USS Jimmy Carter: The Navy's Seawolf-Class Submarine China Can't Match

USS Jimmy Carter: The Navy's Seawolf-Class Submarine China Can't Match

The USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23), a Seawolf-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, is distinguished by its advanced capabilities and secretive missions.


Summary: The USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23), a Seawolf-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, is distinguished by its advanced capabilities and secretive missions.



-Commissioned in 2005, it's uniquely modified for seabed warfare, targeting undersea infrastructures like cables and resource systems. Equipped with innovative technology such as a Multi-Mission Platform (MMP) for deploying special ops and remotely operated vehicles, SSN-23 undertakes classified tasks, often indicated by its return to port flying the "skull and crossbones" flag.

-While specific missions remain undisclosed, the submarine's design and modifications make it a critical asset in U.S. naval intelligence and special operations.

USS Jimmy Carter: Inside America's Most Secretive Nuclear Sub

USS Jimmy Carter Spy Submarine, An Explainer: Over the past two decades, the United States Navy has operated a very special submarine that has gotten little attention in the media – likely because its missions have been classified. In fact, we likely won't ever know some of the places this boat has sailed or what those missions may have been.

It is the U.S. Jimmy Carter (SSN-23), a nuclear-powered attack submarine that was commissioned in February 2005. It is just one of three Seawolf-class subs in service, but also the only one modified for Seabed Warfare – those unreported missions deep below the waters that can target critical infrastructure such as power cables, telecom cables, and even natural resource extraction systems.

Only a handful of nations have the capabilities required to conduct such operations, and it requires a submarine-like SSN-23 to accomplish the missions.

The U.S. Navy's Block VI Virginia-class submarines are expected to employ seabed warfare equipment, while the Russian Navy's submarine Losharik is believed capable of such operations.

The Seawolf-Class

Designed to address the threat of Soviet ballistic missile submarines, and to replace the aging Los Angeles-class of attack submarines, the Seawolf-class of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines (SSN) has been described as the best of the best.


A total of 29 boats were to be constructed over a 10-year period – a number that was then reduced to 12 – but only three were launched. By the time USS Seawolf (SSN-21)  and USS  (SSN-22) hit the water, however, the Soviet Union had collapsed.

Cost was an issue. At approximately $3 – $3.5 billion per vessel, the boats were simply too expensive, especially in the wake of changing global geopolitics. Instead, the United States Navy opted for the smaller and more cost-effective Virginia-class submarine program.

The fast attack subs were equipped with an advanced suite of electronics, including a 24-foot diameter spherical sonar array mounted in the bow, a wide-aperture flank array sonar mounted on the sides, and the recently added ability to carry a towed-array sonar. Each of the three SSNs of the Seawolf-class further features a modular design that has allowed for later upgrades including weapons development and better sonar systems, and even today, these remain somewhat “future proof.”


The boats lack external weapons, but each was designed with eight torpedo tubes – twice as many as the Los Angeles-class, along with a double-deck torpedo room to allow for simultaneous engagement of multiple threats. It also had a 30 percent increase in weapons magazine providing storage for a combination of up to 50 Mark 47 heavyweight torpedoes, Sub-Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and Tomahawk missiles.

The Seawolf class is equipped with a strengthened sail that permits operations under the polar ice cap and has the highest speed of any U.S. submarine. As importantly, the design efforts focused on noise reduction – it was up to 70 times quieter than the initial generation of Los Angeles-class boats and 10 times quieter than the Improved Los Angeles submarines.

USS Jimmy Carter – A Spy Boat?

Larger and more advanced than the other two Seawolf boats that were developed in the 1980s, USS Jimmy Carter has likely been tasked with some of the US Navy's most secretive missions.  Due to extensive modifications from the original design, it is even described as a subclass.

The boat is the only submarine to be named for a living former president – due to the fact that former President Carter became a submariner after he received his B.S. degree from the United States Naval Academy in 1946. During his naval career, he rose to the rank of lieutenant and served in both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.

Laid down in 1998, launched in 2004, and commissioned in 2005, the USS Jimmy Carter is one of the most sophisticated attack submarines ever built. Power is supplied from a single S6W series reactor, which provides an unlimited ocean-going range, while she has an underwater speed in excess of 25 knots.

It isn't the speed that makes the boat notable, however.

The larger size of the attack submarine is due to a modification that included adding special thrusters fore and aft that allows the sub to remain stationary underwater, as well as a 100-foot hull extension known as the Multi-Mission Platform (MMP), essentially an underwater hanger,. It allows SSN-23 to carry remotely operated vehicles, cable spools, special-operations craft, and other advanced technologies needed to carry out classified operations and "enhanced warfighting capabilities." The MMP, essentially an underwater hanger, can be used to deploy Navy SEALs or other special operations forces.

The exact types of missions USS Jimmy Carter has conducted in the past 18 years remain classified.

Yet, the submarine has been seen returning to port flying the "skull and crossbones," a tradition among submarine crews that its mission was conducted successfully. The boat has Battle Efficiency awards and a Presidential Unit Citation, suggesting it has conducted some important – and likely even dangerous – missions. This may have included tapping undersea fiber-optic communications and conducting intelligence-gathering missions.

We may not know what missions the boat was involved in, but it should be noted that the motto of the USS Jimmy Carter is "Semper Optima" ("Always the Best") – and it certainly does seem to be very good at what it does.

Author Experience and Expertise

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

All images are Creative Commons.