“The Making of USS OHIO (SSGN 726)” is a colorful story that goes back many years and is filled with cliff-hanging plot twists. My first experience with the saga was in 1992, while working for Admiral Bill Owens (then OPNA V NS), as I participated in research and conceptual discussions about a missile-shooting and commando-carrying submarine based on the TRIDENT hull. The idea, while provocative, seemed closer to fantasy than reality.
Then in I 999, when I worked for the late Dr. Paris Genalis in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Acquisition & Technology), the concept had matured to a proposal to convert the first four TRIDENT submarines, no longer necessary in their strategic role, to be very much like that early-I 990s idea, now called SSGN. But as OHIO was fast approaching the need for midlife overhaul and refueling, the time was upon us to get serious: either start immediately investing appreciable sums of money in the idea, or accept that OHIO, with over twenty years of service life remaining in a national treasure that was truly remarkable for its capabilities, would be decommissioned, an irreversible fate. And if we made the decision to forfeit OHIO, then USS MICHIGAN (SSBN 727), USS FLORIDA (SSBN 728), and USS GEORGIA (SSBN 729)-comprising the first four TRIDENT submarines, and all hanging in the balance of either SSGN conversion or scrap-ping-would be destined with certainty for the same untimely fate.
While I commanded GEORGIA (Blue) as an SSBN beginning in the summer of 2000, the angst and uncertainty of SSGN conversion played out every day, as all modernizations, alterations, and improvements were canceled for my boat because the program of record directed that the first four TRIDENT hulls would be decommissioned. A last-minute reprieve seemed increasingly unlikely as time past.
Were the future bright and the horizon clear as OHIO finally entered a Puget Sound Naval Shipyard drydock in November 2002 to begin overhaul, refueling, and SSGN conversion? Let’s just say optimism was guarded among then, CDR Brian Mcilvaine’ and his crew: the five-year plan that would have OHIO deploying to the Western Pacific as SSGN 726 in November 2007 was ambitious and aggressive enough to beg the same question that was asked in the early 1990s: is this program fantasy, or is it reality?
As I stood on the bridge of USS OHIO (SSGN 726) as Captain of the Blue crew on that fog-shrouded Sunday morning of October 14, 2007, we were getting underway from Puget Sound Naval Shipyard a month earlier than the five-year plan had foreseen. My shipmates and I were aboard our freshly overhauled, refueled, modernized, and SSGN-converted boat with 105 TO MAHA WK missiles (TLAM), accommodations for sixty six special operations forces (SOF) personnel, five tractor-trailers worth of SOF gear including 35 tons of specialized ordnance, a drydeck shelter (DDS) with a SEAL delivery vehicle (SOY), state-of-the-art sonar and fire control systems, and a command-and-control suite ready to embark and support a one-star battle staff. All the training and certifications were under our belts (the same could be said of Captain Andy Hale’s OHIO (Gold) crew) to make us ready to operate this modem marvel in tactically challenging environments, performing SSGN-unique missions. The last word had been written on “The Making of USS OHIO (SSGN 726).” It seemed like a fantasy, but it was very much a reality as a new, more adventurous story had begun: we were leading ‘for WestPac!
Where is OHIO now, over fourteen months later, as I write this article? OHIO is finally and with well-deserved fanfare heading home to Bangor, Washington, under the command of CAPT Dennis Carpenter (Andy Hale’s Gold crew relief), to arrive right before Christmas 2008.
SSGN Operational Concept
OHIO’s coming home in December 2008 is by itself proof that the SSGN operational concept works. As envisaged at the outset many years ago, the boat was to forward deploy for a year. Three crew exchanges were to occur at the forward base of Apra Harbor, Guam, concurrent with each voyage repair period (VRP) of three-week duration. Under this plan, the two crews, Blue and Gold, would have three months on-crew, followed by three months off-crew, in a repeating pattern for the duration of the boat’s year abroad.
The operational concept would give OHIO and the other three SSGNs an operational availability of about sixty-seven percent for the life of the ship. This figure includes the hundred-day maintenance and modernization periods (MMPs) at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard between deployments. If you consider only the time the boat is forward deployed and account for the three VRPs, then the boat’s operational availability becomes about eighty-three percent. If you consider that deployed SSGNs live assiduously by a 48-hour ready-for-sea rule even during the voyage repair periods, then the operational availability becomes over ninety-nine percent.
The first deployment made the already aggressive operational concept even more fast paced: we headed west over a month earlier than the five-year plan called for simply because we and the boat were ready, and it was clearly apparent that the security environment of the Pacific theater required SSGN. Further, we remained in theater over a month longer that the operational concept specified. Though MICHIGAN (OHIO’s Pacific theater relief) was on time in its conversion and pre-deployment process, adhering to a rigid timetable for OHIO would have resulted in an SSGN gap in theater, a circumstance that we knew would be unacceptable, hence the need for OHIO to stay longer.
In a few more weeks when Dennis Carpenter’s Gold crew returns OHIO to pier side in Bangor, fourteen and a half months will have elapsed since I headed westward in the fall of 2007. While it would be reasonable to expect that upon return the boat would be in rough shape, having been ridden so hard for so long, quite the opposite is true. Fleet-level inspection teams evaluated the boat as excellent in material condition, including its state of preservation, at about the ten-month point of the deployment, and then again near the end. The process of one-hundred-day MMP before deployment and three VRPs while deployed, overlaid on the well-proven TRIDENT maintenance plan, works above and beyond expectations! This circumstance gives the operational commander a reliable SSGN surge capability that he should perceive as a genuine force multiplier in a time of crisis. OHIO’s deployment has demonstrated convincingly that SSGN can, if necessary, delay a VRP to allow staying on station for additional weeks, or remain in theater for additional months at a time. OHIO’s experience is not an anomaly, as Captain Bill Traub also proved a surge capability while FLORIDA BLUE was deployed to the Central Command (CENTCOM) theater.
Staving Busv in WestPac
SSGN was a new and therefore untried platform as the OHIO deployment began, but the volume and quality of tasking assigned from the moment we came into theater suggests our arrival was much anticipated. Each mission period was extremely busy, including at least one national-level tasking every time, and both crews executed SOF missions in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Typically, we would complete n mission, dash back to Apra Harbor, Guam, change out the embarked special forces, replenish their equipment, spend about a week at sea practicing the next mission, and then head westward again at best speed and with no time to spare. Of course, operational demands like these make indispensable the “N” (for “nuclear propulsion”) in “SSGN .”
While SSGN has not fired a TLAM in anger (yet), the 105 missiles onboard make OHIO a potent and important asset. Our presence in theater gave the entire fleet so much more flexibility and operational effectiveness. With TLAMs in our missile tubes rather than aboard AEGIS destroyers, the surface ships were loaded and ready to execute instead the essential ballistic missile defense mission. Similarly, with TLAMs aboard SSGN rather than in the torpedo rooms of many SSNs, the fast-attack boats arc fully loaded with ADCAP torpedoes and better ready to confront the prodigious surface and submarine threats in the Pacific theater. The same can be said of the CENTCOM theater. We took our considerable strike responsibility very seriously. Whenever we were not on a mission and a strike exercise occurred, you can be sure that we were at periscope depth and fully utilizing our common submarine radio room (CSRR) with twin high-data-rate antennas and the tactical TOM AHA WK weapons control system (TTWCS) to participate whole heartedly. John Litherland (FLORIDA Gold) and Bill Traub had the same commitment to maintaining strike proficiency during their time in CENTCOM.
SSGN offers an additional strike advantage that might not have been planned in the drawing-board days. Though the Pacific theater is truly vast, the range of the modern TLAM missile is such that, more often than not, while executing real-world SOF missions, we were concurrently in launch baskets. The fact that SSGN can do strike in the same locale as SOF means the missions are not at all mutually exclusive. I am not advocating launching TLAMs while we are in the middle of a SOF mission, but the flexibility SSGN gives the operational commander to direct a significant quantum of strike on extremely short notice is recognized and appreciated.
A particularly valuable and morale-sustaining mission OHIO did a lot of is theater security cooperation (TSC). While foreign-port liberty is part of TSC-hence the pos1t1ve impact on morale-RADM Doug McAneny (formerly Commander, Submarine Group SEVEN; now Commander, Submarine Force, Pacific) defines TSC as a mission because of the way it builds and bolsters alliances while sending a strong deterrent signal to potential adversaries. OHIO performed three TSC missions, at Busan, Republic of Korea; Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines; and Yokosuka, Japan. All three were successful, though probably the greatest impact was served by Andy Hale’s OHIO Gold experience with the South Koreans as part of exercises Foal Eagle and Key Resolve. The benefit of the combined and joint exercises is that Andy Hale demonstrated SSG N’s capabilities and strengths for all the world to see.
Andy showed off OHIO to seventy general and flag officers. For the duration, he embarked the commanding general of Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR) and his staff, who manned the installed Small Combatant Joint Command Center (SCJC2) for tactical control of OHIO and embarked forces in an exercise SOF campaign. Early in the deployment, Navy Times quoted me as saying, “We’re going to take this boat into shallow, congested, littoral waters close to the beach, ready to put SEALs ashore, ready to strike, ready to collect intelligence”2 (hardly prophetic, since I merely reiterated some of the main reasons we built SSGN). As I read Andy’s exercise sitreps, I was delighted to find that he proved me honest. He demonstrated full SOF mission profiles using Navy SEALS and Anny Special Forces. How Andy got to Busan was also an important demonstration. As he threaded OHIO’s way through the shallow, narrow, and congested littorals of the Ryukyu Islands and the Tsushima Strait, he proved that the huge TRIDENT platform, modified to be SSGN, is certainly nimble and agile enough to claim assured access into much of the Pacific’s restricted waters. And as we’ve seen so many times, any visitors aboard SSGN (Andy deftly and diplomatically handled hundreds) are in awe; to have allies onboard gives them the further opportunity to realize they have chosen their friends wisely.
The Message is Clear
Theodore Roosevelt encouraged the nation to speak softly and carry a big stick. SSGN is definitely a big stick in terms of size and, more importantly, capabilities, but as we entered the Pacific theater so many months ago, it became obvious that OH 10 lacked the subtlety necessary to claim we were speaking softly. Just Google “USS OHIO” (102,000 citations) or “SSGN” (101,000 citations), and you’ll agree that we had the world’s attention. Cases in point:
General B.B. Bell, USA, then-commanding general of US Forces Korea, stated at the end of exercises Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, “USS OHIO has greatly enhanced the operational readiness of this command by providing a highly mobile, survivable and lethal warfighting platform to support the ROK-US Alliance.” It is noteworthy that OHIO was fully integrated into a land-centric command in ways that the general saw SSGN’s utility in defending the Republic of Korea.
-The commanding general, SOCKOR, said, “[SSGN is] … a floating division in Army terms … [with] fantastic capabilities for prosecution of the GWOT.” I had to go to Wikipedia to understand what an Army division is. The online encyclopedia says, “A division … usually consists of around ten to thirty thousand soldiers … A division tends to be the smallest combined arms unit capable of independent operations; due to its self-sustaining role as a unit with a range of combat troops and suitable combat support forces, which can be divided into various organic combinations.”3 And an Army division is commanded by a major general. Not only is this an impressive analogical description of SSGN, but the general also noted the GWOT applications. despite the fact that he observed OHIO in scenarios meant to demonstrate application to the defense of South Korea.
-Commodore Gardner Howe, commander of Naval Special Warfare Group THREE told me at the end of our time working together aboard OH 10, 0[Naval Special Warfare] experience with OHIO exceeds all expectations. It’s the best thing to happen to SOF undersea capabilities in a long time.” Had I asked his opinion at the deployment’s outset, I suspect he would have said, “I have serious doubts.” I would have understood his misgivings that a boat as large as OHIO, originally designed and built for the blue-water strategic deterrent mission, could be transformed to the ideal SOF platform, but dispel those doubts we did.
-Finally, SSGN’s biggest fan is probably the Xinhua News Agency, the People’s Republic of China’s official news source. As soon as I brought OHIO into the Pacific theater in 2007, Xinhua described OHIO as “A power to invoke fear that is second only to a carrier” and ” … capable of diving anywhere in the Pacific and can conceal itself in the territorial waters of any Asian country, turning it into the new devil of deterrence.” The U.S. Navy and Submarine Force rarely speak with such bravado.
And so the message is clear: OHIO as SSGN has arrived to dominate the Pacific theater.
A Transformational Presence As OHIO completes the first SSGN deployment in a few weeks with Dennis Carpenter’s Gold crew arriving home in time for Christmas, everyone involved over the many years in developing the SSGN concept and making it a reality can feel justifiable pride. SSGN’s maiden deployment demonstrated everything we expected and everything we imagined. I cannot prove the point, but it appears OHIO has garnered worldwide media attention unprecedented among submarines of any kind. But can we claim SSGN is tra11sformatio11al, a catchphrase that has been bantered about often over the years, beginning in the early 1990s? When Army generals understand SSGN would have a decisive role in defending South Korea with the same impact as tens of thousands of soldiers, when the reasonably doubting SOF community surrenders their skepticism to be fervent fans, and when a single submarine in theater causes the People’s Republic of China government to rethink their understanding of deterrence, then we can assuredly say that SSGN has transformed warfare in the maritime domain. Welcome home, OHIO.