ABOARD THE USS OHIO – Capt. Andy Hale has just worked out and is still in a sweaty T-shirt and shorts as he stands in the battle command center. He is watching a flat screen display that shows what’s happening outside on the bow and the aft.
His billion-dollar submarine — the U.S. Navy’s newest twist on underwater warfare — is hovering just below the surface off the Pacific island of Guam as a submersible disappears into the dark waters, carrying a team of commandos.
The Ohio is the first of a new class of submarine created in a conversion of 1970s vessels by trading nuclear-tipped ICBMs for conventional cruise missiles and a contingent of commandos ready to be launched onto virtually any shore through rejiggered missile tubes — against conventional forces or terrorists.
The sub’s cruise across the Pacific comes as China builds its submarine fleet into the region’s largest as part of the bulking up of its military. The voyage is the Ohio’s first deployment since the makeover, and Hale is in the odd position of showing the ship off.
It’s odd because the sub is all about stealth.
Hale can’t talk about where the ship is going. The back of the ship, where the nuclear power plant is located, is off limits. The leader of the SEAL commando contingent aboard can’t be named and the commandos themselves can’t be photographed in any way that shows their faces.
But, over the next few months, the Ohio will be making a very public statement, training intensively in some of the world’s most crowded and contested waters and joining in exercises with America’s Asian allies. Instead of hiding them, the Ohio will be showcasing its abilities to elude detection and operate too deeply and quickly to be tracked. It made its first stop last week in Busan, South Korea, for joint exercises.
Then it will likely do what it does best — vanish.
“Submarines are the original stealth platform,” Hale told The Associated Press, the only media allowed on board. “Submarine forces have always viewed the Pacific as a very important strategic area … it’s certainly grown in importance in the last 10 years.”
Just about every country with a coastline in Asia wants or has subs.
China, Japan, Australia, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Singapore, Bangladesh and South and North Korea either now have or are planning to acquire them.
Most don’t pose much of a threat to the more advanced American fleet. But that is changing.
While Russia continues to be a factor, China now has the biggest submarine fleet in the region, with nearly 60. The U.S. has upped its presence in the Pacific, and now has more ships — and more subs — in this part of the world than in the Atlantic.
But they are still outnumbered.
“There are many challenges in the Pacific,” Hale said. “China is certainly one of them, but it is not the only one.”
China’s subs are mainly diesel-powered, meaning they must come up for air more frequently than U.S. nuclear-powered vessels, and their crews are not believed to be as well trained as American submariners, who spend several months at a time at sea.
China’s fleet is also highly focused on patrolling its own coastal waters and on dealing with potential hostilities over Taiwan, rather than with “projecting force,” or trying to control faraway shipping lanes.
But its the long-term goals that remain opaque.
Two years ago, a Chinese sub shocked the U.S. Navy by surfacing within torpedo range of the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier near the Japanese island of Okinawa. Beijing claimed the sub was in international waters and was not “stalking” the carrier, which was taking part in a naval exercise.
The growing rivalry was underscored in November, when Beijing refused a scheduled port call by the Kitty Hawk’s battle group to Hong Kong, forcing thousands of sailors to spend Thanksgiving at sea. In January, however, China allowed a visit to the port by another U.S. Navy vessel.
Washington has repeatedly expressed concern that China is pouring money into expanding its forces. Beijing increased its military budget by nearly 18 percent to about $45 billion last year, the largest annual hike in more than a decade, and U.S. officials believe actual spending is greater.
The Chinese, meanwhile, are closely watching to see how U.S. concern translates into changes in the U.S. Navy. When the Ohio, which is based in Bangor, Wash., docked at Guam last month, China’s official Xinhua news agency called the submarine a “warehouse of explosives” and a “devil of deterrence.”
“If the Ohio turns west from Guam, it would need only hours to travel to the coastal waters of many Asian nations,” it said. “The U.S. Navy believes the power of the cruise missile-armed nuclear submarine will be tremendous in a future war.”
That is exactly what the Navy wants China and others to think, and why the Ohio is in the Pacific.
“The advanced capabilities that we have brought to this ship make it a premier front-line submarine,” said the Ohio’s executive officer, Lt. Commander Al Ventura. “This has taken the submarine force to a whole new level.”
The Ohio has both vast firepower and the ability to deploy quickly to wherever it’s needed.
It has 24 launch tubes, 15 of which have been fitted for multiple Tomahawks — more than 100 in total. That’s more than were launched in the entire first Gulf War. From an offshore position in the Pacific, it could strike Pyongyang, North Korea. From the Indian Ocean, it could hit anywhere in Afghanistan.
The switch to conventional missiles is a concept borne of necessity.
Under a 1992 disarmament treaty, the U.S. Navy had to give up four of its 18 “boomers,” huge submarines that have for decades served as mobile launch platforms for long-range nuclear missiles and were primary players in the Cold War game of cat-and-mouse between Washington and Moscow.
Instead of scrapping the ships, however, the Navy converted them. The nuclear weapons were replaced with conventional Tomahawk guided missiles and several of the launch tubes refitted to deploy the Navy SEALs in submersible boats.
Because of the sheer size of the sub — it’s 560 feet long — it has more room for its 160-member crew and dozens of commandos than an attack submarine. While still cramped and claustrophobic, sailors have bigger beds and several places for working out, which the SEALs do constantly.
Among the SEALs, stealth remains a way of life.
In a wardroom just yards from the Tomahawk missile tubes, the head of the SEAL contingent agreed to be interviewed, but only if he wasn’t identified or photographed, lest he or his family be tracked down by terrorists, for whom killing a SEAL would be a major propaganda coup.
“We go places,” he said. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
While near Guam, the SEALs conducted operations simulating an undersea launch in their submersible and a landing to assess a fictitious terrorist threat. Guam was dubbed “Backwateria” and the terrorists called the “Al-Shakur.” The names of the terrorist leaders were taken from a popular TV cartoon.
The island could just as well have been Taiwan, or the shores of North Korea.
The SEAL commander said the simulations were not aimed at any particular country.
Still, he said, it’s not just idle training.
“This capability has been used before, and it will probably be used again,” he said.