Submariners Give Rare Glimpse Into ‘Silent Service'
(August 26, 2010)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 1995
submarine movie, “Crimson Tide.”
“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
“This is the captain. This is an exercise,” Clark says over the sub's speaker
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 134 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
Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey Bottoms,
chief of the boat for the USS Rhode Island, far left; Navy Cmdr. Robert J.
Clark, commanding officer for the Rhode Island; and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Paul
Pampuro, far right, watch as Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class William Corring
receives his Dolphin pin during a ceremony in the crew's mess, Aug. 16,
2010. DoD photo by Lisa Daniel
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
Article by Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
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