SSN(X) Will Be ‘Ultimate Apex Predator’

Navy graphic

A Navy depiction of the future USS Columbia nuclear missile submarine (SSBN 826)

WASHINGTON: A top admiral offered a glimpse today of the service’s next-generation attack submarine, describing a boat that would take the strongest attributes of its predecessors to create an “apex predator.”

“We are looking at the ultimate apex predator for the maritime domain,” Rear Adm. Bill Houston, director of the service’s undersea warfare requirements office, said during a Wednesday panel discussion published by the Navy League in advance of the annual Sea-Air-Space exposition. “We’re taking what we already know how to do and combining it together.”

The admiral described a submarine that boasts the payload and speed of the Seawolf-class submarines, the acoustics and senors of Virginia-class and the operational availability and service life of the Columbia-class submarines.

“We’re confident that we’re going to be able to do that because we’ve already built that on those previous platforms, we know how to do that. We just have to mesh it together with one platform,” he continued.

The Navy’s next-generation attack submarine, dubbed SSN(X), is in the most nascent stages of development. Most details on it remain linked solely to what Navy brass will occasionally discuss in public.

Only in the past several years has the service started including a budget line item for the program funding early research and development; this year’s budget includes a $98 million request. Under the fiscal year 2020 long-range shipbuilding plan, the Navy would begin purchasing 42 new submarines starting in FY34. A report from the Congressional Budget Office stated the Navy believes the boat will cost approximately $5.8 billion, while CBO projected the price tag will be closer to $6.2 billion.

Houston also remarked on the fragility of the environment the service is currently working with industry to produce the Columbia-class submarine. He noted the Navy is particularly concerned about hulls three through 12 because that will be the program’s serial production phase, a time where industry will have the stability it craves, but lack schedule flexibility to correct mistakes. The service intentionally placed gap years between the production of the first few Columbia submarines to allow industry time to learn, Houston added.

Navy brass often discuss the connection between the Columbia and Virginia programs: a disruption in the industrial base for one can easily cause ripple effects for the other. That may extend into SSN(X).

The service and industry are nearing design completion on Columbia and hope to utilize the same team to begin work on the newest boat, Houston said. Further, the Navy plans on flowing work for SSN(X) into industry at the same time that it winds down on Columbia’s production.

“We’re going to time it such that when Columbia is ramping down in production, we’ll be ramping up in SSN(X) because we’ll have the design and the RDT&E done,” he said. “It takes a significant amount of time and effort for that RDT&E to develop this apex predator, but that’s what we’re going to do over the next decade as we’re working on the systems for SSN(X).”

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