Nuclear Submarines: A 7,000 Lb Swiss Watch
You may not think much of nuclear submarines, but the underwater behemoths are the military’s most powerful asset. Nuclear submarines are not only essentially undetectable, but also can strike with more firepower than what was unleashed by the Allied Forces in World War II. Thus, nuclear submarines are extremely versatile and critical for the military.
Such was the message gleaned when I was given the chance to talk to Brian Linville, a former Officer for the US Navy who worked on a nuclear submarine. Becoming an Officer on a nuclear submarine is no easy task. Linville first graduated from the US Naval Academy in 2010, where he spent two of his summers working as an engineer which ultimately piqued his interest in submarines. After graduating, he spent a year and a half becoming a nuclear engineer, in which the first he spent in a classroom and the second half he spent in a controlled environment. After passing a final exam (a live action scenario) Linville could finally start working on a nuclear submarine. Then for almost three years, Linville supervised over 130 crew members out on a submarine. Linville spoke highly of his time working on submarines and stressed just how important they are.
Linville conveyed the usefulness of nuclear submarines by walking me through the types of submarines and their applications. For starters, the US Navy currently has around 70 submarines, which are divided between attack submarines and ballistic missile submarines. The attack submarines are divided into the Los Angeles, Seawolf, and Virginia classes, which account for around 55 of the Navy’s approximately 70 submarines. First, the attack submarines provide undersea dominance; they are responsible for finding and sinking enemy submarines, thus preventing adversaries from attacking US assets. Secondly, they help with anti-surface warfare by finding and sinking enemy ships that could be used to attack U.S. soil. Finally, they are used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). More specifically, the submarines monitor the activity of potential adversaries, strike at hostile targets, help other parts of the Navy accomplish their objectives, and help with counter-drug operations. As a result of all of the attack submarines’ functions, it is easy to see why they are an instrumental part of the military.
The second part of the Navy’s fleet consists of the ballistic missile submarines, which are the remaining 15 or so ships in the force. The ballistic missile submarines are made up of the Ohio Class but will soon be replaced by the Columbia Class that cost north of $102 billion with a per unit cost of $7.3 billion. After seeing the functions of ballistic missile submarines, the high cost of the Columbia Class is easily justifiable. Ballistic missile submarines can perform many of the same missions as the attack submarines, but their primary role is to act as a strategic deterrent. These kinds of submarines make up one third of the Nuclear Triad, the other two being land based and aircraft launched nuclear missiles. These submarines are always ready to fire on an enemy who has launched a nuclear attack on the US. Given that the submarines are nearly impossible to track and could be anywhere, the US has the ability to immediately respond with a nuclear weapon. The ability for the US to strike back immediately is a huge advantage against an attacker and is why these submarines are priceless.
Linville also gave me insight on what it is like being on one of these submarines. Although people may believe that being underwater may become monotonous or depressing, Linville expressed feeling the opposite. Since there is no sunlight underwater, Linville ran on eighteen-hour days. Six of these hours would be spent driving the boat and the other twelve he had to himself. During this time, he would think about tactical and strategic priorities and get some much-needed rest. The issue is that he would be so swamped with critical priorities that sleep was often foregone. As a result, the Navy has recently changed the days to twenty four-hour days in order to increase the standard of living. Nevertheless, Linville asserted that being on a submarine was busy and exciting.
While being on the military’s most powerful asset was certainly stressful at times, Linville suggested that becoming an officer in a nuclear submarine was the best decision he could have made coming out of college. He spoke highly of gaining responsibility quickly and the intellectual challenge of being in a nuclear submarine. Furthermore, he concluded that it was an irreplaceable experience gained through leading a team through stressful situations. Finally, he loved the relationships that he made with fellow officers and sailors. If anyone else wants to take a similar path as Linville, they can go through the US Naval Academy, an ROTC program, or a Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate program.
Written by Willie Turchetta, Edited by Matthew Durborow & Alexander Fleiss