The Navy’s Next Attack Submarine Will Be An “Apex Predator” According To Undersea Warfare Chief

The Navy’s future attack submarine will be more like the Seawolf class than the Virginia class, but it won’t come cheap.

byThomas Newdick|
Boomers (SSBNs) photo


The U.S. Navy’s future nuclear attack submarine, or SSN(X), should bring together the best fighting qualities of its predecessors and provide the service with what one top admiral described as the “ultimate apex predator.” This, and other details, emerged on Wednesday, July 21st, that shed some more light on a program that remains extremely secretive and is still in its early stages.

Rear Admiral Bill Houston, the director of the Undersea Warfare Division within the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, spoke about his hopes for the new hunter-killer submarine during a panel discussion as part of the Navy League’s Sea Air Space 2021 event.

Currently the Navy’s newest and most advanced nuclear-powered attack submarine is the Virginia class, but its successor is already in the works and is planned to be optimized for defeating high-end submarine enemies., U.S. Navy

According to Houston, quoted by Defense News, the next-generation attack submarine should combine the payload and speed of the Seawolf class with the acoustics and sensors of the Virginia class. Those are two of the SSN classes that the new design is planned to succeed, the other being the Cold War-era Los Angeles class.

However, SSN(X) should also incorporate the operational availability and service life of the Columbia class, the Navy’s hugely expensive next-generation ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), another new design that you can read more about here.

The result should be a new class of hunter-killer that’s “going to be faster, carry a significant punch, bigger payload, larger salvo rate; it’s going to have acoustic superiority,” Houston confirmed.

“We’re taking what we already know how to do and combining it together,” Houston added, noting that he was confident it would be possible to “mesh together” these various attributes in a single platform.

At the same time, however, it’s clear that the Navy is at least considering incorporating some new-generation technologies in the SSN(X) as well, including, for example, a potential inflatable sail to enhance speed, maneuverability, and acoustic stealth.

That the SSN(X) would leverage technology being developed for the Columbia class was already expected, together with the fact that it would likely be wider than the Virginia class. In fact, there may be scope for further spin-offs from the Columbia design, too, with thought having been given to a conventionally-armed, multi-purpose "Large Payload Submarine," using the same hull form, for example. 

An artist's conception of the future USS Columbia., U.S. NAVY

It certainly sounds as though the Navy wants its future attack submarines to focus on the same kinds of performance as the highly capable Seawolf class. These boats were schemed as the ultimate hunter-killers at the end of the Cold War, but spiraling costs saw the class restricted to just three hulls: USS Seawolf, plus USS Connecticut and USS Jimmy Carter. As a result, the boats have been widely used for developmental and special mission roles. The Jimmy Carter, with its big hull plug, is a one-off special missions submarine that deals largely in undersea espionage and highly classified operations.

The subsequent Virginia class, in contrast, is officially termed an attack submarine but is in fact more of a multi-purpose type. Smaller and less expensive than the Seawolf, it has vertical launch system cells for firing Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles and is optimized for operations in littoral environments, where it can be used to collect intelligence and insert and extract special operations forces.

Already, it seems, the SSN(X) will likely mark a return to a laser focus on the classic hunter-killer attributes: speed, stealth, and potentially also on tube-launched torpedo weaponry to kill other submarines and ships, rather than vertical launch systems to attack targets on land.

That would tally also with a 2018 report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that suggested the SSN(X) design would be expected to carry up 62 torpedoes or other torpedo tube-launched weapons, including anti-ship missiles, such as the UGM-84 Harpoon, plus future anti-ship weapons, and might do away with the vertical launch capability altogether.

Sailors assigned to the Los Angeles class attack submarine USS Columbia load a Mark 48 advanced capability torpedo., U.S. NAVY

A high-end attack submarine makes sense for the Navy, especially when China and Russia are adding increasingly powerful new submarines to their fleets and operating them closer to U.S. areas of interest.

“It really needs to be ready for that major combat operations, it’s going to need to be able to go behind enemy lines and deliver that punch,” Houston said of the SSN(X). “It needs to be able to deny an adversary the ability to operate in their bastion regions.”

All this raises the question of how the Navy will be able to pay for such a sophisticated design, which will surely come with a price tag to match. After all, as well as developing the new attacks boats, the Navy will have to fund the Columbia class, continue production of the last of the Virginia class, and run repairs on other submarines already in service.

The Navy will also have to fund the underwater drones that Houston expects will operate closely alongside SSNs of the future. He said that he envisages attack submarines controlling small and medium unmanned underwater vessels (UUVs) themselves, while larger UUVs are operated from shore installations. In any case, all this needs to be paid for, too.

A 2018 briefing slide showing the wide range of UUVs in development for the Navy., U.S. NAVY

It will be a challenge to avoid the same pitfalls that befell the Seawolf class, but by drawing upon the Columbia design, the service might be able to make some savings through commonality.

The SSN(X) and Columbia sharing a hull-form, shortened for the hunter-killer boats, as The War Zone

has suggested, might be a possibility. But by pointing specifically to the new SSBN’s “operational availability and service life,” Rear Admiral Houston at least suggested that these new boats are expected to offer value for money, with longer lifespans and reduced maintenance requirements compared to current SSNs. If leveraged that, at least, could help drive down costs associated with SSN(X).

Another option that Houston suggested was to time the Columbia and SSN(X) programs such that production of the first could be scaling back just as the manufacturing effort for the latter begins stepping up. That, however, depends upon the research, development, and tests efforts of the SSN(X) being wrapped up in time, with any delays to the timeline potentially becoming very costly. Similarly, if anything goes wrong with the Columbia program, that could have a knock-on effect for SSN(X).

Apart from maintaining a qualitative edge in underwater warfare, SSN(X) is also of fundamental importance to the Navy as it seeks to increase its atttack submarine fleet from the 50 boats now in service to the 70 examples that are projected under the Battle Force 2045 plan. To meet that target, the Navy will not only have to build new submarines but keep existing ones in service longer than planned, which will entail potentially costly refits and upgrades.

The Los Angeles class submarine USS Santa Fe during a joint training exercise with four Royal Australian Navy Collins class submarines, in waters around Australia., U.S. NAVY

The Navy’s proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget requests $98 million in research and development funding for SSN(X), but procurement of two boats per year is not expected until Fiscal Year 2034. The Congressional Budget Office expects that each boat will cost between $5.8 and $6.2 billion. Even taking inflation into account, that is a hefty increase over the Virginia class, each of which cost around $3.45 billion with its expanded payload module, or about $2.8B without.

All in all, it seems abundantly clear that what the Navy wants for its next-generation attack submarine is a design that can offer the high-end capabilities of a next-generation Seawolf-like class in a more modern hull. While that ambition seems achievable, finding the budget to buy these boats in significant numbers promises to be a challenge in itself.

Contact the author: thomas@the