Ballpark Estimate: $2 billon to $2.5 billion
Silently cruising the black depths of the global oceans, the U.S. nuclear attack submarines are a constant reminder of the precarious world we live in as they continue to maintain their vigilant surveillance. Able to stay submerged for months at a time, (only limited by the quantity of food on board) the nuclear submarines serve a vital role in our nations’ air, sea, and land defenses.
Three Classes of Nuclear Submarines
There are three classes of nuclear submarines presently in operation. The present backbone of the submarine fleet is the Los Angeles-class with 47 vessels now in commission. Also in service are the three submarines of the Seawolf-class. Never complacent in our ability to keep pace with the latest technologies, however, the U.S. Defense Department is continually seeking to improve the quality, capabilities, and the cost effectiveness of our nuclear submarine program. Consequently, in October 1993, it was determined to cease production of the Seawolf-class and to develop the latest and most sophisticated class of submarine in our naval arsenal.
This new development program would significantly benefit the bottom-line by reducing acquisition and life-cycle costs through concurrent engineering, computer-aided design and electronic visualization tools, system simplification, and elimination of integrated electronic system obsolescence through commercial-off-the-shelf components. In this regard, it was anticipated that each of the new subs would not only be highly effective but also less expensive than the Seawolf-class of submarines.
The Virginia Class Submarines
Called the Virginia-class, it is designed for maximum design flexibility, meaning the ability to accept newer technologies in the future that will ensure not only its responsiveness to changing missions and threats but also to maintain its capabilities well into the 21st Century. Each submarine will have a staff of 120 enlisted men and 14 officers and be capable of speeds of 25 or more knots (28mph). A few examples of the latest innovations incorporated into this class of submarines are:
- Its state-of-the-art sonar system has more power to process and distribute incoming data from the various receiving arrays than today’s entire submarine fleet combined.
- The Virginia-class sub will have the ability to launch 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles in a single salvo and will carry up to 26 torpedoes and sub harpoon anti-ship missiles.
- A pair of extendable “photonics masts” replaces the conventional optical barrel periscope. Each mast contains a number of color and black and white high-resolution cameras that are further enhanced with such technologies as light-intensification and infrared sensors and an infrared laser range finder. Incoming sea-level signals from these sensors are relayed through fiber optic lines onto a 30-inch monitor for viewing by everyone in the control room. With this innovation, the control room is one deck lower and away from the subs curvature allowing more room and improved layout for the commanding officer.
- The torpedo room can be reconfigured to accommodate a large contingent of Special Operations forces, such as navy SEALs, and their equipment for prolonged deployments.
- A lock in/lock out chamber for divers is also featured. The chamber can also hold a mini-submarine to deliver the SEALs or Marine reconnaissance units for counterterrorism or other missions.
Building the Virginia Class Subs
According to the 1999 JCS Submarine Force Structure Study, at least 18 Virginia-class subs are scheduled to be commissioned by 2015 in order to bring the total number of submarines in the fleet to 68 with a possible future addition of 12 more. The contract for the first of four nuclear submarines was issued in September of 1998 to Electric Boat of Groton, Connecticut.
Under the terms of the contract, the submarines would be constructed at two yards, Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding, in Virginia. Newport News will build the bow, stern, sail, torpedo room, and the habitability and machine spaces for each submarine, while Electric Boat will build the hull cylinders, the engine room modules, and the command and control system module. The two shipbuilders will alternate final assembly, testing and delivery of the four ships. In addition, both yards will fabricate reactor compartments for the ships they assemble.
As of June 2008, all four nuclear submarines had been commissioned. They are named the USS Virginia, USS Texas, USS Hawaii, and USS North Carolina.
What They Cost to Build
Although the plan was to build the Virginia-class subs at a lower cost than the Seawolf, which were priced at around $1.85 billion each, the GAO found the Navy is not likely to meet that goal due to unrealistic program cost estimates. So far, the initial estimated average unit cost for the first three Virginia-class submarines is $2.1 billion.
Still under construction at Electric Boat is the fifth submarine, the New Hampshire, which was launched in February of 2008 and is scheduled to be delivered in 2010. Of the remaining 13, two each will be delivered in 2011 and 2013. Meanwhile, construction of the balance is expected to begin in 2009.