Submarines are a lot like Batman, they are covered in rubber and are great fighters, but they are gadget toting stealth detectives at their core. Of the Navy’s sub force, there is no boat more capable at sleuthing under the high seas than the heavily modified Seawolf Class submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter SSN-23.
The 12,150 ton displacement USS Jimmy Carter, whose namesake qualified in Submarines during his pre-Presidential naval career, is one of only three Seawolf Class submarines ever built. The Seawolfs are relics of the final stages of the Cold War and are the most lethal fast attack submarines ever created. The F-22 Raptors of the sea, they could dive incredibly deep, could haul along at speeds approaching 40 knots, and they were quieter than any other nuclear submarine on the planet. They were also armed with a cache of 50 weapons and wide 660mm torpedo tubes.
Seeing as the first boat was launched during the “peace dividend” years of the 1990s, its $3B price tag was thought to be too high and its ‘blue water’ sub hunting mission was becoming a secondary priority for the US Navy as the majority of Russia’s submarine fleet was rotting next to a pier. Instead, future subs would need to be more multi-role minded, cheaper to acquire and be more at home in shallow, littoral environments close to shore. As a result, the Seawolf class was replaced by the smaller, cheaper, and somewhat more flexible Virginia Class that remains in serial production today.
Regardless of the type’s cancellation, the Navy did receive three Seawolf Class boats, the Seawolf, Connecticut and the Jimmy Carter. With the Jimmy Carter, the Navy took advantage of the Seawolf Class’s deep-diving and ultra-quiet capabilities and created a one-off subclass that would become part of a small but very proud lineage of shadowy American submarines that were highly modified for clandestine surveillance and espionage operations.
The Jimmy Carter, which was commissioned in 2005, differs from the standard Seawolf Class submarine via a slew of modifications made during her initial construction. A massive 100 foot long hull extension gives the Jimmy Carter a length only second to the massive Ohio Class Submarines (SSBN/SSGN) in US inventory. This extension, called the Multi-Mission Platform, is described as a ‘moon bay’ with an hourglass shaped passage running down the center of it.
This rounded underwater hangar of sorts can hold outsized deep-diving vehicles, unmanned vehicles, custom-built heavy machinery, spools of cable, special forces supplies and craft, deployable sensors and weapons, along with just about anything else you can imagine. Through a lockout chamber system built within the MMP hold, divers, commandos and remotely operated vehicles can be deployed and recovered.
Other modifications to the Jimmy Carter include a set of precision thrusters, both fore and aft, that allow the sub to hold its position perfectly within space while conducting sensitive mechanical operations or when quietly trawling shallow waters. The Carter also has a large reconfigurable cargo bay, just off the MMP’s lockout chamber/ocean interface, for servicing vehicles and preparing for clandestine missions.
A modular command center can also be tailored to the specific mission at hand, with different configurations available for special operations, deep sea espionage, mine warfare, specialized sensor or unmanned systems deployment and just about any other mission you can think of.
The Jimmy Carter’s mast can be easily adapted to sport unique, purpose-built electronic surveillance and communications sensors. There is also said to be a remotely operated vehicle handling system that may feature the ability to recover autonomous vehicles and even aerial drones with limited human direction.
Finally, SSN-23 can accommodate an extra 50 commandos or mission personnel above the standard crew size of about 130. Instead of sleeping in the torpedo room or other improvised areas as is common for special operations soldiers aboard submarines, this berthing was built into the original ship’s design, making long endurance deployments more palatable.
Because the hull was lengthened 100 feet to accommodate many of the Jimmy Carter’s additional capabilities, the boat did not have to give up the baseline Seawolf Class fast attack and strike abilities. This means the vessel can protect itself in hostile waters or be tasked for traditional fast attack submarine duties, although it seems like this may be a fairly rare occurrence.
So what does the Jimmy Carter do with all its modifications? Like its USS Halibut, USS Seawolf, USS Richard Russell and USS Parche, which were modified ‘special mission’ subs that came before it, the Jimmy Carter conducts espionage, and could even conduct sabotage, in a variety of manners.
Its ability to hold perfectly on station at great depths, all while deploying custom built ROVs and other elaborate hardware, allows it to tap communications and data cables running along the sea floor. In the past, this was done by splicing in tailor made recording devices, leaving them for a period of time, and recovering them at a later date for exploitation. Today, in an age of fiber optics, more exotic forms of real-time seabed-based communication eavesdropping could theoretically be facilitated by the Jimmy Carter, with the NSA rumored to one of the boat’s biggest ‘customers.’
Tapping the world’s massive underwater arteries of data is one thing, but the Carter could also be able to sabotage communications nodes via simply cutting through the wire with large claws or torches, or by setting up mechanisms that could do similar tasks on command sometime in the future, should the need arise. Much of this technology has been pioneered in the deep sea oil drilling field (think Deepwater Horizon), which can be adapted and used ‘off label’ for military purposes. Such an ability could partially blind the enemy and limit their global situational awareness and command and control capabilities during a time of war without actually ‘kinetically’ attacking land targets in a traditional sense.
The Carter can also use its underwater manipulation abilities and sensors to find things that foreign governments have lost. Not only can it examine those things up close on the sea floor, but if they are within the dimensions of the sub’s MMP bays, it can recover them and transport them to a safe place for further examination.
The Jimmy Carter can also perform passive signals and communications intelligence missions via moving in close to a country’s shoreline and utilizing its easily customizable mast to deploy aerials that are purpose built to pickup particular radio frequency transmissions. This can be as focused as searching for a single cellular phone transmission in a city, to soaking up an enemy’s electronic order of battle, including air and sea defense radar emissions and command and control communications and data exchanges.
Although all fast attack and guided missile submarines have these capabilities to varying degrees, the Carter’s modular mission center and adaptable systems allow for the installation of new, experimental sensors and command and control interfaces without heavily interrupting the boat’s normal operations or demanding long in-port modification timelines.
Because SSN-23 has what equates to large hangar bay, berthing for 50 and a configurable command and control space, the Jimmy Carter is a special forces dream machine. It can carry out-sized payloads inside its MMP bays, such as boats and underwater speeders, as well as throngs of sensitive gear and dozens of commandos in comparative luxury within its pressure hull. It can also deploy small UAVs for special operations overwatch and communications relay, not to mention it can also carry a standard seal delivery vehicle dock on its spine.
Because of its unique modular nature, the USS Jimmy Carter can act as something as an operational test ship for leading edge technologies. It is rumored that it was the first submarine to be equipped with an aforementioned unmanned aerial vehicle, which it supposedly launched shortly after North Korea barraged a South Korean island with artillery shells, to assess the damage.
Because of its large MMP bay, and its ability to carry ‘piggyback’ payloads, just like other fast attack and guided missile submarines, it would be the perfect vessel to field unmanned undersea combat vehicles. Not only could these be used as scouts, navigating closer to foreign shores for spying purposes, but they could also act in concert with the Carter for hunter-killer operations. Because these vessels are unmanned, they could use complex, coordinated tactics, data-linking their information to their Carter mothership. By fusing their sensor data with the Jimmy Carter’s, a large increase in situational awareness and survivability may be possible. Just like unmanned combat aircraft, they could range out a distance from their mothership turn on their active sonars, giving away their position but obtaining critical sensor data, all the while the Carter’s stays masked in silence a distance away.
Mine warfare, of both a defensive and offensive nature, is another aspect of undersea combat that the Carter is remarkably well suited for. Its massive cargo space can be used to house mines and other autonomous weapons, while the boat’s ROVs can help deploy them. These same attributes can also be used for deploying unmanned craft and external sensors for detecting and disabling enemy mines, especially high-end ones that can lay on the sea floor for long periods of time, just waiting for the right acoustic signature to come alive and prosecute a surprise attack from below.
Finally, so many of the same warfighting and espionage capabilities that this unique machine possesses can also be used for oceanic research. The craft’s amazing array of sonars, both passive and active, could be re-roled for scientific exploration, from mapping the seabed to seismic research. I know what you are thinking, why wasn’t this incredible asset used to search for MH370, or any advanced military submarine for that matter. Sadly, I cannot answer that question aside from the possibility that operating around a foreign coalition could give away some of the boat’s unique capabilities and expose some of its inherent limitations. This goes for any advanced submarine really.
With the threat of a new Cold War possibly emerging and with China’s rapid expansion, both as an economic and military power, the USS Jimmy Carter is probably in more demand than at any time in its decade long career. When you consider how wide ranging we have discovered the government’s domestic communications spying programs are here at home, you can use your imagination as to just how busy the NSA and other US spy services have been abroad. Just like how the CIA went to the Navy SEALs for one of the hardest clandestine special forces operations in history, the NSA calls upon the Navy’s giant multi-purpose spy ship to do the same, that being the one of a kind USS Jimmy Carter.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com