The nuclear-powered killer submarine, USS South Dakota, joined the Navy on February 4, 2019. For the first time in decades, a Navy ship has been named for the state of South Dakota, the most recent having been retired in 1947. Built by Millennials beginning in 2016 and ending in January 2019, the USS South Dakota is America’s first Millennial submarine, according to Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut speaking at the commissioning ceremony. Having completed its Navy SEAL trials,
A Home Atmosphere
The interior of the sub is dotted with tributes to its namesake. The dining area is decorated with images from Sioux City, the Badlands, and the Corn Palace along with local wildlife, including elk, pheasants, and the mountain goat. Mount Rushmore greets sailors from the front panel of the food counter while they are waiting in line for grub. Stickers from Deadwood bars and South Dakota license plates adorn the room.
But don’t let the ship’s friendly façade fool you. The South Dakota is the most technologically advanced hunter-killer on the planet. Spurred by the continued improvement of submarine quality developed by some of America’s peer competitors; namely, Russia and China, the South Dakota was commissioned as part of The Navy’s Acoustic Superiority Program.
Rear Admiral Michael Jabaley, the Navy’s program executive officer in charge of submarines, is adamant that acoustic parity is not enough: “We want to be better than anything any other country is putting out there.” Acoustics are what enable a submarine to detect the presence of neighboring subs by ‘listening’ for sounds such as engines, prop noises, or the whirring of a propeller.
Acoustic dominance is not just about superior surveillance skills. On the other side of the coin is a ship’s ability to remain cloaked to the other guy’s vibration detection systems.
How South Dakota meets the acoustic challenge
The 17th in a line of Virginia-class submarines, the South Dakota is scheduled to test a suite of major above-baseline modifications beginning in 2019 and continuing throughout 2020. Among these are large bilateral vertical sonar arrays, a new propulsor, isolated deck structures, and new anechoic hull coatings. If the new technology does what it’s supposed to, discover other submarines before it is itself discovered, the changes will be deployed on future Virginia-class boats.
Virginia class submarines
The USS South Dakota is first and foremost an attack submarine, of which the Navy operates 10 different classes. Of these, the Seawolf was the most advanced, but also the most expensive. While most subs need to keep their speed down to 5 knots to subvert the passive sonar arrays of passing ships, the Seawolf could cruise at 20 knots and remain acoustically silent. It could function at greater depths than other U.S. subs and was able to operate under the polar ice cap. It was also one of the world’s fastest submarines. Owing to post-WW2 budget constraints, only three Seawolves were ever produced.
What makes Virginia a first-class killer?
Designed as a successor to the nuclear-powered Los Angeles class, the Virginia class sub is cheaper and more versatile than the Seawolf. In addition to four 533 mm torpedo tubes that can hurl a total of 26 Mk.48 heavyweight torpedoes and Sub-Harpoon anti-ship missiles, the Virginia’s 12 vertical launch systems (VLS) are capable of firing 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles with a range of 1,700 km toward both land and marine targets. The Virginia’s ability to carry nuclear-armed cruise missiles broaden its mission to include nuclear deterrence.
The Virginia is the first submarine in the U.S. Navy with an integrated Navy SEAL staging area that can accommodate a team of 10. Its nuclear reactor is designed to last the life of the ship and will keep it ticking over for a good 33 years without refuelling.
The most modern and fearsome sub in the world today, the USS South Dakota is America’s first completely Millennial example of a shipbuilder’s wares. Let’s hope she is never put to the ultimate test.