USS Connecticut: ‘Doomed’ US Submarine Made Detectable Wakes Before Crashing In China’s Backyard, Study Claims

The USS Connecticut, a formidable Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarine, was on a classified mission; its cutting-edge technology was designed to evade even the most sophisticated radars. But on that fateful day in October 2021, the tables turned, and the hunter became the hunted. This incident, shrouded in secrecy and geopolitical tensions, sparked a flurry of investigations and studies, each seeking to unravel the mystery behind the accident. 

On October 2021, the waters of the South China Sea (SCS) witnessed an unprecedented accident. USS Connecticut (SSN-22) SeaWolf-class nuclear attack submarine hit a seamount while cruising at high speed in the northern part of the SCS.

The reputation of the Seawolf class nuclear attack submarine as one of the most powerful, lethal, complicated, and expensive underwater combat platforms of the US Navy designed for high-end missions close to an adversary’s shore was tarnished, and agencies called for a thorough investigation into the mishap.

China had officially criticized the US government for being opaque and irresponsible. For many years, China was concerned about the nature of the accident, its mission, and its exact location in the South China Sea.

Recently, a Chinese study found something interesting and obtained some unexpected results, according to SCMP.

Chinese Study

Led by engineer Li Yuhang of the 713th Research Institute of China State Shipbuilding Corporation, the researchers examined water surface wakes using real-world environmental data collected by Chinese sensors in the South China Sea.

Their aim was to “offer some suggestions for the safe navigation of Chinese submarines.” Their findings were documented and published in the Chinese Journal of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics on May 27.

The study discovered that when a submarine, such as the SSN-22, travels at a depth of 100 meters and speeds exceeding 20 knots in the complex and heavily monitored waters of the South China Sea, it can create detectable ripples on the ocean surface, potentially revealing its position.

This is reportedly the first time researchers have used real data from the South China Sea to systematically study the characteristics of water surface response waves excited by submarines in the ocean.

As submarines move, they disturb the surrounding water, creating fine ripples on the ocean’s surface that can be detected by aircraft or satellites equipped with high-resolution radars.

These ripples can provide clues about the submarine’s position, speed, direction, or even make. However, environmental factors like ocean currents, temperature, and salinity can significantly influence these waves, making detection challenging.

This ‘groundbreaking’ finding challenged long-held assumptions about the invincibility of modern submarine technology and raised questions about the delicate balance of power in the region.

US Navy Probe Exposes Fatal Flaws

In the depths of the South China Sea, a silent stalker lurked, its stealth capabilities allowing it to navigate undetected through the tense waters.

The USS Connecticut (SSN-22)  was five months into a surge deployment requested by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to the Western Pacific when it grounded on a seamount while traveling at high speed in poorly charted waters.

A US Navy investigation found the accident was ‘preventable.’

In Oct 2021, Rear Adm. Christopher Cavanaugh, overseeing the command investigation, noted that the mishap resulted from cumulative errors in navigation planning, watch team execution, and risk management.

The investigation concluded that no single action or inaction caused the accident but rather an accumulation of errors and omissions. These failures were deemed to have fallen far below US Navy standards.

As a result of the accident, the nuclear-powered Seawolf-class submarine USS Connecticut was unable to operate for an extended period due to damage. Eleven sailors suffered minor injuries, including a scalp laceration and a broken scapula.

Key findings included the navigation review team’s failure to identify and mark at least ten underwater hazards near the grounding location. Additionally, the team incorrectly assessed that the submarine would be operating in an open area.

The investigation highlighted leadership deficiencies in holding sailors accountable for navigation errors and deficiencies, pointing to overall low standards aboard the submarine.

The investigation also revealed a previous accident involving the USS Connecticut.

In April 2021, the submarine collided with a pier at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, attributed to “degraded standards” in navigation, planning, and seamanship. This incident was initially considered “an anomalous performance rather than a systemic failure.”

USS Connecticut
BREMERTON, Wash. (Dec. 15, 2016) – The Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) departs Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for sea trials following a maintenance availability. (U.S. Navy photo by Thiep Van Nguyen II/released)

US-China Tension

The implications of this incident reverberated far beyond the confines of naval strategy. It reignited long-standing tensions between the United States and China over territorial claims and sovereignty in the South China Sea.

The USS Connecticut incident coincided with heightened US-China tensions. The US Indo-Pacific Command stated that the submarine hit an “uncharted seamount,” suffering significant damage.

As per a statement by the United States (US) Indo-Pacific Command, on the afternoon of October 02, 2021, the USS Connecticut (SSN 22), a Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine of the US Navy, “struck an object” while operating in international waters in the South China Sea (SCS).

This occurred during China’s National Day celebrations (October 01), when the PLA conducted military drills near Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. In October, PLA aircraft activity reached 196, with a notable spike on specific days: 38 aircraft on October 1st, 39 aircraft on October 2nd, and 56 aircraft on October 4th. This surge, totaling 700 PLA aircraft compared to last year’s 380, indicates a significant escalation in PLA aircraft activity over the East China Sea and Taiwan’s southwest.

As being Chinese military experts, the deliberate use of terms like “international waters in the Indo-Pacific” by the US is seen as misleading, as it does not specify whether the submarine was within the Exclusive Economic Zone or territorial sea of any country, nor does it clarify the mission. China perceives this incident as a threat to its “sovereign security” and warned counter actions.

Furthermore, the PLA’s increased air activity in early October coincided with naval exercises conducted by the US, the United Kingdom (UK), Japan, the Netherlands, Canada, and New Zealand in the Philippines Sea. Some of these warships entered the South China Sea through the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan.

Advancements In Wake Detection Technology

In recent years, AI technology for detecting submarine wakes has undergone significant advancements.

SeaWolf-class nuclear attack submarines, known for their ability to maintain silence even at high speeds, pose challenges for adversaries attempting to discern their sound signature amidst background ocean noise. Moreover, increasing the submarine’s depth can further diminish surface waves.

Remarkable progress has been made in wake detection technology. Chinese scientists unveiled a new type of anti-submarine radar based on 6G technology, capable of detecting submarine ripples as small as tens of nanometers on the undulating sea surface, in a maritime test announced in August last year.

Building on these advancements, researchers from China’s Naval University of Engineering published a paper on May 20 highlighting the effectiveness of artificial intelligence in detecting submarine wakes with an impressive accuracy rate of 96 percent.


The collision of the USS Connecticut has underscored the evolving dynamics of undersea warfare. Submarines can no longer solely rely on stealth, as the ripples they leave behind may betray their presence to increasingly sophisticated detection systems.

This incident is proof of the intensified race for technological superiority, particularly in the challenging environment of the South China Sea, where the boundaries of stealth and detection are continuously being pushed. As a result, the wake of the USS Connecticut’s collision has left an indelible mark on the future of undersea warfare.

  • Shubhangi Palve is a defense and aerospace journalist. Before joining the EurAsian Times, she worked for E.T. Prime. In this capacity, she focused on covering defense strategies and the defense sector from a financial perspective. She offers over 15 years of extensive experience in the media industry, spanning print, electronic, and online domains.
  • With Inputs from South China Morning Post
  • Contact the author at shubhapalve (at) gmail (dot) com.