Secretive Seawolf Submarine Makes Port Call In Europe For The Second Time In Two Months

The advanced submarine has been spotted sailing to the Royal Navy's main base in Scotland just weeks after making an unusually public visit to Norway.

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The U.S. Navy's first-in-class submarine USS Seawolf has appeared sailing on the surface in Scotland heading toward the major U.K. Royal Navy base in Faslane. This comes nearly a month after the service made the unusually public disclosure that this secretive boat, which is known to take part in sensitive intelligence missions, among other activities, had visited Tromsø, Norway

Iain Cameron, a ship and plane spotter in Scotland, grabbed shots of Seawolf heading toward Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde (HMNB Clyde) on Sept. 21, 2020. HMNB Clyde is home to the bulk of the Royal Navy's submarine force, including its Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines and Astute class attack submarines. At one point a pilot launch boat is visible alongside the submarine, either helping guide it upstream toward the base or otherwise coordinating with members of its crew who are seen standing the hull aft of the sail.

As a whole, the U.S. Navy is generally very tight-lipped about the activities of its submarine force, also known as the Silent Service. It typically offers even fewer details about the trio of Seawolf class boats, which are understood to have significant additional modifications to carry out intelligence gathering and other specialized mission sets.

All of the nuclear-powered Seawolfs are homeported at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington State and it is unusual to see them anywhere else. Able to stay submerged for months at a time, there is a little need for them to make themselves visible, and by extension vulnerable to detection and monitoring, or worse in the cause of active conflict, by sailing on the surface or even making visits to non-U.S.-controlled bases at home or aboard.

So, it's certainly notable that Seawolf has now made visible appearances overseas twice in the space of two months. The Navy had previously made the unusually public announcement that this submarine had visited Tromsø in Norway on Aug. 21, before releasing equally uncommon photographs of the boat there conducting what was referred to only as "a brief stop for personnel." At that time, the service also said that the submarine was attached to Task Force 69, the U.S. 6th Fleet's standing undersea warfare task force. U.S. 6th Fleet is in charge of overseeing all Navy activities in and around Europe and Africa.

Before Seawolf's visit to Norway, the last time the Navy appears to have released any pictures of submarine of this class making a stop in a foreign country was when USS Connecticut visited U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka, an American base in Japan, in August 2018. It remains to be seen whether there will be any official announcement or official images about the submarine's visit to the United Kingdom and what it is doing there. 

It is worth noting that other American submarines do regularly visit U.K. naval bases, including on the island of Gibraltar. HMNB Clyde is a particularly common port of call because its ability to handle the demands of nuclear-powered submarines.

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USS Connecticut at U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka in Japan in August 2018.

The Navy originally bought the Seawolfs as advanced hunter-killers and had plans to acquire a full fleet of 29 boats. Rising costs coupled with the end of the Cold War led to the service to buy only the three examples, USS Seawolf, USS Connecticut, and USS Jimmy Carter. The last of those boats, Jimmy Carter, features a unique 100-foot-long addition to its hull known as the Multi-Mission Platform (MMP), which you can read about more in this previous War Zone story. It is widely understood that the MMP, together with other modifications, enables this submarine to perform various covert and clandestine espionage missions, including inspecting, manipulating, and even collecting objects of interest from deep on the ocean floor.

These nuclear-powered submarines are also well known for being able to cruise very quietly for extended periods of time, including under the thick ice in the Arctic. This, in turn, has made them particularly well suited to keeping an eye on foreign naval movements in that region, which has historically been a prime place for various countries to keep submarines hidden from prying eyes. The U.S. Navy's newer Virginia class boats are simply not as well suited for sailing in this frigid waters. 

Seawolf's relatively visible deployment to the northern European region certainly comes amid a period of increased friction between the United States and Russia. The submarine's stop in Norway already appeared to be a signal to the Kremlin and shortly afterward Norwegian authorities announced that they were expanding naval facilities in and around Tromsø to better support visits from American and other allied submarines. Right now, submarines have to anchor in nearby fjords and have small boats take personnel and other items to and from them, limiting the kind of resupplying and other support that can be offered.

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USS Seawolf in a fjord near Tromsø in August 2020.

"The U.S. and Norway have a great relationship, and our ability to use facilities in and around Tromso would provide a strategic location for our visits," a U.S. defense official told Breaking Defense about the planned expansion. “It would give us flexibility for not only the U.S. but allied countries to exercise in the High North.”

The Arctic is increasingly a site of geopolitical competition, especially between the United States and Russia, and Russian authorities have been dramatically expanding their military presence, including naval and air operations, across a constellation of bases there in recent years. You can read more about those developments in this previous War Zone piece. At the same time, monitoring such activities at high latitudes can be especially challenging, especially given the limited ability of spy satellites to observe the region and similar impediments to satellite communications and data sharing.

“We have significant domain awareness challenges, and that really begins in the high latitudes,” retired Admiral Paul Zukunft, former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said during the 2020 Defense News Conference earlier in September. “Things start to get pretty dark once you get up higher than 72 degrees north.”

"We sent a national security cutter to patrol that region in a relatively ice-free portion of the season," he continued. "And we stumbled upon a joint exercise between Russia and China. Our intelligence community did not have awareness that this was going on. So we were the originators of this information and otherwise we would not have known. We need to continue to invest in domain awareness."

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A map the Pentagon released in 2020 showing areas with high volumes of Russian, as well as Chinese, naval activity.

Beyond providing that kind of capability in the Arctic, Seawolf could also help the Navy keep an eye on foreign naval activity in northern European waters. Russian submarines leaving their bases in the northwestern corner of the country typically travel past Norway and the northern United Kingdom, toward an area known as the Greenland, Iceland, and United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, on the way into the north Atlantic. They return home the same way. The U.S. military has repeatedly highlighted concerns about a notable uptick in Russian Navy submarine operations in the Atlantic in recent years, which you can read more about in this past War Zone story.

Seawolf's latest European appearance also comes amid a succession of tit-for-tat posturing between the U.S. and Russian militaries in Europe, especially in the air, as well as elsewhere around the world, including in northeastern Syria. The U.S. Army recently redeployed Bradley Fighting Vehicles to that country in what observers have seen as a message to Russian forces in the region, who have been involved increasingly serious altercations on the ground with American troops. The service had previously sent Bradleys to Syria in October 2019, before quietly and unceremoniously withdrawing them less than two months later, which The War Zone was first to report.

Whatever the purpose of Seawolf's visit to HMNB Clyde may be, the U.S. Navy is clearly not hiding that this advanced submarine is there and, by extension, still prowling around in the region.

Contact the author: Joe@thedrive.com