The Navy has developed a Tactical Submarine Evolution Plan that looks at rapidly inserting capability upgrades into the Virginia-class attack submarine mid-contract and considers long-term undersea warfare priorities such as converting the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) production line into a guided-missile submarine (SSGN) line in the late 2030s.
The Navy’s Undersea Warfare Directorate (OPNAV N97) started the plan under previous director Vice Adm. Bill Merz, who now serves as the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems (OPNAV N9), and has been continued under current acting director Brian Howes.
Howes, speaking Thursday at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium, said the next iteration of the Virginia-class submarine program, Block V, begins in Fiscal Year 2019, but currently if a new capability were developed after the design is complete, it would have to wait to be fielded in the next Block VI in FY 2023.
“We need to have the opportunity to have mid-block insertions into our platforms,” he said.
Much like the Submarine Warfare Federated Tactical Systems that inserts combat upgrades into submarines every other year, Howes said the Tactical Submarine Evolution Plan (TSEP) would create “a ready menu of mature and maturing technology that we will insert when ready.”
Though headed by OPNAV N97, the Program Executive Office for Submarines and the Virginia class program office are involved and wholeheartedly onboard.
“There’s a continuous conveyor belt running, and developers who have an idea get on that conveyor belt, and if they can develop it and achieve the requisite reliability and producibility by the time that conveyor belt comes around for production then they can get into the next version … that’s going to be fielded. If they miss that one, then the conveyor belt goes back around again and they get another shot at it in two years,” PEO Subs Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley said at the conference of SWFTS and the Acoustics Rapid Commercial-off-the-shelf Insertion (ARCI) program that does the same thing on the computer processor side.
“So we want to try to implement that into shipbuilding. The time sequence is different of course – we’re somewhat constrained by five-year multiyear procurement contracts, and we have previously tried to hold to a tech baseline letter at the beginning of the block that says the most efficient way to build 10 ships, all per this plan. One of the things that the TSEP looks at is, under the [chief of naval operations]’s theme of getting faster, waiting five years to insert the next technological development may not be the best thing for us to do. So we’re willing to take risk, we’re willing to look at breakthrough technologies that come, and if it makes sense to insert them mid-block then we’re willing.”
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