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The US Navy’s Plan for a New Attack Submarine: A Super Seawolf-class?

Image: Creative Commons.

The US Navy’s Director of Undersea Warfare explained that the United States Navy’s next attack submarines have to be extremely fast and quiet to be combat effective. And, in contrast to the versatile Virginia-class, the Navy’s new attack submarines will have a blue-water, deep-sea focus.

The Virginia-class “remains the most capable multi-mission submarine in the world – bar none,” United States Navy Rear Adm. Doug Perry explained. “But we must maintain our undersea advantage by investing for future capabilities. And we know we need to start that work today to make sure we can deliver SSN(X) in time of need, and without lots of technical or schedule risk.”

A report from the Congressional Budget Office, responsible for tracking federal costs, explains, “the next-generation attack submarine should be faster, stealthier, and able to carry more torpedoes than the Virginia class—similar to the Seawolf-class submarine. CBO therefore assumed that the SSN(X) would be a Seawolf-sized SSN, which displaces about 9,100 tons when submerged, and would have an all-new design in keeping with the Navy’s description of it as a “fast, lethal, next-generation attack submarine.”

The Legendary Seawolf-class

The Seawolf-class is small — just three subs in total — curtailed by the end of Cold War hostilities. Yet, at the time, they were some of the most advanced submarines in existence, able to dive deeper than most other submarines and capable of higher speeds than other American or Soviet submarines.

The class recently made headlines when one of the class struck an underwater seamount in the South China Sea, severely damaging the submarine’s bow section and likely its sonar array. The submarine, the USS Connecticut, was forced to sail to Guam and later the American west coast for repairs.

As a blue-water platform, the Navy’s new attack submarines will pack a great deal of weaponry on board, optimized for hunting other submariners — hearkening back to the Seawolf-class’ original purpose: hunting down Soviet submarines. And like the Seawolves, they’ll be expensive.

The Congressional Budget Office “estimates much greater costs for the SSN(X) than the Navy does… On the basis of those assumptions, CBO estimates that the average cost of the SSN(X) would be $5.5 billion per submarine, whereas the Navy estimated the cost at $3.1 billion per submarine.” The discrepancy is large, a difference of $72 billion.

Towards a Super Seawolf-Class? 

In moving from a capable multi-mission platform with significant intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance abilities back to a potent deep-water submarine-hunting platform, the Navy is betting on a highly contested environment in an era of great-power competition.

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.

Written By

Caleb Larson is a multiformat journalist and defense writer based in Berlin but has spent most of 2022 reporting from Ukraine. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, with a focus on American foreign policy and European security. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Lac Dirk

    November 24, 2021 at 1:35 pm

    The problem is that the threat from China and Russia is mainly on the continental shelves, where nuclear submarines are at a big disadvantage over the far more modern AIP subs. The USN needs to start making up for lost time and buy modern European or Israeli AIP submarines, while starting to work on its own version to combat the new Chinese ones.

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