PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii – The first U.S. Navy submarine converted to fight terror instead of deter a Cold War adversary is en route to the Western Pacific via Hawaii, the first time such a ship has ever deployed.
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The USS Ohio was originally equipped in the 1970s to hold 24 nuclear-tipped long-range ballistic missiles. But with the Cold War over, the Navy transformed the Ohio and three other similar subs to carry conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles and dozens of Navy SEALs instead.
The ship, based in Bremerton, Wash., is expected to head toward Asia to help support U.S. efforts against terror after it spends a few days at Pearl Harbor and a few weeks of training near the Hawaiian Islands.
Capt. Chris Ratliff, the submarine's skipper, wouldn't tell reporters Monday specifically where the Ohio would deploy. He would only say it would be "close to the beach."
"We're going to go into places where we must remain undetected for weeks, if not months, at a time," Ratliff said. "We're going to collect real intelligence that's going to be really used to prosecute the war."
He said the SEALs — short for sea, air and land commandos — will be sent ashore from the Ohio while the vessel is submerged. The submarine, which has a 159-sailor crew, will have 66 Navy SEALs on board.
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The Ohio will be away from its home port for over one year, but will trade crews every three to four months in the U.S. territory of Guam. Switching the sailors, instead of bringing the ship back to its homeport for a change of crew, allows the Navy to maximize its use.
The deployment is the first for any of the four Ohio-class submarines after being converted. The USS Florida and USS Michigan have also been transformed to accommodate the cruise missiles and SEALs, but they haven't been used yet for real-world missions. The remaining sub, the USS Georgia, is still being worked on.
Most of the Navy's submarines are nuclear-powered fast attack vessels that frequently escort aircraft carriers and other large vessels on deployments. The Navy currently has about 50 fast-attack submarines in its fleet. They are also able to carry SEALs, but not as many as the newly refitted Ohio-class subs.
During the Cold War, the pre-conversion submarines would head out to deep ocean waters and wait, quietly, for an order from the president to launch nuclear missiles, Ratliff said.
Today, the Ohio has a different mission.
"We're going to take this boat into shallow, congested, littoral waters close to the beach, ready to put SEALs ashore, ready to strike, ready to collect intelligence," Ratliff said.
The missions are similar only in that they both emphasize stealth, mobility and flexibility, he said.