What makes the Seawolf class so special? During the Eisenhower administration, as the Cold War reached its peak and the world order was at stake, the Soviets and Americans were locked in a grueling arms race. On land, in the air, and at sea, both nations raced to outdo their nemesis’ design and production, with an urgency and paranoia that only existential conflict can seemingly produce. At the time, the two rivals were the only nations in the world equipped with nuclear weapons – and each nation placed particular importance on nuclear triad systems.
Under the sea, each nation has deployed nuclear submarines capable of firing nuclear-tipped missiles. “The nuclear-powered submarines of the Soviet Navy – starting with the November-class attack submarine – could dive twice as deep as most of their American counterparts and often had a higher maximum speed. But they had an obvious flaw: they were much louder,” wrote my colleague Sébastien Roblin. The Americans were able to easily follow the buzz November-class submarines, without being followed back. But in the 1980s, the Soviets (with the help of the Japanese and Norwegians) were able to produce a submarine with much improved sonic qualities – the Akulaclass submarine, which featured a significantly quieter seven-bladed propeller.
The Akula deeply concerned American war planners. The most recent Soviet submarine seemed superior to the US Navy submarine, the Los Angeles-to classify. With its naval advantage diminished, the United States did what one does in an existentialally motivated arms race: spend lots of money to design the best submarine in the world. The result: the Sea bass-class submarine.
The Sea bass is a nuclear-powered fast attack submarine that cost $5 billion per unit (in 2018 terms). The US Navy got what it paid for; the Sea bass was bigger, faster, quieter and more impressive than its predecessor, the Los Angeles-to classify. “The US Navy has asked the builders to stuff all sorts of goodies into the Seawolf submarine,” Brent Eastwood wrote. As you would expect from a ship designed during the height of the Cold War, the Sea bass can carry up to 50 UGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Guide the Sea bass was an AN/BSY-2 modified ARCI combat system that featured an impressive spherical sonar array, towed sonar and wide-aperture array.
The Sea bass executed admirably. Constructed entirely of HY-100 steel (whereas predecessors were constructed of weaker HY-80 steel), the Sea bass could reach depths of 490 meters. In addition to diving deep, the Sea bass could cruise. With an S6W pressurized water reactor, the Sea bass had a remarkable top speed of 35 knots. And the Sea bass was quiet. The submarine’s “propellerless jet-pump propulsion system allowed it to maintain acoustic stealth even when cruising fast at 20 knots, when most submarines are forced to crawl at 5-12 knots to keep it low-key,” Eastwood wrote.
As explained by a retired electric boat engineer who worked on the Seawolf class 19fortyfive in an interview: “The Seawolf class challenged all the employees who worked on the project. The US Navy came to us with a very specific design that required very new and advanced technology because they wanted something that would completely outperform anything Russia had,” the engineer explained.
He continues, “We explained to Navy officials that the technology they wanted didn’t exist. They told us they would give us the money and support to build what they wanted. And, to their credit, we had a solid budget to write the history of submarines. The Seawolf, at least in the early 1990s, was unmatched. Nothing could touch it and I doubt any Russian submarine could find it.
Why the Seawolf class was reduced
Despite the Sea bass proven capability, the end of the Cold War led to a sequestration of the defense budget. Without a Soviet threat lurking in the depths of the ocean, the Sea bass, which had seemed so justifiable and necessary in the 80s, suddenly seemed indulgently expensive. The program, which originally called for the construction of 29 ships, was canceled with only three ships completed – The Sea bass, Connecticutand Jimmy Cartercommissioned in 1997, 1998 and 2005 respectively. A cheaper alternative to the Sea bassthe 1.8 billion dollars Virginia-class submarine, is already in service (with 66 total ships planned), threatening to make the vaunted (but marginally relevant) Sea bass totally obsolete.
Harrison Kass is the senior defense writer at 19FortyFive. A lawyer, pilot, guitarist and minor professional hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a trainee pilot, but was discharged for medical reasons. Harrison is a graduate of Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.