Submarine Surge: Why the Navy Plans 32 New Attack Subs by 2034

Kris Osborn

US Navy photo

Warrior Maven Video: How Will the Navy Get to 355 Ships by 2034? Submarines & Destroyers

by Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

Destroying enemy surface ships and submarines, “spying” close to enemy shores, bringing massive firepower to strategic areas and launching deadly undersea drones are all missions the Navy hopes to see more of in the future -- as the service plans to add as many as 32 attack submarines in just the next 15 years.

Overall, the addition of attack submarines represents the largest overall platform increase within the Navy’s ambitious plan to grow the fleet to 355 ships.

“Battle force inventory reaches 301 in 2020 and 355 in 2034,” Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Chambers, told Warrior Maven.

New Navy submarines are hosting an array of breakthrough technologies designed to carve a path into future maritime war; these include more firepower such as Tomahawk missiles and torpedoes, added electrical power for emerging systems such as drones and AI-enabled sensors, navigation and ship defenses.

As evidenced by the Navy’s most recent 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan, the Navy budget seeks to implement a new plan to build three Virginia-class attack submarines some years moving forward. This is, among other things, intended to address an anticipated future attack submarine deficit expected in the coming decade. For quite some time, Combatant Commanders have expressed serious concern that the availability of attack submarines continues to be dangerously lower than what is needed. Navy leadership has been working with Congress to rev-up production.

The previous status quo had been for the Navy to drop from building two Virginia-Class boats per year to one in the early 2020s when construction of the new Columbia-Class nuclear armed submarines begins. The service then moved to a plan to build two Virginia-class submarines and one Columbia-class submarine concurrently, according to findings from a previous Navy assessment.

The new Navy plan is to jump up to three Virginia-class per year when Columbia-class production hits a lull in “off years,” senior service leaders have told Congress.

There are many reasons why attack submarines are increasingly in demand; undersea vehicles are often able to conduct reconnaissance missions closer to targets than large-draft surface ships can. Forward positioning enables them to be “stealthier” in coastal areas, inlets or islands. As part of this, they can also move substantial firepower, in the form of Tomahawk missiles, closer to inland targets.

Not only is the Navy adding substantial firepower to its fleet of attack submarines, but the service is further emphasizing enhanced “spy” like intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance missions. By leveraging an ability to operate closer to enemy shorelines and threat areas than most surface ships, attack submarines can quietly patrol shallow waters near enemy coastline - scanning for enemy submarines, surface ships and coastal threats.

Improved undersea navigation and detection technology, using new sonar, increased computer automation and artificial intelligence, enable quieter, faster movements in littoral waters where enemy mines, small boats and other threatening assets often operate.

Virginia-Class submarines are engineered with a “Fly-by-Wire” capability which allows the ship to quietly linger in shallow waters without having to surface or have each small move controlled by a human operator.

With “Fly-by-Wire” technology, a human operator will order depth and speed, allowing software to direct the movement of the planes and rudder to maintain course and depth, Navy program managers have told Warrior Maven. The ships can be driven primarily through software code and electronics, thus freeing up time and energy for an operator who does not need to manually control each small maneuver.

“The most important feature for maneuvering in littoral waters is the fly-by-wire control system, whereby computers in the control center electronically adjust the submarine's control surfaces, a significant improvement from the hydraulic systems used in the Los Angeles-class,” a 2016 Stanford University “The Future of Nuclear Submarines” paper by Alexander Yachanin writes.

This technology, using upgradable software and fast-growing AI applications, widens the mission envelope for the attack submarines by vastly expanding their ISR potential. Using real-time analytics and an instant ability to draw upon an organize vast data-bases of information and sensor input, computer algorithms can now perform a range of procedural functions historically performed by humans. This can increase speed of maneuverability and an attack submarine's ability to quickly shift course, change speed or alter depth positioning when faced with attacks.

A closer-in or littoral undersea advantage, Navy strategy documents explain, can increase “ashore attack” mission potential along with ISR-empowered anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare operations.

The US Navy’s published “Commander’s Intent for the United States Submarine Force,” published last year, writes - “We are uniquely capable of, and often best employed in, stealthy, clandestine and independent operations……. we exploit the advantages of undersea concealment which allow us to: , Conduct undetected operations such as strategic deterrent patrols, intelligence collection, Special Operations Forces support, non-provocative transits, and repositioning.”

The Navy is implementing elements of this strategy with its recently launched USS South Dakota, a Block III Virginia-Class attack submarine engineered with a host of new, unprecedented undersea technologies, Navy officials said.

Many of these innovations, which have been underway and tested as prototypes for many years, are now operational as the USS South Dakota enters service; service technology developers have, in a general way, said the advances in undersea technologies built, integrated, tested and now operational on the South Dakota include quieting technologies for the engine room to make the submarine harder to detect, a new large vertical array and additional "quieting" coating materials for the hull, Navy officials have told Warrior Maven.

The Block III Virginia-Class submarines also have what’s called a Large Aperture Bow conformal array sonar system – designed to listen for an acoustic ping, analyze the return signal, and provide the location and possible contours of enemy ships, submarines and other threats.

The Block III Virginia-Class submarines also have what’s called a Large Aperture Bow conformal array sonar system – designed to send out an acoustic ping, analyze the return signal, and provide the location and possible contours of enemy ships, submarines and other threats.

​For Block V construction, the Navy is planning to insert a new 84-foot long section designed to house additional missile capability. “Virginia Payload Modules.” The Virginia Payload Modules, to come in future years, will increase the Tomahawk missile firepower of the submarines from 12 missiles up to 40.

The VPM submarines will have an additional (approximately 84 feet) section with four additional Virginia Payload Tubes, each capable of carrying seven Tomahawk cruise missiles, for a ship total of 40 Tomahawks.

Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has a Masters in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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Comments (13)
No. 1-4

I have spent many an hour being a helmsman & planesman on a sub. I cannot imagine the fly by wire system. It used to take a lot of skill to maneuver a sub. It really was an art. Kudos to technology but inner old timer submariner in me is crying a slow death.

Justin Time
Justin Time

"Designed to carve a path to future war". What we need to be doing is carving a path to future peace.


The Navy will also see the retirement of all the remaining 688 class boats by 2034, and the net SSN fleet size is projected to fall by 9 boats over the 51 we have now.

The Navy's problem is the Virginia Block 5 boats they are starting to build are just too big and too expensive at $3.2B each and growing. We simply have no hope at all of reaching the objective of 66 operating SSNs in the next lifetime at the rate that subs are retiring and building.

The only way to get to the numbers of SSNs that we truly need - which is AT LEAST 66 if not substantially more in a new near peer naval threat environment is to go to a new far smaller design boat, similar to the typical Cold War era SSN of 4,000 to 4,500 tons that is updated to today's tech standards, but does not attempt to serve the long range deep strike land attack mission that our Navy gave our SSNs in the late 1990s. The result has been bloated far too expensive subs that we simply cannot afford to build enough of.

Leave the deep inland strike mission to the Army and Air Forces (except, of course for the SSBNs and their strategic nuclear deterrent, which of course is an entirely different mission and design than our SSNs).

Focus the Navy, again, as it used to be, on naval warfare. Stop trying to be a "me too" with the Army and Air Forces - they have that role handled ... but there is nobody else to handle naval warfighting underwater but for the Navy.