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Seawolf-class submarine: Hunting the Soviet Typhoon Class

The 1980s was a decade of great change. A period that saw the great symbolic and literal divide that was the Berlin Wall come crashing down. A decade that saw Soviet forces battling the Mujahideen in the mountains of Afghanistan, a war that would see them limp home, bruised, battered and defeated. The hellish possibilities of a nuclear meltdown became a reality at Chernobyl and the final nails were hammered into the coffin of the Soviet Union.

But while the end of the 1980s saw great change, the beginning of the decade was very much business as usual between the two sparring superpowers. With the monstrous Soviet Typhoon-class submarines prowling the seas, the Americans knew they had to up their game. They needed a submarine capable of hunting the Typhoons. They needed a pack of wolves.  

The SeaWolf Class submarines that began appearing in the 1980s were a direct challenge to the colossal beast that the Soviets had been producing since 1976. Bigger, better and quieter than anything the United States had ever produced, the 29 planned SeaWolf submarines would have formed a truly awe-inspiring counter-measure to the Soviet Typhoons. But then, almost overnight, the enemy vanished. The crashing demise of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole superpower and the need for such a fleet was immediately called into question – even before the first SeaWolf had appeared. 

Submarines & The Cold War

First up, if you’re watching this and thinking that you don’t know too much about the Soviet Typhoon Class Submarines either, then it’s your lucky day because we’ve already done a video covering the Typhoon on Megaprojects so if you fancy comparing the two why not check out that video after this. 

The Cold War was a fascinating period, once you got past that nagging threat of global destruction that is. Both the US and the Soviet Union ploughed ungodly amounts of time and money into developing fearsome technology capable of destroying the world many times over. 

But for all of the posturing, there was next to no direct action between the two superpowers. It was like the world’s largest game of chess but with most of the pieces remaining on the board. Games of cat and mouse developed, as both sides pushed each other slightly over the line of annoyance, but not quite to the point of full retaliation. And nowhere was this quite as prevalent as the place that almost nobody could see, the murky depths of our oceans. 

The development of the submarine during the Cold War was dramatic. As World War II ended, the submarines used around the world were relatively simple yet very effective. The carnage caused by the German U boats in the Atlantic had shown just how potent this form of warfare could be. But in just four decades, submarines would become almost unrecognizable. Armed to the teeth with a nuclear Arsenal and capable of creeping almost silently through the water, these submarines could remain out at sea for months on end. 

The Typhoon-Class

As I mentioned, we have done a video on the Typhoon already so I won’t go into a great deal of detail, but it is worth starting here when discussing the Seawolf Class submarines. The Typhoon Class, or Akula Class as the Soviets called it, was the largest submarine ever built when the first slipped out of the shipyard in 1976 – a title it still holds to this day.  

Not only were they enormous, but they could also match or better the latest U.S submarines, the Los Angeles-Class, in almost every way. They carried more torpedoes, could travel faster, dive deeper and even rivalled the U.S subs in terms of stealth. With such a fearsome opponent now openly lurking in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the U.S knew they had to deliver something extraordinary.

SeaWolf Development    

Their response was a submarine that is still regarded as one of the best in the world and was a huge upgrade on the Los Angeles-Class submarines. Design work began back in 1983, but the first was not laid down until 1989 and wouldn’t be launched until 1995. In those 12 years, the world changed drastically and it quickly became clear that the large envisioned fleet of SeaWolves would not be needed. In the end, only three Seawolf-Class submarines were ever built; the USS Seawolf, launched in 1995, the USS Connecticut, launched in 1997 and the USS Jimmy Carter launched in 2004. 

While the demise of their long-standing enemy was a huge reason for the U.S Navy’s decision to scale back the SeaWolf orders, finances also played a key factor. These are still among the most expensive submarines ever built with a unit cost of around $5 billion each when adjusted for inflation. This might have been acceptable amid the paranoid throes of the Cold War, but once the Soviet Union ended, the estimated $33.6 billion at the end of the 1980s for the first 12 was deemed excessive, to say the least.

The Submarines    

The hulls of the SeaWolf-Class submarines are 5 cm (2 inches) thick and were constructed using HY-100 steel. If you don’t know your steel – and let’s be honest, how many really do – that’s about 20% stronger than the HY-80 steel used on previous submarines, allowing the SeaWolves to dive to depths of up to 490 metres (1,600 ft). And that’s a safe dive depth, it could probably go lower if push came to shove. 

The USS Jimmy Carter is slightly different in terms of size, which I’ll explain later, but the other two are 108 metres (353 ft) in length, which is 67 metres (219ft) shorter than the Typhoon Class, while their beam is 12 metres (40ft) – 11 metres (36 ft) smaller than the Soviet sub. The SeaWolves displace 9,138 tons of water while submerged (the Jimmy Carter is slightly more at 12,139 tons) which seems minute compared to the massive 48,000 tons that the Typhoons displace. In every aspect, the Soviet submarine is considerably bigger, but size isn’t everything. 

The SeaWolves are nuclear powered and use a GE PWR S6W reactor system, two turbines with an output of 52,000hp, a low-noise pumpjet propulsor, a single shaft and one secondary propulsion submerged motor. This gives them a maximum submerged speed of 35 knots (65 km/h – 40 mph ), but this top speed is a little noisy. To travel in virtual silence, the submarines can achieve speeds of no more than 20 knots (37km/h – 23 mph).  

They come with a total crew of 140, including 14 officers and their time out at sea is only limited by the quantity of food on board, but generally, the submarines can be out for over six months if needed. 

Much of the living quarters and working areas are located towards the bow – that’s the front for you landlubbers out there – with enlisted men sleeping in compartments accommodating 40 in four levels of bunk beds and officers sharing three to a small room – except the Captain of course. Between the living quarters and the torpedo and missile areas located in the nose of the submarine are the command control room, radar room and the helm – which is fancy nautical talk for where the steering wheel is.

If you move back from the living quarters you will come to the air conditioning plant, the nuclear reactors and finally the engine room and turbine. It’s hardly spacey, but most who have been onboard agree it’s a definite upgrade on older, cramped Cold War era submarines. 

While all three submarines are similar in model, the USS Jimmy Carter comes with a noticeable difference. Her hull is slightly longer at 138 metres (452 ft) and this is to accommodate a 2,500-ton supplementary middle section where the Multi-Mission Platform (MMP) is located. The MMP is often referred to as the ‘moon bay’ and has an hourglass-shaped passage running down the centre of it. Essentially this is an underwater hangar capable of storing large deep-diving vehicles, unmanned vehicles, custom-built heavy machinery, spools of cable, special forces supplies and crafts, deployable sensors and weapons. There is also a lockout chamber system within the MMP where divers and Navy Seals can be deployed and recovered from. 

Armaments

Each SeaWolf comes with eight 660mm (26 inches) torpedo tubes, used to either launch torpedoes or missiles. The submarines can carry 50 such weapons, which normally would be a combination of the two depending on the type of mission. The torpedoes onboard are the Gould mk48 ADCAP torpedoes, capable of striking high-performance surface ships and fast deep-diving submarines. 

Each torpedo comes with a 267kg (588lbs) warhead and can be used either with or without wire guidance in either an active or passive homing mode. Active homing has traditionally been used to search out a certain loud noise, such as a surface ship while pinging out its location. This generally has a range of around 50 km (31 miles) on the Gould mk48. Passive on the other hand is used to hunt down quieter objects, such as submarines, but has a reduced range of around 38km (23 miles).

The missiles onboard are the Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles with a range of 2,500 km (1,553 miles). These use the Tercom-aided inertial navigation system which guides the missile to its destination at a speed of around 890 km/h (550 mph) and an altitude of between 20 and 100 metres (65ft – 328ft). These can be fitted with nuclear warheads, but thankfully that seems to be quite rare these days. 

The submarines also carry the anti-ship version of the Tomahawk missile with a range of 450km (279 miles) and also the Harpoon anti-ship missile built by Boeing with a range of 130km (80 miles). In terms of countermeasures, the SeaWolves use the Northrop Grumman WLY-1 torpedo decoy system and a GTE WLQ-4(V)1 electronic countermeasure (ECM) system.

Operational History

Sadly information on what the SeaWolf-Class Submarines have been up to all these years is quite lacking, but we can piece together a few stories along the way. 

The first submarine, the USS Seawolf, took part in the War on Terror after the September 11th attacks and was later deployed to the Arctic region for a long-haul stint of 6 months sometime in 2015. 

Speaking of the Arctic, when her sister ship, the USS Connecticut visited the region in 2003 and broke through the ice near the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station (APLIS), she immediately came under attack – from a polar bear. The bizarre scene was captured by a camera located at the APLIS and clearly shows the bear gnawing away at the submarine’s rudder. Though it soon became bored of this large, immovable black object and stalked away.  

In 2004, the USS Connecticut also took part in the War on Terror and formed part of the Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group before returning to the U.S later that same year. In 2019, she underwent maintenance and modernizing in a drydock at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, costing a reported $17 million project.

The USS Jimmy Carter began sea trials in 2004 and the following year she was hit by a freak wave while surfaced, causing minor damage but forcing the submarine to return to port. The only piece of operational history we’re sure about was its involvement in intelligence gathering in the immediate aftermath of the North Korean bombardment of Yeonpyeong. This was a military engagement between North and South Korea on 23rd November 2010 which began over disputed claims of the South firing into Northern waters. The incident claimed the lives of 4 South Koreans on the island of Yeonpyeong. 

With tensions rising, intelligence was quickly fed back to the U.S government, reportedly from an unmanned aerial vehicle launched from the USS Jimmy Carter. But alas, that is all I can tell you about that. 

A New Era   

When designers sat down in 1983 to begin designing these revolutionary submarines, they wouldn’t have dreamed just how quickly the world would change. The SeaWolf-Class Submarines, like many pieces of technology developed towards the end of the Cold War, entered service in a very different era than had been expected.  

The fact that the U.S Navy had planned to build 29 and yet only three were ever built speaks volumes of the shifting sentiment at the time. Instead of the titanic showdown between the Typhoons and the SeaWolves, we entered a much more sedate era.  

Today there is just one Typhoon left as Russia has sought to cut the enormous costs involved with the legendary leviathan. But this small pack of wolves is still roaming the seas, still hungry, and still searching for that elusive enemy who disappeared 30 years ago. 

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