Submarines: Stand Down and Shape Up

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January15, 2007: The U.S. Navy has ordered its 70 submarines (52 SSNs, or fast attack submarines, 14 SSBNs, or ballistic missile submarines and four SSGNs or cruise missile submarines) to "stand down" and review basic procedures. This was prompted by a rash of accidents lately. Just in the last month, two sailors drowned when four of them were swept off the deck of a sub as it departed a British port, and encounteed rough seas. In the Persian Gulf, another sub bumped into an oil tanker, suffering minor damage. But in the last five years, there have been four other collisions. There have been many other incidents that didn't make the news, because they occurred inside the subs, and resulted in no fatalities, or, often, no injuries. But senior navy commanders are getting the impression that all is now well on those seventy boats. We're talking about a small force here, about 10,000 sailors. Between them, they operate the most powerful naval force that ever existed, and they do it largely out of sight. Consider that the SSNs can take on any warship, and be the favorite to win. The SSBNs carry enough warheads to end civilization as we know it. The SSGNs can put more firepower on a target at one time, than an aircraft carrier.

Because the submarine service is an elite force, standards for its personnel are very high, it's always a struggle to get enough people. Recruiting standards have been maintained, but there is a feeling that the crews are not as sharp as they used to be. For a long time, this was dismissed as post-Cold War malaise. But now the admirals are paying more attention to the chiefs (Chief Petty Officers, senior NCOs) complaints about how much tighter things were back-in-the-day.

While the submariners no longer have the Soviets to play with, they do have a new crop of potential foes who may be even more formidable. The Soviet subs and ASW (anti-submarine warfare) forces were numerous, but never up to American standards. In peacetime, subs, and ASW forces, got a lot of opportunities to stalk each other. In the last decade, there have been indications that American subs are losing some of the edge they always held over potential opponents. The Russians are still out there, although in much smaller numbers, but with better equipment. The Chinese navy is growing, and their subs are being found more often, better trained and equipped, and farther away from China.

The U.S. submarine force has also suffered a lot of cutbacks since 1991, including the cancellation of the Seawolf class boats (after only two were built as SSNs, plus a third that was converted to a specialized intelligence collection ship), and a more austere design for the new Virginia class boats, than many submariners wanted. While some details of submariner heroics, during the Cold War, have been released, the underwater sailors still feel unappreciated. It's tough duty in the subs, with little room for error. And now the admirals are demanding a review of how things are done.

 


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