The US Navy is getting creative with the weapons payloads of the Virginia-class submarines, one of the deadliest and most technologically advanced subs in the world.

The Virginia Payload Module (VPM), a weapons system intended to give the late-block Virginia-class attack submarines (SSNs) a bit more punch, was initially viewed solely in the context of giving these submarines the kind of firepower seen on the aging Ohio-class guided-missile submarines (SSGNs).


"We were only really allowed to talk about it as a replacement for SSGN strike," Program Executive Office for Submarines Executive Director George Drakeley said at November 2018's Naval Submarine League symposium, USNI News reported Nov. 15, 2018. "The handcuffs are off now, and lately we've been talking about other capabilities," he said at the event.

The US Navy awarded BAE Systems a contract in 2018 to develop new payload tubes — the new VPMs — for two Block V Virginia-class submarines, Defense News reported in June 2018. One of the four VPM tubes reportedly has the ability to carry and launch up to seven Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAMs). This technology can triple the sub's payload capacity, significantly boosting its firepower.

Rendering of Virginia-class attack submarine.

(US Department of Defense graphic by Ron Stern)

There are also opportunities to innovate and apply this technology to new missions, a necessity as the US refocuses its efforts on preparation for high-end conflict with rival powers. "We're in a great power competition now, and so we need to be focusing on other potential capabilities," Drakeley told those in attendance.

Both Russia and China are increasingly advancing their undersea warfighting capabilities. "In the undersea domain, the margins to victory are razor thin," Adm. James G. Foggo III, the commander of US Naval Forces Europe-Africa, told Pentagon reporters in October 2018.

A new report evaluating the National Defense Strategy, which also highlights the threat posed by great power competition, recommended the US bolster its submarine force. But numbers are not everything, as capability is also key.

"We have to get past the days of just ADCAP (advanced capability Mk 48 heavyweight torpedo) and TLAM (Tomahawk land-attack missile) as being our two principle weapons," Rear Adm. John Tammen, the director of undersea warfare on the staff of the chief of naval operations, explained to attendees.

Tammen told USNI News that the surface warfare community is looking into a next-generation land-attack weapon, and the undersea warfare directorate would then look at ways to adapt it to the VPM, giving the Virginia-class subs an alternative to the Tomahawks.

At the same time, the Navy is also interested in VPM-launched unmanned undersea vehicles, but the pairing process has proven something of a challenge.

This new technology, as long with new torpedo systems, could potentially be seen on the Block VI and VII Virginia-class SSNs.

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