Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


A Medical and Operational Overview

Recently off the Hawaiian coast, USS NEV ADA (SSBN 733), a Trident missile submarine, conducted special warfare operations. A 27 man Marine Reconnaissance Force performed a wet deck launch and snag-and-tow operations proving the Trident submarine is an acceptable launch platform. USS NEV ADA’s exercise with the Marine Reconnaissance Boat Company has merely opened the door for future joint operations between Trident submarines and special warfare forces. The bottom line is that a Trident is a more stealthy, faster moving platform able to deliver more fighting fire power than the current submarines being used in such a manner. The true beauty lies in the political reality that several vessels of this submarine class will soon become available for such missions since their retirement from their current strategic offense mission has been decided upon as a policy matter.

NEVADA’s special warfare operation was the first such exercise ever conducted from a Trident submarine. I participated in the underway portion of this maneuver as the Submarine Squadron Medical Officer. I have participated in previous Fleet Marine Force beach assault maneuvers as both a Marine Infantry Platoon Commander and as a Staff Officer for a Navy Fighter Air Wing. My direct involvement in such operations as submarine physician, infantry officer and fighter pilot offers a unique perspective of this operation and the feasibility of the Trident submarine as a special warfare platform.

Surfaced deck operations are nothing new to the Submarine Force. This method of deploying special warfare troops (Marine Reconnaissance Forces; SEAL units) has been tested on multiple occasions for many years. There are basically three different categories of surfaced deck operations: fairwater planes launch, dry deck launch and wet deck launch. These are not to be confused with submerged launch operations which usually employ dry deck shelters and SEAL delivery vehicles (SDVs). As the name implies, a fairwater planes launch uses the fairwater planes as the launching surface with access gained from the sail hatch above. This method is employed with heavier sea states to minimize the amount of seawater taken in through open deck hatches. The decreased diameter of the sail hatch and extra distance traveled vertically make this a less suitable delivery technique unless dictated by sea conditions. In contrast, a dry deck launch will use one or more of the boat’s deck hatches to bring men topside. The insertion team assembles their gear on deck and then shoves off from the surfaced submarine as if it were a pier or beach.

Similar to this, a wet deck launch uses the deck hatches to bring men topside where gear is assembled and prepared for launch. The difference comes when the submarine deploys the rubber boat special warfare teams by performing a static dive, submerging beneath the loaded rubber raiding craft staged on deck. The main tactical advantage of a wet deck launch over the previous two is less time spent on the surface. Currently, only fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are authorized for wet deck operations. The flattened deck superstructure housing the strategic missile hatches provides an adequately sized platform to assemble the raiding craft, mount outboard motors and to load supplies, munitions and personnel. The deck’s plateau shape also contributes to the stability of the rubber raiding craft during the submerging/deploying portion of the evolution. The rounded deck of a fast attack submarine (SSN) is too small and slick when frequently awash to safely accomplish the task of launching a special warfare team using the wet deck technique. Though NEVADA was the first Trident to engage in surfaced deck launches, such operations have been performed from other SSBNs in the past. Several Lafayette class SSBNs including KAMEHAMEHA and JAMES K. POLK have been converted to special warfare platforms and modified to carry one or two dry deck shelters. These modified vessels can also be used in submerged launch operations with SEAL delivery vehicles.

Surfaced launch operations are often accompanied by snag-and-tow operations. With snag-and-tow, lines attached to the rubber raiding craft are engaged by the extended, and above water, periscope of the submerged submarine, towing the engaged raiding craft over a specific distance and course. Such a maneuver is performed to launch a special operation force from a surfaced submarine at a distance to preclude submarine detection. The deployed raiding craft are towed to their objective by the sub-merged submarine which is much more difficult to detect. Snagandtow is also utilized to recover raiding craft upon completion of their mission. After a successful rendezvous, the submarine would snag-and-tow the raiding craft and slowly surface below them. Once on deck, the equipment is stowed and the submarine/special warfare team proceeds to their next objective.

Thus NEV ADA was tasked to conduct “special warfare operations with US Marine Corps (USMC} for at sea training”. While at Pearl Harbor, 27 Marine reconnaissance troops (one officer, two corpsmen and 24 Marines) boarded NEVADA and loaded out four combat rubber raiding craft, outboard motors, fuel bladders and weapons. The raiding craft and fuel bladders were stowed securely in the missile hatch superstructure while the munitions were brought below decks and stored in the torpedo room. The outboard motors are submersible only to 60 feet and had to be stowed below decks. Sleeping quarters were provided in crew’s berthing. The crew’s mess and lounge were designated for briefing spaces and the Marine contingent received required radiation health instruction and shipboard indoctrination.

The operation commenced with clear sides, no weather concerns, mild sea conditions, and minimal currents. A member of the ship’s crew was designated as the safety swimmer and was topside with two deck personnel to aid the Marines in retrieving their gear stowed in the missile hatch superstruc Personnel went topside with their gear via an escape trunk hatch located in the missile compartment. When the four boats were rigged for launch, the submarine began its static dive submerging with as little forward momentum as possible-simply dropping straight down from beneath the rubber craft.

The tow attempt was successful and the raiding craft were towed for a distance of two nautical miles.

It can be concluded that the Trident platform would be an excellent addition to the special warfare community. It is a natural evolutionary step in special warfare insertion tactics with multiple advantages and minimal disadvantages over current delivery platforms. A product of more modem and sophisticated technology than the current special warfare modified SSBNs, the Trident is quieter, faster and equipped with more advanced communication gear and navigation equipment. Not only is this class of submarine newer and in better repair than its older counterparts, but it also was designed to require less maintenance and provide for a quicker tum-around time between deployments. The Trident is a bigger platform, so the possibility exists for an entire Marine Reconnaissance Boat Company to be launched from her spacious decks. In the past, size and space available aboard the submarine has been a limiting factor in troop size and composition. The Trident’s size now makes limiting factors out of other issues like insertion site set-up-time of the surface deck. This distinction opens whole new pages of tactical applications to a reconnaissance unit’s capabilities. But with this larger size comes one disadvantage, an increased draft of 35 + feet versus 26+ feet. A difference accentuated when maneuvering the Trident’s 560 foot length.

Though the operation was successful, there is always room for improvement. This is the reason for performing such operations routinely in peacetime. The time tested adage is still true: you fight like you train, so train like you fight. Operationally, standard operating procedures should be developed to provide the most expeditious static dive for this newest class of SSBN. There is the technical difficulty of accomplishing this maneuver while keeping a level deck. This class of SSBN naturally assumes a nose down attitude when submerging because of the placement of certain ballast tanks. Also critical while submerging this class of submarine is flooding paired port and starboard ballast tanks evenly, otherwise the possibility exists that the ship’s deck will not stay level and roll either to port or starboard. Man overboard drills will also be a high priority, especially for the snag-and-tow operation and the eventual recovery of the raiding craft. A quick and well executed man overboard maneuver may be the difference between life and death for an unfortunate individual lost from a raiding craft. Further training of similar launches will help perfect the stowage of necessary gear, and more importantly, the unstowing of such gear just prior to its use. Timing is very important in clandestine operations and the less time a submarine has to spend on the surface the less chance of detection.

The envelope of operations for a Trident submarine acting as an insertion platform is dictated by the ship’s 35 foot draft and maneuverability in conjunction with the combat rubber raiding craft striking radius. Like POLK and KAMEHAMEHA, shallow water operations (30 fathoms) are possible with a Trident, but very shallow water operations may be limited. By convention, the raiding craft define their combat radius by the maximum distance they can travel on one fuel bladder. For planning purposes, 20 to 30 miles is often used. This number is effected by craft loading and weather conditions.

The submarine could be loaded out with troops and equipment in port and deploy for long periods of time. More likely, the submarine will be loaded with just equipment in port and the special warfare troops will not make extended cruises. Combat troops prefer to hone tactical skills and push physical readiness up to the very last moment before an operation. Most commanders feel both physical and tactical preparedness drop quickly when their men are deployed aboard ship. For this reason, troop underway time is often kept to the bare minimum. With the Trident able to cover some 500 miles per day, the troops could be loaded at an intermediate port before proceeding to the insertion site. They could also use the current technique of being transferred at sea by ship or being dropped into nearby water by a helicopter or Cl30. This transfer would occur in a relatively secure operating arena and then the submarine would steam in one to two days to the insertion site. The Trident’s ability to steam swiftly but silently allows for many options. The ship to submarine method of troop loading is the most viable if larger numbers of troops are to be transferred. To air drop over 100 individuals would be risky and should be considered only for smaller insertion teams.

Medical concerns include the numerous possibilities for injury when dealing with special warfare operations. Orthopaedic injuries are common in tactical operations involving ground troops: separations, tears, hyperextensions, strains, and fractures of all types {stress, simple, comminuted, compound). The possibilities for blunt trauma on the pitching deck of a submarine at sea are high, not only for the deploying forces, but also for the ship’s deck crew. The combination of manual labor with heavy lifting and a wet, slippery, pitching deck can be very dangerous. Throw in a mix of turning screws from both landing craft and submarine, lines parting under heavy loads and several bladders filled with gasoline and one does not have to look far for the possibility of a catastrophic event. Blast injury would be a major area of concern had munitions been involved and this will need to be considered for future operations. The storage, transfer, and staging of munitions in the submarine and in the raiding craft should be conducted with the utmost care and concern. Munitions inflicted wounds become an even greater concern when the mission is not merely a training exercise. Gunshot, stab and fragment wounds, crush injury and amputation can all be expected in a wartime situation.

The weather and water temperatures off the Hawaiian coast are almost always agreeable and were not of major concern in this operation. This assuredly will not always be the case. Hot, humid weather raises the risk of heat stoke and heat exhaustion. Stormy weather and ice decrease deck footing and increased the likelihood of trauma or a man being thrown overboard. Hypothermia is another significant threat in a cold, wet environment and a grave concern in Northern seas with or without a man overboard. In such operating environments, it would be imperative that medical personnel be trained and proficient in treating immersion hypothermia. Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) training would also be beneficial.

The risk of trauma in the special warfare environment is so substantial that the corpsmen assigned to both the submarine and the deploying forces should be trained in ACLS. An operation requiring launch, snag-and-tow, shore landing, battle maneuvers and ending with submarine rendezvous and recovering is dangerous enough that a medial officer’s presence should be required onboard the submarine. Having a surgeon onboard may be beneficial if operationally indicated (i.e., anticipated heavy casualties or remote launch objectives with little chance for medevac).

Other shipboard systems influence the health of those Jiving within the highly controlled environment of a submarine. The thought of using the Trident to launch an entire Marine Reconnaissance Boat Company would increase the number onboard twofold. The performance parameters of the submarine’s atmospheric control devices are great enough that doubling the number of people aboard ship would not cause an undo health risk. The oxygen generators, carbon dioxide scrubbers, and carbon monoxide burners all would be able to readily handle the load posed by the proposed additional crew. The ship’s evaporators which produce fresh water for both crew and propulsion plant also have sufficient reserve.

The submarine can easily tailor its menu to provide a less expensive, better tasting high calorie/carbohydrate meal and should be the sustenance of choice for troops deployed aboard the submarine for any length of time. Refrigerated and frozen goods are the limiting factor for food storage. Though canned and dry goods can be kept almost anywhere aboard ship, limited food provisions are traditionally the critical variable in determining the length of a nuclear powered submarine’s deployment.

Though the Ohio class boats are an outstanding platform, they were designed to launch missiles, not Marines. With several modifications their usefulness would increase. As previously mentioned, 27 Marines were brought onboard and were easily berthed without the need for hot-bunking. The ship felt that with sufficient air mattresses, they could have easily accommodated twice as many Marines without hot-bunking. It is conceivable that even without berthing modification that up to 120 Marines could be deployed with ingenuity. In the future, on a modified Trident without missiles, there would be no need for the Weapons Department and the assigned 20 to 25 sailors (Missile Technicians) nor for their working spaces which includes a rather large missile control center. The Navigation Department would also be reduced in manning numbers and space requirements, reflecting the downgraded mission requirements when the ballistic missiles are removed. This reduction in the Weapons and Navigation Departments would free up to 30 to 35 beds that could accommodate up to 70 people if using hot-bunking. The vacant missile control spaces and a portion of the navigation spaces could easily be converted to briefing, exercise, office, lounge or study space as well as additional berthing space. The upper missile compartment space now considered a high radiation area and off-limits to personnel would lose such designation without Trident missiles housed in the missile tubes. This space would then be available for additional berthing if needed. It is realistic to consider the possibility of deploying an entire Marine Reconnaissance Boat Company of 150 people onboard a modified Trident submarine.

Storage space is a prime asset onboard a submarine and doubling the number of people onboard can tax even the best load masters. With extra space requirements for people, berthing, toilets, showers, food, medical supplies, weapons, munitions and the remaining gear needed for an assault, storage space is at a premium. As with the previous class SSBNs modified for spec war, the missile tubes are an excellent space to convert to stowage for necessary gear. The tube could be made accessible from above as well as below decks. Weapons could be stored in appropriate containers placed in a myriad of spaces once used for Trident missile operations to include missile control or the DS void space located. in the bottom of the missile launch tubes. Munitions could be kept in appropriate storage containers in the torpedo room. They could be lowered to the compartment just as torpedoes are and then the container could be properly secured. Modified empty missile tubes would also offer an acceptable location for munitions storage. The superstructure above the missile compartment already offers voluminous space, probably sufficient to house all the necessary rubber raiding craft and fuel bladders, though a modification in enlarging hatch sizes would increase accessibility and decrease set up time during the actual launch operation.

The outboard motors routinely used by the special warfare community come in two general sizes, 35 and 55 horsepower. For this operation, the smaller of the two was used and, as previously noted, needed to be stowed below decks. There was some difficulty in getting this equipment below because the engine housing barely fit through the escape hatches even following the removal of the bubble skirt and ladder. There is some question whether the larger engine would actually fit through the escape trunk hatches without further modification of either the engine or the hatch. The outboard motors could be kept in a modified missile tube since they are capable of being pressurized, this would preclude seal rupture at depths greater than 60 feet.

Modification of the missile tubes could also greatly increase the Trident’s capability as a special warfare platform by allowing for submerged deck operation. The focus of this paper has centered upon surfaced deck operations, but the addition of several dry deck shelters would be an incredible expansion of the Trident’s versatility. Submerged deck operations entail forces leaving the submarine while the vessel is submerged, greatly decreasing the possibility of detection of either the submarine or the inserting forces. The escape trunks could be used, but were designed for two people. A third or even fourth individual could probably be added considering the trunk’s 70 inch diameter and 65 inch height. These trunks currently have two atmosphere pressure gauges, one for trunk pressure and another for inside hull pressure. A third gauge monitors air regulator discharge pressure. The trunk is wired for two way communications via the 32 MC circuit. Like the SSN 688 class, the escape trunk hatches open forward into the water stream utilizing a spring balanced mechanism and thus the ship must have very little headway to allow opening. With modification, it is conceivable that the missile tubes could be used for lock-in/lock-out procedures. Use of the missile tubes would allow more people to lock-in/lock-out and the tubes sideways-opening, hydraulically powered doors could be opened while the ship is moving forward. The depth control and speed characteristics during such maneuvers are similar to those of POLK and KAMEHAMEHA. The addition of several dry deck shelters would allow the use of SDVs, two man mini-submarines used by special warfare troops. It is also important to note that the Trident’s high pressure (HP) air banks used in lock-in/lock-out procedures for breathing air is not approved for charging SCUBA bottles. The escape trunks have a diver’s air connection for breathing, diving gear or pneumatic tools to be used outside the hull with a regulator set at 5 to 100 psi over ambient. But the pressurization/supply design for the HP air banks is similar in design to the SSN 688 class and thus would need a filtering system before such air could be used to charge SCUBA bottles. A modified Trident though would have enough room to add a HP air SCUBA charging system. These are but a few of the issues that would need to be addressed before converting the Trident submarine for submerged deck operations.

This recent surfaced deck launch and following snag-and-tow operations shows that the Trident submarines will be an excellent addition to the capabilities of the special warfare community. Its technological advances, increased performance envelope, de-creased maintenance requirements and greater troop carrying capacity make it a formidable non-strategic weapons platform. The conversion of several submarines to this mission will augment the tactical fighting strength of this country’s armed forces. Some time will pass before the final decision is made to convert one or more Tridents to a platform from which surfaced as well as submerged launch operations may be routinely conducted. In the interim, surfaced deck operations, to include launch, snag-and-tow, and recovery operations, need to be continued. Only through trial and error will a set of standard operating procedures be established and refined to allow a timely surfacing, set up, wet deck launch, static dive without pitch and roll, snag-and-tow and recovery.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League