GROTON, Conn. — Nearly everyone at Electric Boat is focused on current submarine programs. Three people are not.
They are the concept formulation group, or in EB lingo, CONFORM. Their sole job is to figure out how today's submarines can be made to do more and how future submarines should be made for what they may be called on to do.
"We're the ones charged with maintaining that focus," said John Biederka, director of the group.
This is the group that developed the early concept for a system of tubes that allows Los Angeles-class attack submarines to launch Tomahawk missiles vertically.
They came up with the idea for a module with missile tubes to boost firepower on the newest attack submarines, the Virginia class.
And they found a way to tweak the last submarine in the Seawolf class so it could be tasked with highly classified missions involving special forces and could test new systems.
Not all engineers enjoy concept development; they are used to knowing every detail of a particular task at hand. The three men of CONFORM — who, combined, have a century of experience at EB — are the most futuristic thinkers of the engineering force, the visionaries.
The core group of three — Biederka, Pat Bevins and Steve Menno — provides continuity, but they fan out across EB, Biederka said, to "bring the ideas of the whole company to bear."
"We've got a huge resource of ideas here in the folks that are at Electric Boat," Biederka said. CONFORM "allows those ideas to come together and get sorted out so we can find the good ones."
Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, the chief of naval operations, said in a recent interview that the Navy has to dominate the undersea domain, to "own it," and "to do that, the centerpiece of it is the submarine."
Submarines of the future, he said, will have to be stealthy, "of course," and "be able to net with other sensors, platforms and payloads."
The military works across areas of warfare known as domains — air, land, sea, space and now cyberspace. Submarines will have to operate across the domains, Greenert said. There is research into missiles that submarines could launch at aircraft, and submarines, using their antennas, could be an instrument in the cyber domain, he added.
"They're stealthy, and they can be in places that other things can't, so how do we use that to great effect?" he said, adding later, "They can deliver a Tomahawk cruise missile. We're familiar with that. So what else? What other kind of system or weapon can they deliver? We will have to see what is the overarching potential in special warfare."
Sometimes the members of CONFORM see the need for a capability and then approach the Navy. Other times the Navy poses a straightforward question — "Can you put this missile on this boat?" for example.
Franz Edson, a past director of CONFORM, remembers when Navy officials visited the shipyard in the 1990s because they needed a submarine with enhanced war-fighting capabilities that was big enough to fit advanced technology for classified research, and they needed it right away.
"It was an emergent need to perform a mission," said Edson, now EB's director of mission systems and business development. "They came to us with their hair on fire, just about literally."
EB had a narrow window since the Jimmy Carter would be the third and last ship of the Seawolf class. But CONFORM already had hundreds of ideas. They narrowed the field to three, and EB extended the hull of the Jimmy Carter by 100 feet.
Edson, who works closely with Biederka, said EB is "never satisfied with the status quo."
"We always want to make it more capable, more cost-effective, safer," he said. "CONFORM feeds that need. People want a venue to do that."
Out of 100 ideas, usually only two or three contain elements that can be combined to get traction, Biederka said. Because of the expense, it typically takes 10 to 20 years to get everyone involved to commit to changing the design of a submarine, he added. In the case of converting ballistic-missile submarines to guided-missile submarines, it took even longer.
CONFORM dates to the 1960s. After the Cold War ended, some of the ballistic-missile submarines were no longer needed for strategic patrols. It was then that EB first studied the idea of changing some of them into guided-missile submarines.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Navy was convinced the nation needed the guided-missile submarines to launch Tomahawk missiles at targets on land and support special forces. Each one would carry up to 154 Tomahawk missiles. Ballistic-missile submarines launch intercontinental missiles and can carry up to 24 each.
In 2002 the Navy began converting four of the Ohio-class submarines.
Today CONFORM is working on ways attack submarines could do more with special forces. The concept for an arm on a submarine that can launch and recover unmanned vehicles or vehicles transporting Navy SEALs is moving forward. EB is assembling pieces of the arm so it can be deployed next spring on a submarine.
They have an idea the Navy is interested in, but can't afford yet, for a "water-piercing missile launcher" so submarines can shoot at helicopters carrying anti-submarine torpedoes.
And they are contemplating what the next generation of attack submarines might look like and do. Biederka surmised the future sub may be shorter, with a large diameter and bays for the unmanned undersea systems that will be available, making it more reminiscent of the Seawolf class than the Virginia class.
Edson said no one knows whether in the future the Navy will need a lot of submarines that can spread out, which would most likely be smaller subs to be affordable, or fewer, larger submarines with more capabilities. CONFORM is formulating the options, he said, "so 10 or 20 years from now, when we have to pull the trigger on getting started, we have that playbook in front of us."
"It's about how do you maintain that undersea superiority in the future?" Biederka said. "We're deftly focused on that."