Meet the Virginia-Class: For years, the preeminent Columbia-class submarine program took center stage when it came to the U.S. Navy’s priorities.
Now, the Virginia-class submarine production line is finally getting more focus.
Its production line at Newport News Shipbuilding is fully staffed, indicating the remaining Block IV Virginia vessels will be delivered according to schedule.
Since their introduction to service with the U.S. Navy, the Virginia-class boats have supported five of the branch’s maritime strategy core capabilities including power projection, forward presence, maritime security, sea control, and deterrence.
A brief history of the Virginia class:
Developed under the codename “Centurion,” the Navy’s Virginia-class submarines were conceptualized back in 1991. Perhaps surprisingly, the Virginia-class was not the first new concept to enter service following the Cold War. Originally, the Seawolf-class of vessels was developed to replace the Los Angeles-class, but production was abruptly canceled shortly into the program’s timeline. A Military.com article details that three Seawolf submarines were ultimately completed before the program’s cancelation, costing the Navy a whopping $3 billion per boat. The Virginia-class surpassed the Seawolf-class largely due to its cheaper production cost and smaller frame. The first Virginia-class prototype was built in 2001 by Newport News Shipbuilding and the General Dynamics Electric Boat company. To this day, the Virginia-class is built through an arrangement involving these two shipyards since they are the only shipyards able to build nuclear-powered submarines.
How many Virginia-class submarines are in the waters today?
Today, 21 Virginia-class submarines have entered service with the Navy – the majority of them from the earlier Blocks I, II, and III. Only three Block IV Virginia-class submarines are in service, although several more are currently under construction.
The SSNs possess a fly-by-wire ship control system that enables improved shallow-water ship handling. Additionally, the submarines were constructed to deploy special operation forces including Navy SEALS through a reconfigurable torpedo room. The latest Virginia-class variant, Block V, will sport several upgrades differentiating it from earlier blocks.
Ten Block V submarines are planned to sport acoustic superiority upgrades, a design the Navy feels necessary to counter the growing threat from adversarial SSNs.
What makes the Block V SSNs so special?
A recently released Congressional Research Service Report detailed additional changes that the Block V variant will possess: “Most Virginia-class boats procured in FY2019 and subsequent years are to be built with the Virginia Payload Module (VPM), an additional, 84-foot-long, mid-body section equipped with four large-diameter, vertical launch tubes for storing and launching additional Tomahawk missiles or other payloads.
When procured at a rate of two boats per year, VPM-equipped Virginia-class SSNs have an estimated procurement cost of about $3.45 billion per boat.” The additional VPM could theoretically carry non-nuclear weapons like medium-range ballistic missiles, increasing the SSNs lethality.
Based on recent reports that the Virginia-class production line is working at full throttle at Newport News Shipbuilding, the advanced vessels should hit the waters as scheduled. The new class of SSNs will likely lead the Navy’s underwater efforts for decades to come.
Maya Carlin is a Senior Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.