We have all seen Hunt For The Red October, Crimson Tide and other submarine films, but what is life really like aboard the world’s most advanced and silent submarines? One of our go-to submariners, who told us the story of an epic maritime beer run, takes us into this shadowy world, one with a language all its own, and gives us an inside look at life below the waves.
“I come from a military family. My brother, uncles, and cousins served in the Army, Marine Corps, and the Navy. One of my uncles was a crew chief on P-3 sub hunters. He told me that that the submarine force did the most exciting missions. I’m sure jet pilots would scoff at that but my vision is terrible and the idea of sitting bitch in a jet didn’t appeal to me.
I also started the application for West Point. My older brother was enlisted in the Army at the time and said he would shoot me in the back before saluting his kid brother. He also described his time in Bosnia and told me every nightmare story about being a grunt in the infantry. I decided I’d rather be trapped in a steel tube with a bunch of dudes and see the world.
I didn’t really know what to expect out of the sub force. They call it the “Silent Service” for a reason. But I chose to go Navy and knew I could always go surface. I had four years of college to decide. Another thing that drew me to the Navy was that they were offering me a full ride including room and board at my college. No one else was offering such a good deal.”
“Nuke School is hard. It’s not so much the course work but the volume of knowledge. The Navy chooses its nuclear officers from all majors. They want good students who can learn, not just engineers. The school is designed to teach even a liberal arts major how a nuclear plant works and to get it all done in one year. Nuclear physics, calculus, chemistry, corrosion, reactor dynamics, thermodynamics, plant operations, abnormal and casualty procedures all in that one year.
Forget what you learned in college. You learn the Navy’s way in Nuke School. The nuclear engineer in our class failed out because he couldn’t accept how the Navy designs their plants. On the other hand, I knew a Political Science major that was number one in his class and turned out to be one of the best nuclear operators and overall submariners I ever met. It’s more important to know how to learn than anything else.
This all starts with teaching yourself to retain and recall a lot of information. In Nuke School everything is memorized. No crib sheets are allowed. They’ll ask you how galvanic corrosion works and they don’t want it summarized. Everything is word for word from the notes. I spent a lot of time with a dry erase board memorizing all this stuff. And it’s for good reason. When something goes wrong you need to instantly understand why. In the time it takes to look up something in a text book the boat could sink. And when something bad happens there might not be a procedure to cover it. You need to understand how the plant works and be able to recognize the proper action to take instantly.”
“The training submariners go through is so unique compared to other warfare specialties. After one year of Nuke School and Operations Training, officers spend a few months at Submarine School. Enlisted nukes don’t go to Submarine School but everyone else does.
Apparently these multi-billion dollar machines aren’t designed to just push around a reactor underwater. So Submarine School is your crash course in how to drive a sub, sonar, contact tracking, damage control, flooding response, firefighting, weapon systems. Everyone on board is trained to fight flooding. Everyone is an amateur firefighter. Everyone onboard is trained on the basics of every system onboard. Even a cook knows how fission works. Even a nuke knows a bit about navigation.
And this training continues for your entire career.”
People have related serving onboard a nuclear submarine to be like serving on a long-endurance spaceship, what is daily life like aboard a submarine and what social and personal challenges exist there?
“Your day starts with someone very quietly waking you up. Everyone is on a different schedule so an alarm clock will last about two beeps before it is smashed to bits. Sleep is one of the most precious things you get onboard. I remember once being up for 36 hours, catching a 45 minute nap, and being awake another 36 hours. I followed that by sleeping for 22 hours. So when any opportunity to sleep arises you take it as you never know when you’ll get back to the rack again.
After wake up, get dressed, then go to whatever meal it is. My first captain hated me and I thought he was a fucking asshole so I spent a lot of time on the midnight to 0600 watch. That meant I was generally asleep or busy during lunch and dinner. When you eat powdered eggs or leftovers for every meal something resembling real food becomes a dream.
After the meal you go on watch. That means you might not get to the bathroom for six hours so you better have some good bladder control. I knew a lot of guys who had to piss in a bilge funnel. I remember more than one time someone not getting a watch relief and shitting in a bucket behind the switchboards. One guy must’ve had a weak stomach because he shit his pants on multiple occasions.
After watch you get your next meal. The off going watch cleans the boat, does maintenance, paperwork, works on qualifications. There’s always another qualification to work on. If you’re lucky you have enough time to burn a flick or read a book, and if you’re too busy, your next watch will come up and you realize you never slept.
That’s the daily drudgery, the daily grind. It’s Groundhog Day.
Within that schedule you get pretty close to the people on your same schedule. You get to know them deep, you talk about stupid shit, bitch about the life, plan your next port call and so on. I remember I got on a watch team back in the nuke plant and almost all of us were Hispanic or Black. We talked for hours about comfort food, who’s Gramma had the best chocolate cakes, chicharrones, “Oh my gawd remember fried platanos?” I knew everything about those guys and their families and what they planned to do after the Navy.
You get to know everyone. 160 people aren’t really that many people. By the end of a six month deployment I could tell someone by their shoes. For me, being in such close proximity to everyone wasn’t usually an issue, but everyone would get sick of it once in a while. No personal space other than your rack. Trying to sleep when you know the guy in the rack below you is whacking off to weird porn with a plug in his ass... Just sick of knowing that much about everyone. Sick of smelling feet and ass and guys who don’t shower.
Everyone finds refuge somewhere. I got even more into music and would just blast my headphones full of metal and read. Some guys worked out for hours, or rigged video games in their racks, or played cards. A movie played in the Wardroom, Crews Mess and Chiefs Quarters every night. Those are the only two places to really socialize.”
“A fast attack deployment goes at least six months. The longest I went between port calls was over 50 days. A port call could be a few days or a few weeks. Usually in the middle of a deployment there’s a two or three week extended call with one of the submarine tenders to do some repairs and fix anything that’s broken.
In addition to deployment, the ship is underway all the time. There’s always an inspection to train for or you just go out and maintain proficiency. Submarines also have extended refit periods. Complex repairs are performed, new equipment is installed, some ships get a new reactor core halfway through ship’s life. All this takes a lot of time, from weeks to many months.
We went into dry dock one summer to do some scheduled nuclear maintenance and install a new desalinization plant. I got stuck on night shift as usual. Prior to taking the watch we pre-briefed the day’s work so everyone knew what to say, then briefed it for the captain and any inspectors. That was two hours prior to taking the watch then add another hour of turnover with the off going shift. In the middle there was an eight hour watch. Then after all that was done, I would work on my warfare quals and make sure my division was set up for the day’s work. I’d spend eighteen hours a day in the dry dock. If I could I would go home, but I slept onboard a lot just to get the extra hour of sleep.
I think I got two days off in four months. Like I said, that captain was a jerkoff and worked us to death.”
What are the differences between serving aboard a fast attack submarine and a nuclear ballistic missile submarine or a nuclear guided missile submarine?
“Compared to a fast attack life, an SSBN is boring. And they like it that way. Drive to the patrol area, stay quiet for a few months, and go home. Excitement on an SSBN means something bad has happened, the world is ending or you you’ve been detected.
SSBNs are much larger so there is more crew space and life is a bit easier. In some ways we resented them for their creature comforts. We didn’t consider it real submarining to avoid danger at all costs instead of heading right for it. The SSGNs have a similar mission set as fast attack submarines. As converted SSBNs it’s the best of both worlds.”
“Fast attack submarines are one of the most versatile military platforms the world has ever seen. Deep water and shallow water. Anti submarine and anti surface warfare. Carrier escort. Mine field detection. Deploy and retrieve special forces. Tomahawk strike. Intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance. Drug interdiction. And other stuff that shall remain nameless.
On the way back from one deployment we were coming across the south Atlantic and got detoured for anti-drug ops. There was Intel that some fishing trawler was transporting drugs in the hold. We were given some distinguishing characteristics and sprinted around the Caribbean and found it. I spent the mid watch getting the ship in position. When the sun came up the morning crew did a photo op, recorded video, observed erratic non-fisherman like behavior.
We found out later that after we reported the location, a destroyer intercepted the trawler. They found literally tons of cocaine in the hold instead of fish. Location thanks to your friendly neighborhood nuclear fast attack submarine!”
What are the differences between the Los Angeles, Sea Wolf and Virginia fast attack submarine classes?
“The Los Angeles Class is the backbone of the fast attack fleet but is getting old. It was designed during the Cold War to find and kill Russian subs. Prevent enemy SSBNs from launching a nuclear assault and kill enemy fast attack submarines before they find and kill our SSBNs.
The Seawolf Class was designed at the tail end of the Cold War. They were Bigger, harder, faster, stronger AND way too expensive. SEAWOLF can do some amazing things but it’s too expensive so we only made three. Plus, with the Cold War over, the need to chase Russians at insane speeds with insane amounts of weaponry became less important.
The Virginia Class was built to replace LA affordably while also being just as quiet as SEAWOLF. It maintains its anti-ship role while being better suited for littoral operations. It was also designed so that new technology would be easier to back fit.”
“When a submarine is at periscope depth it pulls down a GPS location. Once the boat submerges they have an inertial navigation system that can sense changes in ships course which combined with ships speed to give pretty accurate readings when it comes to location. The quartermaster keeps track of location based on course, speed, water depth, and adjusts for currents (set and drift). This data is then compared to the inertial navigation system to ensure they agree. Water depth is also frequently checked versus the charted depth to ensure the ship isn’t heading into unexpectedly shallow water.
Submarines also use sonar for navigation. The charted position tells you where you are and sonar is used to listen for other ships so you don’t hit them and also to hunt them and track them. People think of sonar and usually think of active sonar. That works like a bat. Put a sound out in the water and see if anything bounces back. It works great other than telling every ship for miles there’s a submarine RIGHT THERE. Subs almost never use active sonar.
Passive sonar is all ears. A sound is detected on a certain bearing relative to the ship and you follow the trace as the other ship moves. In shallow water things can get really tricky. You might have the advantage of being at periscope depth and having a look-see above the surface, but the ability to maneuver is restricted. If there’s a deep draft tanker coming head on, and you can’t go deep and get under it fast enough, you may be in big trouble. You’ve got to see it coming a long way off. Being shallow also makes it easier to be counter-detected. A few feet of scope sticking out of the water can get you noticed pretty quick.
Submarines can get pretty close to shore submerged but people who think a big sub can sneak up a river haven’t put much thought into it. From the bottom of the hull to the top of the sail could be over 60 feet, plus you need some clearance to bottom and the shore. Such a thing is preposterous for a big submarine.
When submarines run aground it’s typically due to not following the plotted course on the surface. Subs drive like a pig on the surface and don’t maneuver that well. So the course is plotted out very carefully to avoid shallow water and stick to shipping lanes. If the water depth isn’t what you expect you’re going the wrong way.
The lack of maneuverability on the surface combined with having a low profile in the water compared to the ship’s length means subs can be hard to see and you can’t get out of the way very easily. Not to mention merchant traffic has no issue coming within a thousand or hundreds of yards of another ship at 20 knots. That cargo has places to go! Meanwhile, we don’t like anyone within a few thousand yards of us, it is very nerve racking.
Underwater collisions typically occur because the submarine didn’t keep good enough track of the contact picture. You need to change course once in a while to clear the blind spot (baffles) in your sonar picture.”
What does it feel like to be in a high-performance submarine during different stages of its performance envelope?
“Being long tubes, the motion on the surface can be awful in a modern submarine. If you want to join the navy but get sea sick, go submarines. Because submerged you can’t really feel the surface action. If you’re at 200 feet and the wave action is moving you it’s going to be a rough trip to periscope depth.
One time we were returning to port during an awful storm. The boat was taking rolls to port and starboard that were off the scale. We were surfaced due to water depth and couldn’t man the bridge atop the submarine’s sail for fear of a man going overboard. We had to depend on the periscope and radar, which is useless in that bad of a storm. A third of the crew was throwing their guts up.
I was on watch up in the Control Room and it was a good thing I don’t get sea sick because the Officer of the Deck took a handful of Dramamine just to be able to get to watch. As such, he was pretty much a zombie. I spent six hours straight on the periscope scope walking in circles. We took one roll to starboard so bad I was hanging from the scope handles, feet off the ground. One guy literally fell out of his rack and into someone else’s without hitting the floor!
An emergency blow is the world’s lamest roller coaster. Imagine climbing the first hill at 30 degrees, cresting the top, and then riding a soft dip. Lame. It looks pretty cool from afar though.”
“We practiced some sub on sub to keep proficiency, but all of our missions were intelligence collection, and of course launching Tomahawks during times of war. Tracking submarines isn’t easy. Surface ships, planes, and helos don’t have a chance. They’re too loud and easy to evade and when we go silent they basically need to get lucky. The only chance is another submarine.
The general idea is stay quiet and listen. If you find one, try to maneuver into its baffles where you will be harder to counter-detect.”
“Every Carrier group has a sub attached, but the sub wasn’t always right there. Maybe they’d send you out ahead like a scout to sniff out other subs who might be looking to harm the rest of the skimmers. Then you might be hundreds of miles away on a mission off some port, or tracking a surface contact of interest. We didn’t typically do much with the carriers.”
The Navy is now allowing women to serve aboard submarines, what are your thoughts on this very hot-button issue as of late?
“I think women on submarines is long over due. There is nothing our submariners do that is outside the capabilities of women. There are some logistical issues as far as the berthing and bathroom situation, but the fleet has come through with some solutions. These include some minor modifications and having a women’s head that can also be used by men if unoccupied. The Ohio Class replacement is being designed in all aspects to account for female crew, from the berthing situation, right down to making sure even the shortest women can operate the equipment.
I’m sure there will be some issues once women are fully integrated into crews, but if people are worried about male and female sailors fraternizing, see my earlier answer as to the gay dudes onboard. There’s just not a lot of private areas to get the deed done. I’ve also heard grumbling about “hey man, what if someone gets pregnant underway?” They can handle it the same way they do on surface ships. Light duty if necessary, or send her home once in port if you have to. Still, I haven’t heard any issues like that so far with the Chiefs and officers being integrated into the crew aside from one story in the news where women were secretly filmed in the shower. The dudes involved with that got the hammer.
I’m sure there are a lot of submariners who are also pissed off that they can’t be such pigs anymore. You can imagine what things devolve into when 160 men get together. Hey man, grow the fuck up. There are plenty of guys onboard that get offended by salty language and tales of debauchery during port calls. This is no different. Just like the rest of the world, watch your mouth unless you know someone is cool with you being a pig.
These guys who foam at the mouth about how this is ruining the submarine fleet and the military in general need to get over their male chauvinism. The U.S. Military is still a part of the good old USA and everyone should have the opportunity to serve and protect their country. The fact that it has taken this long to get women deployed in front line rolls is a testament to the crotchety old guys at the top of the government and military who have this outdated notion that women are fragile little flowers who need to be protected from harm.
Welcome to the 21st century assholes.”
“Port calls are great even in a country that sucks. When you haven’t felt the sun on your face and you’ve been breathing recycled farts for months, getting on dry land is impossible to describe. FREEDOM!
My first deployment we went around the Mediterranean, and all those ports are great. The ports in the Middle East suck. I never felt safe, especially after 9/11 and Iraqi Freedom.
It’s important to stay in a large pack and try not to be such a fucking American. Leave your stars and bars wife beater shirt in your suitcase. Be polite and respectful and stay in busy areas. Maybe that sounds paranoid, but look at what ISIS is doing to people right now and several years ago a bunch of guys got jumped in Greece.
In port you still have to stand duty a few times a week, and there are still normal business hours to do work. Port call isn’t a full blown vacation and there’s always equipment to fix. When you do get off the boat, a real bed and real food are the highest priority and talking about the boat means you’re buying everyone in earshot a drink.
Force protection on the surface is scary. Subs don’t have anything to protect themselves other than the ship’s crew armed with small arms. Someone with a 50-cal on a fishing boat could hurt a lot of people. I remember going through the Suez and trucks were just following us along the banks of the canal. It’s an uneasy feeling man. This flak jacket and helmet aren’t going to do shit if some asshole with an RPG pops up over a sand dune.
Once you’re tied up the pier there are guards armed and ready at all times, even at home.”
“Running a submarine reactor plant is kind of like I said earlier about being on a boomer. If it’s not boring, something bad must be happening.
On mission we’re going slow and running our equipment as quietly as possible. The capability of these plants is so impressive. You can go from putting around at a few knots to 100% in about a minute. There’s so much shaft torque it keels the boat over to the side a little bit. And the operators catch it and stop the power transient at 100% on the nose.
A commercial plant could take a full day to do the same percent change. Given commercial plants are an order of magnitude larger in power output, but something similar of a commercial variety would break fuel doing what we do if it attempted it even once. The Navy’s plants can do it thousands of times.
The designers do an amazing job making these plants durable, reliable, and easy to operate for the sailors. Very little of our design is automated. The sailors control everything. Every valve, every power change, every pump is specifically controlled.
Going back to power school, you learn just the basics in that year of training. Once you get to the ship you are qualified to do nothing. It’s a different plant than you learned on so you qualify again from the ground up in every ship you go to.”
Tell us 10 weird things about nuclear submarines and life as a submariner that we probably don’t know.
1. “There’s an old wives’ tale that submariners tend to have more daughters. I don’t know if it’s really true, but it sure as hell seems that way. Maybe it’s payback for all the hell we raise in foreign ports. Maybe it’s the radiation. Then again, see the next answer.
2. People think we must get a lot of radiation due to nuclear power. The truth is we get less because the reactor compartment is so well shielded. Someone once told Admiral Rickover he could save millions of dollars by reducing the shielding. He refused to because the health of the sailors was his number one priority. Underwater we don’t get any of the background radiation you get just walking around. Commercial pilots get more radiation from the sun in the cockpit than sailors get on submarines from the reactor.
3. Submariners learn to sleep like the dead, but wake up on cue. I could sleep through people having a loud conversation right next to me. But if someone whispered my name I would wake up. If I heard the emergency announcing circuit down the hall faintly calling a report I would be up immediately. If I felt the ventilation stop I would wake up because I knew electrical power had dropped.
4. The rack, which is coffin sized, has a three inch deep pan underneath. That is basically the extent of your storage and personal space. I could fit everything I needed for six months in there. My wife loves this because I sleep on a sliver of bed and she can sprawl out.
5. There are not enough racks for everyone onboard so some people have to share. Usually three people (junior personnel) will share two racks. There goes your personal space. They call it hot racking because the rack might still be warm from the last guy. They’re supposed to swap in their own sheets, but some guys are scum bags and don’t. Nasty.
6. The worst thing on a submarine is a thief. You need to be able to trust everyone with your life. How can you do that if there’s someone onboard who can’t even respect what little personal space and what few belongings you have? We found a thief. He was off the boat and sent home at the next port call, reduced in rank and out of the sub force. They returned all the shit he stole to the rightful owners, and in the middle of the night a bunch of guys kicked the shit out of him and took all his shit. He left the boat with little more than one set of uniforms, his wallet without cash, and his orders.
Don’t steal on a submarine.
7. People in California could learn a thing or two about water conservancy from submariners. Subs only make so much fresh water each day. The reactor plant gets top priority for clean water, followed by what’s needed for food and drink. There’s enough for everyone to shower everyday but you’re supposed to be quick. Get wet, turn it off and lather, rinse off, done. Long “Hollywood” showers are frowned upon. Some people solve this problem by rarely showering. Gross. Almost as bad as a thief is someone who smells like a rotten ballsack.
Some foreign submarines rarely shower at all. Sponge baths and baby wipes is their method if any. I saw the crew of a South Korean boat at Fleet Week. They were lined up topside and took turns getting blasted by a fire hose. Tip of the cap to those guys. A salt water blast is better than being a stinky asshole.
8. To simulate day and night the ship turns the lights low every night, and back up in the morning. It doesn’t work. Other than the clock, day and night become meaningless.
9. There’s all these gay jokes about dudes on submarines. 160 men go down, 80 couples come up. “It’s not gay if you’re underway.” Whatever man. We had some gay guys onboard and nobody cared. We cared more that they did their jobs. What they did in their personal life is no one’s business. I never heard about any guys getting it on underway. And remember about the lack of personal space. Two people sneaking off to fuck are going to get caught. There’s no place to hide.
10. Movies like The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide look so real but are full of holes. If you want to know what it’s like on a submarine watch Down Periscope. I knew every character in that movie in real life.”
Aside from the US, who makes capable submarines and how well do our boats do when encountering them?
“There are a lot of capable submarines out there. All the modern stuff is quiet. We’re probably still the quietest nukes around, but eventually everyone is so quiet that “quietest” might not matter. The last place sprinter in the Olympics isn’t that much slower than Usain Bolt, but that dude is still fast enough to win the race if everyone else has a bad day.
That’s what makes sub hunting so hard and so nerve racking. And it’s not as important as a mission as it was during the Cold War. I’d bet we’re losing our proficiency at it to be honest.”
With the great advances in Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) of the last two decades, and considering the growing submarine fleets of our potentially enemies around the globe, should the US be augmenting its own nuclear force with AIP diesel submarines?
“As far as the race to be the quietest, the AIP platforms are untouchable. I think we never should have stopped making diesel boats. They’re cheaper, smaller, and deathly quiet when the diesels are off. Obviously the diesel gives away the sub easily, but AIP fixes some of that problem. Now we’ve lost that part of our sub force, but I’m glad our allies have maintained it.
Nukes have their place. Obviously there’s an advantage for SSBNs and SSGNs to being nuclear and having essentially infinite endurance to keep all those missiles on call. The food’s the limit. And keeping some nuclear fast attack subs for tracking and keeping up with the enemy SSBNs is pretty much essential. But a small AIP sub is easier to maneuver around the littorals, and that’s where all the action is these days. I wish we had kept the capability. You could build multiple diesel boats for the cost of one VIRGINIA. Home port them in the Med and Western Europe in allied ports.
Like I said, our Allies have this covered to some degree, but here in ‘Murica we like to be able to do it all ourselves, and we’ve lost that important capability.”
“What the sub force needs is support. These guys really are unsung heroes. We’ve still got the most advanced technology and our military budget commits money to knew submarines every year. But as the LA class decommissions there won’t be enough subs to pick up the slack. Every theatre commander drools over having a submarine at their disposal because of their versatility. The force seemed stretched a decade ago and it is only getting worse.
What we need are more boats. Going back to the AIP topic, we could build more of them for cheaper with the same technology on the forward half of the ship as the Virginia Class.
The far out future is probably in unmanned vehicles, just like the Air Force. Imagine a mother ship hundreds of miles from land staying safe, while multiple drone subs are controlled remotely. You could even do that from a surface ship. But for now, manned submarines remain the most versatile weapons system in the world, and we just don’t have enough of them.”
Contact the author at Tyler@Jalopnik.com