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Problems Persist for SEAL Mini-Subs
Norman Polmar | December 16, 2008

The nations' problem-plagued effort to develop an effective means of landing special forces from submarines has suffered still another setback. The Navy's lone Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) suffered a six-hour fire in November that probably marks the end of that program.

The single ASDS vehicle originally was to have been the first of at least six such vehicles, intended to be clandestinely carry swimmers into forward areas by submarines. The swimmers would ride the ASDS vehicles to go ashore or to enter harbors to carry out secret missions such as sabotage, intelligence collection, and planting sensors.

Each ASDS vehicle, manned by a two- or three-man crew, would accommodate eight SEALs or other special forces and their gear in a dry, pressurized environment.  Other than the single ASDS -- which has now been left a smoldering wreck -- troops can only come ashore from submarines in rigid-hull rubber craft or in the Navy's few Mk VIII "wet" swimmer delivery vehicles. Further limiting operations, the Mk VIII is carried in a Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) that is mated to the submarine's deck aft of the sail structure. The Navy has only seven DDS structures.

The program suffered several setbacks even before the fire that ravaged the ASDS vehicle. As is happening to most U.S. Navy ship programs, the ASDS "vehicle" was behind schedule and far over cost projections. The vehicle was completed in 2001 by Northrop Grumman's Ocean Systems in Annapolis, Maryland, and was "conditionally" accepted by the Navy. In 2003 it was assigned to SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 at Pearl Harbor. The craft suffered major problems with its propulsor, electrical system, and batteries. (Its original zinc batteries were replaced with lithium-ion batteries.) Because of these and other problems, plus cost increases, in 2006 the U.S. Special Operations Command -- sponsor of the program -- and the Navy cancelled the procurement of the five planned additional vehicles.

The lithium-ion batteries were being charged, with the craft on shore when the fire erupted on 9 November and burned for six hours. According to Christopher P. Cavas, writing in Navy Times newspaper, "firefighters sealed the ASDS to put out the fire and continued to hose it down for several hours to cool hot spots. The mini-sub remained sealed for more than two weeks before the hatch was opened." 

The Navy has not said whether or not the craft will -- or can -- be rehabilitated.  At this writing it seems highly unlikely that the craft can be saved.

Sometimes referred to ASDS No. 1, the craft is believed to have made a single operational deployment. It was being readied for deployment aboard the cruise-missile/special operations submarine Michigan (SSGN 727) when it was devastated by fire. The ASDS could be carried by the four Trident submarines that have been converted to SSGNs, two older Los Angeles (SSN 688) submarines, the special mission submarine Jimmy Carter (SSN 23), and the new submarines of the Virginia (SSN 774) class.

The SSGNs have converted Trident missile tubes that can hold rigid-hull rubber landing craft; the other submarines must relay on the seven DDS structures to carry such landing craft, while all of the submarines must have a DDS to carry a Mk VIII SEAL delivery vehicle.

Thus, the despite the U.S. Navy operating a large number of submarines that can accommodate special forces, the means of delivering those men into "battle" are severely limited. And, there is nothing on the horizon that indicates a solution to that limitation. Indeed, although a follow-on "dry" swimmer delivery vehicle was being proposed, it would probably have had components from the ASDS program. 

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Copyright 2009 Norman Polmar. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.

About Norman Polmar

NORMAN POLMAR has been a consultant to several senior officials in the Navy and Department of Defense, and has directed several studies for U.S. and foreign shipbuilding and aerospace firms. Mr. Polmar has been a consultant to the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Mr. Polmar also served as a consultant to three U.S. Senators and to two members of the House of Representatives, as a consultant or advisor to three Secretaries of the Navy and two Chiefs of Naval Operations, and as a consultant to the Deputy Counselor to President Reagan.
Mr. Polmar has written or coauthored more than 40 books and numerous articles on naval, intelligence, and aviation subjects.  His comparative analysis of U.S. and Soviet submarine design and construction, COLD WAR SUBMARINES, written in collaboration with Mr. Kenneth J. Moore and the Russian submarine design bureaus RUBIN and MALACHITE, was published in late 2003.

For the past three decades he has been author of the reference books Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet and Guide to the Soviet Navy.  

Mr. Polmar’s articles and comments appear frequently in various newspapers and periodicals and he is a columnist for the Proceedings and Naval History magazines, both published by the U.S. Naval Institute.

From 1967 to 1977 Mr. Polmar was editor of the United States and several other sections of the annual Jane's Fighting Ships.

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