AN ADDRESS TO THE 2004 NSL ANNUAL SYMPOSIUM
BY COMMANDER MICHAEL POIRIER USN
FORMER COMMANDING OFFICER,
USS TOLEDO (SSN769)
I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to spend a few minutes giving some observations on the war on terrorism from one SSN CO’s perspective. This gives me the chance to give you some insight into what my crew accomplished, and allows me to relive some great memories, which seem particularly interesting compared to my current heavy responsibilities managing a Pentagon desk!
TOLEDO had the privilege of making two deployments in the war on terrorism, one with the JOHN F. KENNEDY Battle group during Operation Enduring Freedom and one a surge deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. To the extent I can at the unclassified level, I’ll talk about these two deployments and the war on terrorism.
JOHN F. KENNEDY and her battle group deployed in early 2002 and played a role in the final combat operations that overthrew the Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. The Battle group was split into two-Jim Kuzma’s BOISE along with half the surface escorts operated with the 5th Fleet. While JFK hit enemy targets located in Afghanistan during Operation Anaconda and follow-on operations, her escorts and USS BOISE worked off the coast of Pakistan to monitor and choke off overseas escape routes for Al-Qaeda and other terrorists there. The remaining half of the battle group escorts and USS TOLEDO were stationed in the Med. I must admit, I was initially concerned that we were too far away from the action-but I was dead wrong-CTF 69 and Sixth Fleet had plenty of war on terrorism tasking for us.
We knew that Al-Qaeda had employed aircraft to supply their Afghanistan camps and we also had strong indicators these terrorists employed merchant ships to carry important cargo and people around the world. As a result, Sixth Fleet had stood up CTF-66 whose mission was to monitor merchant ship activity throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. CTF-66 employed ships from virtually all of our allies-indeed we observed British, Danish, Spanish, Gennan, French, Notwegian, Dutch, Greek, Turkish, as well as U.S. ships all participating in an impressive way. Let’s talk about the SSN part of that operation and how submarines fit in:
First, for obvious reasons, we are hungry for any knowledge on which merchant ships terrorists use to move material and people clandestinely around the world, including the Mediterranean basin. We clearly want to know how these ships are being used and what type of material they are carrying. Intelligence on various merchant ships and or companies comes from a wide variety of sources. We maintain a list of those ships potentially linked to terrorists. Once there are some indications that a specific vessel might be engaged in supporting terrorists, we and our allies must assess the intelligence and determine if the ship is in fact conducting these activities. There are a variety of ways to do this, including observation from aircraft and surface ships, but the best way to monitor merchant ships suspected of terrorist activity is to do so covertly employing a submarine.
Just as we learned in the Cold War, a potential adversary will go about his normal ‘business’ and will not modify his behavior when he does not know he is being observed. Submarines have sufficient dwell time that they can observe closely a merchant 24n and can classify the activities the merchant is engaged in-this sort of capability is especially important in areas such as the Eastern Med as there are a number of ships engaged in simple smuggling. A submarine is far more likely than another platform to differentiate between a merchant involved in smuggling or one involved in something more nefarious. Covert observation by submarines then allows us to tip off surface ships that can conduct Maritime Intercept Operations and determine exactly what and who is onboard the merchant-and potentially seize assets and/or terrorists. This work is very much a team effort, but again the key is covert observation employing a wide variety of submarine on-board sensors. We saw the value of covert observation; on several occasions we observed suspicious activity that ceased once a NA TO warship or aircraft approached the immediate area of the activity.
Today, throughout the Med, Middle East and Pacific operating areas our Navy constantly observes and, when warranted, boards merchants to observe cargo and crew. Not only are we learning considerable information, but we are also sending out a strong signal that we are watching, thereby making the task of the terrorist more difficult.
A second major concern we have is that terrorists will seize a merchant, load it with a weapon of mass destruction and sail it into a U.S. or allied port. Employment of such a weapon in a U.S. port could cause significant damage. As a result, the Navy needs to be able to respond to such a threat before it arrives in a U.S. port. To do so means we need to be able to react to some cuing, and must be able to identify a merchant whose appearance may have been changed or modified. For perhaps the first time in many years, we are involved in a systematic cataloging of all the merchant ships of the world-determining all their characteristics-acoustic, visual and other-in a way that fingerprints each vessel as unique. For the many Cold War veterans here, this effort will be familiar as we undertook a similar effort to understand the Navy and Merchant fleets of our Cold War Adversaries. The Submarine Force is actively engaged in this effort to document the characteristics of merchants-and TOLEDO played her part while conducting other objectives in the Mediterranean. Of course, our submarines do this part time as they pursue other, often-higher priority objectives while forward deployed. Furthermore, while conducting this mission, should we observe an unknown merchant engaged in activities that are clearly suspicious, he now becomes an object of sustained interest rather than passing interest.
In the future, should we learn that a merchant is potentially carrying WMD towards a U.S. port, we would be able to employ a submarine or other platform to verify that we have the right target after comparison with our intelligence data base-even if the merchant’s appearance was changed, acoustic signature and other key parameters would remain the same. Once sure we have the right merchant with a clear threat onboard, we would destroy it.
There are other significant challenges of course, we need to have some sort of cuing data and we need to be able to surveil ships across a vast portion of the maritime environment. Obviously these are difficult problems. Of note, Admiral Fargo recently discussed his Regional Maritime Security Initiative, which discusses this difficult surveillance problem in protecting both our homeland and that of our allies from attack-in his words we “need to gain an awareness of the maritime domain to match the picture we have of our international airspace.”
These are the sort of activities that forward deployed submarines can and do participate in. Of course, the boats are conducting a wide variety of missions including various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions that provide important data to our military and intelligence communities. Although I can’t go into the details of various missions, I can tell you that our submarines are actively engaged in the war on terrorism-in TOLDEO’s case we conducted four classified operations during our 2002 deployment. Of the relatively small amount of time remaining of our sixth month deployment, we participated in one 8-day exercise; and conducted port calls for maintenance and liberty. So we were gainfully employed.
We returned from deployment in mid September 2002. After a typical one-month stand down and a short period of at sea operations we started a five-week scheduled maintenance period in early November 2002. Our schedule had us underway for two months in the Caribbean starting in mid January with a packed schedule. At this time, it was clear that hostilities in Iraq were a distinct possibility. Our chain of command told us to be ready for a potential surge deployment. What is of interest, our preparations for deployment were relatively modest-we conducted a fire control/weapons system groom, loading Tomahawks and additional torpedoes in January 2003 and worked through a modified pre-deployment checklist. Because of the substantial demands of our planned underway, we made only minor adjustments to our training regimen-in essence, we didn’t work for our training but relied on our day-to-day program.
In mid-January we got undeiway-again with an aggressive schedule, much of it supporting operational testing of new systems. We conducted a scheduled port call in Cape Canaveral where some additional specialized equipment gear was brought aboard. It was during that port call that I received the call that we were deploying for possible operations against Iraq. I was asked-did we need anything, did we have to come home … and could truthfully reply we were ready to go. One thing of interest-on three separate occasions-once in the Caribbean, once while conducting a high speed transit in the Atlantic and once in the Western Med we linked up with all the 6’h and 5th Fleet strike platforms. Like several other boats that were “out of theater” we simulated being present in theater and conducted very realistic strike training with all the units either in theater or scheduled to be in theater. I found this to be an impressive demonstration of our Navy’s and our submarines’ ability to communicate.
We arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean in early March. Once there, we continued to practice potential strike tasking on Iraq, this time near our planned launch positions. However, concern grew over Turkey’s commitment to allow overflight; therefore we received orders to proceed south towards the Suez Canal-new Subnote to follow. Within 24 hours we were lined up in convoy proceeding through the Suez-three SSNs with two surface ships all headed for the Red Sea. The next day three more Mediterranean deployed SSNs and additional surface ships transited the canal. In my opinion a remarkably quick operation by CTF 69, and 61h Fleet and one that demonstrated the importance of mobility that SSNs and ships in general possess.
Of note, we were notified of the move towards the Suez and our destination in the Red Sea while finishing up a strike exercise. I had the opportunity to communicate with USS PITTSBURGH’s Commander Jeff Currer. PITTSBURGH was positioned in an area from which TOLEDO was destined to shoot. He provided valuable information on the area including information on shipping, etc. Also, of note, again demonstrating the power of communications, all the SSN CO’s connected and exchanged information on key preparations for combat operations as we proceeded in the Fifth Fleet Operating areas. Those that had been in the 5th Fleet area for a while provided detailed info to ensure, that among other things, we had received all the pertinent lessons learned,
We took station in the Red Sea … that sea body was so crowded with U.S. submarines and ships it seemed you literally could have walked across it. Combat operations started soon afterwards. Much has been written and spoken about this, but I’d like to make a couple of quick points. First, actual strike operations were somewhat different from the way we had practiced in exercises. Rather than get a warning message with launch information, we typically got a warning order via chat to spin up missiles. (Chat, by the way is similar to real time messaging or e-mail conducted by laptop and transmitted by a variety of standard radio circuits.) Shortly thereafter we would receive the actual launch order. So the pace of strike operations was even faster than predicted. Obviously this makes sense with some critical targets being short notice targets of opportunity, similar to the widely reported decapitation strike. Regardless, SSNs performed well adapting to the rapid-fire rhythm.
After launching multiple salvos-in our case three salvos-combat operations ended for us. Approximately a week later we left the Red Sea and proceeded back to the Med. But let me briefly mention that SSNs were ready for a lot more than just strike operations. For example, we were obviously prepared for actions against the Iraqi Navy or what was left of the Iraqi Navy, we were also ready to conduct a variety of ISR missions, and we were ready to destroy a terrorist controlled merchant headed for a U.S. or allied port.
On 28 March, TOLEDO accompanied by five other SSNs and one surface ship proceeded through the Suez to the Med. We awaited a short stay alongside EMORY S. LAND, which had repositioned to Crete to better service SSNs. While waiting our tum to pull in, we had a short swim call, which was our first opportunity to relax in a while and one I’ll always remember. EMORY S. LAND conducted yeoman service on TOLEDO and three other SSNs alongside. After 6 hours alongside LAND, we headed west at speed and returned from deployment 15 April to a great welcome by the Groton/New London Communities.
In finishing, let me take a few moments for some observations
First, the Navy and your Submarine Force are fully engaged in the war on terrorism. This effort leverages off our traditional strength in Submarine ISR, but is much more. As Al Qaeda becomes more diffuse and spread out, now that the sanctuary of Afghanistan is gone, submarines will continue to be essential to understanding how Al Qaeda and other terrorists employ sea lines of communication. Indeed, without this sanctuary, this terrorist sea trade may drop in volume making our task more difficult-but, to the degree a terrorist will find it even more difficult to move people and cargo by air, sea trade, even in reduced volume, should be relatively more important to our adversary. And the targets are there. A recent Wall Street Journal article quoted a respected think tank analyst who said that today, Al-Qaeda is “believed to operate 15-25 vessels worldwide.2” Also we clearly must continue to work on our readiness to stop a seaborne attack employing ships married to WMD.
Secondly, TOLEDO deployed with little additional preparation, five months after our return from our OEF deployment. USS BOISE did one better, deploying seven months after her return from OEF. Other SSNs deployed early or stayed forward deployed well past their sixth month that spells the end of a normal deployment. I think this speaks volumes to the culture of readiness we have in the Submarine Force. And as the Navy is transitioning to the Fleet Readiness Program, which has Carrier Strike Groups and Expeditionary Strike Groups reach and maintain a level of readiness such that 6 CSGs can deploy within 30 days and two more CSGs can deploy within 90 days, it seems to me our submarines will play very well in this new paradigm.
Third, we really have radically increased our ability to communicate. I’ve already mentioned our strike exercises on the way to OIF. Another example I’ve mentioned is chat. I was not originally an advocate of chat (again similar to real time messaging/ e-mail) but it does provide remarkable situational awareness and young sailors and officers take to it remarkably easily. Overall it was much more effective than voice communications but it does have one drawback-if you’re not watching the laptop screen, you can miss critical tasking!
As a corollary, the improvements we are seeing in communications are indicative of what we are seeing in many other places thanks to our “COTS based revolution” … I saw terrific changes in capabilities in just 29 months in command.
Finally, I’d like to highlight that my crew, (and I think every other CO would say the same thing) took all the changes in schedule and tasking in stride and made it look easy. I think this speaks volumes to the quality of the people in the Submarine Force and to the families that stand behind them.
I’d like to thank you for your attention and the opportunity to speak today.