The U.S. Navy will have a unique new submarine: SSW Virginia.

The USS Jimmy Carter is currently the U.S. Navy’s top-secret seabed warfare submarine, specially equipped for covert espionage missions deep beneath the waves. A new special spy submarine is now being planned to be built to succeed it, using the new Virginia-class hull.

It is expected to build a single version of the Mod VA SSW (Modified Virginia, Subsea and Seabed Warfare) of the Virginia class.

Work is already underway at Groton, Connecticut’s famous Electric Boat yard. General Dynamics Electric Boat President Kevin Graney shared a basic sketch of the design in January 2022 at a Connecticut Economic Summit in 2022.

Since then, information about the design of the SSW has gradually appeared in open sources, but naturally, the details remain hidden. According to the Congressional Research Service, only one ship will be purchased in the U.S. Navy’s 2024 budget. The estimated cost is $5.1 billion, almost $1 billion more than the Virginia class.

war on the Seabed

Russia’s ongoing efforts to survey undersea infrastructure have brought attention to the conflict on the seabed. And by September 2022, when the Baltic Sea gas pipelines known as Nord Stream are attacked. 

The USS Jimmy Carter is not suspected of involvement in the Nord Stream incident (and she wasn’t!). The attack, however, demonstrates the importance of such qualities. On the other hand, submerged warfare is more akin to espionage than sabotage. The U.S. subs are particularly noticeable.

The history of operations against underwater infrastructures, such as sensor networks, communications and energy infrastructures, goes back a long time. And both the U.S. and Russian Navy have strong traditions.

In the 1970s, in Operation Ivy Bells, the U.S. Navy tapped into Soviet underwater communications networks. The tapping of cables that the Soviets considered secure provided the United States with valuable data and intelligence. 

After the initial operation in the Sea of Okhotsk, several others were of comparable magnitude but less widespread notoriety. Only when a Soviet spy working deep within the U.S. intelligence system, Ronald Pelton, betrayed them did the USSR learn of their existence.

Initially, the U.S. Navy used a converted cruise missile submarine, the USS Halibut. The USS Seawolf followed it, and then the USS Parche, both upgraded with enlarged hulls to carry the specialized equipment. 

One of the new Seawolf-class submarines, the USS Jimmy Carter, was built in the 2000s with the hull enlargement already installed. This submarine became the U.S. Navy’s first seabed warship. The new specialized Virginia-class submarine will augment or succeed the USS Jimmy Carter.

Current USS Jimmy Carter

The design of the Virginia SSW submarine

Unsurprisingly, not much is known about the new Virginia SSW submarine. Even after almost 20 years of service, the USS Jimmy Carter is still a riddle. But we can expect that the new submarine will be able to carry unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and submersibles for special missions.

Some of the vertical launch missile systems, known as VPMs (Virginia Payload Modules), will be reused for new systems. In addition, the keel located under them will be expanded. Exactly how this will interface with specialized submersibles can only be speculated on.

Russia also has a long tradition of warfare on the seabed. And, compared even with the U.S. Navy, it has invested heavily in this field. The Russian fleet of specialized submarines is the largest in the world in service. The U.S. Navy’s deep-sea warfare capability is probably more sophisticated, but Russia’s is broader and more plentiful.

If the U.S. Navy wishes to maintain its advantages, it is only natural for it to seek a replacement for the USS Jimmy Carter.

H.I. Sutton