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We Think We Know Why the Seawolf Submarine Is Not The Best Sub Ever

An artist's concept of the nuclear-powered submarine SEAWOLF (SSN-21).
An artist's concept of the nuclear-powered submarine SEAWOLF (SSN-21).

Many experts worldwide consider the mighty Seawolf submarines the best subs of all time and indeed something Russia or China would love to have in their undersea arsenal. However, these subs aren’t perfect and need a lot of upkeep: 

Are the Seawolf-class submarines unlucky and high-maintenance boats? They are fast and quiet – some consider them the best submarines ever developed by the U.S Navy, but the Seawolf class has fallen on hard times. The USS Connecticut, one of three Seawolf-class attack subs, collided with an undersea mountain in the South China Sea on October 2, 2021. It had to make an emergency voyage to Guam for damage assessment and initial repairs and then limp back to San Diego on the surface. It finally entered drydock at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington on February 8.

Are They Too Difficult to Maintain?

Not only has the Seawolf-class taken some hard knocks, but the submarines have also required extensive and lengthy maintenance schedules that add to their operating costs.

These setbacks have been going on for years and the navy even succumbed to a U.S. Government Accountability Office investigation that studied the Seawolf-class and its maintenance issues as far back as 2017.

GAO Report Finds Maintenance Periods Were Behind Schedule

The GAO found that between 2000 and 2016, the three Seawolf-class subs were delayed more than 1,600 days before they completed maintenance periods that were already behind schedule. Altogether, they were stopped for almost 80-days as they waited to enter dry dock, according to the Kitsap Sun, a Bremerton, Washington publication that keeps track of submarines at Puget Sound.

At Least $200,000 a Day to Operate

The Kitsap Sun also said the Seawolf subs had an estimated daily cost of more than $205,000 to operate. This made them the priciest vessels for the Navy to work on per day compared with Los Angeles-class or Virginia-class submarines, the GAO found.

Missed a Drydock Availability

Since that report, other maintenance issues have crept up. Forbes also found more difficulties. “USS Connecticut was expected in early 2020 to enter Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for a year-long ‘Drydocking Selected Restricted Availability,’ or DSRA, in August 2021. But, in mid-2020, the U.S. Navy reversed itself, beginning the formal process of cancelling the Seawolf class submarine’s big 2021 maintenance period,” according to Craig Hooper of Forbes.

If Connecticut had been in drydock for this work, perhaps it could have avoided its accident in 2021 in the South China Sea. The exact repairs during a DSRA are classified, but work on sensors that may have alerted the crew before the mishap would have been a welcome addition.

Speed and Weapons Array Is Impressive

The Seawolf-class has redeeming qualities. These subs can run 35-knots submerged and 20-knots in silent mode. Seawolf-class has 50 heavy-weight 533-millimeter Mark 48 torpedoes. There are also Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which they can fire through eight tubes. The Seawolf can also employ land-attack Tomahawk missiles. It can dive deeper and run quieter than the Los Angeles-class boats.

For Connecticut to patrol again, a significant amount of work must be performed. Its forward main ballast tanks and sonar sphere were damaged, and it needs a new sonar dome. The good news is that its hull and nuclear plant survived the encounter intact.

It Could Have Been Worse

Navy spokeswoman Commander Cynthia Fields explained, “Based on the damage, there was no risk to the submarine’s buoyancy or stability,” Fields told Navy Times.

No New Missions for Many Months

But the sonar dome will likely have to be built from scratch and that will take the most time and expense, although the navy was not forthcoming with a repair timeline and exact cost for the repairs. Connecticut will be out of action indefinitely.

Not Fully Retired

The damage assessment is still better than some analysts had expected. It was feared initially that Connecticut would be considered a total loss and retired altogether.

So, the navy will have to sink more dollars into the vessel. And it adds to the reputation of the Seawolf-class being expensive boats to produce and maintain. This leaves the USS Seawolf and the USS Jimmy Carter to carry the torch.

There will be no room for mistakes by the crews of these submarines.

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.