Down The USS Missouri Hatch
Missouri arriving!” the loud speaker crackled as the seven of us walked aboard the USS Missouri (SSN-780) trailing Missouri Commanding Officer Cmdr. George Howell and Project Superintendent Chad Nishida. Nishida dutifully inspected us for proper personal protective equipment as he led us onto the boat. Symbolic of his seriousness for safety is his earplugs, which dangled from the back of his helmet like a metronome as we followed him.
Then we descended down the open hatch, excited to tour the Virginia-class fast-attack nuclear submarine dubbed the “MIZ” that arrived in its new homeport of Pearl Harbor early 2018. We in Code 1160, Congressional and Public Affairs Office, were excited to see the $2 billion submarine as it prepares to undock and berth to finish the rest of the scheduled production work and certification testing pier.
The total cost of this overhaul is $250 million dollars and needs to be completed in less than two years. Instantly, I found it fascinating that she could be in service for three or four decades while undergoing maintenance on a seven-year cycle.
I couldn’t help but think of what it must’ve been like when the MIZ arrived at Pearl in January of 2018, making its way past the famed USS Missouri (BB-63). That must have made for a special moment with the vessel’s sailors rendering solemn honors in white dress uniforms as the sub quietly passed by the battleship sharing her namesake and also the USS Arizona Memorial. The battleship and the nuclear submarine are quite different when it comes to warfighting, but the heritage that surrounds the name binds the two vessels together.
Now, Nishida educates us on the upgrades, knowledge sharing, core teams, vast project scope and the almost unending list of other things that brought the project to where it is today. He is passionate. You can hear it in his voice and see it in his body language. At points he looks like he’s conducting a symphony as he waves his arms explaining how there is a two-year lead time for materials, how the boat was supposed to be designed with “life of ship parts,” and how these parts can fail and present challenges to the shipyard workforce.
While perhaps not as animated at Nishida, Cmdr. Howell is just as passionate. He covers the operational specifics for us and begins by painting quite the picture: operating a submarine is like flying an extremely complex plane, but only underwater. That “underwater plane” is 7,800 tons, 377-feet long, can dive greater than 800 feet and operate in excess of 25 knots while submerged. She’s designed with a nuclear reactor plant that will not require refueling during her planned life. This reduces lifecycle costs while increasing underway time.
Since we were on a submarine tour, I expected Cmdr. Howell to focus on the boat, which he did of course, but I was surprised to hear so much about the ship’s force: particularly how highly he regards his sailors and how much he thinks about and cares for them. He explained how one of his highest priorities was to create an environment where the ship’s force can excel and be on “top of their game.” He said details mattered in this regard even to the point of rotating when they serve dinner and breakfast because the sailors keep such abnormal watch hours and how making meal changes have a positive effect.