Submarines: Let's Get Small and Quirky

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March 15, 2007: The U.S. Navy is taking its new ship design philosophy (more automation, smaller crews, and smaller ships) underwater. It is trying to design a new class of SSN (nuclear attack sub) that will be half the size of the current, 6,600 tons surface displacement, 377 feet long and 34 feet in diameter, Virginia class. The new design will take advantage of the fact that other nations have built smaller nuclear subs, with smaller crews, and at a lower cost. However, U.S. nukes tend to have a lot of capabilities, which has led to larger, and more expensive boats. However, the current Virginia is about twice the displacement of the first U.S. SSN class (the Skipjacks, 3,075 tons displacement, 252 feet long, 28 feet in diameter). There are many current technologies that would allow for a new SSN to be closer in size to the Skipjack. These include more automation (which could cut the crew size by half, down to 60 or less.) Using new technologies that simplify mechanical and electrical systems. A lot of this is necessary in order to automate many tasks. Using a sonar array that is fitted to other parts of the sub, not just the bow. Have all weapons (torpedoes and missiles) stored outside the pressure hull. This is already done with some weapons on SSNs. All of this would also reduce the cost of building SSNs. The Virginias cost over two billion dollars each. The new, smaller sub would probably not be much cheaper. The automation costs more, and the electronics for the sensors is always expensive, if you want to have the best stuff out there. The smaller crews would make the SSNs a lot cheaper to operate. The crews of nuclear subs are the most difficult to recruit, train and retain. The next class of U.S. SSNs are likely to be quite different, no matter how the new design research turns out.

 


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