The Virginia class submarines are arguably the best fast-attack, nuclear-powered submarines that currently incorporate cutting-edge stealth, intelligence gathering, and weapons system technology, especially for its upcoming Block V lines that will feature the sophisticated Virginia Payload Module (VPM). Future attack submarines will now have “four additional large-diameter payload tubes in a new hull section located amidships,” and because of this, “each of these VPM payload tubes will be capable of carrying seven Tomahawk cruise missiles,” increasing the submarine’s armament capacity to 28 shells per VPM. This new feature will also allow for the distribution of strike assets, giving theater commanders more flexibility in staging payloads and allowing them to cover more long ranges of targets.

Currently, the United States Navy maintains three classes of nuclear-powered submarines (classified as SSNs), including its backbone Los Angeles-class (SSN-688), USS Seawolf-class (SSN-21), and the Virginia-class (SSN-774)—all equipped with technological superiority that delivers speed, endurance, mobility, and stealth.

Nonetheless, as times change and technology advances, the USN focuses on upgrading its Virginia-class deterrence and combat capability in deep ocean warfare as well as coastal/littoral operations, all while progressively replacing its aging Los Angeles vessels.

Manufactured by General Dynamics Electric Board Division (GDEBD) and Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) – Newport News Shipbuilding (previously Northrop Grumman Ship Systems), the collaborative project kickstarted in the late 1990s for the USN, beginning with the design and development of the lead vessel, USS Virginia (SSN-774). Its forerunner, the Seawolf class, was intended to succeed the Los Angeles submarines. However, it was later found how costly one unit of the former SSN submarine was. As a result, due to budget constraints, it was later canceled and opted for the much-cheaper yet significantly enhanced Virginia class, which includes special features to aid special operations forces, such as a reconfigurable torpedo room that can accommodate many special operations forces and all of their equipment for extended deployments and future off-board payloads.

The ship was laid down in September 1999, and after years of construction, the USS Virginia was finally launched to sea in August 2003, and it was commissioned in October 2004 with its homeport in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It is the tenth vessel to bear the Commonwealth of Virginia’s name and the first USN attack submarine named after a state, a pattern that will continue throughout her class.

Virginia attack submarine
The conceptual visuals of the Virginia-class (SSN-774) attack submarine rendered in the early 2000s. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The most recent SSNs have a length of approximately 377 feet (114.8 meters) and 461 ft (140.5 m) with VPM (Block V and up) in length, a beam height of 34 ft (10.36 m), and a displacement of approximately 7,800 tons (7,925 metric tons) submerged and 10,200 t (10,363.7 mt) with VPM. It has one nuclear reactor and one shaft that can speed more than 25 knots (28+ miles per hour). For this extensive vessel to operate, it needs at least 132 crew, including 15 officers and 117 enlisted, and in terms of armaments, the SSN is armed with Tomahawk missiles, twelve Vertical Launch System (VLS) tubes for SSNs 774-783 or two Virginia Payload Tubes (VPTs) for SSNs 784 and beyond, and four additional payload tubes for SSNs 803 and beyond. In addition, the class also carries Mk 48 ADCAP torpedoes and four torpedo tubes.

The USS Texas (SSN-775) was the second Virginia class to be built and commissioned, and subsequent vessels shortly followed. The entire class was expected to be acquired through 2043 and remain in active service until the 2070s.

So far, the Virginia class has reached Block V, yet still under construction, with Arizona (SSN-803) being the latest to have had the keel laying ceremony earlier this month. In-service vessels include USS Virginia (SSN-774), USS Texas (SSN-775), USS Hawaii (SSN-776), and USS North Carolina (SSN-777) under Block I; USS New Hemisphere (SSN-778), USS New Mexico (SSN-779), USS Missouri (SSN-780), USS California (SSN-781), USS Mississippi (SSN-782), and USS Minnesota (SSN-783) under Block II; USS North Dakota (SSN-784), USS John Warner (SSN-785), USS Illinois (SSN-786), USS Washington (SSN-787), USS Colorado (SSN-788), USS Indiana (SSN-789), USS South Dakota (SSN-790), and USS Delaware (SSN-791) under Block III; and USS Vermont (SSN-792), USS Oregon (SSN-793), USS Montana (SSN-794), USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-795), and USS New Jersey (SSN-796) under Block IV, having Iowa (SSN-797), Massachusetts (SSN-798), Idaho (SSN-799), Arkansas (SSN-800), and Utah (SSN-801) still under construction. Block V boats Oklahoma (SSN-802), Barb (SSN-804), and Tang (SSN-805) were also under construction, with Wahoo (SSN-806) and Silversides (SSN-807) announced as future builds.