U.S. Navy Deploys New USS Montana Attack Submarine & Hits New Milestone

Warrior Maven

Apache Attack Helos & B-21 Stealth Bombers Could Share Raytheon Common Computing

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) The U.S. Navy has now launched the USS Montana, its final Block III Virginia-class attack submarine, a much anticipated development intended to bring new levels of undersea warfare technology and mission possibilities to the Navy.  The new boat set sail from Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Newport News, Va., March 3. 

The Virginia Block III boats incorporate a handful of next-generation innovations to include a more capable, technically advanced Large Aperture Bow sonar array bringing new undersea surveillance and reconnaissance options to submarine commanders as well as “Lock Out Trunk” configuration to improve Special Operations forces mission transport. A Lock Out Trunk, which could be described as a specially engineered compartment enabling Navy SEALs to exit the boat for clandestine missions without the submarine needing to surface. Mine-detection, covert attacks and rescue missions as well as undersea scout missions are all safer and less detectable with Block III. 

“The USS Montana can attack targets ashore with highly accurate Tomahawk cruise missiles. It can conduct covert long-term surveillance of the land, the littorals and the sea. It elevates our anti-submarine and anti-ship power. It gives us an edge in mine delivery and detection. It extends the global reach of our special forces,”  former Acting Undersecretary of the Navy,  Gregory J. Slavonic, said in a Navy report at the USS Montana christening last Fall.

Alongside these innovations, Block III boats also incorporate a cutting edge “fly-by-wire” computerized navigational system. What this does is draw upon computer automation to set the speed and depth of the submarine while human decision makers remain in a command and control capacity. This kind of “joystick” operated system brings submarine technology beyond hydraulic systems and even opens the door to the prospect of various applications of AI. For example, perhaps the submarine can launch mini undersea, mine-hunting drones from its missile tubes and instantly gather, organize and analyze incoming sonar signals to transmit precisely configured, timely data to submarine commanders. Incoming return signals can, using AI, be bounced instantly against an existing database of compiled information such as threat libraries, mine-configurations or even surface ship maneuvers to locate enemy positions. Threat signatures which might take longer to find and identify can be catalogued and transmitted on an exponentially faster timeframe, helping attack submarines stay in front of an adversaries decision cycle.  The boats are also built with a fiber optic periscope cable enabling commanders to view their surroundings from anywhere within the submarine, as opposed to just beneath the top of the boat on a periscope. AI has even progressed to the point wherein incoming threat scenario data can instantly be compared against specific, catalogued counterattack or defensive responses to help optimize decision-making for human commanders. Perhaps one threat scenario might require an immediate torpedo launch, whereas another might need to inform surface ships of approaching enemy boats and a third response may simply be to change course or surface. Advanced computer databases, enabled by AI-empowered computer algorithms able to perform analytics in seconds, can find, compare and analyze which prior responses best addressed the threat circumstance and make informed calculations regarding which weapon, counterattack or responsive course of action might best be suited for a given situation. These are the kinds of emerging technical capabilities now likely being introduced to submarine computer systems, the kinds of innovations now better enabled by Block III Virginia-class boats. 

Block III is also continuing to inform the Navy’s expanded mission envelope for attack submarines, given their increased ability to conduct undersea reconnaissance. For example, newer Virginia-class submarine variants could patrol coastal areas searching for enemy mines with forward operating Unmanned Undersea Vessels able to identify threats. This increases an ability to conduct clandestine surveillance missions and enable operations in areas less accessible to deeper draft and potentially more vulnerable surface ships. 

Part of the reason Virginia-class Block III submarines bring a new ability for undersea reconnaissance is due to a series of innovations pioneered several years ago on a testbed prototype submarine called the USS South Dakota. The USS South Dakota is now deployed and some of its new innovations are operational, a development introducing new performance technologies. While the specifics of these systems are not discussed by Navy developers for obvious security reasons, senior submarine developers with the service explain they contain a new generation of quieting technologies, something which naturally improves an ability to operate without detection. 

The pace of arrival of Virginia-class submarines is also of great significance to the Navy, given that the service has for many years now been working with Congress to substantially uptick Virginia-class submarine production to help mitigate an expected submarine fleet deficit in coming years. Following extensive work with Congress to secure additional funding for the highly prioritized undersea warfare fleet, the Navy conducted several industrial base assessments and was able to determine that the capacity exists to build up to three per year starting in 2025. The pace at which Los Angeles class submarines are retiring, not to mention a growing and increasingly concerning Chinese submarine force, has inspired the Navy to uptick the production rate of its submarines and sustain accelerated development even as the new Columbia-class submarines begin to come online. 

Interestingly, some of the Block III innovations are being built into the emerging fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines called the Columbia class. The Columbias, believed to potentially become the stealthiest submarine ever to exist, will incorporate the fiber optic periscope as well as fly by wire computerized navigation, among other things. 

As for what’s next, a statement from one of the major Virginia-class submarine builders, Huntington Ingalls, quotes Jason Ward, Newport News’ vice president of Virginia-class submarine construction saying .. “we look forward to executing our waterborne test program, and working toward sea trials and delivering the submarine to the Navy later this year.”

Finally, all of this paves the way toward Virginia-class Block IV, Block V and Block VI boats, not to mention a next-generation class of attack submarines now in the conceptual phase. Block V, well known for its Virginia Payload Modules, will bring a massive amount of new firepower by bringing the submarines Tomahawk-firing capacity from 12 up to 40. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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 appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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