SSN(X) Will Be the U.S. Navy's New Attack Submarine: Here's How to Make it A Success

James Holmes

Let the experiments begin, submariners and shipbuilders. Even as shipyards lay keels for a bulked-up “block” of its Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), the U.S. Navy espies an entirely new class of attack boat designated SSN(X). The SSN(X) program is slated to debut in 2031, a full twelve years from now. (The program gets underway in earnest in 2034, when the service expects to start buying two boats per year.) That timetable affords the submarine force a bit of leisure to ponder the nature of naval warfare, project the composition of future fleets, and postulate operational concepts and tactics whereby the silent service can navigate an undersea environment in flux.

In short, the experts have time to think about things first rather than vault straight into engineering.

Let’s put that leisure to use. Once submarine officers complete the intellectual legwork they can work alongside naval architects and weapons scientists to devise a sub design that empowers the U.S. Navy fleet as a whole to discharge the missions likely to be entrusted to it. But the design process must not stop with drafting impressive blueprints. The leadership and shipbuilders must treat the fresh design as a hypothesis. A ship design is nothing more than a nifty idea until shipwrights beat the idea into steel and crews take it to sea. Just like in chemistry or physics lab, the team should test their hypothesis in the field, unearth its faults and quirks, refine it, and keep testing until it yields satisfactory results.

Only then should it be pronounced fit for serial production.

That the scientific method should govern naval development sounds self-evident. Evidently, it wasn’t around the turn of the century. Back then a conceit seems to have bewitched the Pentagon leadership. It went something like this: designers could draw up plans for a new platform, engineers could pile on untried weapons, sensors, or other gear, and the platform could go into mass production before proving out in field trials. That’s like a car maker dreaming up a concept car, declaring the prototype ready for sale, and rushing it into production . . . before taking it on the track for a test drive.

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