Special Operations Forces Dive Deep

May 2006
By Rita Boland

The USS Ohio, converted from a nuclear ballistic missile to a guided missile submarine, sails during its return-to-service ceremony. The boat is the first refurbished vessel of four.
Refurbished submarines find new life in joint, stealth role.

The U.S. military’s elite units have another platform from which they can launch maneuvers. Devised from submarines the U.S. Navy had planned to decommission, the new vehicles will be multimission, multiservice platforms designed specifically for covert operations and special operations warfare.

The U.S. Navy plans to refurbish four nuclear ballistic missile (SSBN) Ohio-class Trident submarines into guided missile (SSGN) submarines. The interior of the submarines is being refitted to accommodate as many as 66 special operations forces from all military branches and their supplies and to provide support for operational missions. “A key capability of this ship is that it’s going to be very joint,” says Capt. David Norris, USN, SSGN program manager.

The first SSGN to be refurbished was the USS Ohio. It celebrated its return to service in February. It will remain stateside to undergo a series of increasingly advanced tests, which include weapons systems and lockout chambers testing, as well as to give the crew a chance to get familiar with the new systems. The ship is expected to deploy in 2007. General Dynamics Electric Boat, headquartered in Groton, Connecticut, is conducting the conversion work. Besides the reconfiguration, the Navy will refit each SSGN with a new nuclear reactor.

To accommodate the additional special operations forces, the team behind the refurbishing of the SSBNs to SSGNs knew they would have to fundamentally change the space within the submarine. They took one deck level of missile compartments and gutted it to make room for special operations troops. The area now contains 66 berths and extra head facilities. Other additions include a large shower room where divers or others returning from a mission can use warm water to raise their body temperatures and a drying space where they can dry wet suits.

The redesign also had to include space for the special operations forces’ mission-specific equipment. Some of the equipment can be stored in the center compartment where these troops sleep; however, equipment also will be stored as payload in special operations forces canisters. The canisters can be placed into torpedo tubes refitted to hold gear instead of weapons.

The other payload onboard is a group of Tomahawk missiles. Each tube can hold up to seven of these missiles. “The SSGN has an unprecedented payload capability, and that’s what’s making it a transformation warship for the U.S. Navy,” Capt. Norris explains.

The Trident SSBN has 24 launch tubes, but on the SSGN designers converted two tubes into lockout chambers for divers. According to John Biederka, Electric Boat SSGN program manager, creating the dive lockout chamber challenged the redesign team because it is safety critical. It had to be examined and tested repeatedly to ensure the safety of the divers and the crew.

When loaded for a full-strike mission, the SSGN has the capability to launch Tomahawk missiles from all 22 nonconverted tubes. With each tube able to hold seven missiles, the submarine could launch 154 Tomahawks. “One SSGN with that many missiles has about the same capability as 80 percent of a current naval battle group,” Capt. Norris says.

According to the captain, the concept of operation for the new Trident submarine requires that one tube remain open for experimentation. Capt. Norris says that possible uses for the experimental cylinder include holding a large container, an unmanned underwater vehicle or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that could be launched from the tube, or some type of sensor that comes out of the tube and provides a node in a network warfare system.

He adds that the subsurface vessel is the right ship at the right time for fighting a long war against a determined enemy. “It’s going to be a key contributor to the Navy’s participation in the global war on terror,” he notes.

The ability of the submarine’s crew to use the launch tubes for different capabilities—such as holding supplies—coupled with additional space for troops to stay on board allows special operations forces to remain on the SSGN longer than on other submarines. The vessel can sustain the special operations teams’ sleeping and eating needs. To accommodate the extended stay, the hull is big enough to house a firearms training simulator for the warfighters to practice shooting. “What makes the SSGN different from previous SEAL [sea, air and land forces] submarines is it carries an enormous number of SEALs and logistics such that you can mount a special warfare campaign,” Capt. Norris explains.

The SSGN has a high-bandwidth communications center on board as part of its battle management center. The center, which is 30 feet wide by 40 feet long, has the ability to host a joint task force communications effort. In the common submarine radio room, a space is available for a joint task force commander with associated staff to come onboard and plan the mission. For example, if an emergent requirement arose relating to the global war on terrorism, staff could come onboard and have the communications and control capability to manage and create a mission on the spot. The battle management center also allows personnel to monitor the diver lockout chambers and the dry dock shelters.

The dry dock shelters give the SSGN special operations forces several alternatives to using divers. The SSGN will not always carry divers on board. Instead, the submarine will have other methods for getting special operations forces to their objective. One method is the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS), a minisubmarine that mounts on the back of the larger vessel. Using the ASDS, special warfare troops can reach the beach. Also mounted on the back of the SSGN is a drag back shelter, which is similar to a garage. It can house a SEAL delivery vehicle that can be used to transport warfighters to land.

The Ohio is a Trident submarine. The size of these ships makes them particularly adaptable to carrying extra personnel and equipment.
Equipping the SSGNs with multiple capabilities was one of the design team’s main goals during development, according to Biederka. “Flexibility is Trident in a nutshell,” he says.

In addition to its flexibility, the SSGN offers several other benefits during operations. For one, the submarine is inherently stealthy. The SSGN crew could launch its missiles or its special operations forces while still submerged, remaining covert. Another advantage is that a submarine stays out of the area of conflict. It also could launch a UAV while underwater and control the unmanned vehicle from the subsurface vessel. Capt. Norris likens using the UAV to giving the crew a 30,000-foot periscope.

The Navy and the U.S. Air Force tested a UAV launch and recovery during an exercise aboard the USS Alabama. The Alabama is an SSBN, but it was reconfigured to represent an SSGN platform. Enlisted airmen and Air Force officers from the 22nd and 23rd special tactics squadrons (STSs), McChord Air Force Base, Washington, participated in the exercise. Capt. Norris says special operations are inherently joint with each service bringing a specific knowledge. This environment prompts the services to train together using various platforms.

“If you truly understand special operations, we each bring a unique capability to the mission,” says Lt. Col. Michael Sneeder, USAF, commander, 22nd STS. “Do we have overlapping skills? Absolutely. But if you truly appreciate special ops, you realize we have unique expertise to bring to the fight.”

Col. Sneeder emphasizes that the Air Force brings air power expertise into the joint operation arena. STS troops are specialized in air rescue, but they also have the ability to conduct amphibious operations. For the airmen, it is just another way to commute. Col. Sneeder shares that in another theater they used donkeys to get to their objective. However, because the SSGNs are intended for use by special operations forces, they provide greater advantages to these warfighters. “Having a submarine designed specifically for special operations infiltration support … lends itself even more to being a great platform for special operations forces,” he emphasizes.

According to the Air Force Special Operations Command, Air Force STSs traditionally have trained and operated with Navy SEALs, U.S. Army special forces and Army Rangers. When teaming with special operations forces from other services, the Air Force squadrons have special experience in seizing enemy airfields and recovering distressed personnel in hostile territory. The STSs now aim to be ready to deploy on the SSGNs when necessary. A recent joint exercise was the first step in integrating submarine special tactics operations.

During the exercise, STS operators were flown to the submarine aboard a Navy search and rescue helicopter. The airmen loaded their gear and boarded the Alabama to prepare for the mission, which was to rescue a pilot who had crashed. The special operations forces had to treat the pilot’s injuries and get him back to the submarine. To begin the operation, the subsurface vessel dived and headed toward shore. After surfacing near land, the special tactics airmen inflated zodiac boats, loaded their gear and headed toward the target. “In this case, the submarine provided that stealthy infiltration platform to get us as close to the objective as possible,” Col. Sneeder explains.

In this scenario, the Air Force could not get airpower to the objective, which prevented recovery of the pilot through that method. The special tactics team had to find a way to reach the survivor over water instead of over land. Col. Sneeder says all joint special operations forces will use any sort of platform to reach their objective, and he points out how the other services’ special operations forces use airframes as well.

Two Navy SEALs acted as advisers during the exercise, providing their expertise on topics such as moving small boats into and out of submarines and recovering craft from submarines. The airmen were not the only ones working in a strange environment. Many of the crew from the Alabama had never worked with special operations forces in the past. “Having the two SEAL advisers onboard helped fuse the two teams together,” Col. Sneeder says.

Col. Sneeder shares that his airmen derived much value from the joint training exercise, and he hopes the Air Force and Navy special operations forces continue to have a relationship. He was amazed with the teamwork the Navy and Air Force developed, explaining that it seemed as if they had been working together for years. He adds that he was impressed at their ability to work as a team to overcome obstacles. However, learning to work from a new platform provided the most important training to the airmen. “Number one, it gave our guys an opportunity to train on a submarine-like environment,” Col. Sneeder says.

Although the Alabama was not originally designed to support special operations forces, the exercise demonstrated the potential of reconfiguring the submarines into SSGNs.

The four SSBNs are transforming into SSGNs at a staggered pace. After the Ohio, the next boat for conversion is the USS Florida, which will go to Jacksonville, Florida, for its return-to-service ceremony scheduled in late May. The USS Michigan is scheduled for delivery later this year, and the final submarine, the USS Georgia, is scheduled for delivery in 2007.


Web Resources
Command Submarine Group 9: https://www.csg9.navy.mil
U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command: www2.afsoc.af.mil
General Dynamics Electric Boat:


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