q a SSGN: From the Commanding Officers’ Perspectives

by Molly Little

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Capt. Andy Hale, commanding officer of USS Ohio (SSGN-726), receives a traditional Republic of Korea (ROK) welcome from a young Korean girl.
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Barry R. Hirayama

The SSGN conversion program is well heralded as a success story for its history of performance on achieving cost and construction timeline goals. Each success brings the program one step closer to the goal of providing the United States Navy with four ready-for-deployment guided missile submarines in 2008. Deploying a new platform using a new concept of operations means there have been challenges as well. The dual crew deployment schedule requires using on land Trident Training Facilities to maintain crew proficiency while at home, as well as creating an innovative and flexible test schedule to verify both crews are ready to perform in all mission areas.

Now that all four converted SSBNs have been delivered back to the fleet as SSGNs, the future success of the boats lies with the crews and their officers’ ability to operate at sea. These multi-mission platforms are demanding of their crews,

perhaps none more so than their commanding officers. Two of the commanding officers (CO) of SSGNs took time out of their schedules to talk to UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine about their positions, the new boats, and the challenges they face.

The CO of USS Ohio (SSGN-726)(GOLD), Capt. Andrew Hale, graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1984. Prior to commanding Ohio (GOLD), he served as a junior officer onboard USS Dallas (SSN-700), as the Engineer Officer onboard USS San Francisco (SSN-711), three strategic deterrent patrols as Executive Officer of USS Nevada (SSBN-733)(GOLD), as commanding officer of USS Santa Fe (SSN-763), and a short stint as commanding officer of San Francisco for three months in 2005.

Capt. William Traub, CO of USS Florida (SSGN-727)(BLUE), graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1983. Prior to commaning Florida (BLUE), he served as a junior officer onboard USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709), as Engineer Officer onboard USS Baltimore (SSN-704), as Executive Officer onboard USS Wyoming (SSBN-742)(BLUE), and as commanding officer of USS Tucson (SSN-770).
 

How have the design modifications made to the SSBNs to transform them to SSGNs been beneficial to the performance of your duties? How has it changed the way you perform your duties?

Capt. Traub: There is a huge difference from the SSBN to the SSGN. Although the ships look very similar from the outside, the equipment on the inside has been completely refigured and updated. The addition of the ARCI [advanced rapid commercial-off-the-shelf insertion] Phase IV Sonar System and BYG-1 Fire Control System has made the detection, localization and tracking of contacts much easier. Unlike the SSBN, I have the ability to view any tactical display from multiple locations in the ship including the wardroom, officer study, crew’s mess, and my stateroom. It has made me much more mobile throughout the ship and I do not feel as tied to the immediate vicinity of the control room as I have during previous shipboard assignments. This makes it easier for me to spread my experience to more of the crew. Also, the addition of the TOMAHAWK missile system and the Special Operations Forces [SOF] capabilities have made it necessary for me to expand my own knowledge of the ship and these mission areas.

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Ohio arrives at Naval Station Pearl Harbor to take on supplies before continuing on their maiden deployment to the Western Pacific following their recent guided-missile overhaul.
Photo by Seaman Apprentice Luciano Marano

One of the modifications made to the SSGNs is the addition of lock-out chambers and a place for an Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) or a Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) so that the SSGN can better support Special Operations; has this modification in the capabilities of your boat changed the way you command?

Capt. Hale: Absolutely. The Special Operations Force (SOF) capabilities have added an additional aspect of command and control. During SOF team missions, there is an increased need to maintain communications connectivity to ensure the safety of SOF teams. Tactically, we must position the ship optimally to minimize the added risk increased communications mast exposure brings to maximize the success and safety of SOF teams and their mission accomplishment. Earlier this year, my crew completed manned Dry Deck Shelter Operational Evaluation with a full complement of Special Operations Forces and Battle Management Center (BMC) staff. All SOF operations require careful management of command and control functions and strong coordination amongst the leaders of the SOF team, embarked BMC staff (possibly Naval Special Warfare Group staff or Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) staff, ship’s force), and shore commands. The increased communications connectivity of an SSGN provides intelligence support and coordination with all command teams. The final decisions for operations ultimately rest with the ship’s commanding officer and any embarked SOF and/or joint commanders, however, all inputs from each command team must be integrated to ensure safety of SOF personnel and mission accomplishment.

There is also the added benefit of a greater missile capacity; what does this mean to the way you manage the boat and the crew?

Capt. Traub: The potential SSGN deployment load out of 154 TOMAHAWK cruise missiles again adds an additional layer of capability and difficulty. During my previous tour on Tucson, our max salvo size was 16 missiles and we could only do that once and then the max salvo size was reduced to four missiles. SSGN brings a much larger salvo size and that salvo size can be launched multiple times. The planning of TOMAHAWK missions on SSGN requires a larger number of skilled operators and is much more time intensive for the weapons officer and commanding officer than on a SSN. On the SSGN, I spend more time with strike training and proficiency maintenance than I did while in command of a SSN.

What has been your biggest challenge as a CO of an SSGN thus far?

Capt. Traub: Actually, there have been two big challenges. The first is maintaining the crew at a high level of proficiency in many more mission areas than a typical SSN or SSBN has while only being on the ship for half of the time. The second has been that this is the first time for many operations we have conducted. For example, during our last underway we conducted the first TOMAHAWK missile launch from an SSGN, the first minefield penetration exercise from an SSGN and the first shallow operations on an SSGN. There are very few lessons learned or manuals we can rely upon to conduct these first time operations. The crews on all four of the SSGNs are doing a great job of sharing our lessons learned, but each one of us is currently conducting many “firsts.”

Each of your crews will be headed out on deployment for the first time as an SSGN later this year; how do you prepare for that milestone and the responsibility you are faced with?

Capt. Hale: With the upcoming deployment, every day of operation at sea is a precious training opportunity that we aggressively take advantage of by using every moment to integrate training on mission areas and operations. The Home Port Training Periods, the periods when we are off the boat, are used to aggressively hone all mission skills in the Tactical Training Facility simulators. The training is continuously challenging as the crew must be ready to deploy as soon as we arrive into theater for crew exchange. From a personal perspective, I must try to balance the tremendous responsibility the Navy has placed on my crew and I each day such that we keep what is important at the forefront and not get distracted by the minutia.

There are very few lessons learned or manuals we can rely upon to conduct these first time operations. The crews on all four of the SSGNs are doing a great job of sharing our lessons learned, but each one of us is currently conducting many “firsts.”

How are these preparations different than preparing for previous deployments?

Capt. Hale: With Ohio (GOLD) deploying for our first operational mission by relieving the BLUE crew in a forward deployed crew exchange in Guam, the crew must be fully prepared for all mission areas without working up for deployment at sea. That means we will be certified by our squadron after a rigorous Home Port Training Period (HPTP) in Tactical Training Facility simulators and a brief underway period once taking the ship in Guam. This is similar to what the SSBN crews have done for decades with the significant difference that we are being certified for several different mission areas, all new to the SSGN platform. While the strike and special operations mission areas have been executed since World War II by submarines, the scope and scale that SSGN brings to these missions changes the nature of preparation and certification. Further, with the minimal amount of at-sea training prior to deployment, the crew must be ready to expeditiously ramp up for mission requirements. The two-crew concept allows sustained combat readiness for the SSGN while spreading out the individual operating tempo between both crews and allowing the HPTP for each crew to prepare for their next phase of deployment.

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

A Navy diver and SEAL from SEAL Delivery Team (SDV) 2 perform SDV operations with the nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN-728) for material certification.
Photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Andrew McKaskle
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