Photos show US Navy SEAL operations aboard hidden shelters on submarines

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Photos show US Navy SEAL operations aboard hidden shelters on submarines
  • Dry deck shelters have transformed missions aboard US military submarines.
  • A DDS is a large chamber that launches SEALs from underwater for missions.

Dry deck shelters aboard US military submarines play a vital role in naval operations, turning these lurking ship-hunters into motherships for Navy SEAL raids.

Photos show the special operations that are facilitated by a dry deck shelter, like covertly launching Navy SEALs in submersible vehicles more efficiently.

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What is a dry deck shelter?

What is a dry deck shelter?
A Navy diver rigs the dry deck shelter aboard the guided missile submarine USS Ohio for a dive.Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Barry Hirayama/DVIDS

A dry deck shelter, or DDS for short, is a long cylindrical lockout module located near the sail on the deck of US Navy submarines.

Before the DDS, a small air-tight compartment called a lockout trunk could only hold one diving pair and a trunk operator at a time. The process of pressurizing the chamber for just two divers took as long as 10 minutes, which severely hindered efficiency if an entire squadron needed to be deployed and left the sub vulnerable to attack.

In the 1960s, USS Grayback, a formerly decommissioned diesel-electric submarine, was brought back into action to remedy the inefficiency.

After the Grayback was decommissioned in 1964, the sub was repurposed four years later, converting its empty hangar bays into dry and wet compartments to store equipment and launch divers and SEAL delivery vehicles, respectively.

The Grayback's converted missile bays streamlined special operations, facilitating the deployment of platoons quickly and covertly. The design was later adapted into what would become DDSs.

What is a dry deck shelter?

What is a dry deck shelter?
A Navy diver rigs the dry deck shelter aboard the guided missile submarine USS Ohio for a dive.Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Barry Hirayama/DVIDS

A dry deck shelter, or DDS for short, is a long cylindrical lockout module located near the sail on the deck of US Navy submarines.

Before the DDS, a small air-tight compartment called a lockout trunk could only hold one diving pair and a trunk operator at a time. The process of pressurizing the chamber for just two divers took as long as 10 minutes, which severely hindered efficiency if an entire squadron needed to be deployed and left the sub vulnerable to attack.

In the 1960s, USS Grayback, a formerly decommissioned diesel-electric submarine, was brought back into action to remedy the inefficiency.

After the Grayback was decommissioned in 1964, the sub was repurposed four years later, converting its empty hangar bays into dry and wet compartments to store equipment and launch divers and SEAL delivery vehicles, respectively.

The Grayback's converted missile bays streamlined special operations, facilitating the deployment of platoons quickly and covertly. The design was later adapted into what would become DDSs.

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Ample room for equipment and personnel

Ample room for equipment and personnel
A US Navy Seal Delivery Vehicle onboard Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Dallas.US Navy

A DDS is about nine feet high and wide and 38 feet long and can displace about 30 tons on top of the submarine's displacement.

It is large enough to house a whole crew of Navy SEALs, divers, an inflatable boat called a Combat Rubber Raiding Craft (CRRC), or even a submersible vehicle known as a SEAL delivery vehicle (SDV).

Ample room for equipment and personnel

Ample room for equipment and personnel
A US Navy Seal Delivery Vehicle onboard Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Dallas.US Navy

A DDS is about nine feet high and wide and 38 feet long and can displace about 30 tons on top of the submarine's displacement.

It is large enough to house a whole crew of Navy SEALs, divers, an inflatable boat called a Combat Rubber Raiding Craft (CRRC), or even a submersible vehicle known as a SEAL delivery vehicle (SDV).

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A SEAL delivery vehicle in action

A SEAL delivery vehicle in action
SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two members prepare to launch one of the team's SDVs from the back of the submarine USS Philadelphia.US Navy Photo

A SEAL delivery vehicle provides the underwater propulsion to carry a small team and their weapons and gear for long distances to reduce the chances of being spotted if they were in a small boat.

An SDV is a small, free-flooding submersible that can carry up to six SEALs for transport. The combat-equipped SEALs breath through compressed air via an underwater breathing apparatus or through an internal life-support system aboard the SDV.

An excerpt from a 1952 then-classified report on "underwater swimmers" highlighted the importance SDVs play in special operations aboard submarines, noting that "whenever it is necessary to operate near an enemy-held shore in as complete secrecy as possible, the approach to the objective must be made underwater."

"The first part of the approach can be made in a fleet-type submarine, but these 1500-ton vessels cannot operate submerged in water shallower than 60 feet, and depths less than 150 feet are considered hazardous," according to the report. "The final submerged approach must be made by swimming or in a small submersible."

A SEAL delivery vehicle in action

A SEAL delivery vehicle in action
SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two members prepare to launch one of the team's SDVs from the back of the submarine USS Philadelphia.US Navy Photo

A SEAL delivery vehicle provides the underwater propulsion to carry a small team and their weapons and gear for long distances to reduce the chances of being spotted if they were in a small boat.

An SDV is a small, free-flooding submersible that can carry up to six SEALs for transport. The combat-equipped SEALs breath through compressed air via an underwater breathing apparatus or through an internal life-support system aboard the SDV.

An excerpt from a 1952 then-classified report on "underwater swimmers" highlighted the importance SDVs play in special operations aboard submarines, noting that "whenever it is necessary to operate near an enemy-held shore in as complete secrecy as possible, the approach to the objective must be made underwater."

"The first part of the approach can be made in a fleet-type submarine, but these 1500-ton vessels cannot operate submerged in water shallower than 60 feet, and depths less than 150 feet are considered hazardous," according to the report. "The final submerged approach must be made by swimming or in a small submersible."

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Three-chamber design

Three-chamber design
Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is briefed on equipment, capabilities, and ongoing missions by SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One command members at their facility near Pearl Harbor.US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Arif Patani/Released

The DDS comprises of three compartments: a hyperbaric operations bay, a transfer trunk, and a lockout chamber.

The forward-most hyperbaric chamber in the DDS is used to treat injured combat divers.

In the middle, the transfer trunk serves as an entry and exit point for equipment and personnel to the other chambers of the DDS and the rest of the sub.

At the rear, the lockout chamber operates similarly to the Grayback's converted hangar, used to quickly stage and deploy divers, SDVs, and CRRCs.

Three-chamber design

Three-chamber design
Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is briefed on equipment, capabilities, and ongoing missions by SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One command members at their facility near Pearl Harbor.US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Arif Patani/Released

The DDS comprises of three compartments: a hyperbaric operations bay, a transfer trunk, and a lockout chamber.

The forward-most hyperbaric chamber in the DDS is used to treat injured combat divers.

In the middle, the transfer trunk serves as an entry and exit point for equipment and personnel to the other chambers of the DDS and the rest of the sub.

At the rear, the lockout chamber operates similarly to the Grayback's converted hangar, used to quickly stage and deploy divers, SDVs, and CRRCs.

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A look inside a flooded DDS

A look inside a flooded DDS
Navy SEALs inside a flooded dry deck shelter mounted on the USS Philidelphia.US Navy Photograph by Chief Photographer's Mate Andrew McKaskle

All three chambers of the DDS are made of HY-80 military-grade steel with fiberglass-reinforced plastics, allowing each chamber to withstand water pressures of at least 130 feet. The dry deck is flooded for the entry and exit of divers.

Its expected service life is at least 40 years.

A look inside a flooded DDS

A look inside a flooded DDS
Navy SEALs inside a flooded dry deck shelter mounted on the USS Philidelphia.US Navy Photograph by Chief Photographer's Mate Andrew McKaskle

All three chambers of the DDS are made of HY-80 military-grade steel with fiberglass-reinforced plastics, allowing each chamber to withstand water pressures of at least 130 feet. The dry deck is flooded for the entry and exit of divers.

Its expected service life is at least 40 years.

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Which submarines have a DDS?

Which submarines have a DDS?
US Navy Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Dallas departs Souda Bay in Greece with a dry deck shelter attached, July 19, 2004.US Navy/Paul Farley

A number of submarines have been specially fitted with a DDS. In 1982, the Sturgeon-class attack submarine, USS Cavalla, was the first submarine to receive a DDS. Other vessels in its class that have a DDS, including USS Silversides, William H. Bates, Tunny, and L. Mendel Rivers.

Two ballistic missile submarines in the Ethan Allen-class — USS Sam Houston and John Marshall — had a DDS, as well as the Kamehameha and James K. Polk of the Benjamin Franklin-class.

USS Los Angeles, the flagship of Los Angeles-class subs, USS Philadelphia, Dallas, La Jolla, and Buffalo were capable of carrying the DDS. It's also aboard the Seawolf-class attack submarine, USS Jimmy Carter, and several hulls in the Virginia-class.

Four ballistic missile submarines were reclassified as guided missile subs and were modified to fit a DDS: Ohio-class USS Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and Florida.

Which submarines have a DDS?

Which submarines have a DDS?
US Navy Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Dallas departs Souda Bay in Greece with a dry deck shelter attached, July 19, 2004.US Navy/Paul Farley

A number of submarines have been specially fitted with a DDS. In 1982, the Sturgeon-class attack submarine, USS Cavalla, was the first submarine to receive a DDS. Other vessels in its class that have a DDS, including USS Silversides, William H. Bates, Tunny, and L. Mendel Rivers.

Two ballistic missile submarines in the Ethan Allen-class — USS Sam Houston and John Marshall — had a DDS, as well as the Kamehameha and James K. Polk of the Benjamin Franklin-class.

USS Los Angeles, the flagship of Los Angeles-class subs, USS Philadelphia, Dallas, La Jolla, and Buffalo were capable of carrying the DDS. It's also aboard the Seawolf-class attack submarine, USS Jimmy Carter, and several hulls in the Virginia-class.

Four ballistic missile submarines were reclassified as guided missile subs and were modified to fit a DDS: Ohio-class USS Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and Florida.

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Dual DDS carriers

Dual DDS carriers
A Seal Delivery Vehicle maneuvers into a dry deck shelter on the now-retired submarine USS Kamehameha.Chief Photographer's Mate Andrew McKaskle

While having one DDS aboard a submarine has proven to be advantageous, having two is even better.

Before the early 2000s, most DDS-fitted submarines had only one, but four were dual carriers: USS Sam Houston, USS John Marshall, USS James K. Polk, and USS Kamehameha.

Dual DDS carriers

Dual DDS carriers
A Seal Delivery Vehicle maneuvers into a dry deck shelter on the now-retired submarine USS Kamehameha.Chief Photographer's Mate Andrew McKaskle

While having one DDS aboard a submarine has proven to be advantageous, having two is even better.

Before the early 2000s, most DDS-fitted submarines had only one, but four were dual carriers: USS Sam Houston, USS John Marshall, USS James K. Polk, and USS Kamehameha.

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Special operations aboard USS Kamehameha

Special operations aboard USS Kamehameha
Dry deck shelter crewmen swim down the tether line to the DDS on board the now-retired nuclear-powered submarine USS Kamehameha during dual shelter special operations training off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii.US Navy

Special operations aboard USS Kamehameha

Special operations aboard USS Kamehameha
Dry deck shelter crewmen swim down the tether line to the DDS on board the now-retired nuclear-powered submarine USS Kamehameha during dual shelter special operations training off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii.US Navy
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Finding the next generation of dual shelter submarines

Finding the next generation of dual shelter submarines
A SEAL Swimmer ascends from the now-retired nuclear-powered submarine USS Kamehameha to the surface.US Navy

The Kamehameha was the last of the dual carrier subs to be decommissioned in 2002, prompting the Navy to figure out which vessels would fill its place.

Instead of creating a group of new dual DDS platforms, the Navy turned to an existing fleet: Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).

Finding the next generation of dual shelter submarines

Finding the next generation of dual shelter submarines
A SEAL Swimmer ascends from the now-retired nuclear-powered submarine USS Kamehameha to the surface.US Navy

The Kamehameha was the last of the dual carrier subs to be decommissioned in 2002, prompting the Navy to figure out which vessels would fill its place.

Instead of creating a group of new dual DDS platforms, the Navy turned to an existing fleet: Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).

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Transforming a fleet

Transforming a fleet
Senior Chief Sonar Technician Submarine Paul Lee gives a tour of the guided-missile submarine USS Ohio to sailors from the Royal Malaysian Navy and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Zachary A. Kreitzer/Released

In 1994, a nuclear posture review found that the Navy only needed 14 of its 18 SSBNs, allowing it to repurpose the first four Ohio-class SSBNs to guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) that fire long-range Tomahawk strike missiles.

Transforming a fleet

Transforming a fleet
Senior Chief Sonar Technician Submarine Paul Lee gives a tour of the guided-missile submarine USS Ohio to sailors from the Royal Malaysian Navy and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Zachary A. Kreitzer/Released

In 1994, a nuclear posture review found that the Navy only needed 14 of its 18 SSBNs, allowing it to repurpose the first four Ohio-class SSBNs to guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) that fire long-range Tomahawk strike missiles.

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A new SSGN layout

A new SSGN layout
Navy divers and special operators perform SEAL delivery vehicle operations on the Ohio-Class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine USS Florida.US Navy

The Ohio, the flagship of the class, entered the shipyard in November 2003 to convert its capabilities into an SSGN, which includes hosting a DDS.

The Ohio's Trident missile tubes were turned into lockout chambers and equipment storage, allowing it to hold submersibles, divers, unmanned vehicles, or Tomahawk land-attack missiles.

The Ohio completed its conversion into an SSGN in December 2005, deploying for the first time two years later in October 2007.

USS Florida was also originally an Ohio-class ballistic submarine before being converted in 2006. The 560-foot submarine is armed with four torpedo tubes and up to 154 Tomahawk land attack missiles — the most of any US warship.

Most recently, the Florida was among the firepower used by US forces to strike against Houthi military targets in Yemen last month. More than 80 Tomahawks were used as part of the strike against Houthi rebels, though it wasn't immediately clear how many came from the USS Florida.

The strikes came after repeated warnings of retaliation to the Iranian-backed rebels' attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea.

Alongside the Florida and Ohio, USS Michigan and USS Georgia were also turned into guided missile boats.

A new SSGN layout

A new SSGN layout
Navy divers and special operators perform SEAL delivery vehicle operations on the Ohio-Class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine USS Florida.US Navy

The Ohio, the flagship of the class, entered the shipyard in November 2003 to convert its capabilities into an SSGN, which includes hosting a DDS.

The Ohio's Trident missile tubes were turned into lockout chambers and equipment storage, allowing it to hold submersibles, divers, unmanned vehicles, or Tomahawk land-attack missiles.

The Ohio completed its conversion into an SSGN in December 2005, deploying for the first time two years later in October 2007.

USS Florida was also originally an Ohio-class ballistic submarine before being converted in 2006. The 560-foot submarine is armed with four torpedo tubes and up to 154 Tomahawk land attack missiles — the most of any US warship.

Most recently, the Florida was among the firepower used by US forces to strike against Houthi military targets in Yemen last month. More than 80 Tomahawks were used as part of the strike against Houthi rebels, though it wasn't immediately clear how many came from the USS Florida.

The strikes came after repeated warnings of retaliation to the Iranian-backed rebels' attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea.

Alongside the Florida and Ohio, USS Michigan and USS Georgia were also turned into guided missile boats.

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Recycling the reclassified SSGNs

Recycling the reclassified SSGNs
A Navy diver and special operator from SEAL Delivery Team 2 perform SDV operations with the nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine USS Florida.US Navy

The glory days for the SSGN converts are coming to an end.

In 2021, the Navy released a 30-year plan to build more than 400 new vessels by 2051, and in the process, retire 304 current vessels, including the Ohio-class SSGNs.

The reclassified submarines are expected to be decommissioned between 2027 and 2040, with a possibility of extension amid potential delays of its successor, Virginia-class Block V nuclear-powered attack subs.

The Navy is looking to modernize its fleet of submarines by incorporating more manned and unmanned underwater vehicle operations.

While larger UUVs can be launched from land and controlled on long-duration missions, some medium-sized UUVs can only deploy and be recovered on a dry deck shelter, meaning the hull attachment could persist in the Navy's fleet for a little longer.

Recycling the reclassified SSGNs

Recycling the reclassified SSGNs
A Navy diver and special operator from SEAL Delivery Team 2 perform SDV operations with the nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine USS Florida.US Navy

The glory days for the SSGN converts are coming to an end.

In 2021, the Navy released a 30-year plan to build more than 400 new vessels by 2051, and in the process, retire 304 current vessels, including the Ohio-class SSGNs.

The reclassified submarines are expected to be decommissioned between 2027 and 2040, with a possibility of extension amid potential delays of its successor, Virginia-class Block V nuclear-powered attack subs.

The Navy is looking to modernize its fleet of submarines by incorporating more manned and unmanned underwater vehicle operations.

While larger UUVs can be launched from land and controlled on long-duration missions, some medium-sized UUVs can only deploy and be recovered on a dry deck shelter, meaning the hull attachment could persist in the Navy's fleet for a little longer.

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