America’s nuclear attack submarines have served very quietly since the launch of USS Nautilus (SSN 571) in 1954. In fact, for about 37 years, they played a cat-and-mouse game with the Soviet Union’s nuclear subs – missions that turned very dangerous at times.
Near the end of the Cold War, the United States Navy began seeking a replacement for the Sturgeon-class submarines, as well as two one-off designs, the Narwhal (SSN 671) and the Glenard P. Lipscomb (SSN 685). The Los Angeles-class attack submarines were not bad, but the Navy wanted to get a qualitative edge over the Soviet Akula and Sierra-class submarines that were coming out.
The Navy had been caught off-guard by Soviet capabilities before. In 1969, a November-class submarine had managed to reach speeds of 30 knots while trailing USS Enterprise (CVN 65), about 15% faster than the Sturgeon-class submarines that started entering service two years earlier. That was bad enough, but the Soviets had the new Victor and Charlie-class submarines coming out – and those were more advanced than the November.
The Seawolf was intended to be a response to the Akula and Sierra classes – and it is arguably the best submarine to ever prowl the ocean depths. With eight torpedo tubes, and the ability to hold 50 weapons (any mixture of Tomahawk cruise missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, or Mk 48 torpedoes), it packed a lot more firepower than any previous American submarine. It also used HY-100 steel, which allowed it to dive deeper, and made it tougher, than any previous American submarine.
The first 12 submarines were slated to cost $33.6 billion – or about $2.8 billion per submarine, and as many as 29 were planned. But when the Berlin Wall fell, interest in Seawolf quickly did so as well. The class was halted at three units, and the Navy began development on a new submarine that became the Virginia-class which was, in essence, a warmed over Los Angeles hull with some Seawolf technology.
Today, the Navy is paying $2.688 billion for each Virginia-class submarine, which has a Mk 45 VLS that holds 12 Tomahawks, and 27 more weapons (Mk 48 torpedoes, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and Tomahawks) in its torpedo room. Not a bad sub, but is the $112 million per sub savings between the Virginia-class subs and the Seawolf worth the loss in capability, particular when further cost savings would have been acquired had the Seawolf-class been allowed to reach the planned 29-ship total?
Today, all three Seawolf-class subs are in service. Two are regular attack submarines, while the third, USS Jimmy Carter (SSN 23) is a “special missions” boat – replacing USS Parche (SSN 683) in that role. The hope of the post-Cold War era has now faded – and the harsh reality is that Russia is again an adversary. America may find out, to its sorrow, that the money saved on buying Virginia-class subs instead of Seawolf-class subs, was a classic case of being penny wise, but rather foolish on other fronts.