A third ship in the Emory S. Land-class of submarine tenders is already decommissioned: The former USS McKee (AS-41) was struck from the Naval Register on 25 April 2006. The hull is now moored at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia and serves as a floating workshop.
According to the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Information (CHINFO) department, the USS Emory S. Land and USS Frank Cable submarine tenders are slated to retire in 2029 and 2030 respectfully.
The new submarine tender AS(X) program is one of the key future shipbuilding projects within the U.S. Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA).
Mr. Tom Rivers, Executive Director, Amphibious, Auxiliary, and Sealift Ships, Program Executive Office (PEO) Ships said at Surface Navy Associations (SNA) 2022 in mid-January, “The [AS(X)] mission is to conduct forward-based tending, resupply, and intermediate level repair operations on assigned submarines while at anchor or at port with a Request for Proposal for industry design studies. I’m not going to say much more about that program at this point in time.”
In mid-2022, NAVSEA confirmed that they were indeed working on the new next-generation AS(X) submarine tenders. NAVSEA awarded contracts on April 4, 2022 to three companies, L3Harris, General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO), and Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), for concepts and preliminary designs on the new AS(X) sub tenders.
NAVSEA issued a statement to Naval News in November 2022 regarding the new sub tenders. “AS(X), the next-generation submarine-tender, will support current and future submarine classes and directly contribute to force readiness by enhancing submarine material readiness. These ships will provide repair/maintenance services and replenish supplies, provisions, and weapons for submarines across the Navy’s areas of operations and theaters.“
“The Navy currently intends to build two submarine-tenders. They will be designed to have an expected service life of 40 years. The ship’s primary submarine tending mission will remain the same; however, the Navy will incorporate fact-of-life improvements to shipboard systems.”
Naval Sea Systems Command, Office of Corporate Communications
Naval News Comments
To understand the AS(X)s’ requirement task of replacing the current 40+ year old in-service sub tenders, AS 39 and AS 40, both stationed at Guam in the Pacific, Naval News readers need to understand what the current sub tenders do besides providing expeditionary maintenance and repairs for U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarines. A breakdown of the current submarine tenders’ 26 repair shops and 16 departments can be found in this Naval News story and are listed below.
The U.S. Navy said, “The 16 departments [in the AS 39 and AS 40 sub tenders] are as follows with U.S. Navy (USN) and Military Sealift Command (MSC) crews”:
1. Deck (MSC)
2. Engine (MSC)
3. Weapons Repair (USN)
4. Repair (USN)
5. Executive (USN)
6. Operations (USN)
7. USN Supply (USN)
8. MSC Supply (MSC)
9. Communications (MSC)
10. USN Health Services (USN)
11. MSC Health Services (MSC)
12. Training (USN)
13. Legal (USN)
14. Chaplain (USN)
15. Safety (USN)
16. Purser (MSC)
Although unstated by NAVSEA, one can assume that the two AS(X)s will share the same tending functions as the current sub tenders in terms of repairs and department services; however, submarine technology advances and matures, perhaps requiring more departments to fulfill future requirements. Naval News asked NAVSEA if this is true in late November 2022 and the question was not answered.
Naval News reached out to L3Harris and NASSCO for comment in late November 2022. NASSCO answered but both shipbuilders did not return comments.
Naval News also reached out to U.S. Navy’s Chief Office of Information (CHINFO) in late November 2022 and received a reply on 2 December 2022.
“At this time, details on AS(X) are pre-decisional and no further information is available.”
U.S. Navy CHINFO
Thus, it remains uncertain and unclear if the two newly designed AS(X) sub tenders will have about the same ship size, functions, rooms, departments, repair shops, facilities, number of decks, performance specifications, armament, and general layout as the two submarine tenders currently in service. Factoring in the U.S. Navy’s SSN(X) next-generation nuclear-powered attack submarine, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and the upcoming Columbia-class SSBNs, one can only speculate if the AS(X)s’ requirements and functionalities will be the same despite what NAVSEA said above.
What defines and shapes a “next-generation submarine tender” as submarines, underwater drones, and weapons get more advanced, costly, and complex? As VADM William Galinis of NAVSEA said, the AS(X) ship design is “relatively easy to come through” if it is a commercial design; it’s what goes inside the AS(X)s that might get complicated.
Given that the two currently serving sub tenders will be retired at the end of this decade, there still remains time before a final detailed AS(X) design completion is submitted.
Stay tuned to Naval News for more updates as the two new AS(X)s progress.