Mr. Bob Hamilton is a journalist who is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. He has long reported on defense issues and currently writes on submarine-re-lated subjects for The New London Dav.
Since Carlson’s Raiders deployed off submarines in World War II, Special Operations forces have enjoyed a close relationship with the undersea warfare community. Now the convergence of three unique submarine programs promises to bring the affiliation to an entirely new level.
With the commissioning of VIRGINIA and JIMMY CARTER over the last year, and their sister ships of the SSGN force that will follow, the submarine community has a greatly expanded ability to support Special Operations missions. VIRGINIA is equipped with the gear it will need to insert quick-strike SOF (Special Operations Forces) teams anywhere along the coast. JIMMY CARTER will allow Special Forces to deploy an entirely new range of equipment when necessary. And the converted Ohio-class submarines known as SSGNs will support entire Special Operations campaigns, becoming a virtual underwater base.
Commander Jeff Bender, a spokesman for the Naval Special Warfare Command, said there are some things that are common across the platforms that will make them particularly valuable to SOF personnel.
“All three of the submarine classes are capable of hosting the Dry Deck Shelter, the standard fleet system for garaging a SEAL Delivery Vehicle,” as well as the Advanced SEAL Delivery System, the next generation of SOF transport off submarines, said Bender. “Both VIRGINIA fast attack submarine and the Ohio-class submarine (SSGN) contain diver lock-in/lock-out systems for combat swimmers to utilize when tactics do not dictate use of the SDV.”
All three ships have installed the most modern communications and electronic systems, Bender continued. For instance, the radio rooms on the submarines all contain equipment for communications with Special Operations Forces, traditional Navy radio systems and advanced Joint Forces radios.
“Although discussion of particular tactics is limited to military planners, the general public can infer some ideas from the operational capabilities,” Bender said. “All three submarines steam underway on nuclear power … The SSGN is fitted with unique high endurance features to enable much longer mission durations, with many more specialists and SOF personnel on board, if need be. The fast attack submarines are smaller ships, designed to be more flexible and multi-mission capable. The fast attack submarines are more numerous than SSGNs, meaning they will be more readily at hand if a contingency popped up across the globe.”
While the military planners are reluctant to talk about how the SOF capabilities of the three classes of submarines might be exploited, many analysts and experts believe the full potential still hasn’t been realized, that the submarine and Special Operations communities are just beginning to understand how they might be leveraged.
“It’s going to make a huge difference, but it’s so early I think the SOF (Special Operating Force) is really just waking up to the capabilities that they are going to have at their disposal,” said Robert 0. Work, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The capabilities of all these new classes of ships give the Special Operations community more breadth than they’ve ever had before. I don’t think it’s going to be just Navy SEALs operating on these. Special Forces, Delta Force, there are a lot of units that are going to be able to use these capabilities.”
And it will not just benefit SOF, said Captain James Patton Jr., USN (Ret). The stronger ties will give submarines greater relevancy in 21 ” century warfare as well, he said. Since the end of the Cold War submarines have proven their worth at strike operations and surveillance, but delivering Special Forces is something that it can do better than any other platform.
“The conflicts of the next decade or two, at least, are going to be very oriented towards special forces, there’s going to be a lot more finesse involved, and as Special Forces related combat becomes more important, then submarine delivery is going to be more important, which is going to make submarine numbers more important,” Patton said.
Special Forces appreciate submarines for a number of reasons, Patton said, including the fact that they are stealthy, have great endurance and are not hampered by a logistics tail. “And both communities are very compatible, because both are very cautious, meticulous about planning things down to the finest detail,” Patton said. “Seals like the fact that when they have to get out of a submarine, a very talented enlisted guy checks the lockout trunk, and then an officer goes in and checks it again.”
A decade ago, when VIRGINIA was taking shape in a computer-aided design program at Electric Boat, Navy planners recognized the importance of special operations in a post-Cold War environment, and built the capabilities to support them into the ship. A nine-man lockout trunk will allow large groups to leave the submarine at the same time, and the ship can carry two different types of mini-submarines to deliver commandoes ashore covertly. But equally important will be its computerized depth control system, giving it the ability to hover within inches of a specified depth, at very slow speeds. When SEALs are leaving a boat, the pressure differences from even a small change in depth can be debilitating.
“In the littorals, it’s not about how fast you can go, it’s about how slow you can go, and how well you can maintain depth,” said Capt. David Kern, the first skipper to take VIRGINIA to sea. “We’ve never had the fine control we have with this system.”
For obvious reasons, some of VIRGINIA’s SOF support capabilities are not discussed publicly, but there are many unclassified improvements that make it more accommodating to SEALs and other commandoes. The ship’s torpedo room can be reconfigured in an hour to berthing for up to 50 Special Forces, and the attack center is outfitted with equipment such as an infrared imaging system and laser range finder on the periscope, so VIRGINIA can detect any movement on the blackest night, and pinpoint its location. It has a compressor that can fill scuba tanks with diver-quality air, a built-in safe for ordnance and ammunition, and a hot air drying system for equipment when the SEALs return.
“This thing was built for the SEALs,” said Chief of the Boat Casey White. “In the global war on terror, we have to go places and do things we’ve never done before, and this ship is going to be able to do it.”
JIMMY CARTER started its life as a Seawolf-class submarine but got a I 00-foot, 2,500-ton hull insert that gives it, essentially, a bomb bay amidships, with an 88-inch access hatch from the pressure hull into the free-flooding area. It is equipped to carry up to 18 commandoes for extended operations or 50 for shorter periods, who will be able to carry equipment such as large underwater and aerial drones to deploy covertly because of the added stowage space and the ease of deploying the gear that the new platform will give them. Special auxiliary devices near the bow and stem will give it fine control at low speeds, in shallow water and near the surface. And because of its 52,000-shaft-horsepower propulsion plant, it can get where it needs to go quicker than any other class of attack submarine.
Unlike most submarines JIMMY CARTER actually has more berths than people-164 vs. I 5 I-because the ship is expected to have 25 to 30 ocean research and development personnel on most trips, and it is designed to accommodate up to 60 Special Forces, so junior sailors will still probably end up sleeping on temporary bunks in the torpedo room or hot racking, where three sailors who work different shifts share two bunks.
“We stilt don’t fully comprehend how useful it is going to be,” said Vice Adm. Charles L. “Chuck” Munns, Commander of Naval Submarine Forces, at CARTER’s commissioning in February. “Every submarine class we have gets used for much more than we thought possible when we put it in the water. That’s what’s so exciting about JIMMY CARTER. We know how capable this ship is, but we also know it will be used in ways that we cannot even envision now.”
And the reason, he said, lies in the crewmen, all of them innovators who will conjure up new uses for the advanced technology that is resident in JIMMY CARTER.
Clearly, the Navy is in a hurry to get its unique capabilities into service as quickly as possible. Instead of a one-year shakedown cruise and a six-month post-shakedown availability, the ship is supposed to meet an ambitious schedule that will see it finish its shakedown cruise in six months, and it will get just a six-week repair period before it transfers to its new home at Naval Station Kitsap in Bangor, Washington.
“There’s no room for missing anything on the schedule,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Shawn D. Burke, the Chief of the Boat. “It’s tight, very tight. The tightest I’ve ever seen.”
“We’ve got a very demanding schedule, no question about that,” said Captain Robert D. “Don” Kelso, the commanding officer. “There’s a huge push to get this ship to sea to perform its mission. It’s going to be very challenging to get everything done, but we’ve got a great crew, and we’ll get through it.”
The SSGN force will consist of four older Trident submarines that will be stripped of their nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. While most reports have focused on its new capability to fire up to 154 conventional missiles, the conventional missiles will use only the top half of the old Trident tubes; the bottom half of those tubes will be used to store truckloads of gear for 66 SOF personnel.
In the past, commandoes have spent no more time on a submarine than absolutely necessary because they have so little training space on an SSN. But removing the missile navigation system on the Tridents has freed up enough workout space that SEALs and other Special Forces will be able to deploy for days, weeks, perhaps even months if necessary.
For many years the Submarine Force operated two other converted missile boats, USS JAMES K. POLK and the USS KAMEHAMEHA, as SOF platforms, but this conversion is going to be far more extensive, said Bender, the NA VSPECW ARCOM spokesman.
“The lessons learned from previous generations of SOF host submarines were incorporated into all of the latest designs,” Bender said. “Many personnel who served on SOF host submarines, from SEALs and UDTs to commanding officers and navigators to chief petty officers and deck division seamen, provided critical design and operational input to the ship designs and tactics manuals. Many of the highly experienced civilian submarine engineers and naval architects were able to refine the previous design and incorporate them in building of these submarine classes.”
With an estimated 20 times the payload of an SSN on the SSGN, mission planners have let their imaginations run wild. SEALs will have the space to carry exotic equipment such as ground sensors, aerial drones, precision-placement mines, and other devices that can decide a battle before it has begun, and the SSGN’s overwhelming firepower will allow it to respond with fire support if the SOF encounter the enemy on the way in or out.
“I think the SSGN force is going to be such a success story you’ll see at least two more conversions, and possibly four more,” Work said. But he said it is the combination of the three classes of submarines that will be the best story in the coming years.
“We’re talking about a situation where the SOF will have a choice of platforms that can support any mission that they can imagine,” Work said. “If they need to get in close in contested water, they would probably want VIRGINIA because of its advanced silencing and reduced EM (electromagnetic) signature. If they want a little more standoff distances and the ability for a large stock of equipment, if they need a UPS capability, they would take in the SSGN.
“I don’t believe JIMMY CARTER will ever be a primary SOF platform, but on very special missions, something that requires the distinctive capabilities of JIMMY CARTER, it will be able to do things that no other submarine will be able to do,” Work said. “The VIRGINIA and SSGN will be out there all the time, but when it’s a really unique operation, JIMMY CARTER will come into play. They’re going to be doing things with these boats that people have not even begun to dream up yet.”