every four years while software updates (dubbed Advanced Processor Builds) are carried out every two years. Virginia class submarines feature several types of sonar arrays.[29]

  • BQQ-10 bow-mounted spherical active/passive sonar array[29][30] (LAB sonar array from SSN-784 onwards)
  • a wide aperture lightweight fiber optic sonar array (consisting of three flat panels mounted low along either side of the hull)[31]
  • two high frequency active sonars mounted in the sail and bow. The chin-mounted (below the bow) and sail mounted high frequency sonars supplement the (spherical/LAB) main sonar array enabling safer operations in coastal waters, enhancing under-ice navigation as well as improving Anti-submarine warfare performance.[32][33]
  • Low-Cost Conformal Array (LCCA) high frequency sonar. Mounted on both sides of the submarines sail. Provides coverage above and behind the submarine.[34]

Virginia class submarines are also equipped with a low frequency towed sonar array and a high frequency towed sonar array.[35]

  • TB-16 or TB-34 fat line tactical towed sonar array[36][37]
  • TB-29 or TB-33 thin line long-range search towed sonar array[36][37]

Other improved equipment[edit]

Virginia-class Diesel Generator Control Panel
  • Modernized version of the AN/BSY-1 integrated combat system[4] designated AN/BYG-1 (previously designated CCS Mk2) and built by General Dynamics AIS (previously Raytheon).[40][41] AN/BYG-1 integrates the submarine Tactical Control System (TCS) and Weapon Control System (WCS).[42][43]
  • USS California was the first Virginia-class submarine with the advanced electromagnetic signature reduction system built into it, but this system is being retrofitted into the other submarines of the class.[44]
  • Integral 9-man lock-out chamber.[45]

Rescue equipment[edit]

  • SEIE MK11 suit(s) - enable ascent from a sunken submarine (maximum ascent depth 600 feet)[29][46]
  • Submarine Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (SEPIRB)[47][48]


Virginia-class submarines were the first US Navy warships designed with the help of computer-aided design (CAD) and visualization technology.[10][49] By 2007 approximately 35 million labor hours were spent on designing the Virginia-class.[50] Around 9 million labor hours are required for the construction/completion of a single Virginia-class submarine.[49][51][52] Over 4,000 suppliers are involved in the construction of the Virginia class.[53] Each submarine is projected to make 14-15 deployments during its 33-year service life.[54]

The Virginia class was intended, in part, as a cheaper ($1.8 billion vs $2.8 billion) alternative to the Seawolf-class submarines, whose production run was stopped after just three boats had been completed. To reduce costs, the Virginia-class submarines use many "commercial off-the-shelf" (or COTS) components, especially in their computers and data networks. In practice, they actually cost less than $1.8 billion (in fiscal year 2009 dollars) each, due to improvements in shipbuilding technology.[8]

In hearings before both House of Representatives and Senate committees, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and expert witnesses testified that the current procurement plans of the Virginia class – one per year at present, accelerating to two per year beginning in 2012 – would result in high unit costs and (according to some of the witnesses and the committee chairman) an insufficient number of attack submarines.[55] In a 10 March 2005 statement to the House Armed Services Committee, Ronald O'Rourke of the CRS testified that, assuming the production rate remains as planned, "production economies of scale for submarines would continue to remain limited or poor."[56]

In 2001, Newport News Shipbuilding and General Dynamics Electric Boat Company built a quarter-scale version of a Virginia-class submarine dubbed Large Scale Vehicle II (LSV II) Cutthroat. The vehicle was designed as an affordable test platform for new technologies.[57][58]

The Virginia-class is built through an industrial arrangement designed to keep both GD Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company (the only two U.S. shipyards capable of building nuclear-powered vessels) in the submarine-building business.[59] Under the present arrangement, the Newport News facility builds the stern, habitability and machinery spaces, torpedo room, sail and bow, while Electric Boat builds the engine room and control room. The facilities alternate work on the reactor plant as well as the final assembly, test, outfit and delivery.

O’Rourke wrote in 2004 that, "Compared to a one-yard strategy, approaches involving two yards may be more expensive but offer potential offsetting benefits."[60] Among the claims of "offsetting benefits" that O'Rourke attributes to supporters of a two-facility construction arrangement is that it "would permit the United States to continue building submarines at one yard even if the other yard is rendered incapable of building submarines permanently or for a sustained period of time by a catastrophic event of some kind", including an enemy attack.

In order to get the submarine's price down to $2 billion per submarine in FY-05 dollars, the Navy instituted a cost-reduction program to shave approximately $400 million in costs off each submarine's price tag. The project was dubbed "2 for 4 in 12," referring to the Navy's desire to buy two boats for $4 billion in FY-12. Under pressure from Congress, the Navy opted to start buying two boats a year earlier, in FY-11, meaning that officials would not be able to get the $2 billion price tag before the service started buying two submarines per year. However, program manager Dave Johnson said at a conference on 19 March 2008, that the program was only $30 million away from achieving the $2 billion price goal, and would reach that target on schedule.[61]

The Virginia Class Program Office received the David Packard Excellence in Acquisition Award in 1996, 1998, 2008, "for excelling in four specific award criteria: reducing life-cycle costs; making the acquisition system more efficient, responsive, and timely; integrating defense with the commercial base and practices; and promoting continuous improvement of the acquisition process".[62]

In December 2008, the Navy signed a $14 billion contract with General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman to supply eight submarines. The contractors will deliver one submarine in each of fiscal 2009 and 2010, and two submarines on each of fiscal 2011, 2012 and 2013.[63] This contract will bring the Navy's Virginia-class fleet to 18 submarines. And in December 2010, the United States Congress passed a defense authorization bill that expanded production to two subs per year.[64] Two submarine-per-year production resumed on 2 September 2011 with commencement of SSN-787 construction.[2]

On 21 June 2008, the Navy christened New Hampshire (SSN-778), the first Block II submarine. This boat was delivered eight months ahead of schedule and $54 million under budget. Block II boats are built in four sections, compared to the ten sections of the Block I boats. This enables a cost saving of about $300 million per boat, reducing the overall cost to $2 billion per boat and the construction of two new boats per year. Beginning in 2010, new submarines of this class will include a software system that can monitor and reduce their electromagnetic signatures when needed.[65]

The first full-duration six-month deployment was successfully carried out from 15 October 2009 to 13 April 2010.[66] Authorization of full-rate production and the declaration of full operational capability was achieved five months later.[67] In September 2010, it was found that urethane tiles, applied to the hull to damp internal sound and absorb rather than reflect sonar pulses, were falling off while the subs were at sea.[68] Admiral Kevin McCoy announced that the problems with the Mold-in-Place Special Hull Treatment for the early subs had been fixed in 2011, then the Minnesota was built and found to have the same problem.[69]

Professor Ross Babbage of the Australian National University has called on Australia to buy or lease a dozen Virginia class submarines from the United States, rather than locally build 12 replacements for its Collins-class submarines.[70]

In 2013, just as two-per-year sub construction was supposed to commence, Congress failed to resolve the United States fiscal cliff, forcing the Navy to attempt to "de-obligate" construction funds.[71]

Technology barriers[edit]

Because of the low rate of Virginia production, the Navy entered into a program with DARPA to overcome technology barriers to lower the cost of attack submarines so that more could be built, to maintain the size of the fleet.[72]

These include:[73]

  • 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

Virginia Payload Module[edit]

The Block III submarines have two multipurpose Virginia Payload Tubes (VPT) replacing the dozen single purpose cruise missile launch tubes.[74]

The Block V submarines built from 2019 onward will have an additional Virginia Payload Module (VPM) mid-body section, increasing their overall length. The VPM will add four more VPTs of the same diameter and greater height, located on the centerline, carrying up to seven Tomahawk missiles apiece, that would replace some of the capabilities lost when the SSGN conversion Ohio-class submarines are retired from the fleet.[75][76] Initially eight payload tubes/silos were planned[77] but this was later rejected in favour of 4 tubes installed in a 70-foot long module between the operations compartment and the propulsion spaces.[78][79][80]

The VPM could potentially carry (non-nuclear) medium-range ballistic missiles. Adding the VPM would increase the cost of each submarine by $500 million (2012 prices).[81] This additional cost would be offset by reducing the total submarine force by four ships.[82] More recent reports state that as a cost reduction measure the VPM would carry only Tomahawk SLCM and possibly unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV) with the new price tag now estimated at $360–380 million per boat (in 2010 prices). The VPM launch tubes/silos will reportedly be similar in design to the ones planned for the Ohio class replacement.[83][84] As of September 2013 the CNO was still hoping to field the VPM from 2027,[85] but deployment now seems unlikely since JROC moved the program in February 2013 from the Prompt Strike budget to the main Navy shipbuilding account, which is already under financial pressure.[86]


The christening of USS Texas (SSN-775)
USS Virginia (SSN-774) under construction
USS New Hampshire (SSN-778) the first of the Block II vessels


Block I[edit]

Modular construction techniques were incorporated during construction.[96] Earlier submarines (e.g. Los Angeles class SSNs) were built by assembling the pressure hull and then installing the equipment via cavities in the pressure hull. This required extensive construction activities within the narrow confines of the pressure hull which was time consuming and dangerous. Modular construction was implemented in an effort to overcome these problems and make the construction process more efficient. Modular construction techniques incorporated during construction include constructing large segments of equipment outside the hull. These segments (dubbed rafts) are then inserted into a hull section (a large segment of the pressure hull). The integrated raft and hull section form a module which when joined with other modules forms a Virginia class submarine.[97] Block I boats were built in 10 modules with each submarine requiring roughly 7 years (84 months) to build.[98]

Block II[edit]

Block II boats were built in four sections rather than ten sections, saving about $300 million per boat. Block II boats (excluding SSN-778) were also built under a multi-year procurement agreement as opposed to a block-buy contract in Block I, enabling savings in the range of $400 million ($80 million per boat).[100][101] As a result of improvements in the construction process, New Hampshire (SSN-778) was 500 million USD cheaper, required 3.7 million fewer labor hours to build (25% less) thus shortening the construction period by 15 months (20% less) compared to USS Virginia (SSN-774).[97]

Block III[edit]

North Dakota (SSN-784) is first of the VPT-equipped Block III Virginias
Overhead view of the Block III North Dakota

SSN-784 through approximately SSN-791 are planned to make up the Third Block or "Flight" and began construction in 2009. Block III subs feature a revised bow with a Large Aperture Bow (LAB) sonar array, as well as technology from Ohio-class SSGNs (2 VLS tubes each containing 6 missiles).[109] The horseshoe-shaped LAB sonar array replaces the spherical main sonar array which has been used on all U.S. Navy SSNs since 1960.[110][111][112] The LAB sonar array is water-backed—as opposed to earlier sonar arrays which were air-backed—and consists of a passive array and a medium-frequency active array.[113] Compared to earlier Virginia class submarines about 40% of the bow has been redesigned.[clarification needed][114]

Block IV[edit]

The most costly shipbuilding contract in history was awarded on 28 April 2014 as prime contractor General Dynamic Electric Boat took on a $17.6 billion contract for ten Block IV Virginia-class attack submarines. The main improvement over the Block III is the reduction of major maintenance periods from four to three, increasing each ship's total lifetime deployments by one.[124]

The long-lead-time materials contract for SSN 792 was awarded on 17 April 2012, with SSN 793 and SSN 794 following on 28 December 2012.[125][126] the U.S. Navy has awarded General Dynamics Electric Boat a $208.6 million contract modification for the second fiscal year (FY) 14 Virginia-class submarine, SSN-793, and two FY 15 submarines, SSN-794 and SSN-795. With this modification, the overall contract is worth $595 million.[127] Block IV will consist of 9-10 submarines.[128] Based on the planned split between block IV and block V boats, the block IV procurement should comprise the following hull numbers.[129]

Block V[edit]

Block V subs may incorporate the Virginia Payload Module (VPM), which would give guided-missile capability when the SSGNs are retired from service.[133] The Block V subs are expected to triple the capacity of shore targets for each boat.[7]

Future acquisitions[edit]

The Navy plans to acquire at least 30 Virginia-class submarines,[134][135] however, more recent data provided by the Naval Submarine League (in 2011) and the Congressional Budget Office (in 2012) seems to imply that more than 30 may eventually be built. The Naval Submarine League believes that up to 10 Block V boats will be built.[52][136] The same source also states that 10 additional submarines could be built after Block V submarines, with 5 in the so-called Block VI and 5 in Block VII, largely due to the delays experienced with the "Improved Virginia". These 20 submarines (10 Block V, 5 Block VI, 5 Block VII) would carry VPM bringing the total number of Virginia-class submarines to 48 (including the 28 submarines in Blocks I, II, III and IV). The CBO in its 2012 report states that 33 Virginia-class submarines will be procured in the 2013–2032 timeframe,[137] resulting in 49 submarines in total since 16 were already procured by the end of 2012.[128] Such a long production run seems unlikely but it should be noted that another naval program, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, is still ongoing even though the first vessel was procured in 1985.[138][139] However, other sources believe that production will end with Block V.[140] In addition, data provided in CBO reports tends to vary considerably compared to earlier editions.[3][141]

In 2013 execution of a 10-submarine contract was put in doubt by Budget sequestration in 2013.[142] On 28 April 2014, the Navy awarded a $17.6 billion order for two subs to be built during each of the next five years.[143]

SSN(X)/Improved Virginia[edit]

Initially dubbed Future Attack Submarine[144] and Improved Virginia-class in Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports,[3] the SSN(X) or Improved Virginia-class submarines will be an evolved version of the Virginia-class.[3] It was planned that the first submarine would be procured in 2025. However, their introduction (i.e. procurement of the first submarine) has been pushed back to 2033/2034.[3][145]

In late 2014, the Navy began early preparation work on the SSN(X), a new nuclear attack submarine class that will eventually replace the Virginia-class. The long-range shipbuilding plan is for the new SSN to be authorized in 2034, and become operational by 2044 after the last Block VII Virginia is built. Roughly a decade will be spent identifying, designing, and demonstrating new technologies before an analysis of alternatives is issued in 2024. An initial small team has been formed to consult with industry and identify the threat environment and technologies the submarine will need to operate against in the 2050-plus timeframe. One area already identified is the need to integrate with off-board systems so future Virginia boats and the SSN(X) can employ networked, extremely long-ranged weapons. A torpedo propulsion system concept from the Pennsylvania State University could allow a torpedo to hit a target 200 nmi (230 mi; 370 km) away and be guided by another asset during the terminal phase. Targeting information might also come from another platform like a patrol aircraft or an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launched from the submarine.[146]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Clancy, Tom. Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside A Nuclear Warship. New York, N.Y. : Berkley Books, 2002. ISBN 0-425-18300-9 OCLC 48749330.
  • Christley, J. L. United States Naval Submarine Force Information Book. Marblehead, MA : Graphic Enterprises of Marblehead, 2000. OCLC 53364278
  • Christley, Jim. US Nuclear Submarines: The Fast Attack. Oxford, UK, 2007. ISBN 1-846-03168-0 OCLC 141383046.
  • Cross, Wilbur and George W. Feise. Encyclopedia of American Submarines. New York : Facts on File, 2003. ISBN 0-816-04460-0 OCLC 48131805
  • Gresham, John and Westwell, Ian. Seapower. Edison, N.J. : Chartwell Books, 2004. ISBN 0-785-81792-1 OCLC 56578494.
  • Parker, John. The World Encyclopedia of Submarines. London : Lorenz, 2007. ISBN 0-754-81707-5 OCLC 75713655
  • Polmar, Norman. The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet. Annapolis, Md. : Naval Institute Press, 2001. ISBN 1-557-50656-6 OCLC 47105698.
  • United States. The Virginia Class Submarine Program. Fort Belvoir, VA: Defense Standardization Program Office, 2007. OCLC 427536804

External links[edit]