By Geoff Fein

When the USS Montpelier (SSN-765) deploys later this month it will include a new Internet system to improve communications as well as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) the crew will test to see if this type of capability can be used on submarines, according to a Navy official.

The Montpelier has been undergoing modifications that include a new high frequency Internet protocol (IP) system that will allow two-way beyond line of sight communications, Vice Adm. John Donnelly, commander, Submarine Force, told attendees yesterday at the 25th annual Naval Submarine League symposium in McLean, Va.

Donnelly addressed the audience via video from an event in Tennessee. He said the new high frequency IP system will enable submarines to communicate with aircraft and other ships at speed and depth.

The Navy has been working for years to overcome the challenges of submarines communicating with surface and air platforms, while underwater and underway.

The Montpelier will also be testing a new UAV during its deployment, Donnelly said.

The submarine will deploy with "Buster," a bungee cord-launched system that can reach an altitude of 1,000 feet. Buster will be equipped with an infrared (IR) camera and has a range of at least 20 miles. During his video briefing, Donnelly played a clip of an IR feed from "Buster" as it flew over the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC).

"We hope to prove this capability for use on a SSGN," he added.

The Navy has converted four ballistic missile, SSBN, submarines to the guided missile, or SSGN, configuration. The first of those, the USS Ohio (SSGN-726), has begun her maiden deployment, Donnelly said.

The USS Florida (SSGN-728) and USS Michigan (SSGN-727) will deploy in ’08, followed by the USS Georgia (SSGN-729), Donnelly said.

The Navy’s newest submarine class, the Virginia, has gone through a redesign of its entire bow area, Donnelly noted. This will give the boat a reduced sonar sphere.

The Virginia is also equipped with a large diameter tube that will enable all SSGN payloads to be incorporated into future Virginia-class submarines, he said.

The Navy is also planning a replacement for the SSBNs. Donnelly said the Navy has a construction start date of 2019, which means design must begin in 2014. The SSBNs are set to begin decommissioning in 2027, he added.

"Last year we met only 56 percent of the COCOM (combatant commander) demand signal for SSNs," Donnelly said. "COCOM demand is on the rise."

Donnelly pointed out that rising demand will be challenged by falling submarine fleet numbers in the decades ahead. He added that the plan to move to a build rate of two Virginia-class submarines per year in 2012 won’t be enough to increase fleet numbers to their current level.