Like the deadly Cold War-era Seawolf-class that came before it, the SSN(X) will operate far behind enemy lines, hunting down ships — and other submarines.
A New Sub for a New Era
As the United States Navy continues to accept Virginia-class submarines into service fresh from the shipyard, and as work continues on the first-of-class USS Columbia ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), they are also preparing for the SSN(X) next-generation attack submarine. Though the SSN(X) — also known as the Improved Virginia-class — has yet to enter service, top Navy brass believe the Improved Virginia’s will be the deadliest hulls in the sea.
SSN(X): An Apex Predator with Columbia-class DNA
Defense News quoted U.S. Navy Rear Adm. William Houston, who explained that the SSN(X) will leverage both some of the new Columbia-class’ advanced features, as well as personnel responsible for creating and building the state-of-the-art design.
“Where SSN(X) is timed is right where we’re coming off that Columbia design team, that very robust design team; we’re going to capitalize on that design team, give that stability. And we’re going to time it such that when Columbia is ramping down in production, we’ll be ramping up in SSN(X) because we’ll have the design and the [research, development, test and evaluation] done,” Houston explained, elaborating that rather than laying off talented submarine industry workers after finishing the Columbia program and trying to rehire them later, the Navy would try and have people from the Columbia program move quickly to the SSN(X) program.
Retaining Columbia personnel for the SSN(X) would not only quicken the pace of construction, but it would also meld some advanced capabilities from the Columbia program onto the SSN(X) for an overall more capable platform.
“We are looking at the ultimate apex predator for the maritime domain. It is going to be faster, carry a significant punch, bigger payload, larger salvo rate; it’s going to have acoustic superiority. And simultaneous, we’re going to work on operational availability with respect to maintenance… What are we doing, we’re taking what we already know how to do and combining it together.”
Like Seawolves, Only Better
The SSN(X) will likely have a role somewhat akin to the Seawolf-class, the Cold War-era fast attack submarines designed to hunt Soviet ballistic missile submarines within their home waters while operating effectively undetected and at speed. Though the Seawolf-class is among the quietest submarines in the world, their high sticker price of about $3 billion per hull combined with the end of the Cold War resulted in just three hulls entering service, plus a fourth modified Seawolf-class hull for clandestine missions.
“We are going to go ahead and put that all together. And that is going to be what I’m going to call SSN(X), the apex predator, because 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. That is going to really, really establish our primacy,” Rear Adm. Houston stated, explaining that even in home waters, enemy submarines won’t rest easy.
“It needs to be able to deny an adversary the ability to operate in their bastion regions. And that is what that platform is going to do. And we are confident we’re going to be able to do that because we’ve already built that on those previous platforms. We know how to do that, we just have to mesh it together with one platform. And the systems we have with electronic design tools, the stuff that we’ve already developed, we’re going to capitalize on that.”
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.