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Ship comes out from shadow for new mission By James W. Crawley UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER January 1, 2001
Not many years ago, you risked jail for telling this story.
But the secrets of the Sea Shadow -- once the Navy's most classified and strangest-looking ship -- are secret no more.
Shaped like a discombobulated house roof, the craft has had an on-and-off career since the mid-1980s, when it was designed and built by the folks who developed the Stealth jet fighter.
Its sloping sides, lack of parallel lines and quiet electric motors make it virtually invisible to enemy radar and sonar. Now, after years of being mothballed, the craft has a new life -- testing designs for futuristic warships.
The Sea Shadow was so secret that the Pentagon had it built inside a large covered barge, made by Howard Hughes for the CIA when it attempted to recover a sunken Soviet submarine during the 1970s.
Although its existence was acknowledged in 1993, it remained a crime to disclose too much information about the craft. In 1995, a laid-off civilian engineer who had worked on the ship was convicted of trying to sell Sea Shadow secrets to an undercover FBI agent masquerading as a French official.
The vessel's history has been marked by secret tests, followed by years mothballed out of sight. Then, for a brief time, daytime tests and a public coming-out in 1994.
It was moved to San Diego five years ago and placed in storage at the San Diego Naval Station at 32nd Street, where it has remained largely hidden in the same barge where it was built, operated by a civilian crew working for a Lockheed-Martin subsidiary.
In March 1999, the ship was reactivated for a new mission.
The Navy has pulled back the cloak in recent months, allowing service personnel and defense contractors to go inside and use the stealth ship for research projects and testing new equipment.
Recently, the military allowed a reporter to peek inside the Sea Shadow while it was temporarily tied up at the Submarine Base in Point Loma.
"The secrecy of stealth has opened up and if the Navy is going to use this technology (in future ships) we can't go around on dark nights not telling people about it," said Gerald Cameron, the deputy director of the Navy test program.
Experts said many aspects of 1970s-era stealth technology are now well known and no longer are classified.
Yet, some things remain classified. Like its current budget, Cameron said. Before it was moved here, the Sea Shadow cost $195 million to design and operate during its first 10 years, including $50 million for construction.
The vessel was reactivated to help the Navy test ideas for its next-generation destroyer, the DD-21 class. The Navy wants the warships to use stealth technology.
Sea Shadow has influenced the design of the Navy's Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The ships' superstructure and hull are slightly sloped and the mast was canted, modifications intended to deflect radar beams, based on Sea Shadow experiments.
The Sea Shadow is one of the Navy's few test vessels and is comparatively cheap to operate, said naval analyst Scott Truver.
"These (test ships) are what we need to test out new technologies without impinging on operational forces," Truver said. Without test ships, the Navy would have to try out new equipment and weapons on the declining number of warships in the fleet, thus reducing training and deployments.
Everyone casting eyes on the Sea Shadow for the first time is struck by its appearance.
From the side, the vessel looks like a gray house roof that sags on one end. And from the front, it appears an unworldly cross between a spacecraft and a catamaran. The main hull is completely out of the water, seemingly supported by two thin angled struts.
"It's safe to say we get people's attention," said chief pilot Darrell Griffin.
The crew still chuckles about the drunken fisherman who thought the Sea Shadow was an alien vessel.
But, inside, the vessel is remarkably . . . mundane.
"Once you get inside, it's a Navy ship. It's not Star Trek," said Cameron, who works at the Naval Sea Systems Command, which owns the vessel.
Steel bulkheads, hatches and decks are like those on any warship. There are bunks, a toilet and showers for 12 people. Pipes, wires and hoses run across the overhead -- that's ceiling for the non-nautically inclined.
About the only things unusual about the vessel's innards are the bridge and its propulsion and steering systems.
The bridge is laid out like a jetliner's cockpit. The ship's skipper-pilot sits on the left, a navigator sits on the right and an engineer monitors generators, motors and pumps on several computer displays against the back wall of the tiny cockpit.
A computer-controlled steering system, which was ahead of its time in the early 1980s, eliminates the need for a steering wheel or helm. The pilot just punches in the course and a computer manipulates two sets of canards and fins that turn the ship. If the pilot wants to drive manually, all one has to do is turn a small knob: twist left to go left, twist right . . .
"It's a pleasure to drive," said Griffin, who leads the 11-person team that oversees the vessel. "But, in the open ocean, it's boring because the computer does all the steering for us."
Unlike most Navy ships, which are powered by steam or jet turbines, the Sea Shadow has diesel generators that produce electricity to power two 800-horsepower motors.
The motors are about 14 feet under water in two long pontoons connected to the main hull by struts. Also, on each pontoon are front and back, inward-facing fins to stabilize and steer the vessel. The ship has no rudder.
The hull design, called SWATH -- an acronym for "small water plane area twin hull" -- cuts down on rolling and pitching in heavy seas.
"Only one guy has ever gotten seasick," Griffin said.
The 16-year-old ship is starting to show its age. Rust spots mar its gray hull and some fittings show years of wear.
The ship will soon get a paint job, according to crew members. A camouflage scheme to make it harder to see with the naked eye is planned. When it was built, the Sea Shadow had the perfect color scheme for its night-only voyages: black.
But, despite its age, it's still years ahead of many ships.
As Truver put it, "It may be a generation ahead of our adversaries and some of our friends."
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 01, 2001