Sailors Getting Rich Battle Experience

“Beam me up, Scotty!”

Did you know that Captain Kirk never uttered these words? Not in any of the eighty original Star Trek episodes nor the seven movies. He never said it.

How many times have you heard a movie submarine captain say: “Fire one! Fire two”?

Did you know that real submarine skippers don’t say this? The word is: “Shoot!”

That’s because calling out “Fire” refers to – you got it – fire somewhere aboard the sub. It would not be cool if the Fire Control Team were set up to shoot a torpedo or missile, just waiting for the skipper’s word, when something goes wrong in the control room starting a fire, and someone shouts “Fire!” – and away goes the weapon.

So Fire Control Teams train and train and train. And then they train again. The words, the motions, every little detail becomes a practiced event in a sequence of practiced events.

I served both as a sonar technician and later as a weapons officer aboard two fleet ballistic missile submarines. I spent the better part of two years underwater. During this time, we had a lot of drills. As a sonar tech, my participation was a critical adjunct to the exercise. As weapons officer, I both participated in and was responsible for what happened. We would receive a Weapons System Readiness Test message over our low-frequency long-range radio system. The test could have originated from any one of several shore based or seagoing commanders, but our response was always the same: We would bring the sub to launch depth and run through every step of the sequence except the actual launch of the missile. We got this down to between twelve and thirteen minutes – by any measure, that’s very good. But we never actually launched a missile in this scenario.

The only time we actually launched a real missile was on a test range off the southern Florida coast. We underwent an approximate five-hour countdown. On a scale of one to ten, its relationship to an actual combat firing sequence was minus five. In fact, we had one of the Apollo Astronauts aboard who actually “pushed the button” to launch the missile. This was payback for his allowing a group of us in the VIP stands for the Apollo 14 moon launch.

Similarly, when we launched actual torpedoes, it was nothing like the real thing, even though we did this much more frequently. Despite our intense training, and despite our ability to ready a missile launch in just a few minutes, we had no idea how we would perform in actual combat. In the Cold War world this was not possible.

An additional nagging question nips at the heels of every submarine captain, who asks himself, “My missiles have been in their bays for several months or even years. Sure they have been checked out nearly daily, but will they really work when I launch them?”

In direct reaction to this question, missiles and other submarine munitions are regularly changed out for replacements that are “guaranteed” to work. Not that such a guarantee is enforceable, but a missile that underwent complete overhaul last month is much more likely to perform as advertised than one that has been in its launch tube for the last seven months. So typically, once or twice yearly, all of a submarine’s torpedoes and Tomahawk Missiles are replaced (but not the intercontinental ballistic missiles).

This is where our current air war against Afghanistan provides a real – if inadvertent – boon for the Navy submarine crews serving in the region. This is a real live-fire opportunity for submarine crews, and it allows crews to “offload” their older Tomahawks without the difficult, dangerous work required to exchange weapons alongside a pier or submarine tender.

These launches require no tedious five-hour countdowns, no holds while somebody checks out this circuit or that switch. At the appropriate moment, the Officer of the-Deck announces “Battle Stations Missile” over the general announcing system, and shortly thereafter a Tomahawk missile shoots to the surface in a bubble of compressed air, extends its short wings and fires its engines

There are men on these boats who have spent their entire professional life gaining unmatched expertise in the esoteric skill of aiming and launching a missile from underwater, but who have never actually done it in a live-fire real-time combat situation – until now.

Thanks to Osama bin Laden and his Taliban cohorts, we are creating a cadre of combat-hardened submariners who have actually done it, and will be able to share this unique knowledge with tomorrow’s underwater sailors. Nothing gives confidence to a young torpedoman or missile technician like the calm control of a weapons chief or weapons officer who has been there and done that.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor


Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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