A mysterious accident with one of the US Navy’s most sophisticated subs hints at a long history of submarine spying

Submarine USS Connecticut with aircraft carrier George Washington
Seawolf-class attack submarine USS Connecticut and the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Pacific Ocean, November 17, 2009.

  • In October, a US submarine collided with what is believed to have been a seamount in the South China Sea.
  • USS Connecticut is one of the US’s most sophisticated subs, leading to suspicions it was gathering intelligence.
  • The Navy is unlikely to disclose the mission, but if it would only be the latest such mission for US subs.

In October, a US nuclear-powered attack submarine collided with what is believed to have been an uncharted seamount while operating in the South China Sea.

The USS Connecticut suffered some damage, and several sailors were wounded during the collision. The Navy said on November 4 that it had relieved the sub’s senior leaders over the incident.

The Navy is investigating the incident and has not – and likely will not – disclose the nature of the USS Connecticut’s mission. But it is safe to assume that the sub was involved in strategic reconnaissance or even intelligence gathering.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Navy’s Silent Service has conducted such risky operations.

The Silent Service

The Seawolf-class attack submarine USS Connecticut
USS Connecticut.

The US Navy fields three major submarine types – ballistic missile, guided missile, and fast-attack submarines – totaling 68 nuclear-powered vessels of all types in service.

Ballistic-missile subs are the US nuclear triad’s maritime component. The 14 Ohio-class subs can each pack 24 Trident nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

Four Ohio-class subs were converted to guided-missile subs in the 2000s and now pack up 154 Tomahawk missiles, for an impressive non-nuclear show of force. In addition to launching precision strikes, these four subs can also carry a dry-dock shelter from which Navy SEALs can launch mini-submarines and conduct operations.

The US Navy’s 50 fast-attack submarines – of the Los Angeles, Seawolf, and Virginia classes- primarily go after enemy vessels, but they can also conduct underwater strategic reconnaissance and can accommodate Navy SEALs and underwater drones with the addition of the multi-mission platform module.

Since submarines emerged as an effective platform, the governments able to build and maintain them have used them for overt and covert operations in war and during peace. The US Navy in particular has pulled off some impressive operations straight out of Hollywood.

Spying subs

US Navy submarine USS Jimmy Carter mast conning tower crew
USS Jimmy Carter transits the Hood Canal on its way home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, September 11, 2017.

During the Cold War, the US Navy and its submarines were on the frontline against the Soviet Union.

In 2013, the USS Jimmy Carter, an upgraded version of the already highly capable Seawolf-class subs, received the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award a US military unit can receive and equivalent to the Navy Cross.

The award came after a classified operation in the South China Sea. The sub’s official history logged the operation as “Mission 7,” saying only that it “performed under a wide range of adverse and extremely stressful conditions without external support … in pursuit of vital national security goals.”

When the sub returned to its homeport in Washington state, it was flying the Jolly Roger flag, a tradition dating to World War II and signifies that the submarine either sunk an enemy vessel or conducted a successful operation. That operation might very well have been intelligence-gathering.

Interestingly, USS Connecticut and USS Jimmy Carter are both Seawolf-class subs and part of the secretive Submarine Development Squadron 5, which is responsible for testing new underwater listening gear and remotely piloted underwater vehicles.

According to the Navy, the unit works with civilian academic and scientific institutions “for tactical development, including unmanned undersea vehicles and naval special warfare.”

The missions of the USS Connecticut and USS Jimmy Carter conduct now are likely reminiscent of ones done by their Cold War predecessors.

Operation Ivy Bells and Project Azorian

Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-129
Soviet ballistic-missile submarine K-129 in 1968.

In 1968, the Soviet diesel-electric ballistic-missile submarine K-129 sank with all hands while on patrol in the Pacific.

Despite several weeks of frantic searching, the Soviets couldn’t find the sub and recover its cryptographic devices, codebooks, and nuclear weapons. The CIA saw a great opportunity for an intelligence coup. It launched “Project Azorian,” an attempt to recover as much classified material as possible from K-129.

After the Soviets ended their search, the US Navy sent USS Halibut, a cruise-missile sub modified for intelligence missions, to locate the Soviet vessel.

After weeks of searching in a 1,200-square-mile area, the American sub managed to find the K-129. It later received a classified Presidential Unit Citation for its success.

In 1974, a CIA sent a salvage ship that managed to raise a section of the Soviet sub. The CIA has never fully disclosed what it found, but in 1992 the CIA gave Russia a recording of the burial at sea it conducted for the Soviet sailors recovered during the operation.

In a separate effort in the early 1970s, the US intelligence community sought to tap into Soviet military communications. Washington and Moscow were discussing how to contain their nuclear arsenals, and any intelligence on the Soviet’s position would have been golden.

Navy submarine USS Halibut
US Navy submarine USS Halibut, October 14, 1965.

A US Navy intelligence officer came with a proposal to tap an underwater communications cable connecting Soviet Pacific Fleet naval bases around the Sea of Okhotsk.

USS Halibut was once more sent into action for Operation Ivy Bells, as the cable-tapping mission was known. Divers from the sub successfully tapped the underwater cable, an extremely difficult task.

US divers periodically returned to the cable to replace the recorder – until 1981, when the operation was compromised and the Soviets recovered the device.

US submarines have likely conducted many similar missions in the decades since, and those operations have only gained importance in an era of renewed competition with capable adversaries – namely Russia and China.

Beijing has built military bases on manmade islands in the South China Sea, attempting to solidify its widely rejected territorial claims in what is one of the world’s most important trade routes.

The US and its and allies would want to monitor Chinese moves through a number of methods – including underwater surveillance – and provide that intelligence to their policymakers.

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How the Soviet Union upended the US Navy plans to build a fleet of faster, quieter submarines

USS Seawolf attack submarine sea trials 1997
US Navy submarine USS Seawolf during sea trials, July 10, 1997.

  • Improvements to Soviet subs in the 1980s prompted the US Navy to pursue its own more advanced subs.
  • Work on the Seawolf-class submarines got underway in the mid-1980s, but the USSR’s demise upended those plans.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

There are only three of them.

Late in the 1950s, the Soviet Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines – starting with the November-class attack submarine – could dive twice as deep as most of their American counterparts and often had higher maximum speed. But they had a conspicuous flaw: they were a lot noisier.

That meant American subs were routinely detecting and trailing the Soviet submarines from a distance without being detected in return – a huge advantage had there ever been a conflict.

In the 1980s, however, the Soviet Navy began to improve its acoustic stealth game. The Japanese Toshiba and Norwegian Kongsberg firms had sold propeller-milling technology to the Soviets that allowed for a much quieter seven-bladed propeller on its new Akula-class attack submarines.

US Navy studies concluded the Akula exceeded the mainstay of the US submarine force, the Los Angeles class, for acoustic stealth and roughly matched the Improved Los Angeles variant. As the Pentagon was flush with money during the Reagan administration, in 1983 the Navy began designing the biggest, baddest – and fastest and quietest – attack submarine possible to restore its edge over the Soviet Navy.

The resulting Seawolf laid down by Electric Boat in October 1989 had a wider hull than the 7,000-ton Los Angeles, displacing over 9,000 tons submerged and measuring 108 meters in length.

Whereas the Los Angeles carried 37 torpedoes in four tubes, the Seawolf could lug 50 heavy-weight 533-millimeter Mark 48 torpedoes or Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which it could launch through eight over-sized 660-millimeter torpedo tubes. (The tubes size was meant to future-proof in case the Navy adopted larger weapons. It didn’t.)

The Seawolf could also use the tubes to launch surface-attack Tomahawk missiles.

Cmdr. Melvin Smith, commanding officer of the Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Jimmy Carter (SSN 23), looks on as the submarine transits the Hood Canal on its way home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.
Officers and crew of USS Jimmy Carter in the Hood Canal on the way to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington state.

The Seawolf submarine was built entirely out of higher-strength HY-100 steel so that it could endure dives as deep as 490 meters.

Its sail (conning tower) was reinforced for operations Arctic ice, where Soviet ballistic-missile submarines were known to lurk. Moreover, its S6W pressurized water reactor gave the Seawolf an extraordinary maximum speed of 35 knots (40 mph), allowing it to chase down disengaging adversaries.

But most impressive were the Seawolf’s advancements in acoustic stealth: A Seawolf was an order of magnitude quieter than even the Improved Los Angeles boats at 95 decibels. Oceanic background noise averages 90 decibels.

Even better, the Seawolf’s propeller-less pump-jet propulsion system allowed it to maintain acoustic stealth even when cruising a brisk 20 knots, whereas most submarines are forced to crawl at 5-12 knots to remain discrete.

Its huge 7.3-meter diameter spherical sonar array on the bow was supplemented by wide-aperture flank arrays and TB-16D and TB-29 towed arrays. These feed sensor data to the Seawolf’s BSY-2 combat system, which can engage multiple targets simultaneously using Mark 48 torpedoes directed either via a wire connected to the sub, or using their own organic sonar.

Thus, the Seawolf was designed as the ultimate submarine-hunter: stealthier, more heavily armed, and able to match or exceed its adversaries in speed and maneuverability.

These exquisite capabilities came at a steep price – namely $33 billion for 12 Seawolves, cut down from the initial plans for 29. Adjusted for 2018 dollars, that comes out to nearly $5 billion per sub, three times the cost of the Los Angeles boats. The HY100 steel also particularly suffered extensive weld-cracking problems, necessitating additional reconstruction.

Navy submarine USS Jimmy Carter
USS Jimmy Carter in the Magnetic Silencing Facility at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, August 16, 2006.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Seawolf’s premium capabilities and expense could hardly be justified as large numbers of Russian submarines rusted away at their docks.

Thus the Seawolf order was downsized to just three submarines which launched between 1995 and 2004: the Seawolf, the Connecticut, and the Jimmy Carter, numbered SSN-21 through 23. All three are based on the Pacific Ocean at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington State.

The last boat, the Carter uniquely was modified at an extra cost of $887 million into the ultimate spy and special operations submarine. Its hull was lengthened by 30 meters to incorporate a special multi-mission platform which can carry divers, or manned or unmanned underwater reconnaissance vehicles which can be deployed using special locks.

The 12,000-ton Carter also boasts thrusters allowing it to maneuver more precisely while in treacherous shallow waters and ocean floors. It is also understood to carry instruments allowing it to tap the undersea cables through which the internet and other long-distance communications travel.

Naturally, the Carter’s clandestine activities remain a secret, though its reception of numerous unit citations for unspecified reasons suggest an eventful operational career.

It’s known to have deployed an aerial drone to spy on North Korean coastal artillery, and it returned to port in 2017 flying a black pirate flag – traditionally flourished by a submarine returning from a patrol in which it has scored a victory.

In fact, all of the Seawolf-class submarines remain shrouded in secrecy, with very few photos or articles released to the press. What reports are available suggests the subs frequently traverse under the polar ice of the Arctic Ocean, at times testing specialized sonars and communications equipment.

USS Connecticut submarine Arctic ice surface
USS Connecticut surfaces through the ice during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2018, March 18, 2018.

None of the Seawolf subs are known to have engaged in combat, however – unless you count the attack of a polar bear on the Connecticut’s rudder after it surfaced through the Arctic in 2003. You can see a picture of the engagement taken via the periscope here.

Meanwhile, more affordable ($1.8 billion each) Virginia-class submarines better suited for littoral engagements are entering service, retaining many of Seawolf class’s advanced features such as the stealthy pump jets, while ditching some of the bulk and gold-plating and making greater use of off-the-shelf technologies.

Later Virginias also sport vertical launch cells for rapid land-attack capabilities.

Demand for the Seawolf’s high-end capabilities may rise, however, due to the return of an undersea arms race involving the United States, Russia and China.

China’s submarine fleet will likely soon exceed America in numbers, though the majority of it consists of shorter-range diesel-electric submarines, and even its nuclear submarines are considered to be significantly noisier than their US counterparts. Russia continues to operate stealthy Akula and Borei-class boats and is developing improved successors as well as Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedoes designed to destroy coastal cities.

Thus the US Navy reportedly sees the beefier, more heavily armed characteristics of the Seawolf as a model for its next SSN(X) submarine – even if it comes at a similar cost of $5.5 billion per submarine.

S├ębastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.

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