Inside the world's most advanced submarine

Road Trip 2010: Aboard the Virginia class sub, North Carolina, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman sees how the Navy has taken submarines and added servers, wireless networking, and digital periscope visualization.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
9 min read

Wes Schlauder, the skipper of the U.S. Navy's Virginia class nuclear submarine North Carolina, demonstrates how the sub's all-new electronic command center--including the state-of-the-art digital visualization of the view from the periscope--has taken the capabilities of undersea warfare into the 21st century. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

GROTON, Conn.--If you've ever wondered what it's like aboard the most advanced submarine in the world, I'm here to tell you all about it.

To be specific, that submarine is the North Carolina, a Virginia class nuclear attack sub based at the Naval Submarine Base New London here, and it is truly a technological marvel.

To begin with, forget all about those romantic images of a dimly lighted sonar room where a captain squints into the eyepiece of the periscope in order to try to see what's going on outside. Those days are long gone. Aboard the North Carolina, at least.

This is the 21st century, after all, and while much in the military is legacy equipment designed to last decades, the North Carolina is an example of what happens when planners take into account the latest available technologies and apply them to age-old problems.

Click here for a full photo gallery from the Virginia class submarine, the North Carolina.

Navy's most cutting-edge submarine tech ever (photos)

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The sonar room, then, has gone the way of the rotary phone and has been replaced by an all-electronic, nearly paperless, control room that is fully lighted, is completely networked, and which displays imagery gathered from the periscope on large, clear digital monitors. Indeed, should the sub's commander need to see something through the periscope while he's taking a nap in his quarters, no problem: the imagery can be piped in wirelessly to his computer, and he can peruse at will.

Welcome to the future of undersea warfare.

The Navy and Road Trip
Different regions of the United States are dominated by different military services. Last year, on Road Trip 2009, I traveled throughout the Rocky Mountain region, and nearly everywhere I went, there was the U.S. Air Force. This year, on Road Trip 2010, I'm traveling through the Northeast, and in this region, its the U.S. Navy that has been nearly ubiquitous.

Already, I've hit places like the Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md.; the Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia--shared by NASA and the Navy; and Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, in Newport News, Va., where the most advanced aircraft carrier ever is currently being built.

And now, as part of Road Trip 2010, I've come here, to one of the Navy's most important submarine bases--its submarine school is located here, as are a significant number of other subs (see video below), and I've been invited aboard the North Carolina for a personal tour of the boat by its commander, Wes Schlauder.

It turns out--by coincidence of planning, I promise--that the North Carolina also came out of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding in Newport News in 2007, meaning that that facility will likely be one of the very biggest benefactors to Road Trip 2010.

On board
The North Carolina is 377 feet long and has a diameter of 34 feet. When submerged, it weighs 7,841 tons, and can do more than 25 knots at depths below 800 feet. The vessel can carry 38 weapons, including Mark 48 advanced capability torpedoes, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and mines, and it is also set up to carry batteries of special operations forces. It normally has a crew of 134. For now, they're all men, but the Navy is changing its ways and may soon have some female officers aboard some of its subs. But we're not there yet.

Where we are is at the dawn of the age of the IT-based submarine. The Navy has embraced technology, and there are plenty of examples of it spread around the North Carolina. There's even a computer room packed tight with racks of servers that are feeding data throughout the sub via its wired and wireless networks.

Click here for a full photo gallery on escape training at the Submarine School at the Naval Submarine Base New London, as well as on the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered vessel of any kind.

Submarine escape training, and a classic sub (photos)

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According to Schlauder, the North Carolina has also been outfitted with the very latest set of submarine-ready imaging technologies, including infrared cameras, laser-range finders, and digital camera. The infrared may be the most important from the perspective of a sub commander tasked with tracking potential enemies. "Now, I can not just see a surface ship's running lights," Schlauder told me. "Now I have IR capabilities, so I can [actually] see the ship, what it is, and how it's moving. That's never been available to me previously."

But perhaps the most clear-cut sign that the North Carolina is the standard-bearer of the Navy's move to an IT environment is its integration of a fiber optic backbone and a network of networks on board the vessel.

Supercomputing capabilities
As Schlauder put it, Virginia class submarines are designed to take advantage of all the information technology capabilities of the 21st century.

In the past, submarines featured both a sonar room, where the crew could track "contacts," and a separate area for combat systems. Today, that paradigm is no more. On the North Carolina, the two areas have been combined into one large control room that is packed with networked systems.

That means that in the control room, sonar is set up on the port side, while combat systems are on the starboard side. The idea is to easily share information and optimize information flow, said Schlauder, with the goal of building the best-possible situational awareness and providing the most accurate and complete information to the decision maker, be it the officer of the deck or the commander himself.

Because sonar and combat systems are now in the same space (see video below), it's easy for the two to share data, and for crew members manning the two areas to talk between themselves as information develops. "They can see what's going on and hear what's going on," Schlauder said, "and take advantage of all that information flow.

In total, the control room is packing hundreds of terabytes of processing power, Schlauder said, which is ultimately being used to help crunch data and arrive at the most complete picture of what any identified contact is and is doing.

With sonar, he explained, it's all about listening passively. The crew members continually watch screens where all acoustic data is coming in, screens that would look familiar to anyone who has seen "The Matrix."

Schlauder said the never-ending supply of green symbols on the screen, which are developing, top to bottom--"water falling down," like a waterfall--are examined in search of contacts. Any kind of anomaly in the patterns could be a vessel of some kind, and as the anomalies move right to left or left to right on the screen, the crew can apply a series of fire-control algorithms and analyze what they're seeing. The idea is that they can quickly determine what they're looking at, track its movement and, if it's wartime and it's an enemy vessel, create a profile for putting a torpedo on it.

The system is so sensitive, Schlauder said, that not only can the sonar crew tell if a contact is a ship, but they can also determine how many blades its propeller has, whether a blade has some sort of dent, and figure out if it has a diesel engine, or a gas turbine. They could even tell if someone was working a winch on its deck by hearing the banging of chains. It's about "breaking down the noise and telling us what that contact is doing," Schlauder said.

The periscope
As noted above, the periscope is another part of the North Carolina that's moved beyond the worn-out images of the past.

To begin with, there's no longer any eyepieces. Instead, the entire system is computer based and all visuals projected on any of a number of digital displays. The control? It's done using a joystick--"it's like playing an Xbox," Schlauder said. The Virginia class is the first to move to this kind of system.

On a screen, there is a large cross-hairs splitting the view into four quadrants. The top of the screen is in front of the sub, while the bottom is the rear. On the screen, there is always a green wedge outline that represents where on a 360-degree view you're looking and how wide the view is. If the image is zoomed in, the wedge is very narrow, while it would be wide if the view is normal range.

The North Carolina, the fourth Virginia class nuclear submarine, rests at its berth at the Naval Submarine Base New London, in Groton, Connecticut. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

I got a chance to play with the system, and after getting the hang of it, I was looking through the periscope--again, on a computer screen--at the old Nautilus, which is now a museum here--about a mile away. The imagery was so good that I could see the faces of people walking on and off that boat.

The sensors
The North Carolina is packed full of the latest and greatest sensors (see video below) designed to help it do its job. And because the vessel was designed for the post-Cold War environment--meaning we're not rehashing the U.S. versus Soviet Union dynamic of "The Hunt for Red October," the sub is optimized for working in shallow waters near shore.

The first main sensor, Schlauder said, is a large spherical array that is the primary hull-mounted sensor, and which is capable of looking nearly 360 degrees around the ship. It can listen passively--which is its primary role--but can also transmit actively, including sending out pings into the water.

There are also high-frequency active arrays that are shorter-range, higher-resolution arrays that can passively listen or actively transmit. One is mounted underneath the North Carolina and is intended for looking down and mapping the bottom, especially near shore where the submarine might be trying to avoid dangers like mines. In addition, there is one on the sub's sail that looks up, mainly for safety in the sense of avoiding sailboats or surface ships, but which can also be used underwater to track another submarine.

And on the side of the boat, Schlauder continued, there are three wide-aperture arrays--acoustic panels--that give those on the sub the ability to look up and down its side. The main purpose here to passively survey a ship, and to be able, without transmitting anything in the water, listen to a contact and compute its range.

Finally, he said, there's two towed arrays that can be deployed off the boat and trailed behind to survey its surroundings.

Rare opportunity
Getting to tour a nuclear submarine is an unlikely enough opportunity. Getting a tour of what the Navy calls the most advanced sub on Earth is even less likely. And having that tour be led by the boat's commander seems entirely improbable.

With that in mind, I am still buzzing a bit at having gotten a chance for that experience, particularly because it might be something I never get to do again.

It's a sobering feeling being below decks on such a vessel, knowing what it was designed for. The world has changed a lot since the Cold War, and it's not entirely clear what roles submarines will play in America's new geopolitical environment, but there's no doubt the Navy thinks it's worth investing huge sums of money on them.

Having been aboard now, I can't tell you what I think any outcomes might be. But I do feel that the systems the North Carolina, at least, is equipped with give its commander and crew the best possible chance of emerging from any encounter with the upper hand.

For the next three weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.