Navy's 'stealth' warship project comes to surface

July 08, 1993|By Holly A. Heyser | Holly A. Heyser,Knight-Ridder News Service

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. -- Floyd Shelton always had a pretty good idea there was something weird hidden in the gigantic Hughes Mining Barge at the Port of Redwood City.

Mr. Shelton, executive director of the port, got his biggest clue one day when he found a heavy crane working on the dock over the heavily guarded barge. Puzzled that he hadn't been notified, he approached the workers. "This guy came walking up with his hand on his holster, saying, 'Can I help you, sir?' "

Now, after 10 years of cloak-and-dagger secrecy about what's in the barge, the tantalizing secret is out: It's the Sea Shadow -- an awkward, hulking 560-ton ship that looks like a catamaran from hell, the U.S. Navy's seafaring version of the F-117 "stealth" fighter.

It's described as the "Batboat" by the supermarket tabloid Weekly World News in an article titled "NAVY LAUNCHES DEADLY NEW STEALTH WARSHIP! Top secret 'Batboat' carries enough nuclear missiles to blow every major city on Earth to kingdom come!"

Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. spokesman Jim Graham said it's not quite like that, although he did tape a copy on his office door.

He said it is true that the Sea Shadow, which Lockheed built inside the barge right in Redwood City, has been top-secret for about 10 years. Its $195 million budget came from the Navy's "black budget" for secret programs.

But he chalked up the chest-thumping about nuclear capability to creative license by the World News.

Mr. Graham says the Sea Shadow was built in the early 1980s to test naval stealth technology, not to be a prototype for a fleet that will patrol the planet in defense of baseball, Mom and apple pie.

The goal was to make a ship as "invisible" as possible to radar, sonar, infrared and other sensors -- hence its remarkable resemblance to the airborne stealth fighter, designed with the same goal in mind.

The Sea Shadow -- 160 feet long and 70 feet wide with a top speed of 13 knots -- has a sloped hull that helps deflect radar signals at an angle, rather then reflect them straight back to their source.

It looks a bit like a catamaran, with thin, angled struts that go into the water while most of the ship's structure remains above the surface -- a design that leaves a minimal wake. What's below the surface is still classified information, Mr. Graham said.

How successful is the Sea Shadow at evading detection? The Navy isn't telling. But an editor from Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine who observed the ship's first daytime test in April noted that the ship was virtually invisible on radar, though radar did pick up its wake.

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