Playing to Our Strengths (the USS Georgia)

originally published in The Weekly Standard, 12/21/2015 http://www.weeklystandard.com/playing-to-our-strengths/article/2000181
MAGAZINE: From the December 21 Issue
Playing to Our Strengths
A visit to an Ohio-class submarine redesigned for counterterrorism

Dec 21, 2015 | By Ann Marlowe

Key West

It’s one thing to read debates about Navy budget decisions and the aging of our submarine fleet, and quite another to visit one of our 71 submarines and see what the fuss is about. This November, I spent 24 hours on the USS Georgia—one of four Ohio-class subs redesigned in 2004 for counterterrorism, with Tomahawk cruise missiles replacing nuclear warheads and some missile silos retrofitted as lockout chambers to allow Navy SEALs to exit in combat zones. I came away with a profound respect for the submarine culture.

Many of my expectations were wrong. Happily, I didn’t feel claustrophobic for a minute. In fact, being on the 560-foot-long Georgia was blissful compared with getting on, which involved a rough trip of about an hour off Key West on a “rigid inflatable boat” out to the surfaced sub, then a short scramble up a well-worn rope-and-wood ladder. Topside, you’ve got 18,750 metric tons beneath you, and it feels very stable indeed.

Public affairs officer Lieutenant Lily Hinz (who accompanied me on my visit) and I descended from topside through a hatchway about 20 feet down a narrow fixed metal ladder in what’s called the port lockout chamber (another former missile silo). We were led to our bunkroom: very compact, but not much tighter than a sleeping compartment on a train. Down the hall was the “head” with two stalls and a shower; a sign on the door could be shifted from “Male” to “Female.” The ceilings hold a jungle of wires, cables, and pipes, but the Georgia’s faux wood paneling and speckled tan linoleum tiles reflect its 1979 vintage.

Then we climbed up a longer internal ladder to the cockpit, where the officer of the deck leads the ship when on the surface. This is part of the bridge—the area that includes the Ohio-class sub’s two periscopes, one visual and one digital. Captain David Adams and Lt. J.G. Jake Christianson were standing on the top, on what’s called the sail, tethered to the periscope tower. A junior officer, Ensign Laura Wainikainen, was getting certified for a “man overboard” recovery. Ensign Wainikainen would be directing the crew in the control room below to stop the submarine and reverse course to enable recovery of the “man” (a foil-covered box). This was accomplished in about 15 minutes in rough seas.

I was able to visit the Georgia because she was certifying for combat readiness, and boats were going out to her almost daily, bringing SEALs and others involved in training. I saw some drills that did look claustrophobic: A group of SEAL divers spent hours in a lockout chamber and then entered a tiny sub, called a SEAL delivery vehicle (SDV), that was playing damaged. The SDV holds six divers, submerged in water, breathing from air tanks. Again, the crew had to turn the Georgia abruptly to find and lasso the SDV.

Ohio-class subs are facing mass retirement now, just as military budgets are under pressure. Their estimated useful life has been extended 10 years, to 40 years, because the Navy’s ship-building budget is $17 billion a year, and building one Ohio-class sub is estimated to cost $7 billion.

This sounds ridiculous, until you see what a complex, profoundly unnatural ecosystem such a sub is. To put the cost in perspective, the $25 billion the United States spent training and equipping Iraqi troops who ran away from the fight would have bought three new Ohio-class submarines. The argument can be made that putting more of our military budget into technology and less into training dubious foreign fighters is a vote not only for American industrial might and innovation but for American military culture. In fact, the Navy is arguing for a special budget just for the Ohio-class replacements.
The USS Georgia arrives at Souda Bay on the Greek island of Crete. (Credit: U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class John Martinez)

Adams points out that the more reluctant the United States is to commit boots on the ground, the more sense it makes to rely on precision-guided missiles and on special forces delivered from stealthy platforms like the retrofitted Ohio-class subs. The Georgia’s sister ship, the Florida, fired more than 100 Tomahawks on March 19, 2011, at the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. These took down some of Qaddafi’s air defenses.

“Our advantage is massive underseas,” Adams says. “We can take on anyone, though China has a lot of good subs and is gaining. Why not play to our strengths?”

The Georgia will be deploying in the general direction of the Middle East this spring, relieving the Ohio-class USS Florida, with which she rotates deployments, and she could well be used to support U.S. operations against the Islamic State.

Besides us, only the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and India have nuclear-powered submarines. Our new nuclear submarines don’t have to refuel during their estimated life of 30 years; conventional diesel-and-battery-powered submarines must keep returning to the surface for oxygen, limiting their ability to stay at depths where they can lurk undetected.

Submarines are zero-tolerance-for-error workspaces. As Adams put it, “The people are the platform. One man can kill all of us here by making a mistake.” (The United States hasn’t lost a submarine since 1968, when the USS Scorpion suddenly disappeared in the Atlantic under circumstances that remain unclear.)

So it makes sense that submariners are a tiny elite, just 6 percent of the Navy, 20,500 people in all including 2,500 officers. You have to be in the top half of your Annapolis class to apply for billets on submarines or nuclear surface ships, that is, aircraft carriers. You also must be interviewed in person by the top sub officer, a four-star admiral. There’s no other service where this is the case.

After commissioning, whether through Annapolis, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, all officers go through six months of Naval Nuclear Power School and Naval Nuclear Prototype School to learn to run the nuclear reactors, then a three-month Submarine Officer Basic Course in Groton, Connecticut, to learn to drive the ship. So they have 15 months of graduate school before they even deploy on a sub.

Ohio-class subs have two separate 160-person crews, “blue” and “gold,” which spell each other so that the sub can spend as much time as possible deployed. The crew I met, the blue crew, will leave the Georgia in early December and return to Kings Bay, Georgia—the home port of the Georgia and Florida—for training, while the gold crew takes the sub to its next deployment, usually about six months. After that, the blue crew will take over again. Since the Florida can’t come home until the Georgia relieves it, pressure was on the Georgia blue crew to certify as combat-ready as soon as possible.

Unlike the Army’s brigade combat teams, where enlisted personnel, NCOs, and officers deploy as a unit, submarine officers rotate on and off (in groups) every six months or so, while the enlisted sailors and chief petty officers (“chiefs”) may remain attached to the same submarine for five or six years. Sub officers serve three years on a submarine, then two to three years off, then three years on. This puts a premium on a unified culture throughout the submarine service, so that everyone can quickly find his or her place—and it attracts the kind of people who have no sharp edges.

Every submariner I interviewed on the Georgia said that the main reason he or she applied for the submarine service was the caliber of people.

Lieutenant Emma McCarthy, a 2011 Naval Academy grad and the Georgia’s strike officer, has been on the Georgia for three years.

“[Submariners] held themselves to a very high standard,” she said. “For me it was either Marine Corps or submarines, and in 2010 the first group of women were authorized to be on submarines. I had an engineering degree, which helps.” She’d only spent one day on a submarine when she made her career choice, but it turned out to be a good fit: McCarthy has won one of four scholarships for graduate study awarded to submarine officers annually and plans to use it to get an MBA.

As McCarthy took me around, I realized that life aboard is relentlessly disciplined and focused. Copies of Travel + Leisure and Popular Mechanics in the head and two enlisted sailors watching a boxing video for a few minutes in the evening were about it for amusement. I got glimpses of the bunkrooms of the female officers, and they were almost devoid of personal decorative touches, unlike the Army officer tents I’d seen in Afghanistan.

The Georgia is also as close to a social-media-free zone as one finds these days. Underway, subs get communications from shore only every 12 hours. At periscope depth—about 80 feet—the captain can send and receive email, slowly, but when I was on the Georgia it was usually around 200 feet under the surface. (It has an unclassified depth limit of 800 feet.)

So the young people—average age 23—who run the Georgia spend their spare time working their way through loose leaf binder paper manuals explaining every aspect of the operation of a 560-foot-long traveling nuclear reactor carrying up to 154 3,000-pound, 20-foot-long Tomahawk missiles as well as a reverse-osmosis water treatment plant.

The Georgia has four levels and three compartments (engine room, missile compartment or MC, and forward compartment or FC), but you can’t simply walk all the way up or down on one set of ladders or stairs, nor can you walk all the way through any level from bow to stern. This is to prevent fire or flood from spreading. The control room is on the top level, 1L, while the torpedos are on the bottom level, forward compartment, FC4L. Enlisted men bunk in MC3L, and some visiting officers are housed there. Enlisted mess is on FC3L. The captain and second in command bunk on FC2L, as do the female officers.
A Navy diver and member of SEAL Delivery Team 2 train outside the USS Florida, twin sister of the Georgia. (Credit: U.S. Navy / Senior Chief Petty Officer Andrew McKaskle)

Young officers begin working in the engine room, where standing watch means monitoring machinery. I wasn’t allowed to visit the engine room, which includes the nuclear reactor, but I did get to see the Tomahawk silos in the missile compartment in the center of the sub, with well-maintained pieces of aerobic exercise equipment and weight stations nestled among them. Along the walls of the missile compartment are the enlisted bunkrooms.

Six of the Georgia’s 19 officers are women, and like other Ohio-class subs she will receive her first female enlisted sailors in a year or two. The presence of women on the Georgia seems a nonissue, though there was a flurry of attention when we became the first nation to allow women to serve on nuclear submarines in 2011. The reason, Captain Adams points out, wasn’t to be politically correct, but to deepen the talent pool for this very selective service. To a woman, the six said they had not met with any hostility on the Georgia, though a couple mentioned instructors at the Naval Academy who opposed women’s presence on submarines. Navy women are currently 17 percent of active-duty officers and 18 percent of enlisted. All new ships are built for habitation by both sexes.

While the drills were taking place, most of the officers, even those who were not on watch, converged on the compact control room to follow the action. It takes two crew members just to adjust the ballast, allowing the submarine to go up and down or maintain a level position. Another group steers—this involves monitoring lots of screens. One, a sonar picture of the Georgia’s (and nearby ships’ or large fishes’) passage through the underwater landscape over time, eluded my efforts at understanding. Passive sonar (listening) is the main way the Georgia makes her way around without bumping into the sea floor or surface ships.

I wanted more time to learn more; basic questions were occurring to me just as it was time to leave the ship. (Who cleans the heads? Answer: everyone, including officers. This is called Field Day. Does the crew ever get to go swimming? Answer: Yes, occasionally when the sub is on the surface the captain orders a “swim call,” and people jump off and climb back up on ladders. How does the Georgia get rid of trash? Answer: They shoot it into the sea, except plastics, which are recycled. Do submariners still adhere to the traditional naval sleep schedule of 6 hours on watch, 12 hours off, where you rotate your sleep times? Answer: No, the Navy recently moved to a watch schedule where each man goes to sleep around the same time every night, though there are still three different watches.)

I left wishing more people had the chance to visit a submarine. A complex, thriving system like the Georgia inspires respect not just for the Navy but for American culture, with its rigorous standards, openness to newcomers, and commitment to teamwork.

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