The Navy's Big Mistake: Not Building More Seawolf-Class Submarines?

Seawolf-Class Submarine U.S. Navy
February 20, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. NavyNavyMilitarySeawolf-ClassSubmarinesVirginia-class

The Navy's Big Mistake: Not Building More Seawolf-Class Submarines?

During the Cold War, the U.S. spent indulgently on weapons programs. But once the USSR collapsed, U.S. taxpayers balked at the idea of maintaining their Cold War force structure. Many weapons programs were canceled or suspended in their infancy, like the Seawolf-class submarine, of which only three were made. Yet, had the USSR endured, the cutting-edge Seawolf likely would have been produced in higher numbers.

 

During the Cold War, the U.S. spent indulgently on weapons programs. But once the USSR collapsed, U.S. taxpayers balked at the idea of maintaining their Cold War force structure. Many weapons programs were canceled or suspended in their infancy, like the Seawolf-class submarine, of which only three were made. Yet, had the USSR endured, the cutting-edge Seawolf likely would have been produced in higher numbers.

Cold War Competition

The Cold War pitted the world’s two great nations, the USA and the USSR, against one another in an exhaustive arms race.

 

On land, air, and sea, the superpowers dashed to create and produce preeminent equipment – the urgency and tempo of the weapons development the kind that only existential conflict can inspire.

Raising the stakes of the conflict was the fact that both nations possessed nuclear weapons, indeed for part of the Cold War were the only nations that possessed nuclear weapons. Accordingly, each nation placed a particular emphasis on enhancing their nuclear triad.

Tracking the Inception of the Seawolf-Class

At sea, the superpowers developed nuclear-power submarines that could fire nuclear warhead-tipped missiles.

“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,” National Interest contributor Sebastian Roblin wrote. Resultingly, the Americans could track the November-class submarines, without being tracked simultaneously.

By the 1980s, however, the Soviets – who had received significant aid from both the Japanese and the Norwegians – were able to improve significantly quieter submarines: the Akula-class, which featured a two hulls and a quiet seven-bladed propeller. US observers found the Akula troubling, for the Akula was quieter even than the US Navy’s preeminent Los Angeles-class submarine.

Paranoid that the Soviets might fully mitigate the US naval advantage, the US did what paranoid superpowers do: spend money on improving their weapons systems. The result was the Seawolf-class submarine.

Introducing the Seawolf-Class

The Seawolf is a nuclear-powered, fast-attack sub that costs $5 billion per unit (in 2018 dollars). The mass price tag resulted in an impressive vessel: bigger, faster, quieter, and more heavily armed than the preceding Los Angeles-Class.

“The U.S. Navy had builders cram all kinds of goodies into the Seawolf submarine,” National Interest contributor Brent Eastwood wrote.

Seawolf-Class

Naturally, as an enhanced addition to the US’s nuclear triad, the Seawolf can carry up to 50 UGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. For guidance, the Seawolf relied upon an ARCI Modified AN-BSY-2 combat system that featured a spherical sonar array, towed-array sonar, and wide aperture array.

Pulling the Plug

The Seawolf performed as advertised, proving itself a capable addition to the US fleet. Yet when the Cold War ended, the defense budget entered a period of sequestration. And the Seawolf, which had seemed a necessary expense while the Soviets were prowling the world’s oceans, suddenly seemed like an superfluous indulgence in the post-Soviet 90s. The program, which was originally slated to field 29 ships, was canceled after just three ships were completed: the Seawolf, Connecticut, and Jimmy Carter.

The newer Virginia-class submarine shares some functionality with the Seawolf – yet at less than half the price – threatening to render the Seawolf fully irrelevant.

About the Author: Harrison Kass 

Harrison Kass is a defense writer with over 1,000 published pieces. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.