There are ships that are kept hidden from the public that pays for them, usually because they are of an experimental nature. Other ships are presented to the public as existing for a purpose far different from the role they actually play. And some ships simply operate in environments where their mission and work are classified for national security purposes. The operations of submarines are nearly always kept secret from the public, leading to their adoption of the designation in the United States of the “Silent Service.”
Some of the ships from the following list were developed for specific purposes, which were classified at the time and most of their operations remain a guarded secret. Others continue to cruise the world’s oceans, often conducting covert missions for the benefit of their governments. Here are 10 ships whose existence, or mission, remains shrouded in secrecy.
Oste, which bears the Pennant Number A 52, is one of a class of three intelligence gathering ships of the German Navy. The vessel’s original design was to gather strategic intelligence on the Soviet Navy. The ship carries a crew of about 36, while offering living and working spaces for up to 40 intelligence technicians and specialists. All three vessels offer accommodations which are much more luxurious than usually found on a warship, and the vessels were built without armaments.
The data collected by the technicians aboard comes from an array of sensors including hydroacoustic, electro-optical, and electromagnetic, nearly all highly-classified. The ship was designed for long-term deployment, and has been used in the past as an advanced warning vessel, as have its sisters in the class. Powered by a pair of diesel engines, Oste has a range of over 5,500 nautical miles, and a published speed of over 21 knots. The German Navy classifies the ship as a Fleet Service Vessel, though Oste’s main service is the acquisition of intelligence, in support of the German fleet and NATO allies..
9. NR 1 Nuclear research vessel
The smallest nuclear powered submarine built to date, NR 1 (NR stood for Nuclear Research) entered service in the United States Navy in 1969. Its normal crew size was three officers, a crew of eight, and a pair of “scientists.” The submarine was less than 150 feet in length, and was built without a galley or bathing facilities. Normal operations saw the submarine towed to sea by a tender or support ship, and it then descended to depths officially acknowledged as up to 3,000 feet. It was fitted with a robotic arm, for recovering items from the sea bed or placing them there. Nearly all of the vessel’s missions in the 1970s and 1980s remain classified.
Officially 35 Naval officers and crew, and 10 scientists, were assigned to the NR 1, residing in the support vessel when not one of the 13 deployed in the submarine. All were required to pass a personal interview with the Navy’s Director of Nuclear Propulsion, until 1982 Admiral Hyman Rickover, who designed much of the NR 1. Rickover officially designated the submarine as a research vessel, which allowed him to avoid the scrutiny of other government activities both in and out of the Navy regarding the vessel’s costs, and its use. NR 1 was decommissioned in 2008, its reactor defueled, and was eventually scrapped.
8. Banner class ships
The Banner class ships were converted light freighters, built for the Army during World War II. Among the three ships was the ill-fated USS Pueblo, seized by the North Koreans in 1968. The Navy designated the three as environmental research ships, though in fact they were part of the AGER (Auxiliary General Environmental Research) program run by the Navy and the NSA. The ships served as electronic intelligence gathering platforms. They were intended to remain in relatively set positions for an extended period of time to monitor communications, an ability which the Soviets had already deployed off US coastal waters using modified fishing trawlers.
When North Korea seized Pueblo in January, 1968, a trove of highly classified material fell into their hands, since the crew lacked sufficient time to destroy what they carried. One American crewman was killed in the attack, the remaining 82 were held as prisoners of war for the rest of 1968, before being released into South Korea on December 28. The communications equipment captured with Pueblo allowed the Soviets to more fully understand the information being sold to them by John Walker and his spy ring. Some have suggested the need to gain access to the equipment was the incentive for the North Korean action. USS Pueblo remains a commissioned ship of the US Navy more than fifty years later, though it is still in North Korean hands.
7. USNS Glomar Explorer
Glomar Explorer was built by Howard Hughes for the ostensible purposes of mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. Its true purpose was to allow the US Navy to recover a sunken Soviet submarine, K-129, in a program known as Project Azorian. The CIA run program needed a ship which could lift the wreckage of the submarine and raise it to an open bay, all without being observed doing so. The ship recovered some of the submarine in 1974, though how much was actually brought aboard Glomar Explorer remains a matter of dispute among researchers. Some remains of the Soviet crew were recovered and buried at sea, with a videotape of the funeral given to the Russian government in 1992.
The entire recovery operation was videotaped by the CIA aboard Glomar Explorer, which remains classified more than four decades later. Glomar Explorer’s only operation at sea surrounded Project Azorian. In reality, the ship had no mining capabilities. It was too expensive to operate and maintain for the government to find any buyers for the vessel. In 1977 the US Navy spent approximately $2 million preparing the ship to enter the Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay. It was later converted to a deep ocean drilling ship, as Explorer. It was eventually scrapped in 2015, as most of the secrets of its operation remained unknown to the public which paid for them.
6. HMS Echo
HMS Echo is another small vessel of the Royal Navy classified as a hydrographic research ship. Echo and its sister ship Enterprise are capable of long-term voyages anywhere on the waters of the globe. In the early 21st century, Echo was deployed to the far east and Indian Ocean on a five-year voyage. The ships are able to support such long missions due to a unique method of deploying their crews. Nominally 88 crew members are assigned to each vessel. Only about 48 are actually aboard, the remainder engaged in rest and recreation, training, and other duties ashore.
The typical rotation aboard is 75 days followed by 30 days ashore. Other ships, especially nuclear ballistic missile submarines have had two crews, with one operating the ship while the other remained ashore recovering and completing advanced training. Echo’s arrangement, other than that of its sister Enterprise, is unique. Normal operations include working directly with submarines, providing them with real-time hydrographic data. Echo has also been used in Somali pirate interdiction and in show the flag operations around the world. The nature of the vessel’s work with submarines ensures most of its operations remain highly classified.
5. USS Parche
During its 30 year career with the United States submarine force USS Parche, a Sturgeon class fast attack submarine, became the most decorated ship in US Naval history. During its career it received 9 Presidential Unit Citations, 10 Navy Unit Citations, and 13 Navy Expeditionary Medals. Nearly all of them were for operations that were classified then and remain classified today. After receiving modifications in 1978, Parche became an active participant with the Naval Underwater Reconnaissance Office. Most of its reconnaissance operations took place in the Pacific and offshore of the former Soviet Union.
One such operation was known as Ivy Bells. Ivy Bells was an operation jointly run by the CIA, the NSA, and the US Navy to monitor Soviet underwater communications cables which were well within their territorial waters. Navy divers installed an induction tap on the cables and submarines visited the site periodically to retrieve and replace the tape recordings of Soviet conversations at the highest levels of command. Ronald Pelton, an NSA employee and traitor, revealed the operation to the Soviets who then recovered the tap. The Soviets displayed the tap at the Great Patriotic War Museum in Moscow, clearly marked as property of the United States.
4. USS Potomac
USS Potomac was built as a Coast Guard cutter, purchased and modified by the Navy in 1936, and assigned as President Franklin Roosevelt’s yacht that same year. In August 1941, FDR announced he was going on a brief fishing trip using Potomac. He departed with numerous guests from the Naval Submarine Base New London. After cruising briefly around Martha’s Vineyard the President’s guests were put ashore and the yacht stood out to sea. Once in the Atlantic it rendezvoused with the heavy cruiser Augusta. Roosevelt transferred to Augusta and the yacht continued to steam, seemingly aimlessly, in American coastal waters. Augusta steamed to Placentia Bay, where it rendezvoused with HMS Prince of Wales, bearing the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill.
A double resembling FDR remained aboard Potomac, which deliberately steamed in the vicinity of other yachts and boats where he could be observed and photographed. Thus, the press was fooled into believing Roosevelt was relaxing on his yacht when in fact he was meeting with Churchill to create what became the Atlantic Charter. Roosevelt returned to Washington via Maine and the railroad. After his arrival and the announcement of the Charter the conservative press howled over the deception and over the president’s taking the United States another step closer to war in Europe. Roosevelt continued to use Potomac as the presidential yacht until his death in 1945.
3. USS Halibut
USS Halibut was a one of a kind submarine, originally built to support launching of missiles at sea. It was equipped with Regulus nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. After the Navy’s fleet ballistic missile submarines rendered the Regulus obsolete Halibut was modified into a special-purpose boat. The spaces formerly required to support missiles were modified to include special equipment to support operations on the seabed. Among them were fore and aft skids, anchoring winches, and a saturation diving habitat. Halibut’s new role was as an espionage vessel, and like Parche it supported operation Ivy Bells as well as other undersea work.
It was Halibut which located and surveyed the sunken Soviet submarine K-129, and which stood by during Glomar Explorer’s attempts to recover it. From 1965 to 1976 nearly all of the missions undertaken by Halibut were classified. The aging submarine was decommissioned in 1976 though it remained in reserve until 1994 when it was finally stricken from the Naval register. In describing the submarine’s operations in various citations, the award reads “successfully concluded several missions of significant scientific value to the Government of the United States.” Most of those missions remain closely guarded secrets.
Yantar is a relatively new ship of the Russian Navy, designed for intelligence collection. Although its full capabilities aren’t known, at least to the general public, the US Navy believes the vessel acts as a mothership for mini-submarines which can operate at great depths. The mini-submarines are believed to have cable-cutting capabilities. Since the vast majority of data traveling between nations does so via underwater cable, Yantar offers the capability of disrupting international communications, including banking, information exchange, correspondence, and everything else which we rely on the Internet to accomplish for us today.
The official Russian position is that Yantar is an ocean research vessel, gathering data via onboard sensors as well as that provided by the mini-submarines it deploys and supports. The vessel has been observed by the U.S. Navy as well as NATO Navies in several operations, including at times being reported hovering in the vicinity of underwater cables. In 2020, the Brazilian Navy encountered Yantar near an underwater cable and challenged the Russian vessel, which responded by securing automatic identification signals and ignoring the Brazilians’ questions before departing the scene.
1. Sea Shadow IX 529
In 1984 Lockheed and the US Navy worked together with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design a ship utilizing stealth technology. The intent of the program was to determine whether surface ships could “hide” from electronic surveillance. From 1984 to 1993 the project was highly classified and the ship was not revealed to the public. It was built inside the Hughes Mining Barge, a massive vessel originally built to support Project Azorian. The barge served as a floating dry dock in which the vessel named the Sea Shadow was built and initially tested out of sight of the public eye.
Taxpayers learned of the ship’s existence in 1993, when the Navy announced the success of the program and transferred the vessel to San Diego Naval Station. There it remained until 2006, when it and the barge in which it had been built were mothballed at Suisun Bay. It was finally sold for scrap in 2012. Much of the technology developed using Sea Shadow appeared in the US Navy’s Independence class littoral combat ships as well as in the Zumwalt class destroyers of the 21st century. Sea Shadow never operated as a warship for the US Navy, nor was it ever commissioned, but the project played a major role in the development of the surface warships of the American fleet today.