During a short-lived and prematurely “truncated” existence, the famous Seawolf-class submarines arguably introduced a new generation of undersea technology and firepower, sufficient to inspire what is now the “breakthrough” Virginia-class attack submarines.
The initial Navy plan was to construct as many as 29 Seawolf submarines as very large, technologically superior submarines capable of carrying as many as 50 Tomahawk missiles.
This is massive firepower and, given that the SeaWolf class was stopped after only three boats, its cancellation may be why the U.S. Navy is now fast-tracking Block V Virginia-class attack submarines with Virginia Payload Modules built in to increase the boat’s firepower by 28 Tomahawks, up to 40-per boat.
This brings a commensurate measure of firepower and may be part of a deliberate effort to compensate for what many regard as a potentially “premature” cancellation of the SeaWolf class.
Did the collapse of the Cold War, the massive extent to which the Soviet and Russian threat seemed to decrease, inspire what may have been a short-sighted decision to cancel the Seawolf? Certainly many discuss what was called a military technology “procurement” holiday in the 1990s has inspired a massive uptick in new platforms in recent decades. The Pentagon was “pivoting” from a Cold War era, yet many likely still maintained a long-term view of the threat equation and likely very much wanted to keep the Seawolf-class. What happened?
End of Cold War – Seawolf Cancelled Early?
The somewhat abrupt end to the Cold War generated a quick and potentially premature cancellation of the highly-capable Seawolf-class attack submarines initially slated to replace the existing fleet of Los Angeles-class boats.
Although the service initially planned to build 29 Seawolf Submarines, only three were actually built before the program came to a halt due to budget constraints in the mid-1990s. The early termination of the Seawolf-class submarines inspired the birth of the now fast-progressing Virginia-class submarines, yet the Seawolfs themselves were engineered to be a paradigm-changing “jump” forward in capability beyond the Los Angeles submarines.
The Seawolf was larger than the Virginia-class boats and considered expensive at $3 billion per unit, yet its mission was clearly defined. Seawolfs were designed to, among other things, hunt and potentially destroy nuclear-armed Soviet Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarines, according to Harpoondatabases.com.
The Seawolfs were also built to track Soviet Akula-class attack submarines in “deep ocean” environments, according to research in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Guide to Ships and Aircraft of the US Fleet.
“Seawolf-class hulls are constructed from HY-100 steel, which is stronger than the HY-80 steel employed in previous classes, in order to withstand water pressure at greater depths,” the U.S. Naval Institute Guide states.
As very large boats, the Seawolf-class is able to carry as many as 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles, something which might explain the rationale for why the U.S. Navy is building Virginia Block V attack submarines with an extra 80-foot section, adding 28 more Tomahawks to the previous capacity of 14. Called Virginia Payload Tubes, these extensions are now being built into Block V Virginias to replace the aging, yet heavily armed Ohio-class Guided Missile Submarines and Seawolf-class.
There are other similarities between the Seawolf concept and upgrades to the Virginia-class boats, such as the addition of a Large Aperture Bow sonar system for the Virginias, which appears somewhat aligned with the Seawolf’s larger “spherical sonar array, wide aperture array and new towed-array sonar,” as explained by Harpoondatabases.com.
The Seawolf is also reportedly designed for shallow operations and Special Operations Forces mission support and delivery. This is also quite similar to Virginia boats, as Block III Virginias are built with a special “Lock Out Trunk” designed to fill with water and quietly enable SOF forces to deploy on clandestine missions.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
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