USA — Submariners Give Rare Glimpse Into ‘Silent Service’

ABOARD THE USS RHODE ISLAND, Aug. 23, 2010 — On a recent sun-soaked morn­ing hun­dreds of miles off Florida’s Atlantic coast, this Tri­dent bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­ma­rine sur­faced for an unusu­al oper­a­tion.

Trident nuclear submarine USS Rhode Island
Crew mem­bers of the Tri­dent nuclear sub­ma­rine USS Rhode Island stand on top of the ves­sel as it gets under­way after deliv­er­ing a group of jour­nal­ists to a wait­ing sup­port ves­sel.
U.S. Navy pho­to by Lt. Rebec­ca Rebarich
Click to enlarge

About a dozen jour­nal­ists, many rep­re­sent­ing the mil­i­tary, watched from a con­tract­ed 250-foot sup­port ves­sel as the sleek, black back of the sub­ma­rine ascend­ed above gen­tle waters in the open ocean and maneu­vered along­side the boat. With just a few feet sep­a­rat­ing the two ves­sels and a Coast Guard cut­ter on watch, the sup­port boat’s crew extend­ed a cat­walk bridge from its deck over to the Rhode Island.

A pod of dol­phins played in the wake below as the jour­nal­ists hob­bled quick­ly over to the sub­ma­rine. “Keep mov­ing! Keep mov­ing!” a sub­mariner shout­ed, as a slow­down eas­i­ly could lead to a foot or leg get­ting caught and injured, or caus­ing a “man over­board” sit­u­a­tion.

After exchang­ing quick greet­ings with the attend­ing crew, the jour­nal­ists climbed in turn through the hatch and down the steep, nar­row lad­der into the bel­ly of the sub.

The Aug. 16 media vis­it offered a rare glimpse into what is known as “the silent ser­vice,” the com­mu­ni­ty of Navy sub­mariners who man and con­trol the ves­sels that car­ry weapons under the sea. Jour­nal­ists were invit­ed to embed on the Tri­dent after a mil­i­tary-com­mis­sioned sur­vey showed that Amer­i­cans know less about the Navy than the oth­er ser­vices, and even less about sub­marines and those who serve on them, Lt. Rebec­ca Rebarich, pub­lic affairs offi­cer for Sub­ma­rine Group 10 at King’s Bay Naval Base, Ga., said.

The vis­it also coin­cid­ed with increas­ing media atten­tion on the sub­ma­rine com­mu­ni­ty fol­low­ing two major changes in Navy pol­i­cy ear­li­er this year: lift­ing the ban on women serv­ing on sub­marines, and end­ing smok­ing on subs. The Navy chose 21 women ear­ly this sum­mer to begin the 15-month train­ing to serve on subs begin­ning in the fall of 2011. The smok­ing ban takes effect Jan. 1.

The Nuclear Tri­ad

The Rhode Island is an Ohio-class sub­ma­rine, the largest mod­el in the U.S. fleet. At about 560 feet long and 42 feet in diam­e­ter, Ohio-class sub­marines hold 24 Tri­dent bal­lis­tic mis­sile tubes and four tor­pe­do tubes. The Navy’s fleet of 14 SSB­Ns is based at King’s Bay and at Ban­gor, Wash.

The Tri­dent subs, known as “boomers,” are pow­ered by a sin­gle-shaft nuclear reac­tor. They can car­ry more than 16 tons, trav­el more than 20 knots — more than 23 miles per hour — and sub­merge more than 800 feet, accord­ing to Navy offi­cials who keep their exact capa­bil­i­ties secret.

Part of the nuclear deter­rent tri­ad along with land-based inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles and Air Force bombers, the Tri­dents’ sole mis­sion is to deter a nuclear attack through its ulti­mate strike capa­bil­i­ties. A com­mand from the pres­i­dent, passed through U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand and ulti­mate­ly to the ship’s cap­tain, allows the crew to fire a long-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile in a mat­ter of min­utes.

The Tri­dent is a three-stage mis­sile pow­ered by sol­id rock­et motors. It’s about 44 feet long and 7 feet in diam­e­ter, and weighs about 120,000 pounds, accord­ing to infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed by pub­lic affairs offi­cials. Each has a range of more than 4,000 miles.

Tour­ing the Boomer

The boomer’s design of mas­sive mis­sile tubes occu­py­ing the bulk of the mid­sec­tion and extend­ing ver­ti­cal­ly through four lev­els is the focal point of the ves­sel and a reminder of the sin­gu­lar mis­sion of deter­rence. The space between the tanks makes up the hall­ways. Small rooms, such as the nine-per­son enlist­ed berthing cab­ins — three sets of bunks with three beds each — and a cou­ple of bath­rooms, known as “heads,” are tucked in between.

The gal­ley and crew’s mess are near­by on the same lev­el and they present a near­ly con­stant hub of activ­i­ty. The Navy is known for pro­vid­ing good meals, and if the Rhode Island is an indi­ca­tion, sub­marines are among the best. The boat’s head chef, Pet­ty Offi­cer 1st Class Daniell Pinero, a for­mer chef for the sec­re­tary of defense, and his crew pro­vide three hot meals each day as well as late-evening snacks.

Stock­ing the gal­ley for a three-month tour is no small under­tak­ing. A lengthy shop­ping list includes, for exam­ple, 530 pounds of cof­fee, 22,140 eggs, 800 pounds of but­ter, 504 bags of microwave pop­corn and 21,000 biodegrad­able weights to sink trash in the ocean. Because all food must be pur­chased and stored before the start of the tours, fresh pro­duce is a scarce com­mod­i­ty enjoyed in the ear­ly days of each patrol. Still, there are few com­plaints. Piz­za, spaghet­ti, turkey and dress­ing, ham and sweet pota­toes, rolls, cakes and pies -– all home­made -– were pro­vid­ed dur­ing the media vis­it.

“I gain 10 pounds every time we go out,” Cmdr. Robert J. Clark, com­mand­ing offi­cer and cap­tain for one of the Rhode Island’s two rotat­ing crews, said. Exer­cise equip­ment is placed spo­rad­i­cal­ly around the ship – car­dio machines and free weights – wher­ev­er there is a lit­tle spare room. But as Clark and oth­ers not­ed, any weight gained on board is lost dur­ing shore duty.

A Tight-knit Com­mu­ni­ty

Clark is the com­mand­ing offi­cer and cap­tain of the Rhode Island’s blue crew, which car­ried the media rep­re­sen­ta­tives dur­ing their vis­it. His exec­u­tive offi­cer, or sec­ond in com­mand, is Lt. Cmdr. Paul Pam­puro.

Each Tri­dent sub includes two crews of 15 offi­cers and about 140 enlist­ed men, known as the blue and gold crews, each with its own com­mand­ing offi­cer. Each crew rotates onto sub­ma­rine duty about every 112 days, while the oth­er crew stays at base for train­ing and prepa­ra­tion for the next time at sea.

A snap­shot of the crew is one that is young, smart, and com­mit­ted to the mis­sion and fel­low crewmem­bers. The aver­age age is 23, and many have engi­neer­ing, math or sci­ence degrees. Ask sub­mariners what they enjoy most about their work and the answer usu­al­ly is the cama­raderie of a tight-knit com­mu­ni­ty, the high­ly spe­cial­ized work, and the impor­tance of the mis­sion.

Lt. Col­in Myers is a Naval Acad­e­my grad­u­ate who serves as the sub’s main propul­sion assis­tant, assis­tant secu­ri­ty man­ag­er, intel­li­gence offi­cer and ship self-assess­ment coor­di­na­tor. He said he enjoys the Rhode Island because of the qual­i­ty of the crew.

“These are a lot of real­ly smart guys,” Myers said. “Some are dou­ble majors. It’s a vol­un­teer force, so they real­ly want to be here.” He added that because the sub­ma­rine force is small, there are many oppor­tu­ni­ties and offi­cers advance quick­ly; some obtain com­mand by their mid-30s.

Serv­ing on a sub­ma­rine -– most­ly sub­merged for three months with only periscopes to see out — also can be stress­ful, tedious and bor­ing, sub­mariners say. The days are long, sleep is min­i­mal, and sub­mariners are sur­pris­ing­ly dis­con­nect­ed. E‑mail is spo­radic, only com­ing through every cou­ple of days when an anten­na is con­nect­ed to the sail — a submarine’s exte­ri­or tow­er-like struc­ture — and attach­ments are not allowed. There are no phone calls; no text mes­sages. Still, some say they don’t mind being dis­con­nect­ed.

“You either love it or hate it,” said Pet­ty Offi­cer 2nd Class Calvin Hurt, the tor­pe­do room super­vi­sor.

Real­i­ty in Mis­sion Con­trol

Around 9 p.m., some off-duty crew mem­bers gath­er in the mess to wind down with a movie. The chef has made piz­za and Buf­fa­lo wings, and some­one pops in the 1990 movie, “The Hunt for Red Octo­ber.”

“This is a com­e­dy!” a long-time sub­mariner pro­claimed as the crew laughed at the cre­ative license Hol­ly­wood took in pro­duc­ing the action-packed dra­ma of a Tri­dent sub­ma­rine exec­u­tive offi­cer, played by Den­zel Wash­ing­ton, who leads a mutiny after the cap­tain, played by Gene Hack­man, decides to launch a bal­lis­tic mis­sile at a per­ceived Sovi­et threat. In the real world of Tri­dent subs, pro­to­col and pro­ce­dures rule. In the con­trol room, the sub’s nerve cen­ter, each area is manned in six-hour shifts with full atten­tion on the equip­ment. The mis­sion is to keep the boomer unde­tect­ed, while detect­ing every­thing else around it.

In the front of the room, three enlist­ed men watch loca­tion and con­di­tions on mon­i­tors while two of them do their part to “dri­ve” the sub with long-han­dled steer­ing wheels. Behind them, two oth­ers man mul­ti­ple screens that track sonar and acoustics, ana­lyz­ing sounds from as far away as 75,000 yards. Behind them, an offi­cer always is watch­ing through the periscope, and those images are pro­vid­ed on com­put­er screens. Coor­di­nates are con­stant­ly being called out above the sound of the equip­ment, and the stan­dard response “very well” acknowl­edges receipt of the infor­ma­tion.

Many of the screens are marked “Secret,” and all of the crew has secu­ri­ty clear­ances. While each has his own job spe­cial­ty, all are cross-trained and expect­ed to be able to do mul­ti­ple jobs, Rolinger said. “Every­one is an expert at dam­age con­trol,” he said, not­ing the crew prac­tices mul­ti­ple drills -– from fir­ing tor­pe­does to putting out fires –- sev­er­al times per week.

Dur­ing a mis­sile release test, Clark stands in the cen­ter of the con­trol room receiv­ing infor­ma­tion from every pos­si­ble data point, some relayed repeat­ed­ly to ensure con­di­tions have not changed. “All mis­siles will be released,” he announces along with the exact time so all clocks are syn­chro­nized to the exact sec­ond.

“This is the cap­tain. This is an exer­cise,” Clark says over the sub’s speak­er sys­tem.

Down the hall, two crew mem­bers man the mis­sile con­trol cen­ter, divid­ed between “launch­er” and “fire” con­trols. The U.S. bal­lis­tic mis­sile fleet fires four test mis­siles each year, and has had 124 con­sec­u­tive suc­cess­ful tests in 20 years, Cmdr. Michael Sowa, deputy chief of staff of strate­gic weapons for Sub­ma­rine Group 10, said. The tests also serve as a deter­rent, and for­eign coun­tries are noti­fied before test­ing begins, he added.

“The sys­tem works well, even bet­ter than it was designed to work,” Sowa said. The British, French, and Rus­sians also test bal­lis­tic mis­siles, and the Chi­nese are devel­op­ing the capa­bil­i­ties, he said.

“The SSBN mis­sion is to deter,” Sowa added. “So, if we must launch, we’ve failed our mis­sion.”

Earn­ing Their Dol­phins

A more like­ly sce­nario than the release of a Tri­dent mis­sile is the release of a tor­pe­do. Back toward the front end of the sub and down the stairs next to the smok­ing room, two crew mem­bers man the tor­pe­do con­trols, watch­ing red and green lights for the sta­tus of tor­pe­does that lie hor­i­zon­tal­ly on hydraulic lifts. They hold sev­er­al exer­cis­es each week to prac­tice fir­ing tor­pe­does, and avoid­ing tor­pe­does from an ene­my.

“Every­thing we do down here, we get one minute to do it in,” Hurt said. A sub­mariner for four years, he said he now loves the job that is very try­ing for the first two years.

Three sailors earned the title of sub­mariner here on Aug. 16 when they were pre­sent­ed the cov­et­ed Dol­phin pins, which come only after a new crew mem­ber proves with­in 10 months that he has a basic under­stand­ing of every­thing on the boat. Clark pre­sent­ed the pins dur­ing a cer­e­mo­ny in the crew’s mess.

“The whole thing is a lit­tle over­whelm­ing,” Pet­ty Offi­cer 3rd Class Patrick Iver­son, 20, of Freeport, Ill., said after receiv­ing his pin. “With this, you know you’ve earned the respect of your fel­low ship­mates.”

Pet­ty Offi­cer 1st Class Her­win Mar­cia, who has served on sub­marines for 13 years, still remem­bers the stress of being new on a sub­ma­rine.

“It’s a big cul­ture shock,” he said. “You have to catch up to where you can sup­port every­one else. You have to be ready when called on. We don’t have time to wait.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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