That Sinking Feeling

America's new subs are wonders, but the Navy is wrestling with doubts about their role

At the Quonset Point, R.I., shipyard last week, riggers and welders were busy bending steel into the first pieces of a new class of nuclear attack submarines. When launched in 2004, the U.S.S. Virginia will be the first of a fearsome nuclear family, 30 vessels bristling with 38 weapons apiece. Designed to prowl the world's shallow coastal waters, where the Navy believes future conflicts could erupt, Virginia-class subs will whisper above the ocean floor, making only 10% of the noise of today's already library-quiet submarines.

Each 377-ft. sub will feature highly sophisticated wake suppressors and pollution controls to mask its...

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