Last Thursday Jennifer and I were down on Las Olas Blvd in Fort Lauderdale having an enjoyable patio dinner when my phone rang. “James, this is Suzanne Speight, Public Affairs Specialist with Navy Region Southeast. I have one position available to embark on the the USS California.” That sounded pretty good. I’ve never been on a nuclear submarine so replied “Sure, that would be great.” Suzanne explained there was only room for one person, which seemed unusual given the Fleet Week tours would be running all weekend, but perhaps this tour would be less crowded or maybe I’d get to meet the commanding officer.
Then it started to sink in. This wasn’t going to just be a tour of a submarine. A “Distinguished Visitor Embark” in Navy lingo is a trip to sea, and presumably under the sea in the case of the California. At this point in the conversation I was super-excited. I’ve always wanted to get aboard a nuclear submarine and was thrilled at the prospect of seeing the most modern attack submarine on the planet. But to actually spend a day at sea on a Virginia-class submarine? Incredible. I didn’t know that was possible for the general public under any circumstances. Wow. “Yes, no problem being there at 6:30am. Yes I can bring proof of citizenship, absolutely. Thanks very much.”
I knew this was going to be a trip to remember but the embark was more extraordinary than I could have known. Before the day was done, we had dove to 500 ft, experimented with rapid ascent and descent, carefully surveyed the busy Florida waters for safe room to surface, and returned to the surface. And then I rode on the flying bridge with Commander Eric Sager partway back to the port.
In first of the three pictures below, you can just barely see the USS California in the morning light moored against the USS Cole. I am boarding in the right-hand picture, taken from one of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office Port Security boats. In the lower left photo, the lines are still on between the California and the Cole just prior to the California taking a line from an ship-assist tug in preparation for departure.
The USS California is a Virginia-class nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine that only just entered the service in 2011. The vessel is 377 feet long with a 34-ft beam, can reach speeds in excess of 25 knots and dive well below 800 feet. The Virginia class is the most modern in the US fleet and are believed to be the quietest attack submarines in the world. It’s dead silent, has great electronic visibility, is very fast, and yet still has a 32-year fuel life. This boat might never be fueled in it’s entire service life, whereas we fueled thirty times in rounding the world in our small boat.
In the early days of submarines, the boats were almost exclusively used for sinking hostile surface ships. Later, submarines were used to deliver intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). In this application, these specialized boats are called Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines and colloquially referred to as “boomers”. These are far larger than the California in order to be able to house 24 vertical launch tubes for huge ICBMs.
The California has formidable capabilities, partly due to advanced missile technology and partly because of design and support for a broader class of missions. Virginia-class attack submarines pack an incredible variety of capabilities. As was always the case, surface ships have poor odds of survival when an attack sub targets them. Modern missiles technology means any submarine that gets detected also is at high risk. Even for a submarine, the only escape is through silence, speed, and depth. Taking design ideas from their larger boomer brethren, the California and all Virginia-class boats pack 12 vertical launch tubes for the delivery of Tomahawk missiles to project force well inland or to allow the attack of surface ships from greater distances. The Tomahawks don’t have the extreme range of the ICBMs carried by the boomers, but they have become the weapon of choice in most recent wars and many of the hundreds of Navy-launched Tomahawks used in Operation Enduring Freedom were launched from subs.
In addition to anti-ship, anti-sub, and land-based target capabilities, attack submarines like the California can be used for stealthy, near-shore signal gathering work and, more exciting, they are able to launch entire Navy Seal teams when near-shore without ever breaking the surface. Without a ripple, a team of Navy Seals can be sent to shore anywhere in the world.
The modern attack submarine is a very versatile platform but the list isn’t yet done. Because the nuclear power plants can produce prodigious amounts of power, they also are able to quickly bring electrical power to islands where the infrastructure has been destroyed by storms or other disasters.
One of the greatest strengths of the modern attack submarine force is deterrence. There might be a submarine operating in your area. You just can’t know. Twelve tomahawks, 26 MK 48 torpedoes, and an entire teams of Navy Seals could easily be within reach.
At the foreground in the picture below is Commander Eric Sager who leads the USS California. When at the surface, and in most pictures, he’ll normally be found on the flying bridge. But the California‘s mission isn’t at the sea surface and Commander Sager’s most common position is just behind the co-pilot, listening carefully and observing every little operational detail in the control room. He rarely says anything, knowing the crew is well-trained and seeing they’re executing well. When an operational parameter needs to change, he’ll give the command once all stations have reported in. But mostly he’ll just watch a well-performing crew operate. Occasionally he’ll lean over and quietly make a correction, saying something like “That last report had an error. Did you catch it?”
Sager exudes calm and confidence. He sees and hears every detail, rarely needs to comment, and knows he has been entrusted with one of the most powerful platforms in the United States Navy. Surfacing is done with incredible care and, if there is no operational or life safety rush, could take as long as thirty minutes to ensure the operation is done safely and with minimum risk. Even low-risk operations like docking are done with surprising care. We waited for twenty minutes when we returned to port while shore-based personal moved large fenders to better protect the California while up against the pier. More about Commander Sager in Ice Cream And Individualism: Leadership Lessons From A U.S. Navy Submarine.
Standing next to me in the picture below is Captain Robert J Clark. I was lucky enough to have Captain Clark in my small tour group and I was seated beside him at lunch. Captain Clark is Chief of Staff, Submarine Group 10. He has vast experience, having commanded the boomer USS Rhode Island (SSBN 740) and the USS Emory S Land (AS 40). He was Executive Officer on the USS Wyoming (SSBN 741), and served on the USS Baton Rouge (SSN 689). He knows and loves these boats well. There doesn’t appear to be a detail he doesn’t know. He ended up fielding many of my questions or adding more detail to an answer.
Early in the day, just as we were nearing the control room, discussion was interrupted with a “prepare to dive” announcement, so I picked up the pace to arrive in time. It turns out they do about fifteen minutes of dive preparation so there actually was plenty of time. The control room is huge and there is a lot of technology to study throughout. Normally a submarine control room must be located in the narrower top deck for access to the periscope. A Virginia-class submarine uses electronic imagery instead of an optical periscope, so the control room can be located a deck below where there is more space in the pressure hull.
I didn’t want to interrupt the flow, since the crew would be busy diving, so I stood at the back with a reasonably good view of everything. Captain Clark saw me there and asked me to follow him to a place dead-center in the control room, telling me it would be easier to see from there. What an amazing place to view the pre-dive preparation and the dive itself.
In the first picture below, the Officer of the Watch is directly in front of me on my left with a large tactical display in front of him. Seated at the front of the control room are the pilot on the left and copilot on the right, in front of four large vertical monitors showing ballast tanks and controls for depth and direction. Each has a joystick to use if they chose to drive the boat manually, but they normally use the screen in front to set depth and heading rather than manually steer.
In the second picture below, Commander Sager is just forward to my right, behind the right shoulder if the co-pilot. Not visible behind me is the Quartermaster, who is looking at the largest screen in the control room. The horizontally mounted screen shows our location, each tracked target and the computed danger area around each target.
Down the left side of the control room, facing outward, are four or five Sonar stations and similarly, down the right side facing outboard are four or five Fire Control stations. One of my first questions was how are the danger areas computed around each target. It was explained that Sonar identifies targets and ships them to Fire Control for classification and target solution. Classification is determining the type of vessel being tracked. Based upon speed, prop RPM, and return echo Fire Control is classifies a target as a recreational boat, a bulk commercial carrier, a trawler, and in the case of military targets, they are often able to identify not just the type of boat but the class and sometimes even a specific vessel.
At this point the boat dropped the bow and settled under the water. It really didn’t feel like much but it looked great on the periscope as they continued to scan 360 degrees around us. As the optical sensor passes either the bow or the stern you could see water shooting above the surface as we continue to vent air.
“Decks awash” was announced, and we continued down. We first disappeared below the surface but could still see via the periscope and then, at just over 60 ft down, the periscope dropped below the surface and was subsequently lowered and stowed.
The Quartermaster’s display and several other displays throughout the control room show the targets above us, and the tracking system both tracks the targets and shows the area of risk around the target based upon the capabilities of that type of ship. It’s a busy Monday morning in the Florida waters above the California. There are an amazing number of targets above us and I asked if it was mainly a formality to track them so carefully. They reminded me that military targets could be anywhere, the boat has to be prepared to surface at any time, and you really don’t want to allow an active fishing trawler to pass over the boat.
After a short period at 150 feet, to give the crew a chance to run all standard checks and ensure the sub is ready for deeper work, we dove to 500 feet. Five hundred feet below the surface. This is more than three times the deepest I have ever SCUBA dived and we’re not even close to the capabilities of the California.
It was dead silent. You can’t hear bubbles, you can’t hear the hum of engines, and there was no hull creaking. In fact, surrounded by advanced navigation equipment giving an incredibly detailed view of all boats in the area, it can start to feel like the submerged vessel has windows. Rather than feeling like travelling blind, it felt like we had better vision than many surface ships. At 500 feet down, it neither sounds nor feels different than 150 feet, and the only difference with being on the surface is that the surface comes with some slight boat motion. The California displaces 7,800 tons so I’m guessing it takes a very active seaway to move it much at all.
Below, you can see the effect of the submarine executing manoeuvres. Here we’re climbing at 15-20 degrees.
Lunch began in the ward room while we were 150 ft under the surface. In the picture below, Commander Sager is at the head of the table, Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Mathew Thatcher is on his left and Captain Clark is between Commander Sager and I. Lunch was the excellent cooking that the US silent service has become famous for, but the conversation in the relaxed setting of the ward room was even better.
Behind Captain Clark is a small display showing depth, speed, and heading. Just out of the picture on the wall behind Lt. Cmdr. Mathew Thatcher is a screen showing the bridge tactical display with current sonar targets being tracked. Above us is a speaker so we can hear bridge activity.
This was my first experience on a military ship at sea, and it was interesting to observe how the crew and officers worked together. The sub seems to operate “mission-first” rather than “hierarchy-first”. For example, if a crewman needs to pass the Commander talking to someone in a narrow hallway, they don’t wait. They respectfully slip past. I was expecting the strict hierarchy that the military is famous for would reduce the quality of decisions and restrict the flow of information. But rather than just executing orders and staying quiet, the officers and crew seem to be expected to point out potential issues. On the way out to sea, the Quartermaster said “Sir, recommend course of 257 degrees [I don’t recall the exact course] to account for the 20 degrees of set from the Gulf Stream.” The Officer of the Watch consulted with the chart table behind him and passed that instruction to the pilot. As we neared the dock I heard “Sir, recommend less rudder since we are slightly inside our course line”. In this case, the Commanding Officer decided he liked the current course and made no change. But what I liked was that it was everyone’s job to respectively contribute.
Jennifer watched the departure from our hotel balcony and shot video and stills as we departed. The video below (5:39) shows our footage from our departure from Port Everglades, along with on-board pictures provided by the California, and photos from one of the escort boats taken by Mike Chan, Protocol Officer with Navy Region Southeast.
The entire bow of the California is a massive sonar array. Just behind that are the twelve vertical launch system tubes for delivery of Tomahawk missiles, and behind these are four forward-facing 21-inch torpedo tubes. The torpedo tubes are actually quite a ways back from the bow of the boat and are angled outboard at seven degrees so that the sub doesn’t run over it’s own torpedo.
While we were 500 feet down and touring the torpedo room, Captain Clark asked a crewman to open one of the forward tube doors. The massive door is hydraulically-actuated where first the latch rotates to unlock and the door slowly opens. These are huge stainless-steel parts driven by hydraulics and yet they don’t make a sound. At 21 inches, the tube is just barely too narrow to comfortably crawl in, and 24 feet forward you can see the outside missile door.
Captain Clark, perhaps jokingly, asked if anyone would like to climb down towards the end of the tube and verify that it was clean and ready to use. I said “Absolutely!” The next thing I knew, a submariner had offered me coveralls, a flashlight, and a grease pencil, and I was soon working my way down the tube. The port side upper tube now has my name on the inside of the outer door.
If you are the slightest bit claustrophobic, working your way backward out of the tube is a great way to verity that. It’s tight in there. Once I’d slipped out and landed on the floor, I asked a nearby crewman if he enjoyed his time in the tube cleaning. He said it gets most interesting if something gets jammed in the outer door. “Wouldn’t that mean it was leaking water?”, I asked. He said that would certainly be possible. I commented that sounded like a great opportunity to give a junior sailor some “experience”. He said “No, sir. It would be me going down that tube. It’s my job and I’m proud of what we do.” I’m proud of them too. It would be hard to find a better trained and better equipped crew in any navy.
Thanks Mike Chan, Protocol Officer, and Suzanne Speight, Public Affairs Specialist, both with Navy Region Southeast; and Commander Eric Sager and the crew of the USS California for an unforgettable day!
This post is the 15th in the Technology Series. Past posts have included Metal Shark Aluminum Boats, Johnny Sessa Bulldozing, the heavy-equipment manufacturer Bell Equipment, and the 2015 Moth World Championships.