Special Ops Sub Becomes Hub for Irregular Warfare
By Harold Kennedy
ABOARD THE USS OHIO—A short cruise on board this former nuclear-missile submarine off the coast of Washington state offers a glimpse into how the Navy and special operations forces plan to engage in covert military action.
During a three-year overhaul, the Ohio’s 24 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, known as Tridents, were removed to make room for 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles and facilities for as many as 66 special operations troops, plus a 35-man joint command element.
The joint command unit could control the ship, any commando passengers and conceivably a task force of other ships, ground troops and air components, Rear Adm. Frank M. Drennan, commander of Submarine Groups 9 in Bangor, Wash., and 10 in Kings Bay, Ga., told National Defense.
Unlike the Tridents, which were developed during the Cold War to help dissuade the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear attack against the United States, the Tomahawks—armed with 1,000-pound conventional warheads—have been fired frequently in combat.
Two of the Ohio’s 24 vertical missile tubes have been reconfigured to serve as lock-in/lock-out chambers that allow special operators surreptitiously to exit and re-enter the sub while it is submerged.
Seven of the remaining tubes have been rebuilt to hold canisters to store equipment that the commandos will need on their missions, including “anything from rafts to munitions,” said the ship’s skipper, Cmdr. Michael K. Cockey.
Such capabilities will enable the four submarines that are being converted to operate close along hostile shores—in the green, littoral waters, as opposed to the blue waters of the deep ocean—and thus play a much larger role in the war against terrorism, Drennan said.
The Ohio and its sister ships “will be ideal for playing an enhanced scout role,” he said. “They can put a contingency force ashore behind enemy lines without anybody knowing they are there.”
That could be useful not only in enemy territory, such as portions of Iraq, but also in countries, such as the Philippines, Indonesia or Pakistan, where the presence of U.S. troops might be politically embarrassing to the government in power. “Sometimes, we want to be basically invisible, not only to the bad guys, but to everybody,” said Capt. David DiOrio, director for SSGN readiness at Submarine Forces Headquarters in Norfolk, Va. SSGN is the Navy’s hull classification for a cruise missile submarine.
Submarines have hosted small numbers of special operators ever since World War II. Until now, however, submarines—packed with torpedoes and missiles—have had space to accommodate only a handful of special operators. That is changing with the Ohio (SSGN 726) and its three sister ships. The other three vessels are the Michigan (SSGN 727) and the Florida (SSGN 728), which are home-ported in Bangor, Wash., and the Georgia (SSGN 729), which is based in Norfolk.
Initially, the Navy planned to retire them in order to fulfill a requirement of the 1993 Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty II—that the United States remove nuclear missiles from four of its 18 Trident submarines. Finally, however, the service decided instead to reconfigure the four, which were the oldest of the Trident subs, for use in irregular warfare.
In 2002, General Dynamics Electric Boat won a $1.4 billion contract to do the conversions. The Ohio rejoined the fleet in February. The Florida is set to follow this month. The Michigan is scheduled for December, and the Georgia is to be completed in September 2007.
With a length of 560 feet, the Ohio is one of the largest submarines in the U.S. Navy. As part of the conversion, she has berthing—arranged “rail-car” style along both sides of the sub—for more than 100 commandos, headquarters and support personnel.
The Ohio has a battle-management center, stuffed with workstations. “There’s nothing like this on any other boat,” said Lt. j.g. Aaron Riggio, the ship’s assistant operations officer. “We never had a space this big before.”
The center “is an ideal site” for planning special operations, said Capt. Mark McGill, from Air Force Special Tactics. “My job is putting bombs on target,” he said. “I’m also looking for landing zones and any opportunities that involve airpower.”
In addition, the Ohio has a more expansive fitness center than found on most subs.
The special operators exit and re-enter the ship via the two lock-in/lock-out chambers. The chambers are 87 inches in diameter and contain showers at their base, permitting commandos to cleanse their gear of salt water or any other contaminant before re-entering the sub.
Once they reach the vessel’s deck, they can enter a smaller vessel to set out on their mission. The Ohio is built to transport a SEAL delivery vehicle; its intended successor, an advanced SEAL delivery system and a dry-deck shelter.
The latter is a deck-mounted cylindrical shelter large enough to house one SEAL delivery vehicle or four rubber raiding craft.
An SDV is a manned submersible vehicle. The Navy has been using versions of it for at least 35 years to transport SEALs to and from subs.
Its replacement has been plagued by delays. One boat, called ASDS 1, was delivered in 2003, but a Government Accountability Office report said that it lacked an adequate propulsion battery and was not quiet enough for stealth operations. The Special Operations Command’s deputy commander, Vice Adm. Eric Olson, told reporters in November that SOCOM was canceling plans for additional boats—at least for the immediate future—to concentrate on ironing out design problems with the existing one.
Meanwhile, the Ohio and her sister ships are serving as platforms to develop and test new weapons systems, sensors and operational concepts that could further transform naval warfare. In particular, the Navy is experimenting with unmanned underwater and aerial vehicles on SSGNs and other subs to conduct reconnaissance, surveillance and other missions.
During a 2003 exercise, the USS Florida—cruising in the Gulf of Mexico—launched a 28-foot unmanned underwater vehicle for use in transporting SEALs to the beach and keeping them supplied.
During a 2004 exercise off the coast of San Diego, the USS Georgia released two containers called stealth affordable capsule systems. Each contained a simulated UAV. Eventually, the Navy plans to launch UAVs from such capsules floating in the ocean.
In August 2005, the USS Albany (SSN 753), while surfaced, released a UAV similar to the Marine Corps’ five-pound Dragon Eye from its bridge, the first time that had been done from a submarine.
The Navy also is developing new weapons for use on SSGNs. In January, the Naval Sea Systems Command, in Washington, D.C., awarded Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, of Portsmouth, R.I., a $19-million contract to develop a littoral-warfare weapon. This system could be launched from a sub to attack close targets in coastal waters, said NAVSEA spokesperson Linda O. Roberts. These include marine patrol aircraft, helicopters, high-speed patrol boats and other small craft.
The Navy in November 2005 tested a prototype of this system, using a Sidewinder AIM-9X missile at an Army base in New Mexico, Roberts said. The Sidewinder is a supersonic, heat-seeking air-to-air weapon normally fired horizontally from an aircraft. In this case, testers were able to launch one vertically from zero velocity, as would be necessary aboard a sub. The Sidewinder detected, tracked and destroyed an unmanned helicopter drone. It was the first AIM-9X to engage a target below 3,000 feet.
The littoral-warfare weapon system would fill a significant gap in the SSGNs’ armory. The Tomahawk carries a 1,000-pound conventional warhead up to 1,500 nautical miles. It is designed primarily to destroy high-value or heavily defended inland targets, not a relatively nearby fast-moving small boat or aircraft.
The SSGNs also are armed with the Mark 48 torpedo, which is designed to combat fast, deep-diving nuclear subs and high-performance surface ships, making it inappropriate for small targets in the littoral, he noted.
During the cruise, the Ohio conducted a war game involving a simulated attack on Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. The station, which is home to several squadrons of electronic attack and reconnaissance aircraft, is located at the mouth of Washington’s Puget Sound.
Lurking six miles offshore beneath the surface of the busy Strait of Juan de Fuca—the main entrance to the major ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, B.C.— the Ohio carefully planned her attack. “We’ve been gathering data for the mission, and at the same time, trying to avoid getting run over by small boats,” Cockey said. “Usually the only part of us you can see above water is the periscope.”
In the war game, Whidbey Island is the site of a simulated weapons of mass destruction manufacturing and distribution facility. “We’ve seen the enemy’s small boats headed ashore, and we’ve decided, ‘Yes, they’re distributing WMD,’” Cockey said. On his command, simulated Tomahawks were launched. In a real attack, the facility would have been destroyed.
Submerged quietly beneath a stormy sea—with winds reaching nearly 60 mph and waves eight to 10 feet high—the Ohio betrayed little sense of motion.
In fact, the stealth with which the Ohio carried out the exercise is typical of submarine operations, said Lt. Herlinda K. Rojas, spokesperson for Submarine Group 9. Unlike surface ships, such as carriers and destroyers, which proudly proclaim their identities, submarines carry no names or markings of any kind on their hulls, she said. “We don’t want anybody to know who we are.”
When the four conversions are complete, the Ohio and the Michigan will remain based in Bangor, while the Florida and the Georgia will be headquartered in Kings Bay, Drennan said. That will provide two SSGNs each to cover the Atlantic and Pacific regions.
Plans are for one sub to be on patrol constantly in each region, while the other is being refitted, he said. Each ship will be operated by two rotating crews, blue and gold, which will enable them to stay at sea for longer periods of time.
The Ohio’s first six-month deployment is planned for 2007, Drennan said. At this point, he added, the destination has not been decided.
Meanwhile, the ship’s technology continues to be upgraded. Under a 2004 contract, Northrop Grumman’s Sperry Marine unit soon will replace the ship’s traditional hand-drawn paper nautical charts with an advanced, interactive electronic navigation system, said Lt. Mike Slavik, assistant damage control officer.
With the electronic chart display and information system, sailors can see their ship’s real-time, precise location and movement superimposed on a highly accurate electronic chart display. The result, Slavik said, will be improved safety at sea and enhanced situational awareness for the ship’s watch standers. “But we’ll always retain the ability to chart our location on paper,” he said.
I thought these statements were interesting.
Sounds like a good reason to order another 4 Ohio class subs from electric boat, or beter yet, start desinging a replacement missile sub and convert all the Ohio's to SSGNs. We can not let this countries sub building infrastructure die like it will if this one Virginia a year buy rate is upheld.
So are the rest of the boomers still Ohio class SSBNs?