Here Comes the Navy's Next-Gen Attack Submarine

The sub will fight enemy fleets above and below the waves.

seawolf class submarine 2005
Universal History ArchiveGetty Images

    A Congressional Research Service report reveals new details about the U.S. Navy’s Next-Generation Attack Submarine, or SSN(X). The sub, which begins procurement in 10 years, will refocus the U.S.’s undersea fleet away from supporting land wars to fighting enemy fleets both above and below the waves.

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    The Navy’s current attack submarine fleet consists of a mix of older Los Angeles-class submarines, Seawolf-class submarines (shown above), and the latest class of Virginia-class subs. The Virginia class, currently in production, was meant to combine an affordable platform with a submarine that could operate closer to shore and support the land conflicts of the 9/11 era.

    yuan 039a
    A Chinese Navy Type 039A attack submarine participating in a fleet review off Qingdao, 2019.

    The unprecedented peacetime expansion and modernization of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, as well as the introduction of new Russian attack and missile submarines, has prompted the U.S. Navy to begin development of SSN(X). Like the short-lived Seawolf class before it, SSN(X) will be built to directly take on enemy submarines and surface ships.

    A submarine focused on fighting other navies needs things the Virginias don’t have, including a strong hull for exceptionally deep diving, more torpedo tubes, and a larger internal torpedo/missile magazine. The subs will also likely be larger to accommodate linking up with and transporting uncrewed undersea vehicles.

    Russian sailors at the launching of the nuclear-powered attack submarine Kazan, Severomorsk, Russia, March 2017.
    Alexander RyuminGetty Images

    The new report says the Navy is examining three different options for SSN(X): a design based on the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, one based on the Virginia, and a brand-new design.

    A Columbia-based boat built for carrying nuclear missiles would be huge, but could cost a lot to operate down the road. A Virginia-based boat, meanwhile, would be easier to develop, but could suffer similar limitations to the current class of boats. And an entirely new sub could check off every one of the Navy’s requirements, but will still be expensive to develop and build—at least at first.

    The SSN(X) could also include laser weapons, large flank sonar arrays, a quieter electric drive system, and hypersonic weapons.

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