Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Pacific subs take new role in war on terror
By Richard Halloran THE WASHINGTON TIMES November 28, 2006 PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii -- A navigation chart under plate glass atop the desk of Rear Adm. Joseph Walsh, the commander of U.S. submarines in the Pacific, reveals a great deal about how the submarine force's mission has changed. It maps the waters from Japan and Korea down the coast of China and through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea to Indonesia in Southeast Asia. That littoral defines the operating area for most of the Pacific fleet?s 25 attack submarines; in coming months, two newly assigned submarines armed with guided missiles are also scheduled to operate in those waters. Not long ago, that chart would have had a wide-angle focus on the deep blue waters of the Pacific as Adm. Walsh's fastattack boats searched for Soviet submarines and warships during the Cold War. Now the Russian Pacific fleet, lacking operating funds, is mostly rusting at anchor. Today, Adm. Walsh says, the primary targets of American submarines are terrorists, particularly those in Southeast Asia. "The submarine," he contends, "is the perfect platform for the war on terror." The admiral, after 29 years in what submariners call the "Silent Service," did not discuss specific operations. Officers at the Pacific Command and the Special Operations Command, also with headquarters in Hawaii, have pointed to the island chains stretching across the Sulu and Celebes seas as routes along which terrorists have traveled from training camps in the Philippines to targets in Malaysia and Indonesia. Submarines have two attributes that make them effective against terrorists -- stealth and persistence. Unlike surface ships, submarines can stay concealed in the sea, rising to periscope depth to take pictures, listen to electronic transmissions and collect other intelligence. Unlike the airplanes or satellites that pass over a target, submarines can stay on station for weeks or months. The fastattack submarines, in addition to traditional torpedoes, are armed with 12 cruise missiles with conventional warheads. The submarines can also land six-man special operations teams to collect intelligence or conduct raids, then return to pick up the teams. The Pacific submarine fleet has had so many missions assigned to it recently that it no longer sends submarines to the Persian Gulf or Arabian Sea to support the war in Iraq. That duty has been turned over to the Atlantic fleet. During the next five years, about eight submarines will be reassigned to the Pacific fleet from the Atlantic, meaning the Pacific command will account for about 60 percent of the combined fleet. Two will be the USS Seawolf and USS Connecticut, the most advanced boats in the fleet. The home ports to which they will be assigned have not been decided yet, said a spokesman for the Pacific submarine command. The newest addition to the Pacific fleet is the USS Ohio, which has been converted from a ballistic missile submarine to a boat armed with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles that can be fired covertly one at a time or many in a salvo. When launched near land, the cruise missiles can duck under a radar screen to hit targets before an adversary can react or they can loiter over a target shortly before striking. A second guided missile boat, the USS Florida, is expected to operate with the Pacific fleet in 2008. Each of these boats has a dual crew, called Blue and Gold, to enable them to stay at sea for long periods. The crews will swap places every three months, usually in Guam, the U.S. territory in the western Pacific that is being built into a large naval, air and Marine base. The new cruise missile carriers have also been configured to carry 100 special operations troops with their weapons and equipment. Ohio has been equipped with a delivery system to put the commandos ashore and retrieve them and with a command center in which the commander of an operation could direct operations ashore. For a special operations campaign, for instance, Ohio could land 10 teams several miles apart along a coast and the commander of the campaign could communicate with them all from the submarine. Ohio is currently in Hawaii for several months of training with special operations forces before deploying to the western Pacific next year.