Thursday, June 02, 2005

Beyond Virginia?

Has anyone seen this report by Andrew Koch in Jane's about a possible follow-on/replacement to the Virginia-class? I'd love to get the scoop if anybody has details.
The long-term health of the US Navy's Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) - one of its most cherished programmes - appears in grave danger because of the growing cost of the war in Iraq, tightening defence budgets and mounting deficits.

According to US Department of Defense (DoD) documents, statements by senior navy officials and insider accounts, a combination of funding shortfalls and pressures from the highest levels of the DoD are moving decision-makers toward the conclusion that the Virginia-class programme should be cancelled well before its planned 30 boats will be built.

One well-placed source told JDW the navy could build as few as 10 of the boats before switching to a new design in about 2012. The service had planned to move to a substantially modified centre section design of the Virginia at about that time, which would allow far greater flexibility in the types of payload carried such as unmanned vehicles and weapons. If the new plan continues, the source said, the navy could start buying a new smaller SSN, possibly augmented by diesel-electric attack submarines (SSKs) with advanced air-independent propulsion (AIP). US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the source said, recently visited Germany to inquire about gaining access to AIP boats, although JDW was unable to verify this before going to press.

In a directive issued at the end of December 2004, Wolfowitz directed the navy to "design a future undersea superiority system alternative ... that includes considerations of new propulsion systems" and applied $600 million to the effort over the next six years. The navy has been working on a design that uses distributed pump water-jet propulsion for the past year and the source said "those involved say its going to be amazing". The same directive - Program Budget Decision 753 - also removed funds for three Virginia-class boats, keeping production rates at one per year rather than two starting in Fiscal Year 2009 as previously planned.


At 7:24 AM, Blogger zero bubble said...

The kicker is that the powers-that-be will always seem to loose sight of the obvious. The thought now is that since submarines haven't engaged in open warfare in over 60 years, they're not as important now or perhaps not needed to any large degree.

I think the idea behind cropping the Virginia class run is based on behind the door political/business deals and not in sound military development.

From the looks of it, the Virginia class is a real nice boat, so why run off to the drawing board so soon and start another design from scratch?

Maybe more money can be made from finding and developing new bells and buzzers than continuing to produce the existing technology and systems in today's boats?

Waving the budget-cutting axe over military bases is one thing, but looking to carve more money from the budget by reducing or cropping the sub force is a really, really bad idea.

At 9:09 AM, Blogger WillyShake said...

Zero Bubble, You make a good point--now let me play the Academian and complicate matters...the "political/business" deals you mention are very likely in play with the cropping of the VA class, but doesn't this also work to the advantage of the sub force? For all of the woes that our Defense Industry produces because of political and financial competition (nods to the New London community's current crisis), it has been shown, historically speaking, to be the best system so far. Witness the Soviet Union's inability to keep up with our technology over the long haul.

That said, I definitely see your point and share your concern over an apparent willingness to carve into the sub force's order of battle while promising to fill that numbers gap with the promise of new technology. What also comes to mind is the usurpation of the old 637 class (by all accounts a solid piece of technology for its day) by the promise of the faster 688's.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger PigBoatSailor said...


Regarding the bit about:
[political and financial competition] has been shown, historically speaking, to be the best system so far. Witness the Soviet Union's inability to keep up with our technology over the long haul.
I think this might be a bit too simplistic. Sure, our rapid tech improvements, and their attempts to keep up with them, certainly helped bankrupt the USSR, but I think it can probably be argued that that was not only due to our poly-financial system, but also due to the Sov's insistence on trying to keep up while maintaining a system that was not geared to do so.

What I am saying is, the political/financial gaming worked on the Soviets, but they won't work on the countries today that are a threat. The Chinese are perfectly willing to use slightly different, and cheaper technology (aka, Kilos, etc - check here btw, yikes!), and smaller countries will use what they can buy cheaply and easily and just employ them locally.

We do not have that option, though, if we want to continue being a world superpower. We need a global presence, and no one is going to play catch up with us anymore with technology, at least, no at the pace the USSR tried to. So cutting a new, almost proven design in favor of newer and sexier, I think, is a mistake. However, Bletway types are often dazzled by shiny new things. Old and reliable, even if it gets the job done well, is hard to pitch in funding meetings.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger WillyShake said...

PBS, Respectfully, I think you're taking an example I used and substituting it for my larger point, which was precisely aimed AGAINST oversimplication of the issue and therefore largely in agreement with what you wrote.

Also, I'm not sure that we're developing technology simply for technology's sake while the rest of the world simply seeks cheaper options. This touches on a point often made by Victor Davis Hanson: namely, Western armies have historically succeeded because of the freedoms they instill in their societies--including the economic sphere, where entrepreneurship is inherently rewarded. The Iranians, the Chinese, and others have taken the low-technology route in *some areas* because that's their most affordable option. Note, however, that when high-technology proves cost-effective (as it does in the case of Iran's secret attempts to become a major player in the Middle East by developing The Bomb), these countries exhibit little restraint. If they had our enormous economy, I dare say that they would be opting for nuke subs, drones, space weapons, etc. etc.

So I want to encourage you to consider (as I was trying to do with Zero Bubble) the *advantages* of what you term "Beltway types...often dazzled by shiny new thing". Sure, nobody wants a military full of silly, politically-driven weapon systems like the Army's Crusader program, but consider, for example, that we could meet the Chinese Kilo threat in two ways: first, we could take the low-technology route and develop diesels to match theirs, OR we could continue to make strides in various technology pathways currently under development and come up with, say, a sonar suite that works more effectively in the littoral. (that example is just off the top of my head).

So, again, yes, I agree with you and Zero Bubble (as I stated in my response to him) in your concern about the politicization of defense assets (if I can use that scary academic phrase! LOL), but I think that the system works well enough to not go chucking it altogether.

Now, you state that the Virginia class is "a new, almost proven design" and this is what I'd like to hear/learn more about. Could you (or others) elaborate on the Virginia Class? This is why I posted the story in the first place--I honestly don't know enough about it as a platform in the current threat environment. Is it effectively designed, or are there problems (as I hinted at earlier by citing the 637 vs. 688 transition). An example of a problem with the "new and improved" technology of the Los Angeles class was that the VLS system was an afterthought--and therefore (speaking as a former AWEPS) something of a "Rube Goldberg machine".

At 12:28 PM, Blogger WillyShake said...

oh...and how do I put a link in a comment as you did, PBS? :)

At 1:43 PM, Blogger PigBoatSailor said...


Sorry, tend to get tunnel vision. You are right, I did bore in on the one point to the exclusion of the rest of your post.

So, to try and be fair, I will try and talk to your whole post this time ;-)

Also, I'm not sure that ... they would be opting for nuke subs, drones, space weapons, etc. etc.

I will agree that given the resources, other countries would happily jump on the higher-tech bandwagon. However, they have not shown the willingness to bankrupt themselves as the USSR did. As for developing technology for technology’s sake…

So I want to encourage you to consider ... a sonar suite that works more effectively in the littoral.

Interestingly, that example just happens to be the area in which I am employed :-) A-RCI (Acoustic Rapid COTS Insertion), is the wave of the future in sub sonar systems. I will readily admit I am a true believer in the system, I have had the chance to see it and an old BSY-1 system side by side (older versions of A-RCI still had legacy processing stacks as well). The system is great, the theory behind it, great, performance, yup, great. All to a point. Technically, every year A-RCI is supposed to issue a software update for the system, to increase functionality, improve performance of existing algorithms, etc. However, updates constantly get crammed full of extra bells and whistles that are there, basically, for the “cool” factor. It is to the point now that these annual software updates are in a constant state of being patched to fix the problems that all this new, poorly tested (due to too much time being spent developing = not enough to test) software inflicts upon the boats. Does the program slow down, or filter what is put onto boats, though? Oh no, not unless there is an absolute earth-shaking even, and even then they will put *something* out there. This is all for the greater good, though, correct? Well, kinda. The system was head and shoulders better than anything else we have fielded many updates ago, and firmly re-established our acoustic advantage. It even gave us an edge in the littorals, although, due to the environment, it is still slim, but we are physics limited there, not hardware or processing limited. So why do we keep cramming updates on the system? Because it is new and cool - honstly, much of the stuff we put in the system is not necessary, and eats up our performance. That is why I stated earlier that, "Beltway types are often dazzled by shiny new things." As you might have gathered, my wounds here are old and deep ;-)

So, again, yes, I agree ... chucking it altogether.

I agree. But it does need more moderation.

Now, you state that the Virginia class ...

The VA class… Heh, let me put together some stuff on what I think about it – this post has already gotten kinda long ;-)

As for links, you can type in 'a href=' tags in the post to get the links to work...

At 3:02 PM, Blogger WillyShake said...

PBS: waay cool! thanks! I'll stay-tuned.


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