With the official return to service of USS Ohio (SSGN 726) in February 2006, the Naval Special Warfare community marked a significant expansion of its capabilities to “take the fight to the enemy” in the current Global War on Terrorism and other 21st century contingency operations.
As the first of four former Ohio-class SSBN [submerged ship ballistic missile nuclear powered] submarines to be converted to new-generation SSGN [submerged ship guided missile nuclear powered] platforms, SSGN 726 provides a glimpse of those new Naval Special Warfare and naval strike capabilities optimized for operations in an uncertain world.
The SSBN conversion program had its genesis in the United States 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, which identified excess capacity of ballistic missile submarines in the strategic force inventory. As a result of that process, in 1999 the U.S. Congress approved funding to convert the four oldest Ohio-class SSBNs to SSGNs. General Dynamics Electric Boat has been responsible for SSGN design and conversion with Puget Sound and Norfolk Naval Shipyards conducting the overhauls.
The four new SSGNs – USS Ohio (SSGN 726), USS Florida (SSGN 728), USS Michigan (SSGN 727), and USS Georgia (SSGN 729) – measure 560 feet in length with a submerged displacement of more than 18,000 tons.
Primary missions for the new SSGNs will be Special Operations support and strike missions, with three major focus areas identified by the Navy: Global War on Terrorism; Stability Operations; and Prevailing in Major Combat Operations.
Pointing to an artist’s conception of the converted SSGN, Cmdr. Michael Cockey, commanding officer, USS Ohio, explained, “The differences you’ll note from a ballistic missile submarine include modification of the back of our ship to support two small [add-ons]: a mini-sub [Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS)] and a Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) – the way for Special Operations Forces to exit the ship in one of their vehicles.”
The SSGNs are approximately 200 feet longer than standard “fast attack submarines.” The additional length, which had previously been
devoted to 24 “Trident” ballistic missile launch tubes, provides a range of options to support naval operations in a rapidly changing global environment.
“Tubes numbered 3 through 24 have been modified to carry up to 154 Tomahawk [Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs)] cruise missiles,” Cockey said. “But there are different configurations; if we’re supporting a Special [Operations] Forces mission we would carry less Tomahawks.”
“Missile tubes 1 and 2 are now the entry and egress points up to the mini-sub area,” he continued. “We’ve also added 66 new berths, so this ship now has installed berthing for 250 people.”
The additional 66 berths, together with additional hygiene facilities, are intended for embarked Special Operations personnel.
Presenting a photo taken during the conversion process, Cockey highlighted the modification for the two Special Operations entry/egress tubes.
“This is the piece that we put on top of missile tubes 1 and 2,” he noted. “That’s one piece of metal [for each tube] that went on and it took 600 pounds of weld-filler to connect it to the hull. Each one weighs 60,000 pounds, and there are two of those on top of the submarine.”
Another related submarine alteration to support the combination of two ASDSs/DDSs mandated modification of the submarine’s superstructure during the conversion process, widening the ship by 4 feet on each side of the forward missile tube area to support the Special Operations platforms.
In addition to Ohio’s two entry/egress tubes, Ohio’s remaining 22 converted missile tubes (tubes 3 through 24), measuring 87 inches in diameter and 35 feet, 5 inches in length, are each capable of carrying a “seven shooter” of TLAMs. Additional mission flexibility includes the modification of tubes 3 through 10 to carry “Special Operations Forces stowage canisters,” allowing embarked SOF personnel to stow the equipment necessary to conduct dozens of tactical missions.
“They can load anything they want inside these canisters and then they can load them individually inside the ship,” Cockey said. “They can load SCUBA bottles, outboard motors, ‘Zodiac’ [Combat Reconnaissance Raiding] Craft (CRRC). Anything you can think of can fit in these tubes. And missile tubes 5 and 6 were specially modified to have a magazine sprinkler system in there so that the Special Forces can load these particular canisters up with munitions and we can store them onboard the ship with the special sprinkler system for fire fighting.”
And all of that Special Operations capability is integrated on a naval platform with truly transformational capabilities.
“We’ve got systems that will allow us to operate in shallow water, in deep water, close to land, wherever we want,” observed Command Master Chief Larry Hamon, “Chief of the Boat” for USS Ohio. “And we can not only carry and fire the Tomahawks that the captain talked about, but there is also a lot of research and development going on to do other things with the tubes; from unmanned vehicles to different types of missiles to send to the beach if we need to – either for our own strike mission or to defense the Special Forces that we put in. We not only ‘send them away,’ but also provide real-time fire support if they need it.”
Noting that the SSGNs will carry two ASDSs or DDSs versus a “688 [Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine] sub’s ability to carry only one,” he added, “We will also be able to carry the SEALs or other Special Operations without any operational security issues – i.e., we’re big enough to carry the SEALs and sustain them onboard without any security complications. I mean, if a 688 pulls into a port and all of a sudden a bunch of SEALs show up, that causes people to notice. But if we wanted to we could actually pick them up at sea – they could airdrop them in to us – and we could take them to do their thing without ever disclosing their presence.”
Walking past missile tubes 3 through 10, Hamon explained, “These sets of tubes have the ability to carry ‘SOF mission things.’ It used to
be that to enter a tube you had to use this hole right here. It’s not very big and it’s at an awkward angle if you’re trying to lift things like Combat Rubber [Reconnaissance] Raiding Craft or other equipment. So they put in four ’30-inch hatches’ that are at a much more manageable level. Those go into the middle of the tube and there’s a crane that you can use to lower and raise things inside the canister. There are three working platforms inside of the tube, and each canister can be flown anywhere in the world by Air Force aircraft. We could be overseas, forward deployed, and if they wanted to send stuff to us they could put them into canisters and fly them to us.
“We can carry enough gear for 40 Special [Operations] Forces sortie missions without any kind of reload,” he added. “And I would say that a 688 could carry enough to support two or three.”
In terms of specific stowage capabilities, Hamon said that the SSGNs will be capable of carrying 39 CRRCs and outboard motors with external superstructure stowage for 900 gallons of gas for use in those motors.
“That gas is all external to the ship,” he said. “On the 688 it would have to be in the ‘sail,’ and there you would run into a big fire hazard or fume problem. Now it’s all external.”
Chief Warrant Officer Steve Reinagel, diving officer for Naval Special Warfare Group Three, explained the design and function of the two SSGN Special Operations lock-out chambers that replaced the former missile tubes 1 and 2.
“We have upper and lower levels that are flooded in order to lock-out the Special Operations Forces,” he said. “Recently we operated this system, unmanned, to see how each one of the systems would react. We were able to get in 22 cycles of the system and, as a part of that testing, we also operated dual lock-in/lock-out shelter operations, first flooding both of them, then pressurizing and draining them.”
He added that most of the manned testing with SEAL Team members will be conducted later this year.
Reinagel said that each of the chambers was capable of supporting a total of five Special Operations personnel at a time. “One of those five is the operator, who is a Navy diver,” he said. “And as part of the operation, we have trained both USS Ohio crew and divers from the Naval Special Warfare Commands that operate these systems in order to put the SEAL Teams or other Special Operations Forces personnel out into the water column. We can swim directly out into the water column by flooding out the Lock-Out Chamber (LOC). It takes about 13 minutes to flood it up, equalize with the outside pressure, whatever that happens to be, open the upper hatch, and swim out from there. Another way to use the LOC is to put the Dry Deck Shelters or Advanced SEAL Delivery System right over the top of the lock-out chambers and use this as just an egress to get into those areas in order to use those diving platforms.”
Reinagel stressed that “It is definitely a team effort to get Naval Special Warfare people out of the Ohio.”
Flooding operations actually utilize two levels within the LOCs with additional stowage and shower facilities below those lock-out levels.
“Once both the LOC levels have been flooded and pressurized, the SEALs would make their transition from the ‘lower LOC’ to the upper LOC area, where they would start readying their gear,” Reinagel explained. “They have Navy Divers, such as myself, who will help them transition that gear from the upper LOC up onto the submarine deck. We will do all of the rigging and prepping of the equipment and then the SEALs will do their missions.”
In addition to the operator in each of the chambers, Reinagel said that another six people were required on the outside of each chamber during the lock-out operations.
“There is one lock-out diving supervisor, dry-side operator, tender, etc. for each one of the lock-out chambers, and then one Lock-Out Chamber officer, like myself, to overlook both of the chamber operations and communicate with the submarine’s Battle Management Center to let them know what’s going on at the LOC diving station,” he added.
Reinagel noted that tactical lock-out operations would utilize “Tiger Teams” drawn from Naval Special Warfare SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Team members.
“They are the people who would come onboard, to perform the LOC operations (as it pertains to the cycling of the locks). And also they would be operating any of the Dry Deck Shelters with any of the [Mk 8] SDVs or CRRCs,” he said.
Stepping into the lower lock area of the former missile tube 1, Reinagel pointed to a bank of valves and controls on the bulkhead (wall) with both voice and video linkage to the LOC officer and lock-out supervisor inside the submarine.
“This is where the ‘wet side operator’ would do all of the operating as far as flooding and pressurizing the chamber,” he said. “And all around the bulkhead (wall) is where the SEALs have additional built-in diving rigs.”
The provision of breathing manifolds on the bulkheads allows the operators to prepare for tactical operations without consuming any of the air in their mission tanks. Extensive LED lighting inside the chamber provides the operators with excellent illumination for these final mission preparation activities.
One interesting feature of the lower level lock-out is the presence of a “bubble skirt” at the top of the level, which provides a constant air bubble on the second level.
“That way the ’wet-side operator’ who is pressurizing and flooding the LOC can monitor all the gauges and people in the compartment with him,” Reinagel said. “He’s driving but at the same time he’s watching for any operator to call ‘hold’ to the process. And once the pressurization is complete at the lower level, the first divers transition to the upper level to get the gear ready for off-loading.”
Climbing into the “upper lock” level, he continued, “Once the locks are flooded, the divers and the SOF operators will come up to this level, where they will open up the upper LOC hatch to access the deck and to rig all of their equipment and transition to the surface. This level is normally not manned until after both levels are completely flooded and pressurized. We do this because the ‘wet-side operator,’ who pressurizes the LOC, sits in that lower LOC and watches the rest of the divers to ensure that they are able to ‘clear their ears,’ so that they can go on with the rest of their mission.”
In terms of operational implications of the SSGN lock-out design, he summarized, “Just the sheer size of the USS Ohio means that it will support a full complement of battle staff from Naval Special Warfare. It also means that you can bring onboard several sets of SEAL Team elements to lock-out from the Ohio. Before it was ‘one or two’ that would lock-out from an escape trunk. And one or two cycles was just about all you might be able to manage. With this we can lock-out four SOF [Special Operations Forces] per chamber, and we can do as many cycles as required to get them all out.
“So the support structure for the SEALs/SOFs and the amount of gear that they can bring out on each of these missions has increased tremendously by having the Ohio,” he added.
Battle Management Center
Planning and monitoring of Special Operations missions will occur in the submarine’s Battle Management Center, a large space formerly occupied by large amounts of Trident missile navigation equipment on the old SSBNs. Removal of that equipment has provided a physical space that is wired for a variety of potential command and control configurations, up to and including a headquarters for a Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) commander.
“We can adapt this space to whatever mission comes across,” said one mission planner. “And we’re going to put the tools in here to be the right tools that the ‘joint community’ is using today, to make sure that the connectivity is strong between this base and any rear command and control element that we may be working with.”
One representative of that joint community present during the USS Ohio embark was Capt. Mark McGill, of the United States Air Force 22nd Special Tactics Squadron.
“It’s pretty unique to see the Air Force onboard a Navy submarine,” McGill admitted. “But it points to what Air Force Special Tactics members bring to the fight. And that’s bringing airpower to the fight. And the SSGN offers us some pretty big tools to put in our toolkit to bring to that fight. And where every other opportunity for us to get there or infiltration method via air or via land isn’t feasible, we’ve still got to get there somehow. And that’s going to be onboard an SSGN. What’s unique about this SSGN, and the transformation from the old SSBN to SSGN, is that it accommodates more SOF capabilities. Instead of the Navy conducting unilateral SEAL operations, now we have more of an operations center to include Air Force, Army, and Navy.”
Pointing to the flexibility inherent in the Battle Management Center, he continued, “[With] the communications suites and space for us to set up an operations center to talk back to Air Force higher headquarters, [we are] able to put bombs on target in a forward environment and able to establish landing zones, austere airheads, and drop zones. In addition to conducting specific missions to the other SOF services, Air Force special tactics operators are able to prosecute, plan, and talk back to higher headquarters from this SSGN.
“So we’ve seen a transformation from conducting unilateral SOF operations from a submarine,” he added. “Now we’re going to be able to include more of the joint SOF community, where all of the sister services can plan and operate.”
Although some of the characteristics of the old SSBNs translate to the new SSGN platforms, U.S. Navy planners also point to a number of significant differences.
“The deterrence aspect of the SSBN is a piece that still translates to the SSGN,” observed Capt. Dave DiOrio, SSGN program office director at Submarine Force Headquarters in Norfolk. “Just the fact that we have an SSGN in theater with conventional ordnance – up to 154 Tomahawks – is a strong deterrent value. But that’s where the similarities stop. SSBNs were never designed to do direct action types of missions. But now we’ve transformed.
“We can get this SSGN close into areas of operations where terrorist activity may be going on,” he explained. “We can survey that activity using organic sensors. We can leverage off of other national assets. So we can go in close. And SSBNs never did that. They stayed out to sea in blue water and you didn’t know where they were. The SSGNs are going to go in close to where that activity is going on. And, using their clandestine nature as a submersible, they can gather intelligence without anyone knowing that they are there. The terrorist activity will not pick up that there is a U.S. presence in the area and they will continue doing business the way they normally would. An SSGN can monitor that business over a long period of time. Then, if necessary, we can take direct action against that activity, once we know where it is.”
First published in The Year in Special Operations 2006.