The U.S. Navy, which is in the early stages of exploring a potential successor to the Virginia-class attack submarine, expects that unmanned underwater vessels (UUVs) will be an integral part of the future submarine’s design.

“We have for years used any available interface on the [Virginia] submarine to get a UUV off the ship, whether it’s torpedo tubes, three-inch launchers or trash disposal units,” said Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley, the Navy’s program executive officer for submarines. “We have to get beyond that. There has to be a better way to design this [future] submarine from the ground up to seamlessly deploy UUVs.”

Photo by Marc Selinger/Defense Daily
The Naval Submarine League held its 34th annual symposium in October 2016 near Washington, D.C. (Photo by Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)

The Navy also wants a “transformational propulsion system” to ensure the new submarine, called the SSN(X), remains stealthy despite anticipated advances in submarine detection by potential adversaries, said Jabaley, who spoke at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium held Oct. 26-27 in Arlington, Va. “We have to cast that net wide and figure out what’s going to protect our submarines well beyond the 2080s and how do we get that into the SSN(X).”

The Navy plans to begin a formal analysis of alternatives for SSN(X) in about eight years, start construction in 2034 and begin fielding it in 2044. While the Navy is considering buying an eighth block of Virginia submarines, Jabaley does not see such a purchase as a substitute for a new submarine.

“I don’t want anyone to think we aren’t aggressively approaching the SSN(X),” he said. “The need for this type of platform is significant.”

Another symposium speaker, Rear Adm. Bill Merz, the Navy’s director of submarine warfare, said he is eager to expand the use of UUVs with existing submarines to ease crew workloads, especially for less complex tasks. He encouraged industry to provide systems that the service can experiment with in small numbers.

“Give me what you have, I will take it to sea, I will give you feedback and you continue to develop and evolve,” he said. “I am very committed to the unmanned system but I want to get them out there. I want to kick them over the side and start using them.”

Merz said the submarine fleet has already made progress with UUVs but has been slowed by the challenge of operating in a harsh, opaque environment, where communication is difficult. Controlling UUVs and netting them with manned systems remain “immense hurdles.”

Rear Adm. Fritz Roegge, submarine force commander for U.S. Pacific Fleet, told the symposium audience that the Navy plans to create the submarine fleet’s first UUV squadron by about 2019 in Bangor, Wash. The squadron will conduct tests and participate in operational missions with multiple submarines. It will also fly unmanned aerial vehicles.