Why a U.S. Navy Spy Submarine Is Flying the Jolly Roger

A U.S. Navy attack submarine capable of carrying out top-secret undersea missions recently returned home flying the Jolly Roger-that skull and crossbones pirate flag. But why?

The question was on the minds of many this week after Canada-based defense journalist Ian Keddie posted on Twitter the photo of the nuclear attack submarine USS Jimmy Carter. The photo,uploaded to the defense Video imagery Distribution system, or DVIDS for short, shows the commanding officer of the Jimmy Carter, Commander Melvin Smith, looking on as the submarine returns to its home at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.

Flying above Smith, fluttering in the Puget Sound sea breeze, is the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger. On the flag is at least one unidentified symbol. The Jimmy Carter also flew the Jolly Roger in April 2017 returning from another patrol.


In Navy tradition, the flying of the flag typically signifies a successful mission of some sort. As the Washington Post points out, the practice for subs began in World War II, when Royal Navy submarines flew the flags as a means of signaling a successful mission. Legend has it the flag, traditionally considered the flag of pirates, was adopted after a British admiral in World War I compared submarine warfare to piracy.

The black flag adorned with a skull and crossed bones, often features additional signals when it’s used in this modern content. Look at this flag from HMS Seraph, a Royal Navy submarine that served in World War II. The flag was created after Operation Mincemeat, a secret mission that involved dropping a cadaver carrying top-secret plans off the Spanish coast as part of a ruse to deceive the Axis. The six daggers on the flag allegedly represent individual clandestine missions. Signalmen on the submarines were responsible for updating the flags with the latest new symbols to reflect newly completed missions.

The flag of the Jimmy Carter is no exception. At least one and possibly two unidentifiable symbols are visible on the flag. But what could they possibly mean?

The submarine’s background could hold clues. The USS Jimmy Carter was the last of three Seawolf-class submarines built through 1990s and 2000s. Designed to fight the latest Soviet submarines during the Cold War, the Seawolf class is an astonishing 70 times quieter than the previous class of attack submarines, the Los Angeles class. The Seawolf subs were also built with HY-100 steel hulls, giving them a diving depth of up to 2,000 feet-more than three times the diving depth of her predecessors. The Seawolf class was the best, most advanced submarine of its time, but production was halted after three submarines due to enormous cost overruns.

The extreme quietness of the Seawolf prompted the Navy to modify the third and last submarine, USS Jimmy Carter, to support clandestine operations. A 100-foot long, 2,500-ton section called the Multi-Mission Platform (MMP) was inserted into the hull, giving the submarine a unique capability. The MMP includes hangars to send and recover remotely operated vehicles/unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs)-sea drones, basically. And it can likely support SEAL delivery vehicles, which are miniature submarines used to transport Navy SEAL commandos. It features work spaces and berthing spaces for up to 50 SEALs, mission specialists, or ROV/UUV operators and maintainers. Unlike her sister submarines, Carter also features auxiliary maneuvering thrusters fore and aft for precise maneuvering near the ocean floor.

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