The Sea Shadow goes quietly into the night
May 4, 2012 2:23 PM   Subscribe

The Sea Shadow is a prototype stealth ship built thirty years ago for the US Navy, and the only ship ever designed by the Lockheed Skunk Works. Like its airborne cousin, the F-117 Nighthawk, it is nearly invisible to radar. It is extremely stable in high seas, has no conventional rudder, and requires a minimum crew of only four to operate.
Despite the successful field trials and futuristic technology, the Navy passed on the program and the boat sat largely unused. At 5PM central time, the auction ends that will send the Sea Shadow to the scrapyard. Pictures will soon be all that is left, but check out this extensive virtual tour.

Further reading:
  • The GSA Auction site for the Sea Shadow and the HMB-1 (get your bids in soon!)
  • Construction of the ship was hidden inside the Hughes Mining Barge, also on the auction block and itself a storied vessel. It was originally built for Project Azorean, a top-secret project to salvage a sunken Soviet submarine (Previously).
  • Previously on MetaFilter, an account of urban explorers who snuck onto the Suisun Bay mothball fleet to photograph the derelict ships, including the Sea Shadow. Another account of those expeditions.
  • The program’s development and the field trial results are described in a chapter of Ben Rich’s autobiography Skunk Works, which also recounts the development of the U-2, SR-71, and F-117.
  • This 2009 Wall Street Journal article describes the unsuccessful hunt for a maritime museum willing to house the ships.
posted by startled (54 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Give me a ping, Vasili. One ping only, please."
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:27 PM on May 4, 2012 [14 favorites]


Ah, if only I had a spare half-million dollars and a desire to feel like a movie villain...
posted by hattifattener at 2:28 PM on May 4, 2012


Aw, it's a shame that museums didn't want it, but I guess I understand why -- it's huge, and there's no known history associated with it, so it would be kind of a white elephant, taking up way more room than it would really be worth in ticket sales.

I wonder if they ever actually used it?
posted by Malor at 2:28 PM on May 4, 2012


It really is too bad they're requiring that any buyer scrap it. I think it would make a neat yacht, and FSM knows I could use a couple more of those.
posted by wierdo at 2:32 PM on May 4, 2012


Lessons learned from the Sea Shadow program informed the Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship, which is pictured here, in San Diego.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:33 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


OK what are the chinese waiting for
posted by Tom-B at 2:35 PM on May 4, 2012


It was cheap and effective and versatile - useful for a multitude of roles essential to modern, post-cold-war warfare. Littoral operations, ASW, missile defense... No wonder they passed on it. We got gigantic "littoral combat vessels" instead that are too big for effective littoral combat roles - the aforementioned Independence Class is more than 400' long!
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:39 PM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


It must be scrapped in the US. This is a prohibitive obstacle to any profitability in purchasing this thing.
posted by Aquaman at 2:39 PM on May 4, 2012


Super-stealth ships seem so freaking pointless. Regardless of your radar signature, airplanes can still see you (and your wake if you're moving), submarines can still see you on sonar, and large radars can see the lack of waves in a certain spot that might indicate a boat. Plus, the whole point of battleships is basically to intimidate people; otherwise we'd just use airplanes and submarines.
posted by miyabo at 2:40 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tom-B: "OK what are the chinese waiting for"

This is stipulated in the conditions,

THE EX-SEA SHADOW SHALL BE DISPOSED OF BY COMPLETELY DISMANTLING AND SCRAPPING WITHIN THE U.S.A. DISMANTILING IS DEFINED AS REDUCING THE PROPERTY SUCH AS IT HAS NO VALUE EXCEPT FOR ITS BASIC MATERIAL CONTENT.

though I suppose if China didn't give a shit about the diplomatic fallout, which it doesn't necessarily have to, something could probably be figured out if they were really interested. However, there is a reason we're scrapping it.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:49 PM on May 4, 2012


Ah, if only I had a spare half-million dollars and a desire to feel like a movie villain...

This movie beat you to it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:50 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I worked in Redwood City for a couple of weeks in 1989, just down the street from the HMB-1.
They told us it was something to do with the Glomar Explorer, but I see now it was something else. I was recently Googling the Glomar Explorer to see when it was in Redwood City, but I missed this connection. Thanks.
posted by MtDewd at 2:52 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The cold war was kind of an interesting phenomenon, essentially you had two countries "fighting" each-other by spending a ton of money on science and building weapons that were too expensive to ever use. In addition to the space program, a lot of the early work on computer technology in the U.S was inspired by the cold war, and the defense department was a major customer for early IC start-ups.

Of course, it wasn't much fun if you lived in the countries where the U.S. and soviets were constantly pulling coups against each-other, or propping up horrible dictators. And I can't imagine the threat of nuclear annihilation was much fun.

The problem is we're still spending tons of money on weapons systems that are completely irrelevant in a non-cold-war settings. And the costs of individual weapons continues to rise, the F-22 costs $150 million a pop. In the cold-war days the Russians would be hard at work on a plane that could take it, and neither plane would ever actually be used anyway. Good busy work for engineers, I suppose. The Sea Shadow cost $50 million to build. But it started in 1984, when the Cold war was still pretty frosty.

But when are we going to ever be going up against enemies that have the capability to take us in navel battles to the point where we need a stealth boat? It's utterly absurd at this point. The terrorists we're fighting don't have the capability to shoot down remote controlled planes with a top speed of 62mph. And we're still paying too much just for those.
It really is too bad they're requiring that any buyer scrap it. I think it would make a neat yacht, and FSM knows I could use a couple more of those.
If a rich guy can build a replica titanic he can build a boat that looks like that. Some rich person just paid $250 million for a Cezanne’s “Card Players”. A quarter billion for a painting and 5x the cost to build this boat. It probably wouldn't be much fun inside, being designed for combat and with an expected crew of 4.
Super-stealth ships seem so freaking pointless. Regardless of your radar signature, airplanes can still see you (and your wake if you're moving),
Well, it wouldn't help at night. But now that I think about it - I bet you could develop a radar that was capable of reading ocean waves on the surface, and tracking lots of ships by their wakes.

That said, I think they did spend some time thinking about it. The boat doesn't sit in the water like a normal boat, but rather floats on two pontoons with two narrow 'blades' in the water. Most of the pics of the 'Shadow don't show any wake at all. It could be because it was sitting still, I was only able to find a couple of pictures that showed anything: 1, 2, 3. There's not much there.

Compare that to these sweedish 'stealth' boats that showed up when I was Google Image searching. They have sprays taller then then the ships themselves - we know it's possible to pick up clouds on radar, I don't think those two would actually be too sneaky in practice.
posted by delmoi at 2:52 PM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Don't you guys have naval museums in America? I mean, that'd make sense, wouldn't it? Surely this is worth exponentially more to a museum than as scrap.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:55 PM on May 4, 2012


something could probably be figured out if they were really interested.

Not really. The stealth concept behind this ship and the F-117 Nighthawk was worked out in 1964 by a Soviet mathematician, no less. Moreover, one of these aircraft was shot down precisely by looking for it in a specific manner.

In other words, this concept is now obsolete. There's nothing new here, and even if the Chinese don't know it (and they do), it's not anything the U.S. doesn't already know how to defeat.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:56 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh hell, I missed the last link. Sorry, I feel stupid.
posted by Stagger Lee at 3:04 PM on May 4, 2012


I'm somewhat surprised Rupert Murdoch hasn't secretly bid on this.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 3:06 PM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm somewhat surprised Rupert Murdoch hasn't secretly bid on this.

Geez, you guys need to research your James Bond villains, because the bad guy in this movie I referenced was a parody of Rupert Murdoch.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:07 PM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can understand why the Navy didn't want it. What would they use it for? What problem does it solve that can't be solved some other way? I can't think of one.

The only obvious application would be observation, and drones, aircraft, and satellites are better answers.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:15 PM on May 4, 2012


See, I had this same fantasy, but there's a problem if you think it through.

1) Buy Sea Shadow. Own awesome stealth ship. Yay!

2) Set out to sea. Live aboard. Cruise around living the 007 dream.

3) Big storm. Massive waves, deadly seas. Boat starts taking on water.

4) Radio Coast Guard for help. Coast Guard launches heroic rescue effort.

5) Coast Guard cannot find you. Sink unobserved in middle of whole flotilla of earnestly searching Coast Guard vessels. Drown. Boo!
posted by Naberius at 3:18 PM on May 4, 2012 [16 favorites]


I thought the purpose of stealth wasn't to hide the ship from the enemy, but to have a passive defense against low altitude radar guided missiles? If the missile can be forced to pop up to higher altitude to get a radar signature, then active measures can be brought to bear.

I mean really when you think about it, the entirety of the US fleet is pretty much obsolete in the age of cheap drones and ship killer missiles.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:20 PM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


5) Coast Guard cannot find you. Sink unobserved in middle of whole flotilla of earnestly searching Coast Guard vessels. Drown. Boo!
Lifeboats solve this problem :) You can also get GPS beacons.
posted by delmoi at 3:28 PM on May 4, 2012


> THE EX-SEA SHADOW SHALL BE DISPOSED OF BY COMPLETELY DISMANTLING AND SCRAPPING WITHIN THE U.S.A. DISMANTILING IS DEFINED AS REDUCING THE PROPERTY SUCH AS IT HAS NO VALUE EXCEPT FOR ITS BASIC MATERIAL CONTENT.


Just bring the chinese nerds over. Nerds love to take stuff apart to learn how it works.
posted by Tom-B at 3:40 PM on May 4, 2012


Recycling this craft is a non-trivial exercise because of the light weight stealthy materials which are not recyclable and are very toxic. There isn't much to recycle except for the propulsion and aluminum. The vessel is a big empty box as it's design incorporated the various mission systems in standard cargo containers to make it uber flexible. It's a total loser.
posted by shnarg at 3:50 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]



Don't you guys have naval museums in America? I mean, that'd make sense, wouldn't it? Surely this is worth exponentially more to a museum than as scrap.


The problem is that ships are extremely expensive to maintain, even more so than the average museum collection. Philadelphia's Independence Seaport Museum has had an extremely hard time keeping the U.S.S. Olympia afloat, since that would require at least 2-5 million to keep it barely intact, and up to 20 million to properly restore it. The Olympia was Dewey's flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay, and brought back for World War I. The US Navy Museum in D.C.'s Navy Yards has the U.S.S. Barry, but she's still crewed by Navy personal. It really is a shame that this is just being scrapped, but unless someone would have been willing to start up an endowment to support an aging hull with apparently toxic materials (and re-work enough of it to allow for security standards?) I doubt it would have been possible.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:05 PM on May 4, 2012


In the last minutes of the auction, the price was driven up to a staggering $3,200,100. If I'm reading this right, 5,000 tons of steel at commodity prices could yield as much as $4 million, which doesn't leave much margin for towing and labor costs. Maybe the buyer plans to make up the difference in souvenir sales.
posted by startled at 4:17 PM on May 4, 2012


The GSA Auction site is my new favorite thing. Lighthouses! Helicopters! Might as well call it "Evil Genius Surplus".
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:26 PM on May 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


I can understand why the Navy didn't want it. What would they use it for? What problem does it solve that can't be solved some other way? I can't think of one.

Amphibious delivery of special forces, currently done via submarine. If you had a surface ship as stealthy as a submarine, you'd have far more options and flexibility for this kind of mission.

However, there is no such thing as a surface ship as stealthy as a submarine, so ... yeah.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:30 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Unless this was designed for a specific mission, like the Glomar Explorer, I think this ship didn't have a mission other than to test passive anti-radar measures. Or maybe they considered fielding a swarm of these instead of a destroyer.

I wonder if a pack of stealth surface boats would have utility. Maybe drug interdiction?
posted by zippy at 4:59 PM on May 4, 2012


In corporate in a country with amazing privacy laws
Form US subsidiary
Win auction
Take delivery of ship
Dissolve company
Hightail it for international waters
Live life of (spartan) luxury

(what are you going to do, USA Navy, find it with radar?)
posted by zippy at 5:12 PM on May 4, 2012


(what are you going to do, USA Navy, find it with radar?)

No, they'd just look with their eyes during the day time. Like this. That's one of the most sensitive spots on the planet -- the submarine base at Bangor, Washington. Nuclear wessels.

I get the joke, it's cool.

Just a point of comparison ... the F-117 Nighthawk, the stealth fighter, could only deploy at night. Otherwise, any yahoo with a gun would just look up and go, "There it is. Shoot it." And they'd have a pretty good chance of doing so, too, because it wasn't even a supersonic aircraft.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:23 PM on May 4, 2012


Sea Shepherd should buy it, for their Whale Wars show.
posted by Brian B. at 5:40 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


5) Coast Guard cannot find you. Sink unobserved in middle of whole flotilla of earnestly searching Coast Guard vessels. Drown. Boo!

All that effort, and you didn't buy a flare gun?
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:42 PM on May 4, 2012


Cool post. The case of the laptop I'm typing this on was allegedly inspired by the Sea Shadow, otherwise I'd probably never have heard of it.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 5:59 PM on May 4, 2012


It's small, fast, light, highly automated, and adept in heavy seas and shallow waters. Also, invisible to current anti-ship missiles... even a 5 year lead over missile guidance systems is huge.

Uses!

1) Drop off or pick up a couple of rubber boats full of Seals right off the coast of the enemy, where ships aren't supposed to go. Also, deploy sonar buoys and RF sniffers with satellite coms while you're there.

2) Look for mines, submarines and sonar buoys in places where ships aren't supposed to go, as well as over the vasty deeps. Light and maneuverable and enough payload for a seriously serious electronics package.

3) Big electronics package also means surface-to-air missile systems, including anti-missile systems. Stealth means you get the drop on them before they get the drop on your sitting duck carrier.

Four crew each, plus two or three specialists to run the payload. Compare with a minimum of 40 for the lumbering, useless LCS's they actually went with. They had the potential to be the modern PT boat - a fast, do-everything ship that could augment or replace outright larger craft.

The American military is at its best with cheap, innovative fighting vehicles and weapons systems that it can produce in immense quantities virtually overnight, and revise on a near monthly timetable to correct flaws found in the field. The Sea Shadow should have been the start of a post-cold-war fleet... and if it had been, carbon fiber composites and advanced aluminum alloys would be everyday material found in every car on the road today. Demand the most advanced tech available from your military - it means we get to have it in a couple of years.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:56 PM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


celcius1414 - "Give me a ping, Vasili. One ping only, please."

I wonder if there is some particular physical limitation against stealth against sonar? Do the big squishy bodies of giant squid give them a lower sonar profile against whales? Is it known if there are other evolutionarily developed anti-sonar adaptations that giant squid have developed?
posted by porpoise at 6:59 PM on May 4, 2012



"the successful bidder must agree to dismantle and scrap the Sea Shadow within six months"

Oh, well, I WAS going to buy it until I read that...

Seriously though, the Navy will probably have to pay someone to dispose of it properly.
posted by quanti at 7:00 PM on May 4, 2012


I saw this once! I was on the deck of a carrier in San Diego when this big building came floating by. We suddenly realized it was a floating hangar, and as it passed, saw that the doors were open, and inside was this crazy batmoship. I figured it was hot inside and no civilians were around, so hey. I had never heard of it though, figured it was a brand new thing. This was in '93 I think. I'm glad to see it wasn't a group hallucination.
posted by hypersloth at 7:01 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Slap*Happy, the specs say that the Sea Shadow did 14 knots, so I wouldn't call it fast. The Stiletto does 50 knots, and it sure looks like it employs stealth tech.
posted by gimli at 7:24 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cut some windows in the sides, cover the thing with christmas lights, add a party deck on top, and sell it for party cruises in the Gulf of Mexico.

SPY PARTY CRUISES. You can't go wrong.
posted by cmyk at 7:25 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, with the dismantling clause in the auction text, I don't really understand why anyone would buy it. What use is it? I really don't get it.
posted by odinsdream at 7:40 PM on May 4, 2012


So, with the dismantling clause in the auction text, I don't really understand why anyone would buy it. What use is it? I really don't get it.

Six months of geek cruises and bragging rights?
posted by zippy at 8:26 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well the story I heard is that the way to advance in the Navy is to have a lot of people working for you on lots of ships. A ship that only needs four crew members (and even larger ones wouldn't need as many crew members) doesn't stand much of a chance for anything other than niche applications.

I'm not sure how much sense that argument makes, but it was made by people who had some insight in the matter (or maybe it was just people looking for excuses).
posted by eye of newt at 8:45 PM on May 4, 2012


I'm not sure how much sense that argument makes, but it was made by people who had some insight in the matter (or maybe it was just people looking for excuses).
I would hope that the officers who evaluate new weapons systems would be sufficiently advanced in their career to avoid such conflicts of interest. But you know what they say about Military Intelligence.

A more likely scenario is that stealth is the opposite of what you need (or can achieve) in a ship. You can do a lot of surveillance with satellites and stealthy drones, with no risk to life. The primary purpose of a warship may be intimidation. A ship you cannot see isn't intimidating, unless you do a lot of shore bombardment.

The other thing is that sailboats are very effective stealth vessels already. If you want to put five Navy officers in China's territorial waters, just drop them in a nice Island Packet nearby, and let them sail the last few hundred miles. Sailboats have problems with cargo ships running them down in the night because they are radar-invisible. The Sea Shadow might have the same problem. Sure, you can't launch missiles from a sailboat, but you can from a submarine or a B-52.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:34 PM on May 4, 2012


All that effort, and you didn't buy a flare gun?

Useful but destructive. Flare guns can burn the place to the ground.
Better to have something that that would give you both -
smoke on the water and fire in the sky.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 9:56 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Geez, you guys need to research your James Bond villains…

What exactly did you think I had in mind when I suggested this? Carver being based on Murdoch is precisely why I made that comment. More to the point, Carver's ship in that movie was directly inspired by this one.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 11:04 PM on May 4, 2012


eye of newt, those careerist concerns may be alleviated now that we have SOCOM (i.e. an entire career hierarchy just for stealthy, commando shit). But yeah, each of the services has long had their ideal profile and a strong regression toward that mean, and the Navy is biased toward, well, ships. Even the submarine service is a breed apart.

The closest analogy might be the Brown Water Navy of the Vietnam era, notably shown in Apocalypse Now and a key part of the resume of one John F. Kerry. The Patrol Boat, River had a key purpose in a hot war, though, and was dismantled rather quickly once that need evaporated.

I can understand why the Navy didn't want it.

As far as I can tell, the idea that this was "offered" to the Navy in any physical fashion is erroneous. The Navy itself notes that it was merely a test platform, "never intended to be mission-capable". For that you'd need a whole host of other stuff ranging from bunks to liferafts, all things that would probably require a radical redesign of the general craft concept.

Heck, even the LCS isn't considered a fully combat-hardened vessel, and there's a debate as to just how hot a situation it should be deployed into. Given how new these ships are, it's way too soon to tell if their production was worthwhile, and it's probably going to take a lot of real-world deployment experience before its true capabilities are understood.
posted by dhartung at 11:32 PM on May 4, 2012


Given that the only option given beyond scrapping was serving as a museum ship, the Sea Shadow was not destined for joyriding no matter what happened. Which is a shame.
posted by ckape at 12:34 AM on May 5, 2012


Everything I know about Sea Shadow I learnt from watching an episode of Thunder in Paradise with Hulk Hogan.
posted by kandinski at 8:51 AM on May 5, 2012


Geez, you guys need to research your James Bond villains, because the bad guy in this movie I referenced was a parody of Rupert Murdoch.

I always thought he was supposed to be Ted Turner.
posted by radwolf76 at 3:13 PM on May 5, 2012


Can I just say HMCS Bras d'Or? 63 knots. Yeah.
posted by scruss at 6:01 PM on May 5, 2012


the fastest unarmed warship in the world.

Only the Canadians.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:18 PM on May 5, 2012


Larry Ellison should buy it.
posted by Relay at 6:28 PM on May 5, 2012


Can I just say HMCS Bras d'Or? 63 knots. Yeah.

Don't forget the Americans had their own hydrofoil design too (Pegasus). Not quite as fast though.

Hydrofoils have huge radar signatures when operating at speed due to the spray they kick up.

So they don't really compare to the Sea Shadow.
posted by schwa at 12:27 AM on May 8, 2012


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