Kris Osborn, Scout Warrior
4 September 2017
Sensors, sonar, weapons control, quieting technologies, undersea drones and communications systems provide the vital arenas through which the US Navy will seek to sustain and build upon its advantage beneath the surface of the ocean.
With this in mind, the Navy’s Virginia-Class Attack Submarines are being upgraded with a new Tactical Control System (TCS) technology to provide weapons control, improved network subsystems, and faster component modernization, a Pentagon announcement said.
The idea with fast evolving TCS and other undersea controls and networking technologies is to engineer a circumstance wherein U.S. submarines can operate undetected in or near enemy waters or coastline, conduct reconnaissance or attack missions and sense any movement or enemy activities at farther ranges than adversaries can.
Along these lines, Navy leaders say the service is making progress developing new acoustics, sensors and quieting technologies to ensure the U.S. retains its technological edge in the undersea domain – as countries like China and Russia continue rapid military modernization and construction of new submarines.
A key element of improving TCS for the submarines includes ongoing Navy efforts to expedite integration of emerging commercial hardware and software.
The current pace of technological changes, including miniaturized components, faster processing speed, new undersea communications possibilities and developing quieting technologies requires submarine operators to quickly integrate the newest innovations as they emerge.
TCS integrates sensor inputs to provide a common operational picture and enhance information assurance for attack and guided missile submarines, according to statements from General Dynamics Mission Systems.
Hardening security and solidifying information assurance between sensors, electronics and data systems is a crucial component of the technical improvements being sought after for TCS. A more secure, interoperable technological system, General Dynamics Mission Systems says, “exploits the power of sonar, electronic support measures, radar, navigation, periscopes and communication."
A key reason for integrating COTS into the Virginia class submarines is because the newer submarines rely heavily on computer technology, automation and advanced sensors.
According to the Navy, TCS makes use of advanced equipment through commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology and upgrades it with a practice called Acoustic Rapid COTS Insertion.
“By adapting off-the-shelf technology to upgrading Virginia class, the Navy and its contractors are able to exploit the latest commercial advances while saving money. The commercial sector typically leads the military in fielding cutting-edge electronics, so it makes sense to leverage what's available in the marketplace in support of naval needs,” Loren Thompson, Chief Operating Officer at Lexington Institute, told Scout Warrior.
The Navy will continue to work with GD over a period of more than eight years to sustain the initiative to integrate COTS technologies into the submarine fleet. The most recent deal included a $36 million modification to the arrangement.
Commercially developed software and information are provided openly and freely to the TCS development community of contractors, laboratories, and universities as well as other DOD organizations and partners.
Throughout each development and integration cycle, which takes place on a biennial schedule, the software and system design information is provided at set increments.
This is designed to allow for frequent evaluation and testing by the end user, GD said.
In today’s increasingly contested undersea domain, attack submarines are increasingly performing ISR missions since they are able to reach areas closer to enemy coastline than some surface ships.
Compared to older Navy attack subs like the Los Angeles class, the Virginia class submarines are engineered to bring vastly improved littoral warfare, surveillance and open ocean capabilities, service officials said.
The Virginia-class submarines are designed with this “Fly-by-Wire” capability which allows the ship to quietly linger in shallow waters without having to surface or have each small move controlled by a human operator.
With this technology, a human operator will order depth and speed, allowing software to direct the movement of the planes and rudder to maintain course and depth.
The Block III Virginia class submarines also have a Large Aperture Bow conformal array sonar system that is designed to send out an acoustic ping, analyze the return signal, and provide the location and possible contours of enemy ships, submarines and other threats.
Recent innovations, many details of which are secret and not available, include quieting technologies for the engine room to make the submarine harder to detect, a new large vertical array and additional coating materials for the hull, Navy officials and developers have explained.
Acoustic sensor technology works by using underwater submarine sensors to detect sound “pings” in order to determine the contours, speed and range of an enemy ship, submarine or approaching weapon. Much like radar
analyzes the return electromagnetic signal bounced off an object, acoustics works by using “sound” in a similar fashion. Most of the undersea acoustic technology is “passive,” meaning it is engineered to receive pings and “listen” without sending out a signal which might reveal their undersea presence or location to an enemy, experts have said.
Described as a technology insertion, the improvements will be integrated on board both Virginia-Class submarines and the now-in -development next-generation nuclear-armed boats called the Columbia-Class. .
The Navy’s acoustic technological advancement effort is immersed in performing tactical assessments as well as due diligence from an academic standpoint to make sure the service looks at all the threat vectors – whether that be hydrodynamics, acoustics, lasers, among others.
The emerging technologies, however, are heavily focused upon sensitive, passive acoustic sensors able to detect movement and objects of potential adversary boats and ships at much further ranges and with a higher-degree of fidelity.
While high-frequency, fast two-way communication is currently difficult to sustain from the undersea domain, submarines are able to use a Very Low Frequency radio to communicate while at various depths beneath the surface.
Senior Navy officials have explained that the innovations brought to fruition with these recent efforts do, at least in part, help address an issue raised by a report more than a year ago by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The report, titled “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare,” says the technological margin of difference separating the U.S from potential rivals is expected to get much smaller. This is requiring the U.S. to re-think the role of manned submarines and prioritize innovation in the realm of undersea warfare, the study says.
“America’s superiority in undersea warfare results from decades of research and development, operations, and training. It is, however, far from assured. U.S. submarines are the world’s quietest, but new detection techniques are emerging that don’t rely on the noise a submarine makes, and may make traditional manned submarine operations far more risky in the future. America’s competitors are likely pursuing these technologies even while expanding their own undersea forces,” writes the report’s author Bryan Clark.
In the report, Clark details some increasingly available technologies expected to change the equation regarding U.S. undersea technological supremacy. They include increased use of lower frequency active sonar and non-acoustic methods of detecting submarine wakes at short ranges. In particular, Clark cites a technique of bouncing laser light or light-emitting-diodes off of a submarine hull to detect its presence.
“The physics behind most of these alternative techniques has been known for decades, but was not exploited because computer processors were too slow to run the detailed models needed to see small changes in the environment caused by a quiet submarine. Today, ‘big dat’” processing enables advanced navies to run sophisticated oceanographic models in real time to exploit these detection techniques,” Clark writes.
A Congressional report from several years ago states that Chinese modernization plans call for a sharp increase in attack submarines and nuclear-armed submarines or SSBNs. Chinese SSBNs are now able to patrol with nuclear-armed JL-2 missiles able to strike targets more than 4,500 nautical miles.
The Chinese are currently working on a new, modernized SSBN platform as well as a long-range missile, the JL-3, Congressional information says.