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Question and Answer

by Lt. Cmdr. John T. Gonser

Q: When you heard you were coming to Washington to head OPNAV's Undersea Warfare Division, did you expect to be focusing so much on the future of payloads?

A: Frankly, it didn't surprise me. I was weapons officer on Pollack, the first ship I served in, and later ops officer in Mariano Vallejo's Gold crew, so I saw firsthand that bringing weapons to bear on an enemy is the ultimate measure of any warship. Since then our understanding of payloads has gotten more complex. They're not just weapons anymore. While the Navy continues to value the traditional submarine combat prowess, there's been a growing recognition of the submarine's intelligence-gathering capabilities and the role it can play in shaping the landscape prior to war. The Submarine Force stands ready to fight and win our nation's wars, but if we can provide national decision-makers with the information or options necessary to prevent war, all the better.

While submarines still often operate "alone and unafraid," we're moving into a future where we need to expand each submarine's range of influence. We'll need to share data with off-hull sensors and platforms to build the "big picture" prior to combat and then provide effective command and control for longer-range weapons.

Q: So what's your first priority?

A: My first priority is an integrated plan for the future. Because of the time involved in building each submarine and their 30- to 40-plus-year lifespan, we're now feeling the effects of decisions made decades ago. The timing of these effects, along with fiscal constraints, means that we need to attack multiple problems at one time. So the Submarine Force has developed an Integrated Undersea Future Strategy designed to shape the future of platforms, payloads, payload volume, people, and force posture. It's a comprehensive strategy to make us successful in tomorrow's operations and — if necessary —tomorrow's warfighting.

Q: What does that mean for payloads?

A: We could develop the fastest, most lethal, most accurate missile in the world, but if we can't deploy it in sufficient quantity to have the desired effect, it would be a poor investment indeed. So there must be a balance between the payload, its integration with shipboard systems, and its cost.

Our nearest need is for more heavyweight torpedoes. For years we've bought upgrade kits, constantly modernizing our torpedo inventory, but from the fleets, the request is clear: "We need more torpedoes!"

Beyond that, we're beginning to expand beyond the "tyranny of the 21-inch tube." Until recently, with the conversion of the four oldest Ohios into SSGNs, our payloads were limited to the dimensions of our 21-inch torpedo tubes and vertical launch cells. While ADCAP and TLAM prove we can do a lot in a 21-inch form factor, the laws of physics do limit what we can do. The Seawolf class has 28-inch torpedo tubes, but with only three submarines in the class, this does not provide an effective path for larger payloads. The large diameter of the SSGN payload tubes finally opened the aperture on what submarines can host.

Building on this payload flexibility, we made the decision to replace the twelve 21-inch vertical launch cells with two SSGN-like large-diameter Virginia Payload Tubes. The first SSN with these tubes will deliver in 2014 and will provide an enduring platform for large-diameter payloads beyond the SSGN retirement in the late 2020s.

Beyond the SSGNs, we're looking at the potential for additional large-diameter tubes through a concept called the Virginia Payload Module. While there's still much work to be done on the design, the concept would add four additional tubes to future Virginia SSNs, making them capable of carrying 40 Tomahawk missiles. These additional tubes would also provide additional flexibility over the forward tubes, since they're inside the pressure hull and would allow manned access while underway.

Image caption follows

Rear Adm. Bruner briefs the Naval Submarine League on submarine payload initiatives. (Photo by Olivia Logan).

Q: We've heard that the Block V Virginia, with VPM, will start construction in 2019. With the SSGNs scheduled to begin retiring in 2026, won't that leave a gap in payload capacity until a sufficient number of VPM Virginias can be built to fill it?

A: We're just beginning the true pencil-to-paper engineering for VPM. While we have Navy and DoD funding support to bring the design to maturity in time for Block V, the decision to begin VPM production will be made through a standard DoD procurement process.

We've looked at the options, and we believe VPM is clearly the way ahead. With the SSGN retirement occurring at the same time as the pending SSN shortfall, and then the need to build the next-generation SSBN, building new SSGNs is simply not in the cards. If approached with the rigor that is the hallmark of submariners, designing and delivering VPM can be done so as to maintain the necessary undersea payload volume.

Q: You've mentioned the flexibility of the VPM's accessible, large-diameter tubes.
What sort of payloads do you have in mind for the VPM?

A: I'm not limiting myself to payloads for a specific platform or launching system. The beauty of large-diameter tubes—whether we're talking SSGN, Virginia Payload Tube, or VPM — is that sheer volume and large ocean interface create additional possibilities. To store the energy needed for an AUV to conduct multi-day, independent operation requires that additional space. That kind of space is only available today on an SSGN or maybe a Dry Deck Shelter-equipped SSN. Conversely, for smaller payloads, we can create multi-payload canisters like those used for TLAM.

Q: Are you thinking primarily about land attack for VPM?

A: TLAM capacity is the primary driver right now for VPM, but we're also looking at other options for land attack as well as other missions.

At some point the Navy will have to move beyond TLAM. It's a highly capable weapon, but it does have some limitations. A subsonic missile only travels so fast, and this presents long-term challenges in defeating advanced air defense networks or engaging high-value mobile targets.

Another potential weapon would be a next generation anti-ship missile. Extending the reach of anti-ship weapons is a goal across the Navy. For submarines, this could take the form of an anti-ship missile or an extended-range torpedo.

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