Unseen and unheralded, the U.S. Navy’s roughly 50 nuclear attack submarines comprise the silent vanguard of our conventional naval power at sea. While speedy corvettes, shallow-water transports and aviation-capable amphibious ships are vital for exploiting the peace — that is, building new alliances and exporting security abroad — submarines are the most important ships for keeping the peace — that is, deterring major aggression. For no other naval weapon rivals the submarine’s potential for massive, surprise destruction. Last month, War Is Boring contributor Bryan William Jones embarked on the newly modernized USS Toledo to see for himself how the Navy’s submarines maintain our dominance of the seas.
by BRYAN WILLIAM JONES
USS Toledo, “Sword of Freedom,” arrived to pick up a small group of people at Cape Canaveral’s turning basin. After a quick orientation to safety issues including how to survive a fire on-board, introduction to the command structure and layout of the boat, we got underway transiting out of the turning basin and westward into the Atlantic.
The mission of USS Toledo is principally a deterrent to aggression, though other missions can and do involve intelligence gathering, anti-ship and anti-submarine operations, strike, mining, search-and-rescue and discrete insertion of Special Forces. The Los Angeles-class submarines currently form the backbone of the U.S. submarine fleet, with a total of 45 boats in the class currently active.
Toledo is one of the final 23 boats in the class that were designated “improved” boats that run quieter with more advanced combat and navigation systems. Additionally, they were designed for under-ice operations by moving the forward dive planes from the conning tower to retractable positions in the bow of the boat.
Much has been written about the statistics and capabilities of these boats, but the absolute limits of these submarines are classified. Nominally, they are capable of 25 knots and maximum operating depths of greater than 800 feet. The reality of course is that the boat’s operating envelope is significantly greater, with greater test and crush depth ratings and flank speed ratings underwater of 30 to 32 knots. For the record, we were cruising right around 650 feet at 20 knots for a good portion of our journey down the coast.
Toledo was originally commissioned back in 1995, but entered into a depot modernization period in 2007 in Newport News, Virginia, where extensive upgrades to the boat’s sonar, combat and weapons systems was undertaken, upgrading these systems to keep ahead of developments in other submarines operated by competing navies. This cruise is part of the redelivery from depot modernization on Feb. 21.
While Toledo is one of the smaller submarines that the U.S. Navy operates, they are still 360-foot-long machines with a 33-foot beam and a surface displacement of over 6,200 tons. The Los Angeles-class submarines are organized into two principal compartments including engine spaces housing the reactor and all of the engine and turbine components as well as the desalination plant. This compartment occupies approximately the rear half of the submarine. The forward spaces house all the living space, weapons systems, control centers, sonar and fire control on three main decks.
On the first deck below the sail, containing the bridge and all of the periscopes, radar masts and most communications arrays, is the control room, sonar and attack centers. The second deck down contains the mess decks, berthing and ward room, while the lower deck is occupied by the torpedo room, including all of the torpedo stores, Tomahawk cruise missiles and mines. This is also the location of the forward Tomahawk vertical-launch controls.
The boat’s compliment is typically 14 officers and 132 enlisted men. For this cruise, there were a few extra individuals on board including a Navy physician.
As we transited into the Atlantic, I had the opportunity to spend some time up on the bridge, enjoying the sunshine, watching dolphins play off the bow wake and I can honestly say it was one of the highlights of the trip. There were far more interesting things to come, but the simple pleasure of moving through the ocean with a view around you unencumbered by superstructure or other obstructions is unparalleled in the U.S. Navy.
(Photo: BW Jones)