Going Seriously Boom: Aboard a Nuclear Missile Sub

Harper’s, September 1988

We stood, the captain and I, high in the sail, the rounded steel dorsal fin that used to be called the conning tower, as the sun rose red over the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest. A bitter cold wind raced over the Hood Canal, leading to the open Pacific; the water was black and troubled. Below us, for 560 feet, stretched the USS Florida: a ballistic missile submarine, SSBN 728, third ship of the Ohio class, our newest and deadliest. From our position above, she looked ugly and industrial, the dull black of steel mills and railway cars — yet, in her odd way, lovely. Submarines are an acquired taste.

Should there be a next war, it is with such bleak ships that we will fight it, firing stumpy missiles that hide beneath the waves. The joy of battle has given way to the conventions of the board room, the dream of martial glory to the peculiar satisfactions of remote, anonymous, abstract death. The world has for years been moving away from a glamorous notion of war, first to the squat green ugliness of tanks and now toward computerized bombs that go it alone in their eerie search for targets. The Florida is the best and, just possibly, final artifact of the new anti-chivalry. If and when the call comes to kill the enemy, the crew of the Florida will never see them. This suits the clinical impersonality of our times.

American submarines, virtually all of them nuclear-powered, fall into two categories: missile boats, unambiguously called “boomers” in the Navy, and attack boats, which hunt other submarines. The United States now has ninety-six attack boats and thirty-six missile submarines, including eight of the Ohio class, which have twenty-four launching tubes for missiles. The boomers spend their days loitering quietly in launch zones that put them in range of their Soviet targets. Their job is to not be found, and they are indeed hard to find.

On the deck, if the rounded surface of a submarine can be called a deck, sailors readied the Florida to cast off from the dock at Bangor, Washington. A ship displacing 18,700 tons of water when submerged and costing a billion dollars does not take lightly to the sea.

“Single up all lines.” “All lines single, aye.”

When the last lines were heaved ashore, sailors turned the cleats to which the ropes had been attached upside down and flipped them into the hull to present a smooth surface. Any projection causes flow noise. The crew of the Florida do not fear the Soviets, nor the terrible pressure of the depths, nor the acts of a hostile god. They fear noise.

Captain Robert Labrecque, a likable and thoughtful fellow in his early forties, father of two, chatted with me on the deck about torpedo technology and sonar while the mountain peaks turned molten pink and the wind whistled over the windshield. The windshield, along with radios and an antenna, detaches for diving. Looking down, I noticed how very little wake the Florida left. Wakes are turbulence, and turbulence is noise.

Sailors in bright orange weather suits, their faces masked against the wind, kept up a constant chatter with the control room. “Helm bridge left 10 degrees, steady course 270.” “Bridge helm, steady 270, aye.” Captain Labrecque took little part. American naval practice relies on training and the delegation of authority; enlisted men of twenty-five often bear major responsibility for the safety of the ship. The crew continued their steady patter of commands.

“Mr. Reed,” the captain said, “it is time to go below. We are going to dive.”

We climbed down one frigid metal ladder after another, through a narrow vertical pipe, and debouched into the brightness and warmth of the control room. The contrast was startling. Men in shirtsleeves sat at panel after panel of switches, dials, gauges, and a complex array of glowing indicators. From this small room the Florida is controlled, her speed, course, and depth determined; her twenty-four missiles, (carrying 192 nuclear warheads) launched on their 4,600 mile trajectories. Only by massive preventive maintenance can such ships be kept in running order.

“Coffee, sir?” asked a sailor. I nodded, still chilled. The courtesy, the ordinariness of these men, was in the context somehow curious. There is nothing ordinary about the Florida. She is after all a doomsday machine.

The helmsman and planesman sat at their controls, rather like those of airliners; the diving officer sat behind them and gave orders in quiet tones. The atmosphere was attentive but relaxed. For them, the day was like any other. There were taking a billion-dollar ship, easily the most powerful weapon the planet has ever seen, down to the frigid depths where light is dim and color flees. Nothing interesting was happening, but sailors nonetheless watched the gauges with care. There are m any things one wants to know when submerging a submarine, as for example whether one has closed all the hatches. The point is not facetious: submarines have been lost because of open hatches. The deep sea is not a forgiving place.

Men passed through the control room on the way to other destinations. The Florida is roomy for a submarine, being forty-two feet wide, and she carries a lot of men, 165 normally. American naval philosophy discourages automation. The Navy believes that machines make more mistakes than people do. At depth, a mistake can occur quickly and cause a shattering implosion that strews wreckage for miles. At thirty-four knots and a depth of 900 feet, typical figures for modern submarines, a faulty computer controlling the diving planes of an attack submarine could drive the ship below crush depth in seconds. The emphasis on safety pays off. The United States has lost only two nuclear subs, the Thresher in 1963 and the Scorpion in 1968.

“What do you think?” asked the executive officer, noticing a certain impassioned expression on my face. I am a certifiable technophile. Viewed purely as a machine the Florida seemed to me the pinnacle of human achievement, and a very pretty pinnacle at that. Yet if I considered its purpose, I would think it a spectacular embodiment of abject stupidity.

“I’m in love. I think I’ve got a First-Amendment right to own one of these things.”

The officer smiled. “All ahead two-thirds.”

“All ahead, aye.”

Hands went to switches, indicators changed color, and soon the ballast tanks began to fill. The tone was easy-going, congenial. In the confined quarters of a submarine, congeniality is essential. But on long cruises, edginess starts about two weeks out. First, some men get irritable and snappish, then they calm down and others take it up. The Florida is a comfortable iron pipe, but an iron pipe nonetheless.

Minutes later we were submerged, a fact making no appreciable difference except on the gauges. A submarine is a closed world, normally unaffected by outside conditions. My escort officer was Lieutenant Edward Wilson, a pleasant young man who never seemed to be out of arm’s reach. We walked through long corridors, the temperature unchangingly cool and the lighting unchangingly pleasant. The cream-colored walls of a submarine are lined with cables and pipes, sprinkled with valves and gauges. The ship hummed — barely, by design — with air-conditioning and other very slight noises of machinery.

I am an amateur of submarine technology, and so I asked Lieutenant Wilson to show me the silencing measures. He did, but by prior agreement this article was submitted for security review, and much of what he said did not survive that review. The Navy was unfailing friendly throughout my trip, and indeed extended the invitation unasked. Yet there were many things the Navy would not let me write about, and others that it asked me not to write about.

Silencing is both an art and a science. Tiny accelerometers detect any vibration in rotating objects, whereupon the offending object is immediately replaced. Hydrophones on the outer hull listen to the ship itself to hear whether anything has begun to make noise. Lieutenant Wilson pointed out the omnipresent rubber washers, inches thick, separating everything from the hull. Most equipment rests on rubber, never touching the hull.

Noise to a submariner is not the simple matter it is to others. Flow noise, caused by the passage of water over the ship, is similar to the sound of wind over a moving car. It can be reduced by moving more slowly, by eliminating all protrusions and openings from the hull, and by using hydrodynamically streamlined shapes. Propeller noise can be reduced by careful design and precise machining (a chip in the propeller can produce a whizzing sound). The worst propeller noise is caused by cavitation — the formation of bubbles or partial vacuums, which occurs when a high-speed propeller moves away from the contiguous water faster than the water can follow. The cavities immediately collapse with a thunderous racket. A partial solution is to use larger propellers, which turn more slowly. Another is to go more slowly, and another, to stay deep enough that water pressure prevents cavitation.

Machinery noise is another matter. A nuclear reactor produces steam, which turns turbines, just as wind turns the propeller on a child’s beanie. Turbines produce a terrific whine. Reactors also produce heat, so cooling pumps — which make noise — are needed, at least at high speed. There are also air conditioners, compressors, footsteps, dropped tools. If these sounds reached the hull they would be transmitted into the ocean.

Near the end of our quick walk through the ship, Lieutenant Wilson led me through the missile bay, where huge red cylinders rise in neat ranks three feet apart. He stopped to show me a sailor’s berth, nested between a pair of missile tubes, one of the earth’s more esoteric bedrooms. He knocked first and asked permission to enter. The military believes that enlisted men have a right to privacy in their living quarters. Nobody was there. Inside, we found bunks with curtains, small lockers, and jacks for plugging headphones into the ship’s entertainment system of several channels — usually rock, country and western, and a religious channel said to be widely listened to. The blankets are army camouflage, which struck me as ridiculous.

“So the Soviets can’t see you?”

He laughed. “No. We used to have wool, but the lint clogged the air filters. These don’t make lint.”

We traipsed through the sub and found a wealth of details that a civilian wouldn’t think of. For example, how does one get rid of garbage at depth? There is the TDU-Trash Disposal Unit (everything military has to have an acronym to be taken seriously). The TDU, which resembles a vertical torpedo tube, ejects packets of garbage weighted to sink. Leaking hydraulic fluid can cause a visible slick, so the periscope uses a special soluble fluid. We stopped by the oxygen generators that produce oxygen by electrically hydrolyzing water. The result is gaseous hydrogen that is dumped overboard through a diffuser that breaks it into very small bubbles . Big bubbles might be visible on the surface.

The last stop on the tour was the crew’s mess, a reasonably large room with a Coke machine, orange and cream walls, and checkered table-cloths. A Coke machine on a doomsday boat seemed incongruously human.

“What do you do for amusement?” I asked a lanky, dark sailor sitting alone at a table.

“Sleep,” he said — the black humor of GIs.

“Sounds bleak. Why did you take this job?”

“I ask myself that.”

“You going to get out?” “No…no.”

Such answers are common in the military, particularly in the undersea services: I hate it but I love it.

The Navy would say virtually nothing about the Florida’s sonar. In particular, it would not say whether the Florida has a towed array, which is a long cable trailing far behind the ship and carrying hydrophones. All modern submarines that I have knowledge of use towed arrays because of their superior sonar performance. A photograph of an Ohio-class submarine published by the United States Naval Institute purports to show the stowage space for a towed array in the rear fins. The Navy will simply not confirm or deny anything about sonar. One might assume that the Florida, working in the same water as other submarines, uses the same technology. But I don’t know.

In the sonar room a half-dozen men sat in near darkness in front of screens. Luminous green sand drifted slowly down the screens, each grain representing a slight blip of sound. On submarines today one watches sound instead of listening to it. Small red and green lights glowed on indicator panels connected to powerful computers and to hydrophones outside the hull. Day in, day out, complex mathematical programs race through elaborate computer circuitry, adding this ghost of a whisper to that hint of a noise, analyzing, inferring, best guessing to quantify almost no sound at all. Rows of switches control the equipment, but their labels would never pass security review. From this room the Florida gropes her way through the weird, deceptive hall of mirrors that is the acoustic ocean.

A submarine is blind, able only to listen, yet listening is not the simple thing it seems. Sea water is eerie stuff, rife with structure and peculiarities, less a substance that a place with semi-predictable corridors and ambiguous echoes. For example, warm water heated by the sun forms a “surface duct,” its thickness varying with the time of year, in which sound is trapped as if in a pipe. Thermoclines-boundaries between warm and cold layers-reflect sound the way mirrors reflect light; a submarine below a thermocline usually can’t be heard from above.

At roughly 4,000 feet is the “deep sound channel”; sound travels at that depth for incredible distances, sometimes halfway around the earth. Strange things happen. Sound refracts — that is, bends — in the direction of lower velocity. It travels faster in warm water and faster in water under pressure. The curious result is that sound goes down into the deep sea, then comes back up, then goes back down as sinuously as a snake. The points of surfacing are called “convergence zones”; in the open ocean these are about thirty-five miles apart. Thus, a ship can be heard when it is 35, 70, 105, or 140 miles away, but not at 20 miles. All of these qualities vary with temperature, which is to say with the time of year, and with salinity. All can be measured and recorded. Navies do not have oceanographic vessels because of an interest in the ways of fish.

All of this matters to the crew, who are hunted every day of the year by their Soviet counterparts — who to the rest of us are chiefly budgetary justifications. The likelihood of survival is measured in decibels. “Three db down and I’ve got his ass,” is a typical statement about an enemy’s prospects. He who is heard first tends to be dead.

My escort and I went to the crew’s lounge, a tiny space with a VCR, so I could talk to the enlisted men about submarine life. The Florida has a library, barely, but videotapes are the preferred off-duty amusement. Like most military men, these sailors were at first embarrassed by the here’s-a-reporter-now-perform atmosphere, but they quickly adopted the reticence of starving used-car salesmen.

“Okay, you guys, give this gentleman straight answers,” said my lieutenant.

“How do you like submarine life?” I asked a fellow from the reactor section.

“It sucks.”

“Why?” I asked for the sake of journalistic propriety, having heard the answer a thousand times.

“I want my children to recognize me.”

From the others came a chorus of “yeah” and “no shit.” A cruise lasts roughly seventy days, followed by thirty days when the ship is in port. Each boomer has two alternating crews, Blue and Gold. This system results in sailors’ spending about five months a year at sea. The strain on marriages is enormous, the effect on children, who cannot understand, worse. (The Navy’s divorce rate is the highest in the military.) Young children desperately want their fathers to stay at home, and sometimes think that daddy’s absence is their fault.

“My little boy — I can’t figure how — decided that the reason I had to go away was because he wasn’t potty-trained. When he finally got things under control, he was real happy because he figured Daddy would stay home now. It wasn’t fun when he found out I was leaving again.”

“My kid kept worrying because I must get wet and cold underwater, and how could I breathe? I had to bring her aboard to show her, and she got over it.”

“It’s like a divorce twice a year. This is my last cruise. A lotta guys are getting out.”

During cruises the Navy wife becomes accustomed to independence, to making decisions, and taking care of business. Then the sailor comes home, and thinks that he is in charge. Just when they get it straightened out, off he goes. Not uncommonly it comes down to the Navy wife’s ultimatum: “Look, sweetheart, you’re married to me, or you’re married to that goddammed ship. Which is it?” In a menage a trois with a pretty young wife, a submarine tends to be the weak link, and the civilian world gets a splendidly trained technician.

If I were a Soviet submarine captain ordered to hunt the Florida, I would pray fervently that I not find her: these ships are decidedly armed.

The Florida carries four torpedo tubes in the bow for Mark 48 torpedoes. These weapons, long bright cylinders, rest in racks in the center of the gleaming torpedo room. I have watched torpedoes loaded on attack boats, and it is an awesome thing. The crewman opens the tube door and that big fish slides smoothly in with deadly silence. A placard on one of the Florida’s tubes warns, “Warshot Loaded.” Live torpedo, ready to fire.

Modern torpedoes are usually guided most of the way to their targets by wires that trail behind them to the submarine. The range of a Mark 48 (the Navy says nothing, but published sources are available) is thirty-eight miles Consequently the old World War II aim-by-eyeball is impossible. For reasons grounded in the laws of physics, a large receiver is needed to detect the very low frequencies that constitute much of a submarine’s radiated noise, and also to get accurate bearings. The ship’s sonar can guide the torpedo. When it nears its target, the torpedo pursues autonomously, using “pinging” sonar. One does not so much use modern weapons are merely supervise them, making, as it were, suggestions of a general nature.

Firing a missile requires several officers to have several keys to which no one else has access. Should Captain Labrecque develop a brain tumor and acquire Napoleonic aspirations concerning the Soviet Union, nothing would happen. Not only are several people required to agree to fire, but several different people must agree that an order to fire has been given. In the cryptography room, continuous contact is maintained with command posts on shore (radio waves of sufficiently long wavelength will penetrate sea water), and any message to fire missiles would appear in code. The order must be independently looked up, decoded, and verified by more than one person. The ship must then be brought to the proper depth for firing. Because firing missiles requires the concerted action of so many people, there is no way a few crazed crewmen could launch a missile. A boomer does not accidentally go boom.

To my surprise, the captain let me watch a simulated launch. The drill begins in the control room, where Captain Labrecque stands behind what looks like a symphony conductor’s podium. Labrecque chooses which tubes to fire, orders “Denote twelve,” then “Fire twelve.”

Down in the missile control room, other men sit at other banks of switches and indicators. The ship is so ridden with computers and sensors that it just misses being alive. The crucial switches, the ones that do spectacular and irrevocable things, are all locked. Again, the sequence is simple and quick; this part of the process is thoroughly automated. But the simplicity is deceptive. A few switches can cause a large number of things to happen in the ship’s great banks of semi-sentient circuitry. When a missile has been selected for firing, the computer must be given the target’s location. The ship carries several extremely precise inertial navigation systems that give an accurate fix on position. Since the submarine is always moving, for maximum accuracy the information must be fed to the missile’s own computers at the last moment before launch. The missile’s guidance system is itself fearfully complex and precise.

The Trident I missiles aboard the Florida are easily accurate enough to hit cities. Before a missile can be fired, however, the gyros in the guidance system must be “spun up” and allowed to stabilize. This takes a good many minutes, although the missiles can be fired sooner with decreased accuracy.

The actual firing takes place at a fairly shallow depth. The first step is to pressurize the missile tube to a pressure equal to that of the surrounding water; otherwise, the missile hatch cannot be opened. The big circular hatch over each missile swings up, leaving the missile dry in its air-filled tube beneath a breakable plastic cover. A gas generator then produces sufficient pressure to drive the missile through both the plastic cover and the water to the surface, where its motors ignite and, no longer under human control, it flies off to kill a few hundred thousand people. Missiles can be fired quickly. All twenty-four can be dispatched in the time it takes to get a hamburger at McDonald’s when the lines are short.

Crewmen talk among themselves about the possibility of having to kill tens of millions of people they have never seen, in a country they have never visited and know next to nothing about, in order to defend the West against communism — something few of them can discuss intelligently. No one wants to do it, so perhaps it doesn’t matter that these sailors have little notion who they would be killing. The psychological protection they employ is to believe they will never have to do it, and they are almost certainly correct. A common saying is that if the Florida ever fires, she will have failed to do her job.

But of course there is no escaping the awful what-if. The missiles exist and seem to work. In this world anything can happen. What would the crew do after firing, knowing that their families would very likely be dead, or knowing that there wouldn’t really be any place for them to go that would be worth going to? One imagines sitting in the unchanging cool and quiet, everything functioning as always, missiles tubes empty. The unseen world out there is ending, the submarine bases as priority targets destroyed. What now? There are plans, escape zones, all the rest, but…so what? No, the best thing is to say that it will never happen.

Personally, I have wondered how many of the subs would actually fire. If America has been obliterated, what purpose would be served by burning to death millions of bewildered Russians who have no more interest in war than do the crew of the Florida? These are difficult questions. I, too, stick with the thought that the ship is a deterrent, and therefor won’t be used. The afternoon was edging toward dusk as we approached the pier at Bangor. Again I sat in the sail while the crew went through the delicate job of docking the ship. Countless small adjustments were needed.

“All ahead two-thirds.”

“All stop.” “Easy, easy.”

To my eye, none of these instructions changed the ship’s motion, but the pilot could read nuances of wake hidden to me. The huge hulk crept into her berth. Below, a hundred technicians, none of them wanting to hurt anybody, worked the machinery of continental incineration with the quiet efficiency of operating-room technicians. Somewhere out in the fathomless oceans, Soviet technicians did the same in their own launch centers and undersea board rooms. Behind us on the hump formed by the missile bay, the dark circles of the missile doors lay in outline. The wind was again turning brisk.

22 total views, 1 views today

Comments are closed.