The USS Parche—pronounced Par-chee—remains the U.S. Navy’s most decorated vessel ever in American service.
The USS Parche, commissioned in 1974, originally began life as a Sturgeon-class nuclear-powered fast attack submarine. After serving for several years in that role, the Parche was selected for a different, more specialized role of top-secret reconnaissance. What would be the submarine’s target? The Soviet Union’s underwater communications cables.
In that role, the USS Parche was modified several times to allow the sub greater maneuverability and to make space onboard for extra communications equipment, cameras, thrusters, landing skids, and additional sonar arrays.
The enormous amount of observation equipment that the Parche carried came at a cost, however. Almost all of the submarine’s torpedoes were removed to create extra space onboard—leaving the submarine with a paltry four shots for defense in case of detection. Like other Navy submarines tasked with clandestine wiretapping missions, the Parche carried a dangerous secret.
In the event that the Parche was in danger of being captured by the Soviet Union, the submarine carried 150 pounds of HBX explosives onboard—a last resort scuttling charge that would preserve the submarine’s secrets and cost all the submariners’ their lives.
Perhaps the most significant (known) mission that the Parche took part in was the clandestine tapping of a Soviet underseas communication cable in the Sea of Okhotsk. The cable, running along the ocean floor, connected one of the Soviet Pacific Fleet’s bases at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s far east, with the Fleet’s headquarters in Vladivostok.
The cable would be a tough nut to crack. Not only was it within Soviet territorial waters, it was also protected by an array of acoustic listening devices that could detect surface ships and submarines. The Sea of Okhotsk also hosted Soviet Navy drills on occasion, complicating efforts to penetrate the area.
Despite the challenges, a large wiretap recording device was successfully planted in 1971 by a different espionage submarine, the USS Halibut. Once the Halibut was decommissioned, however, the Parche became one of the submarines that took over the wiretapping and recording device recovery role. Parche was never detected.
The USS Parche also took part in cable detection and tapping operations near the North Pole and in the Barents Sea. Parche would win a staggering amount of honors, including ten Presidential Unit Citations, nine Navy Unit Citations, and thirteen Expeditionary Awards.
After thirty years of continuous service, the USS Parche was decommissioned in 2004 and scrapped two years later. It is likely that the special spy role conducted by the Parche has since been taken over by the USS Jimmy Carter, a modified Seawolf-class submarine. Today, the USS Parche’s sail is preserved and on display near the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.