Friday, October 27, 2017

Visit to a Nuclear Submarine

From the Desk of Joe Rollins

A junior officer from the submarine USS West Virginia, regarding the status of 170 crew members on-board the submarine as quoted October 11, 2017:

“We go out to sea for approximately three months in a steel tube, no fresh air or water. Every minute underwater, no sunlight, and often in hostile waters... Between us and the sub’s engines is a nuclear reactor, and on-board we can carry up to 24 intercontinental ballistic missiles which have the capability of carrying multiple warheads and combustible torpedoes… what could possibly go wrong?”

I have always been interested in submarines and the military in general, so after actually seeing a nuclear submarine up close, I decided it was time to learn more about what they do. I have always assumed that there were thousands of submarines out there, when in fact there are only 66 submarines in the U.S. Navy fleet. This is surprising given that this is the largest submarine fleet in the world.

Submarines are apparently very difficult to operate and extraordinarily expensive. No military apparatus was more instrumental in bringing down the Russian empire during the Cold War than the nuclear submarine. With billions of dollars spent on building submarines in Russia, they quickly found out they couldn’t keep them running in an efficient manner without creating a safety hazard to the sailors. Thankfully, the deep pockets of the United States protected us from experiencing a similar situation.

In preparation of this blog, I read the book Blind Man’s Bluff by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew and Lynette Lawrence. This is a very interesting book that relates the actual day-to-day activities aboard a submarine. If you think the junior officer quoted above sounded crazy, wait until later when I discuss what they do in these bona fide tin cans.

It is funny how things happen in life that make you reflect on the past. In 2009, I took a tour of the Greek Islands aboard a cruise ship. One of the first stops along the way was Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul is a very interesting city in that it is where Europe meets Asia. It is also unique in that it is essentially the only way you can get from the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea. One day while sitting on the deck of the cruise ship eating brunch in the harbor in Istanbul, I happened to look over and saw three, clearly marked Russian nuclear submarines passing through the straits into the Black Sea. Not only was it an incredible and impressive sight, but a truly fascinating one. It certainly made you think twice about your security. And I certainly would have never guessed that years later I would actually see a nuclear submarine, even more technically advanced, up close and personal.

The nonprofit I belong to, which supports the military and the United States security, was recently permitted access to Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base located in Kings Bay in southeastern Georgia (just north of Amelia Island, Florida). You haven’t seen tight security until you’ve seen how tough it is to gain access into a nuclear submarine base. By virtue of this security clearance, we were able to actually climb aboard the USS West Virginia with a guided tour of the submarine and the entire base. This submarine was put into service in 1990 and is almost two football fields in length (560 feet). A submarine is nothing like it is depicted in most movies. It appears neither organized nor particularly suited for the task that it so ably accomplishes. The ceiling is very low and more suited toward shorter seamen. Needless to say, I was not able to walk upright. The ceiling was packed with cables, pipes and other communication aids that have clearly been repainted over the years with white paint. The main control room, where the periscopes are located, is a blur of dials and apparatus that boggle the mind. I was completely surprised when I found out that a submarine has no windows or portholes – its ability to discover and guide the boat is done by sound alone.

We were also able to experience a submarine simulator, and in real time were able to submerge the submarine and then practice an emergency trip back to the surface. It is almost amusing that the submarine moves up and down at a 20-degree angle. They indicated that at 20 degrees the crew can continue to work without interruption. If you have ever tried to walk in a normal manner at 20 degrees, you know that this is not an easy task.

Just to make sure you understand that we are talking about strategic submarines, you have to understand the extent of what nuclear weapons bring to national security. Also, the significance of this sub base could not be overemphasized. As one of the junior officers explained to us, if Kings Bay was a country it would be the third largest nuclear country in the world based on all of the nuclear weapons they have. If that doesn’t make you pause to reflect, nothing will.

There are 170 sailors on the USS West Virginia at any time. As explained by the junior officer, there are only three bathroom facilities for the entire crew. Each submariner is assigned a bunk, which from the surface appeared to be roughly three feet tall and six feet long. In this bunk they can keep whatever personal items they have, such as clothes, reading materials, etc. A typical deployment is around two and a half months and they are only permitted to wash their clothes once a week. Since they have almost no space on the craft, they typically only bring two changes of clothes.

It is also amazing that there is virtually no space for personal time. A typical submariner’s sleeping quarters would include 9-12 sailors. I asked to see the recreational room and it was roughly 10 feet by 12 feet, full of electronic equipment, one small television and a few video games. They have no internet and no communication with the outside, except on a very limited basis. Although they travel near exotic locations, the crewmen never get to see them as the submarine will not surface during the entire voyage.

It is important to understand that every sailor on a submarine is a volunteer. They are selected after extensive research, training and psychological evaluation. Obviously, it takes a special individual to endure the long periods of time under water with no sunlight and away from their family. There are two complete crews to every submarine. After one crew returns from a deployment, the other crew takes the submarine back out, keeping it in continuous operation. The only time that a submarine is taken out of operation is if, by chance, it needs maintenance. These men and women are very committed to their task. Virtually everyone that I spoke with on this day was very excited about being in the submarine corps and intends to stay as long as their superiors will allow them to. I guess there is a double meaning to being committed to a sub.

This particular submarine is called a “boomer”. These submarines go out into the ocean and essentially hide. Since they have the capability to carry nuclear warheads, they are the first line of defense in the United States and their job is to stay undiscovered in the ocean. Often, they do nothing but circle and do figure 8’s for weeks at a time. But what you have to understand about a boomer boat is that they can shoot a nuclear warhead missile 4,000 nautical miles away, meaning they could reach virtually anywhere in the world. With nuclear subs continuously active in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, no country is safe if the U.S. Navy were to launch a nuclear missile.

In all of the famous movies regarding submarines, you often see the submarines floating on the surface, and it always looks like the crewmen are having a great time playing in the ocean. What was not self-evident to me was that submarines, up until recently, were actually driven by diesel engines. You can imagine the smell in a submarine running a diesel engine and the fumes created by burning off the diesel fuel. By necessity, a diesel driven submarine would have to surface every night to let the fumes escape from the submarine. Obviously, this was a detriment to the submarine since they could not operate in hostile territory unless they had the option to surface on a nightly basis.

When the nuclear submarines came along, it avoided this issue entirely. A nuclear submarine does not have to surface and can essentially be under water forever, if necessary. Most people are confused by how a nuclear submarine works. Basically, the nuclear reactor is only used to heat water and the steam then runs the engines of the submarine. If you can envision the old steam driven railroad trains in cowboy movies, you understand exactly how it works – except in this case, we have nuclear energy heating the water and not a fire on-board the train. Because a nuclear driven engine does not produce any fumes that are toxic to the crewmen, there is no necessity for the submarine to surface, and in fact, most do not during the entire tour at sea.

All of this dates back to the 1962 Cuban crisis, when the Russian government wanted to put nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba. They wanted to be close enough to attack the U.S. with on-land nuclear missiles, should the need arise. Now, such missiles are not even necessary. The U.S. Navy can shoot missiles from anywhere in the world from a sub that is totally silent and likely could not even be detected with today’s sophisticated tracing electronics.

I never truly understood what submarines did in the everyday world of the nation’s defense. In the movies you usually just see them torpedo boats and create havoc, but that is not their primary purpose. From the book Blind Man’s Bluff, you get an inside feel for what submarines actually do. Some of these tasks are almost inconceivable.

For example, during the Cold War with Russia, the submarines were used primarily as our eyes and intelligence service. Some of the risks that they took bordered on fantastic. One example cited by Blind Man’s Bluff was that a single submarine would leave San Diego and sail underneath the North Pole in order to reach Russian territory where the Russian boats and submarines were harbored. At 20 knots, this would take longer than one month. The U.S. submarine would enter the 12-mile legal limit of Russian property, and in fact, would even go within the illegal 3-mile border. The submarines would actually sit underneath Russian ships and subs and record conversations taking place. Envision the trip from San Diego halfway around the world in a submarine that would not exceed 20 knots at any time. Also, imagine being in a submarine for three months in an extremely high-risk environment where if discovered by the Russians would almost assuredly mean sudden death.

The various components of a nuclear submarine, like the USS West Virginia.

Another example cited by the book is that a submarine from the U.S. Navy went into Russian territory water and discovered telephone lines connecting the various land masses. Knowing that these telephone cables actually relayed confidential conversations between Russian boats and their superiors, a sub would actually come from the U.S., go into the Russian harbor and sit on the floor of the ocean to install wiretaps to these telephone lines. Given that these lines were essentially in the same harbor where the Russian boats were based, that was an extraordinarily risky venture. In addition, due to the high confidentiality of the mission, these subs contained an explosive system that would self-destruct (destroying the submarine and all of its crew) if discovered by the Russians. The Russians were absolutely amazed that the U.S. seemed to know every step taken by the Russian military during the Cold War. They clearly had no idea that every telephone conversation was monitored by the CIA thanks to taps installed by subs in their own backyard.

I learned a great deal over the last couple of weeks regarding submarines. Quite frankly, I guess I had never taken the time to really understand what submarines do and what an integral part they played during the Cold War. Basically, the Cold War did not end because the U.S. and Russia met a philosophical understanding regarding democracy and communism. The Cold War ended because the United States was far superior in its military capabilities and Russia realized they could never catch up. It is also very clear that neither country had a desire to launch an offense against the other. Now, Russia keeps virtually all of its submarines near their own shores in the Mediterranean Sea as defense, rather than offense, against the U.S. While I wish I could say the same for the U.S. submarines, based upon all of my research, it appears they continue to collect intelligence for both the military and the CIA. Whatever their purpose and mission is today, we as Americans certainly owe them a debt of gratitude. Every time I read that the government is trying to reduce the military force and cut funding going forward, I will always remember how important submarine warfare was in ending the Cold War. Also, I will remember how old the submarine fleet is getting without any attempt to update and modernize the existing submarines. Hopefully, a new philosophy regarding defense will improve upon that reality.

As always, the foregoing includes my opinions, assumptions and forecasts. It is perfectly possible that I am wrong.

Best Regards,
Joe Rollins

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