Some would say our nation is barely making steerageway in the current fog of peace. Young people just getting under-way in the Navy could easily see their careers going aground in the face of media representations of shrinking military forces and the lack of an immediate enemy. But try to penetrate the mists and expand the horizon beyond the bow. That dark shape barely visible up ahead may well be another dire military threat. I would tell today’s young warriors “Don’t underestimate the importance of your future contributions to our national defense.” We may not be able to predict when or even how the shoe will drop, but we can count on you eventually being called upon to make a real difference.
My career and particularly my experience in command of USS PITTSBURGH (SSN 720) during Desert Shield/Storm is a good example. I joined the Navy during the Vietnam conflict but my service selection of submarines precluded my direct involvement. In the post-Vietnam drawdown of the 70s the widespread anti-military feelings in the country rivaled the Soviet Union as our biggest military challenge. I did participate considerably over the span of 20 years in the many exciting roles assigned to the Submarine Force during the undeclared Cold War. Like most military members of my generation, this was my presumed sole legacy until a little country named Kuwait unwittingly became the center of world attention.
August 1990 was to be a quiet month for the crew of PITTS-BURGH. We looked forward to catching up on lost time with the families after a rewarding recent deployment and a strenuous period of exercises and examination. Prophetically, one of the exercises involved a successful test launch of a Tomahawk land attack missile in the Gulf of Mexico. When we heard of the invasion, a crewmember approached me and asked if somehow our ship would become caught up in the conflict. I assured him that for any number of reasons there was no chance of our involvement. After all, we were about to enter a three month maintenance period involving prolonged drydocking, three shipyards and considerable resources to accomplish major work. Then there was the geography of Iraq, with little coastline and no navy to speak of. In hindsight I guess I was not yet converted over to the post-Cold War missions facing our Navy. By the next day I realized just how wrong my answer was!
You can only imagine my surprise when the Commodore told me that we were to surge deploy to the Mediterranean with the first available submarine Tomahawk missiles modified with extra fuel for extended range. The crew’s emotions on hearing the news can be summarized by saying they felt honored to be part of our nation’s call to arms. The families also rose to the occasion by providing the continuing support we had already grown accus-tomed to. And it”s well their spirits were high. because the next two months were a blur of exhausting industrial effort as all the repair activities converged to get necessary jobs completed in record time. As we raced the calendar we wondered if our efforts would prove to be in time.
When we were finally about ready to go, 30 of the crew took a weekend respite and drove through the night to our namesake city of Pittsburgh to celebrate the Navy’s birthday in a VFW Hall. Attendees included reservists about to go to the Gulf and loyal Navy League supporters. In my remarks I told the audience we would do our best to uphold the good name of their fair city and the Navy. The patriotism and support from those wonderful folks was stirring and representative of our countrymen’s response when the chips were down. The final trials and workup were devised to try and model the missions and environment we would encounter in the event of hostilities. Special emphasis was given to strike warfare, weapons systems readiness, shallow water/special warfare operations. and communications versatility. The weapons loadout consisted of 37 missiles and torpedoes, including 12 vertical land attack Tomahawks which were literally right off the truck following factory modification. This modification gave the missiles enhanced range to strike land-locked Baghdad from the Mediterranean or the Red Sea, as well as the Persian Gulf. AJI ships reach a point in preparing to deploy where they just want to cut the umbilical and get to sea. We reached that point on 8 November 1992 as we set sail for the Mediterranean and an open-ended commitment to provide firepower to NA VCENT if hostili-ties proved necessary.
My previous Med deployment in 1988 focused on countering Soviet warships. During Desert Shield the pattern had altered significantly. Few Soviet ships were in the area, and at any rate practicing command and control, merchant surveillance, and performing indications and warning missions were now our real challenge. Our stealth gave us great flexibility in carrying out surveillance of military activities by littoral countries who were not clearly in our camp from the outset. On occasion we kept an eye on special interest shipping. Sea borne terrorism also worried the Sixth Fleet Commander, so we had contingencies ranging from protecting the Suez Canal to interdicting terrorist raids. Of course, we practiced strike warfare constantly.
Our first liberty port was to be Haifa, Israel at Christmas. The day before arriving I received a CO personnel message from the Sixth Fleet Commander advising of the USS SARATOGA’s boating tragedy. It was a vivid reminder that we were on the eve of even more tragic loss of life should hostilities commence. Weather prevented our port call, so it was a sad and sobering Chrisunas at sea indeed. Church services were filled to overflow-ing on the mess decks as we each sought strength and guidance from on high.
PIITSBURGH eventually did get a liberty port call in Toulon, France in early January 1992. The port was very busy getting French soldiers and warships enroute to the Suez. I invited several French submarine officers and their wives aboard for dinner, and the impending conflict dominated the conversation. Not surprisingly, few differences of opinion were discernible amongst us. It was apparent at this point that Saddam Hussein had backed himself into a comer for which there was no escape.
On getting underway we wasted no time racing east. Directed to chop to NAVCENT, we commenced our war patrol on 19 January in the easternmost portion of the Mediterranean. It is true that news is never in sufficient supply on a submarine due to message broadcast constraints. Luckily we spent most of the time at periscope depth near our assigned launch basket, allowing augmentation of our normal broadcast with intercepts of commer-cial stations such as the BBC and of course CNN. However, there is no doubt our families at home were better informed of the general course of the war than we were throughout this period thanks to the miracle of modem television news.
The first day we were tasked to shoot Tomahawks proceeded like clockwork. I observed USS VIRGINIA and USS SPRUANCE launch their missiles first through the periscope, then it was our turn. Our vertically-launched missiles fire over the shoulder and required a quick spin of the periscope to keep in visual sight. They were all flawless launches and made fascinating video. Our targets were several hundred miles away, but we still felt buoyant that we were helping to save Allied lives and shorten the war. Subsequent bomb damage assessment of our targets indicated the missiles were remarkably accurate. It was a historic occasion for the ship and the Atlantic Submarine Force, and was a fitting culmination to five long months of preparation and anticipation.
On a later date PITTSBURGH was again tasked to launch cruise missiles from our Med launch basket. The weather was more adverse this time, including along the flight path based on information provided by NAVCENT. I also had an unsuspecting but pesky merchant vessel steam close to my original launch point requiring a change of plans to meet the tight timing specified for the strike. This particular tasking included one mission received the previous day by satellite data update that targeted a mobile radar site which was determined to threaten our striking aircraft. Again the attack went smoothly, and I was relieved to find out later that detailed bomb damage assessment proved our missile completely destroyed the site.
Prior to the air war innovative planning for sustaining Toma-hawk strike capability was ongoing in the Sixth Fleet. For example, a deployed submarine tender was worked up to rearm PITISBURGH’s vertical launch missiles in theater as soon as we emptied our magazine. It turned out that the Mediterranean strike platforms performed far fewer launches at a more retarded schedule than were originally planned due to diplomatic considerations, but the potent military capability inherent in our arsenals remained poised until it became clear that Allied aircraft had complete control of the skies over Iraq.
Some small events in the larger mosaic are still fresh in my memory. On one dark midnight between strike taskings, we surfaced to transfer a sailor to USS VIRGINIA enroute to getting him home for humanitarian reasons. I had to chuckle as VIRGI-NIA’s CO asked me on the bridge-to-bridge radio if our scurvy was under control as he took the occasion to transfer some fresh fruit to us. Heading back surfaced through the Straits of Messina we passed close aboard a converted ferry jammed with French troops beading to the Suez. Upon seeing our nationality they spontaneously commenced wild cheering in an emotional outburst of brotherhood-in-arms that I will long remember. Most memorale of all was the unique exhilaration of homecoming and being reunited with our families after four roller coaster months of uncertainty. Even the late New England winter blizzard and harrowing last few underway hours of tense navigation in poor visibility did not daunt our spirits. In time honored tradition the crew proudly displayed our homespun battle flag on the brow as we streamed across to a pier to happy loved ones.
Current events continue to reinforce the necessity to retain a strong Navy in support of our strategic role among nations. The unpredictability of the threats that lie ahead should more than meet the desire to be challenged in our young warriors of today. So stay trained and ready. As the crew of PITTSBURGH and a large fraction of the Navy relearned during Desert Shield/Storm, the President may call on you tomorrow to do your part in responding to aggression. That’s what all branches of our Navy are about,and we will need you aboard to win.