The Challenges and Successes for the Crew of the New SSGN

by Molly Little

The revolutionary capabilities of the SSGNs—particularly stemming from their increased payload and increased ability to support Special Operations Forces—have introduced a new menu of warfighting missions the crew must prepare and train for. While none of these warfighting missions are new to the Submarine Force, they are brand new for the SSGN and a crew that is fresh out of a four year shipyard conversion. Adding more difficulty to these daunting challenges, leadership possessed no platform where they could take their crew out to sea and shut the hatches. Due to the dual crew deployment schedule, the team had to hone and prove their skills in simulators on land rather than at sea prior to getting on a flight to begin their deployment.

However, in keeping with the successes the SSGN program accomplished in the overhaul process, they are meeting the training challenge head on with positive results. Lt. Cmdr. Alvin Ventura, Executive Officer of USS Ohio (SSGN-726)(GOLD), took time to talk to UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine about the new SSGN challenges and successes before leaving for deployment in January.

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USS Ohio (GOLD) Executive Officer
Talks About the New Mission Platform

Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Ohio (SSGN-726) cruises toward its homeport in the Hood Canal portion of the Puget Sound.
Photo by Master Chief Petty Officer Jerry McLain


 

The SSGN program is seen as a success story for its ability to deliver a new capability while maintaining fiscal and timeline goals. What did the crew do to foster such success?

Well, from the aspect of the command team, we aggressively foster a climate of success through our use of guidance, principles and philosophy to support the mission, the ship and Sailors. Our goal is to ensure that all the personnel—from the supervisors to the junior sailors—embrace all these tenants so that we, as a team, can produce successful results the first time. For some of the major ships evolutions, particularly things that we have low proficiency in or evolutions with higher risk, we develop comprehensive plans along with operational risk management processes to indentify the critical points and develop risk mitigation strategies that include a combination of the trainers, classroom training, simulators, and evolution walk-thrus. This allows us to then provide the appropriate deckplate leadership for the success of all evolutions.

Could you talk about the challenges you encountered while training the crew for certification in traditional submarine warfare areas on a virtually new platform?

In the “always first” Ohio tradition, many of the ships systems and many of the mission areas, particularly the SOF and strike mission areas, are new to the SSGN platform. Everything we do is basically for the first time and of course it was challenging to train the crew, especially with little sea time. But we have open training period, which is the time between the periods when the crew actually has the ship, where we use the trainers at the Trident Training Facility, Bangor—they have excellent trainers that simulate the systems we have on board—to train the crew as best we can so that the first time we have the boat, it is a simple walk-thru and we can operate the ship as need be.
 

Ohio prepares for a personnel transfer in Puget Sound, Wa.
Photo by Chief Petty Officer Dave Fliesen
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   This ship brings to the theater commander the ability to conduct sustained clandestine SOF operations with a huge tactical TOMAHAWK punch in support of the Global War on Terror with one single platform. The amount of payload—the amount of fire power—SSGNs bring to the theater is unmatched.

Was it more difficult for your sailors with SSN or SSBN experience to become proficient in SSGN mission areas?

The sailors with the SSN experience definitely have had an easier time transitioning to the SSGN mission areas. The mission areas that SSGN picked up—strike and special operations forces—are not new to the SSN, it is just the amount and the payload the we bring on are. So I think the SSN sailors are definitely more familiar with the rigor and pace of the SSGN operations. They have the ability to adapt quickly, and have seen boats adapt quickly, to changing missions and operational focus.

What was the most difficult training challenge in preparing your crew for the first SSGN deployment?

With Ohio just completing a four year transformation and the majority of crew having only strategic deterrent patrol experience, the biggest challenge was ensuring the crew was ready to face the challenges of the new mission of the SSGN with little at sea preparation. Every event we’ve done is the first time, from the forward deployed submarine crew exchange to special operations forces and strike operations, they have all been firsts for the crew, the ship and the SSGN program. So just managing the risk and making sure everyone is up to the task has been a rewarding challenge for all of us here.

What is the deployment cycle for SSGN?

The deployment cycle for SSGN leverages the proven dual crew concept of SSBN by using the BLUE and GOLD crews to deliver 67 percent operational time for the joint forces commander. The SSGN deployment cycle is designed for the submarine to be deployed for 12 months with the crews conducting four deployed crew exchanges. The crews are exchanged every three months, allowing the submarine to maximize forward deployed sustainability while managing the crews’ op-tempo. Between the 12 month deployment cycles there is a 100 day maintenance period back in the submarine’s home port for any major repairs needed before commencing the next 12 month deployment.

How did you prepare the crew and their families for dealing with the deployment rotation for SSGN?

The chief-of-the-boat (COB), the CO, and I are all former SSN sailors. So, with the preparations we’ve done, we’ve basically used the template that SSNs use and prepared the crew in the same manner. The only difference is that during three of the four deployments, we are flown into theater via air transportation with the crew and the ship ready for deployment.

Do sailors see the SSGN deployment rotation as an improvement over SSN or SSBN deployment/patrol cycles?

The SSGN deployment rotation is built off the SSBN cycle. I think for the former SSN sailors it allows the crew to have two separate three month deployments in a year versus one continuous six month deployment. The time in between the home port training period allows the crew to take some time off, recharge, and learn from what they saw in the previous deployment and hone in their tactical skills and lessons learned to be better prepared for the following deployment.

What measures are in place to ensure that the off-crew will be able to step on board and demonstrate the proficiency required of a deployment certified crew even though they will not have been on board for months?

The home port training period is specifically designed to maintain and improve crew proficiency while they are in their off-crew cycle. All the trainers and training scenarios here are designed to simulate as accurately as possible the equipment and the environment the crew is expected to encounter on deployment. The home port training period culminates with a weeklong evaluated training session called the Command Training Exercise (CTE) which evaluates the crews’ readiness prior to flying out for forward deployed operations. The emphasis on the home port training period is to maintain the crew’s edge prior to the forward deployed crew exchange and to minimize the crew work up time with the submarine once in theater. Once the crew relieves in theater, we have a short period to work up and certify in mission areas that can’t be adequately certified in the trainers—such as dry dock shelter operations and lock out chamber operations—because they require having a diver team on board to support that. We can also verify the readiness in the home port training mission areas prior to commencing mission requirements. So the overall goal of the homeport training period is to maintain and improve the crews’ proficiency and readiness to maximize the time the submarine is available to the joint forces commander in theater for operational tasking.

image, caption follows Media were transported to Ohio to see the new capabilities that the submarine now brings to the joint warfighter.
Photo by Chief Petty Officer Dave Fliesen
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What does an SSGN bring to the Operational Commander that an SSN does not?

The SSN can provide the same mission areas as the SSGN—with the strike and SOF—but the SSGN brings an impressive amount of payload and sustainability of special operations forces to the theater commander. The ship is capable of carrying 154 TOMAHAWK missiles, literally tons of SOF munitions and equipment, and a full complement of up to 66 SOF personnel. Two missile tubes have been converted into lock out chambers to support lock in and lock out chamber operations, dry dock shelter with field delivery operations, and Advanced Seal Delivery System (ASDS) operations. Additionally, Ohio is equipped with a Small Combatant Joint Command Center (SCJC2) with robust commutations connectivity allowing an embarked Joint Special Operations Forces Task Force (JSOFTF) commander to control and lead operations to bring the submarine to the front edge of joint operations.

What capability would submarine sailors not familiar with SSGN find most revolutionary compared to their SSN / SSBN experience?

The biggest one is that the SSGN mission is not just a concept. I think people think that it is still just a concept in development, when in reality, each SSGN sailor must be immediately ready to take their submarine into the fight. This ship brings to the theater commander the ability to conduct sustained clandestine SOF operations with a huge tactical TOMAHAWK punch in support of the Global War on Terror with one single platform. The amount of payload—the amount of fire power—SSGNs bring to the theater is unmatched.

Ms. Little is the managing editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.

The guided-missile submarine Ohio is pier-side in Busan during Ohio’s first foreign port visit since its commissioning in 1981.
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Barry Hirayama
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