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Navy Stealth Ship Sails into Oblivion

Monday, April 30, 2012

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A super-secret chapter in Navy history will soon close quietly on a scrap heap, as the service auctions off a famed Cold War-era research vessel cloaked in a unique coating.

Developed secretly over three years in the 1980s, the 164-foot Sea Shadow—the world's only ship built to be invisible—is now up for auction, and bidding closes Friday. The top bid was $100,420 as of Monday (April 30).

 The Sea Shadow provided the inspiration for the “stealth ship” operated by media baron Elliot Carver, James Bond’s nemesis, in Tomorrow Never Dies.

 Photos: US Navy

The Sea Shadow provided the inspiration for the “stealth ship” operated by media baron Elliot Carver, James Bond’s nemesis, in Tomorrow Never Dies.

But before you grab your credit card to own a piece of history, the Navy wants you to know this:

“The ex-Sea Shadow shall be disposed of by completely dismantling and scrapping within the U.S.A.,” the auction listing says. Dismantling means “reducing the property such as it has no value except for its basic material content.”

Ghost Fleet

It is an anti-climactic end for the once-prestigious vessel, built for $50 million in 1985 by Lockheed Martin for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The “stealth ship” so captivating to the public that it inspired a James Bond movie (Tomorrow Never Dies) is now part of the federal government’s so-called “ghost fleet” of retired ships docked in Suisun Bay in Northern California. The fleet, comprised primarily of surplus ships from World War II, once numbered more than 350. Now, there are fewer than 50.

Most of the vessels have sat for decades, their hulls rusting, their paint peeling off into the bay.

In the Sea Shadow’s case, the ship was retired from service in 2006, and the Navy has spent the last six years trying to donate the ship to a museum. There have been no takers. Thus, the ship must be dismantled and recycled, the Navy says.

‘The Most Radical Ship Afloat’

The Sea Shadow occupies a unique niche in Navy history. “Even at nearly 30 years old, Sea Shadow remains the most radical ship afloat,” reports the Sacramento Bee.

The 164-foot vessel, once used to examine the application of stealth technology on naval vessels, was developed at Lockheed's Redwood City, CA, facility, inside the Hughes Mining Barge (HMB-1), a submersible barge built in 1973 to salvage the remains of Soviet submarine K-129 from the ocean floor, according to the Historical Naval Ships Association

 The Sea Shadow (right) was assembled and docked inside the submersible Hughes Mining Barge (left). Both are being auctioned off together.
The Sea Shadow (right) was assembled and docked inside the submersible Hughes Mining Barge (left). Both are being auctioned off together.

The barge, longer than a football field, had a retractable roof. The Sea Shadow was assembled in pieces, by different contractors, then lowered into the barge through the roof. The Sea Shadow is still docked inside the HMB-1, and the two vessels are being auctioned together.

Classified Coatings

The Sea Shadow’s purpose was to explore radar-cloaking and other stealth technologies for military surface ships.

“The primary goal was to find out if an entire oceangoing ship could be made to vanish from enemy radar, as well as to test innovative ship controls and hydrodynamic principles,” said the Sacramento Bee.

The ship is coated with radar-absorbent materials, the details of which remain classified, S.K. Gupta told the newspaper. Gupta is a retired Lockheed engineer who was Sea Shadow's test director from 1988 to 1995.

“We operated with impunity,” Gupta said. “We could take anybody down at night.”

The ship’s flat-black paint and unique angular structure made it difficult to see in the daytime and nearly impossible to detect—even by radar—at night.

In its early days, the Bee reported, the Sea Shadow was docked inside the barge, which would be towed out to sea, then partially submerged, before the Sea Shadow was brought out at night for testing.

The ship was unveiled to the public in 1993, and the program was ended the following year.


Tagged categories: Marine Coatings; Shipyards; U.S. Navy

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