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Building and Improving Virginia-class SSNs

Getting more capability to the fleet faster

Newer is usually better, but often more expensive, too. The U.S. Navy’s Virginia class (SSN 774) of nuclear-powered multi-mission attack submarines (SSNs) are new, more capable, being built faster, with higher quality, and actually cost less.

The Virginia class was created to provide a lower-cost alternative to the Seawolf (SSN 21) class of large, ultra-quiet, high-performance submarines designed for Cold War missions. The Virginia class leveraged many of the technological advances of the Seawolf class as well as the rapid advances in computerization that took place in the 1990s as the lead ship was being designed to be the ultimate replacement for the Navy’s 62 Los Angeles-class SSNs. The first two Seawolf subs (SSN 21 and 22) displaced 9,150 tons. The third (SSN 23) is 100 feet longer, and has a submerged displacement of about 12,150 tons. The Virginia-class submarines are smaller, displacing about 7,800 tons, and the Los Angeles-class boats 7,150 tons.

The Virginia class is built at two different submarine yards on a shared basis. Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) Division and General Dynamics Electric Boat (EB) are America’s only submarine construction shipyards. Both yards have been building submarines for years.


First of class Virginia under construction at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. Electric Boat and Newport News construct the boats as a team rather than as separate competitors. U.S. Navy photo

“It’s a unique teaming agreement where we each build the same parts of each submarine, and then alternate sending those parts to each other so that every other boat delivery is done at the opposite yard,” said Jim Hughes, Newport News Shipbuilding vice president for submarines and fleet support. He has been at the shipyard for 34 years, and directly associated with the submarine program in his current role for the last four years. “It’s unique in that we compete with each other to try and continue to lower cost and do better than the other supplier, but we compete with cost and schedule overall together to try and make sure that every boat is better than the previous one from a schedule, cost, and quality standpoint.”

Replacing the 12 VLS tubes with two VPTs doubled the payload volume while dramatically reducing the amount of components and material associated with 12 individual tubes.

From the beginning, the Navy recognized that to have a successful program it needed to have stable and predictable requirements. “When the Navy buys in blocks, they nail those requirements down for that block. They don’t change them, or the fundamental requirements for the program,” Hughes said.


The bow unit for USS John Warner (SSN 785) moves into the Supplemental Module Outfitting Facility (SMOF) at Newport News Shipbuilding. Photo by Ricky Thompson.

According to Hughes, predictable and fully funded production-line block buys enable advanced procurement for both design and economic quantity ordering of materials and components. “We can buy materiel for multiple boats, getting them under contract at the same time, and buying them early enough to have them available when we need them for production-line construction. We have buying agreements with the steel manufacturers. They know we have a certain number of boats we’re going to need to buy for over a specific period of time. We can get a price on pumps for not one boat, but 10 boats, and give the supplier the delivery schedule for each of those pumps. We get a good sense of the difference in the price because typically when we start the first boat in the block, we’re using the advanced procurement money and we only have enough to buy a ship or two’s worth, and then once we get the full block under contract, we’ll buy the next eight boats. The first two pumps we bought cost ‘X,’ and then the next cost ‘X minus Y.’ Suppliers know that we can compare those two things, so it’s not like a volume discount without knowing what the baseline was. It’s been a very successful approach.”

Va-class modules being barged to GDEB

Virginia-class submarine modules being barged from Newport News Shipbuilding to General Dynamics Electric Boat for assembly. Newport News Shipbuilding photo by Chris Oxley

Design for Affordability

That success has been measureable. Working with its suppliers, the Navy instituted a “design for affordability” process to invest in ways to design and build the Block III boats for less cost without reducing capability. The Navy and its industry partners reduced the construction span by more than two years from an 86-month span down to 62 months.

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...