A Bubblehead's Life - Volume 5
Without being melodramatic, I think it's safe to say that the operating environment for a nuclear ballistic missile submarine is inherently dangerous.
As any firefighter can attest, the best way to safely work in a dangerous environment is to constantly rehearse and practice various scenarios.
Fire, flooding, radioactive leaks, loss of electrical power, loss of hydraulic pressure, and reactor scram drills are a staple of the daily agenda of a submariner.
In every situation, each crewmember had some specific task or responsibilities. Depending on where you normally spent your time, your particular job category, or your skill level, your "station" might change depending on the type of situation.
In most of the disaster drills, my job was to serve as the Control Room sound-powered telephone talker. A sound-powered phone is exactly what it sounds like, a communications device that requires no current to operate. Every compartment and most critical stations were outfitted with these devices.
The phone I used hung by a strap around my neck, with a set of earphones and a microphone clamped to a chest plate. I stood in front of a Plexiglas board, armed with only my phone and a grease pencil.
I would communicate with the scene of the disaster as well as all of the other compartments, keeping the status board updated so that the Officer of the Deck or Commanding Officer had immediate access to the boat's status.
Often sailors wearing breathing apparatus, which adds considerable complexity to interpersonal communication, performed these disaster duties. It wasn't unusual to request two and three repeats of a message, since the sound was muddy at best.
I could say that I was fortunate to only have been involved in three actual emergencies, none of which resulted in either injuries or change in status for the boat. It had almost nothing to do with fortune, though. It had everything to do with preparation and training.
Lest you think we spent all of our time in disaster drills, we also spent a good bit of time on torpedo and missile drills. Regarding the missile drills, I could use many of my 1,000 words here describing the process for you. Thanks to Hollywood, I don't have to. If you like military thrillers, one of the best submarine films ever made is Crimson Tide, which just happens to feature my favorite actor, Gene Hackman.
Crimson Tide tells the story of a Trident class ballistic missile boat on patrol during the last days of the Cold War. Rogue forces of a former Soviet state threaten to launch land-based missiles, and the Commanding Officer of the Trident boat prepares himself and his crew to do what they've trained to do. The procedures, process, and communication are so real I sat there shaking my head at how they got this stuff. Go out and rent it if you haven't seen it.
Enough Gene Shalit, back to the Stonewall Jackson (SSBN 634).
In terms of national defense policy, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara espoused the theory known as "Mutually Assured Destruction", or MAD. MAD held that as long as the USA and USSR possessed nuclear weapons of sufficient quantity to destroy one another, neither country would be likely to use them.
The good news is that Secretary McNamara was right regarding both nations. The bad news is that the strategy depended on an ever-increasing level of defense investment, and it discounted the idea that a rogue wacko like Qaddafi or Hussein might aspire to own and operate a nuclear weapon.
Thanks to Secretary McNamara, no submarine crew ever experienced the launch of a ballistic missile in wartime. Most boats did launch a missile, though. I was fortunate enough to be aboard the Jackson when we shot a "bird" following a reactor overhaul.
Since process truly mattered, we actually went through a Battle Stations Missile drill before launching the test shot. Everyone manned their station, so there I was with my phone headset in Control.
In all the missile drills to that point, I would watch the Captain follow every step up to turning the key in the device that hands the system over to the Weapons Officer in the Launch Control Room. On that day, he turned the key, and the Weapons Officer pulled the trigger.
As the high-pressure air ejected the missile from the tube towards the surface, I felt a jolt, not unlike an elevator bouncing at a stop. The minor sensation diminishes the physics, since at that moment, several tons of ballistic missile had just been pushed to the surface in a bubble of air. Once above the surface, the solid rocket boosters kick in, and the missile launches on its trajectory.
Several thousand miles away, in a remote area of another ocean, the missile splashes down, probably only a few hundred feet from the specific latitude and longitude designated as the target. Someone in my family used to say "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades". Seems to apply to nuclear weapons, as well.
Next time, I'll wrap this thing up (I know, some of you are breathing a sigh of relief) with some of the more humorous (and poignant) stories of life underwater.