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Crew members conduct mooring operations as the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine
Florida (SSGN-728) arrives for a routine port visit to the island of Crete. Photo by Paul Farley.

by Petty Officer 1st Class Kimberly Clifford

The strategic ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) is the ultimate manifestation of the silent service, patrolling the seas as the most survivable leg of America’s strategic nuclear deterrent. As SSBN-728, USS Florida served as a strategic asset for 20 years before undergoing conversion to a guided missile submarine (SSGN).

As SSGN-728, Florida remains a lethal deterrent of a different sort. She is armed with up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, for precision strike, and her battle management center gives a deployed joint task force commander a command and control facility for handling a variety of tactical assets.

Florida now deploys for approximately a year at a time. With blue and gold crews alternating about every three months and voyage repair periods (VRPs) at Diego Garcia, she can remain mission-ready and forward deployed for approximately 70 percent of the year.

But that is not Florida’s only new mission. In the past year, she has also been tasked to represent the Submarine Force—with her crew members in the role of model submariners—in both a full-length Hollywood motion picture and a television episode for National Geographic’s “Naked Science” series.

The full-length movie, whose working title is “I am That Man,” is about U.S. Navy SEALs and their operations. The production team, a film company called Bandito Brothers, set out to make the movie as authentic as possible. While the script is fictitious, all of the actors are active-duty Navy personnel—the first time this has ever been done for a major motion picture. Navy Special Warfare (NSW) carefully vetted Bandito Brothers’ ability to make a film that depicts actual NSW operations.

Florida’s reconfiguration as an SSGN included the conversion of two of the original Trident missile tubes to lock-out trunks and the attachment of a dry deck shelter outside the pressure hull, all of which support the deployment of special operations personnel. The dry deck shelter houses the SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV), a type of mini-submersible. SEALs teams don their dive gear in the lock-out trunks, which are then flooded to allow them to man the SDV and perform their mission. Florida can carry up to 60 special operations personnel.

The film crew had five days onboard Florida to do the bulk of their filming. Cameras captured the narrow passageways, the glow of the gauges and dials in the submarine’s control room, and the converted missile tubes that now serve as dive lock-out trunks. Briefings were held in the battle management center, and the SEALs launched their combat rubber raiding craft (CRRCs—which are small inflatable boats) for action-packed sequences on the ocean surface.

With the interior shots done, filming moved underwater, with the Sailors donning dive gear in the lock-out trunks and entering the dry deck shelter. The film crew used special underwater cameras to capture the flooding of the dry deck shelter and the launch of the SDV.

Hollywood people involved with the project were initially concerned about using Sailors at all, worrying that their lack of acting experience would lead them to recite their lines in a stilted fashion and make the film seem low-budget. But seeing what the Sailors could do put those fears to rest and convinced them to make real Sailors the film’s main focus.

“Hollywood changed their tune. After realizing that no one can play a SEAL but a SEAL and seeing how well the actual Sailors performed while on camera, Hollywood wanted the public to realize that these men are not just great actors but the real thing, real operators doing real missions,” said director Mike “Mouse” McCoy.

The Bandito Brothers movie will have no computer graphics or stuntmen. Real Sailors will be the stars and will be featured conducting the very operations they were trained to execute in defense of the nation.

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USSFlorida(SSGN-728) (B) Commanding Officer Capt. Randy Crites speaks with a film crew from Lone Wolf Documentary
Groupin the control room of the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine. U.S. Navy photo.

The employment of real state-of-the-art equipment and actual Sailors has prompted the creation of a new movie rating of “A,” which signifies that a film is authentic. The purpose of this new rating is to distinguish between a movie that uses true live-action scenes, like the ones involving Florida, and a movie that relies on computer-generated graphics for its action.

The new film about SEAL operations is expected in movie theaters in the fall of 2010.

Meanwhile, the Lone Wolf Documentary Group produced a television episode about Florida for the National Geographic series “Naked Science.” This episode, entitled “21st Century Stealth Sub,” took a close-up look at the weapons, technology, dangers, tests and triumphs of an SSGN and her crew.

The Lone Wolf production crew followed Florida‘s Gold crew during off-crew training and then embarked with the Blue crew to film onboard footage. Covering both the off-crew training and life aboard the submarine enabled the film crew to depict the entire cycle of an SSGN Sailor.

Lone Wolf filmed the proficiency training portion at the Trident Training Facility (TTF) in Kings Bay, Ga., where it captured submarine Sailors in a variety of training scenarios. When a crew is not manning the submarine on deployment, they are honing their skills at TTF, which has 150 classrooms and laboratories. TTF’s state-of-the-art simulators allow Sailors to train on the same equipment they use in the submarine, and with scenarios they might encounter while onboard.

The television production crew started filming in the ship control trainer, commonly referred to as the “Dive and Drive.” Due to scheduling constraints, the Florida crew was unavailable for filming when the “Dive and Drive” was available, so the Blue crew of USS West Virginia (SSBN-736) did the honors, demonstrating the procedures for maneuvering an Ohio-class submarine in various situations, such as dive and emergency surfacing (emergency blow).

The television crew caught up with Florida crewmembers in time for them to demonstrate the Virtual Environment for Submarine Shiphandling (VE-Sub) trainer. VE-Sub is a virtual-reality type of trainer designed to train junior officers to navigate within various ports around the world. The student stands on a mock bridge, wearing a virtual reality helmet. The helmet display shows a 360-degree simulation of a harbor, piloting charts, a gyro compass and a virtual crew.

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A Navy diver and special operator perform SDV operations with USSFlorida(SSGN-728).
Photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Andrew McKaskle

The instructor assigned to the trainer sits at a computer terminal that allows him to develop scenarios. He controls traffic patterns, visibility, time of day, weather, currents and even emergency situations such as a man overboard. The student has complete control of course, speed and rudder angles in order to react to the program situations.

After seeing the classroom side of training, it was time for the filmmakers to go to sea. Lone Wolf’s cameraman embarked with Florida Blue as the submarine departed Kings Bay for deployment.

Cameras captured the Sailors conducting procedures for getting the submarine underway, including the surfaced transit that the crew had just practiced in the VE-Sub trainer. The production crew then transferred from Florida to a Kings Bay tugboat for additional shots of the submarine’s transit.

A few days later the Lone Wolf crew flew to Souda Bay, Crete, to meet the submarine for an overnight embark. The film crew followed the commanding officer, the chief of the boat and multiple Sailors throughout the 24-hour period in order to accurately portray life aboard an SSGN.

A highlight of the embark was the dolphin ceremony, where a junior officer and junior enlisted crewmember were formally welcomed into the elite brotherhood of Qualified Submariners. The day that a submariner earns his dolphins is considered one of the most memorable moments of his life, and these two submarine Sailors had their moment captured on film.

Lone Wolf’s Adam Costa, an assistant producer and self-described “logistics ninja,” described one of the moments that made his time with the ship especially memorable:

“For me, one of those moments was the first time we saw the USS Florida on the day of our embark. It was an overcast day and the fog hung low and thick over Souda Bay. I was standing on the bow of a small tugboat with the rest of the film crew, the wind in our faces and the harbor to our backs. After a few minutes, we saw the outline of the Florida’s sail, just a dark spot in the fog where a moment before there had been only uninterrupted gray. The true shape quickly materialized, changing from a shadowy apparition to a real ship,” said Costa. “It was like something out of a movie—just incredible.”

The episode of National Geographic’s “Naked Science” featuring Florida aired in June.

Being the focus of attention is not a new sensation for Florida Sailors. Florida was the centerpiece of operation Giant Shadow, the Navy’s first test of the SSGN concept. Now the public has a chance to see this pioneering ship and her dedicated Sailors both on the big and the small screen.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kimberly Clifford is a mass communications specialist with Submarine Group TEN Public Affairs.