In an era where celebrities and professional athletes fill the airwaves and newspaper headlines, I recently had the honor of meeting some real larger-than-life individuals. For some, Derek Jeter is a hero, for me, it’s the unnamed 20-year-old Petty Officer listening for contacts 650-feet below the water’s surface. I'm speaking about the crew of the USS Alaska (SSBN 732), an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine first put into service in 1986.
On June 28th, I, along with 14 others were guests of Submarine Group TEN. We were traveling with the Kaplan Public Service Foundation (a non-profit organization that encourages civilians to become more involved in the support of our servicemen and women) and were given the rare privilege of a 24 hour first-hand look at this great ship.
Our voyage began with these words... “Diving officer, make your depth 650 feet, 20 degree down angle.” The bow of the submarine angled sharply and we were on our heels grabbing onto whatever metal we could.
It isn’t very often that we get an the opportunity to be aboard a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. Take my word for it, it is nothing short of awesome. From the moment you see the sub cutting through the water, the USS Alaska is 18,000 tons of pure American muscle.
We boarded specially designed tug boats in Kings Bay, Georgia in the early morning for a two hour steam to the rendezvous point with the Alaska. She was surfaced, as we were well-within the boundaries of the shallow continental shelf.
Since the beginning of the War on Terror, the force protection of these boomers has increased dramatically. Seven Coast Guard vessels surrounded her along with two “blocking ships” whose main purpose is to deter would-be terrorists from firing any type of missile at the nuclear-powered vessel.
After the transfer, we were welcomed aboard the ship by the “COB,” or Chief of the Boat (the senior non-commissioned officer) and made our way down the ladder into the ship’s massive missile compartment. The scene at the end of “The Hunt for Red October” where Alec Baldwin is chasing after the ship’s chef flashed before my eyes. We were in a different world—right out of a chapter from Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
The ship changed course and we were headed back out to open ocean. Once clear of the continental shelf and in deep water, the captain’s voice came over the 1MC to announce an historic occasion—the 1000th dive of the USS Alaska.
USS Alaska (SSBN 732) is an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine first put into service in 1986. Since she was first put into service during the height of the Cold War, USS Alaska has had one mission—nuclear deterrence. Bombers can be shot down, land-based missiles can be destroyed, but Trident submarines are the core survivable arm of the nuclear triad. They operate in an environment that few others dare to and where attention to detail rules all. And no one knows where they are at any given moment in time—no one.
The Cold War is over, but the “MAD” (mutually assured destruction) Doctrine is still alive and well. The significance of these massive weapons is not the devastation they are capable of inflicting; rather, it’s simply that they exist and stand ready. Unpredictable global players such as China, Iran, North Korea, and even Russia are kept in check by these silent behemoths, for they are our last resort in a doomsday scenario.
The Navy has adapted, however, to changing times by converting several other Ohio-class submarines to a multi-role platform including conventional weapons systems and deployment of special operations forces.
After “angles and dangles” (diving deep and coming up steep) we witnessed a young sailor get his Dolphins pinned to his chest, had some chow (rumored to be the best in the Navy) in the crew’s mess and gazed at the moonlit ocean through the ship’s two periscopes.
Lights out was at 2300 and it was the best sleep I had in a long while—total silence! By 0730 we were already on one of the blocking ships for our 6 hour ride home.
The captain and crew of USS Alaska are nothing short of spectacular. They are consummate professionals charged with the nation’s most sacred mission—the ultimate defense of the homeland. These young men (and soon to be women), are highly motivated, thoughtful, and love what they do despite the harsh conditions and long separations from loved ones.
God bless the men and women of the Silent Service.
Dr. Elan Singer is a Navy reservist and a plastic surgeon practicing in Manhattan.