|Fellow Submarine Warfighters,
Admittedly, I came by it honestly: the concept that SSNs were somehow more prestigious, more glamorous, and even better than SSBNs. Perhaps it was the clich�s most of us have heard, "Fast Attack Tough," "SSN: Saturdays, Sundays, and Nights," and "Ain't no slack in Fast Attack" - as opposed to "Boomer Weenies," "Part-time Sailors," and "On patrol going two knots to nowhere." Maybe it was our training pipelines that until recently have been wholly SSN-centric. Even the Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) course only recently started having SSBN PCOs embark on a TRIDENT submarine for their underway torpedo firings. Out of fiscal necessity, all our programmatic rhetoric justifies the SSN inventory and leaves our junior officers with the misconception that only attack submarines are important.
We may have reached the point where a real dichotomy exists between SSBNs and SSNs. Are SSBNs just this other part of the Submarine Force that we SSN purists tolerate, like F-18 jockeys tolerate their helicopter pilot counterparts? Have the myths generated a potential schism?
For me, these myths began on my first SSN. On that boat, our Commanding Officer, Navigator, and Engineer were all previous SSBN sailors, but you wouldn't know it. They never wore their Strategic Deterrent Patrol pins and rarely discussed their patrol operations out of Guam. Not the SSN thing to do, I guess? The Executive Officer, who had never been "corrupted" by an SSBN patrol, forbade discussions of "Boooo ooooomers" at the wardroom table.
Later in my career, I encountered similar attitudes. A senior staff member once told me that " not much goes on during those Trident refits. It's sort of Sleepy Hollow down there in Kings Bay." More recently, a Captain told me how much it bothered him to see sailors in Kings Bay wearing gold patrol pins (signifying 20 SSBN patrols). Too much time on "boomers" doing the same old thing. And I confess that I unwittingly perpetuated some of those same myths. But I had it wrong, and if you are propagating that same attitude, you may need to reconsider.
I was fortunate to get some great advice about SSBN
operations amidst all the sniping. Despite having served entirely on SSNs, I asked for
command of a TRIDENT and just recently completed my first patrol. Having learned a lot
myself during this first operating cycle, I provide the following perspective to help
dispel some of the myths regarding SSBNs.
Myth #1: The SSBN force is comprised of
"part time sailors."
The "off-crew" period is undoubtedly the most inappropriately named portion of the cycle. It should really be called "off-boat" because in terms of the crew's activity, there is nothing "off" about it. A former SSBN Commanding Officer once told me that he worked his crew very hard underway just to be able to pass the many graded training sessions during off-crew. This may be a little backwards in priorities, but it's somewhat true nonetheless. Because about 30% of the crew turns over between each patrol, we must make full use of the hands-on training opportunities available at the TRIDENT Training Facility to be ready for our wartime mission.
The first time I watched our Battle Stations Missile Navigation Team complete the transition to readiness for missile launch in the Strategic Navigation Lab, I realized how challenging and effective these trainers can be. At first, I questioned why we ran such complex and layered casualties. With their multiple anomalies, these training sessions make most engineering drills look like they're moving in slow motion, but they provide the hands-on training that enables us to truly practice like we will fight. This same intensive casualty response drill is also found in the Ship Control Trainers, Tactics Team Training, Sonar trainers, Command and Control Exercises, Piloting Lab, Mariners Skills Labs, and Strategic Weapons Labs, to name just a few.
Myth # 2: SSBN refits are sleepy affairs
requiring little effort on the part of the ship.
The TRIDENT Refit Facility completes a refit and gets a ship ready to deploy every two weeks. It takes active involvement of both the Blue and Gold crews to complete the required maintenance and preservation, and if they don't hit the deck running and work together as a team, they quickly find themselves behind the power curve. In the case of the officers, imagine an SSN junior officer who has completed five SRAs and seen most of his ship taken apart and put back together, and you have the equivalent of an SSBN JO's expertise. This experience provides essential skills for these future department heads.
Myth #3: SSBN operations consist of driving
around at two knots going nowhere.
Alert patrol added a dimension to underway operations that I never experienced on an SSN. In addition to the challenges found in fast attack operations, SSBN patrols include the requirement to maintain constant communications connectivity, missile system readiness, and navigational accuracy while remaining completely undetected. Couple this with externally-generated round-the-clock weapons readiness tests, "mini-war" exercises with strategic scenarios, and preparations for the next inspection, and you have a good picture of an SSBN on alert. I found I was concerned about issues I never considered on an SSN, such as communications buoy operations, TACAMO aircraft reception paths, ELF connectivity, and Aguada VLF down times. Contrary to the popular misconception that SSBN patrols are boring, my crew and I found the patrol period busy and challenging.
So are SSBN Sailors really very different from our SSN brethren? Maybe we're more just differently evolved than actually different. We maintain our ships as national assets, practice many of the same warfighting skills, and exercise many of the same tactics. The only real distinction is that we've had to learn the additional complexity of operating strategic weapon systems. I tell all my newly reporting Sailors that what makes SSBNs different from the ships they've served on before is that every time we go to sea, we're there to execute our primary, real-world mission. This is not a drill! In deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction, we shoulder a heavy responsibility in our dangerous and constantly changing world.
If we go by current force level plans for SSNs - the schedules for new construction and decommissioning - approximately 42% of submarine commands will be on TRIDENTS by the year 2001. You owe it to yourselves to try one and understand what we do. I'll see you out there. You'll know me. I'm the CO with the shiny new patrol pin.