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
Medical departments on most deploying submarines are manned by a hospital corpsman, equivalent to a physician’s assistant who has extensive training to operate independently from a medical officer or physician. This training allows the corpsman to treat headaches, minor injuries and anything short of major surgery. Space is at a premium on a submarine, but there are extensive medical facilities. I was surprised at the level of redundancy. When necessary, the wardroom table becomes the surgery table.
For this particular trip, we did have a full physician on board. Dr. Vanderweele, pictured, and I had a wonderful discussion about the environment of the submarine and the routine the sailors adopt. Most sailors live 18-hour days with six hours on watch and 12 hours for submarine maintenance, training and rest and recreation. There are three watch shifts, or sections, on the submarine.
Given that people have an intrinsic, 25-hour circadian rhythm that fits into a 24-hour day, there may be problems with that schedule. We also talked about lighting on board, about which some percentage of sailors complain bitterly. The new “broad spectrum,” low-level, fluorescent lighting used on many submarines gives some people headaches. Light issues aside, there are plenty of stimuli on board to preserve your circadian rhythm, but the question of illumination is a valid one.
Sailors’ diets are another thing the Office of Naval Research is concerned with, and those discussions were equally illuminating. More on that later.
The prospect of medical research on submarines is interesting. Would changes to the current schedule or lighting improve morale and performance?
(Photo: BW Jones)