The United States Navy’s Virginia-class fast-attack submarines are among the youngest in the Navy. They’re nuclear powered, and armed to the teeth with four torpedo tubes as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The Virginias incorporate a number of new technologies and are among the stealthiest submarines in the world.
The Navy designed the Virginias from the outset with a number of features not previously seen in other submarines, such as a fiber optic fly-by-wire control system which replaced the mechanical control system seen in previous submarines, as well as a secretive electromagnetic signature reduction system that helps keep the submarine undetected.
SSN (X), Explained
Although the Virginia-class is arguably one of the most advanced nuclear-powered submarine designs in existence, the Navy is already planning for their eventual replacement by the SSN(X) or Improved Virginia-class.
A recently published Congressional Research Service document explains that the SSN(X) will be designed to “counter the emerging threat posed by near peer adversary competition for undersea supremacy,” with more of an emphasis on advanced near-peer threats. Although the Navy designed the Virginia-class for dominating a variety of environments and missions, the “SSN(X) will be designed for greater transit speed under increased stealth conditions in all ocean environments, and carry a larger inventory of weapons and diverse payloads.”
SSN (X), The Mission
With an eye on capabilities not yet seen in submarines, the Improved Virginia-class will retain the original Virginia multi-mission capabilities in contested deep water and littoral environments, though the class will also emphasize antisubmarine warfare in a way the original Virginias did not, namely via close coordination with friendly forces as well as other underwater vehicles.
One of the challenges that submarines must increasingly deal with is the threat posed by unmanned underwater vehicles, a threat that the Congressional Research Service’s report emphasizes. They suggest that the Improved Virginia-class will be able to control its own unmanned underwater vehicles, perhaps by acting as a UUV mother ship.
Like the original Virginia-class, the SSN(X) will remain primarily an anti ship and antisubmarine warfare platform — and new, extremely long-range munitions could give the SSN(X) a huge boost. Long-range torpedoes — with a range of 200+ miles — is one area that the Navy is reportedly exploring.
At those extremely long ranges, targeting data would likely need to be supplied by an aerial platform, potentially a submarine-launched UAV, or perhaps by a maritime patrol plane like the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon. In this scenario, a submarine-launched long-range torpedo could complete its terminal phase-controlled or directed not by the submarine it launched from, but from the air — a first in naval warfare.
While concrete and definitive details on the Improved Virginia-class are as of yet scant, the SSN(X) submarine will undoubtedly be one of, if not the deadliest submarine in existence once built — with the potential to revolutionize underwater warfare.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.