Practicing For Doomsday

  • The cold war may be over, but dozens of U.S. and Russian subs still lurk under the ocean, poised to attack. It's dangerous work, as Russians discovered last year with the sinking of the Kursk and Americans realized last month with the U.S.S. Greeneville's deadly collision. The Navy operates 18 Trident subs, whose 432 missiles carry enough nuclear warheads to destroy Russia many times over. Time's Douglas Waller was granted the most access any journalist has ever had to chronicle a patrol of one of those Tridents, the U.S.S. Nebraska. His book Big Red: Three Months On Board a Trident Nuclear Submarine (HarperCollins; $27.50) arrives in bookstores this week. In the excerpt below, the crew practices the most complex and momentous operation a Trident can undertake: the launching of nuclear weapons.

    Sunday, May 8, 1999, 12:25 P.M.
    "Russia is in economic chaos," commander David Volonino announced on the sub's speaker system. "It's out of oil, out of food, and its missiles are on alert. U.S. strategic forces have therefore been put on alert." He felt obliged to provide a scene setter for these missile drills. The brass liked that.

    "Set Opsec, condition Alpha," he said over the microphone, then hung it up and returned to his stateroom one level below.

    Operational Security Alpha was one of the quietest operating modes the Nebraska had. It was imperative that the sub not be detectable. The defense condition under which the sub now sailed had skyrocketed, from DefCon 5 (the normal peacetime level) to DefCon 2 (the second highest alert level).

    "Attention helm and quartermaster," Brent Kinman announced loudly to the planesmen and navigators in the room. "Lieutenant Kinman has the deck and the conn." He hopped down from the conn and walked to the ballast control panel to make sure water was distributed properly in the ballast so the sub would stay level for the missile launch. The Nebraska stays underwater to fire off its missiles, but at a shallow depth.

    Kinman began leafing through notebooks to piece together a torpedo-evasion plan to carry out after the launch. Once a Trident fires one of its missiles, the rest of the world knows its exact location. Navy attack subs in the area can protect it only so much. After a launch, a Trident would have to hide from what would be a very angry enemy, whose sonar shack would suddenly have a blast of valuable noise for closing in on the kill.

    Kinman could play possum. An enemy torpedo would home in only on a target that was moving. But it takes guts not to run, and the commander would have to make that call, not he. Kinman decided his plan would be to kick the engines into full throttle and sink the Nebraska as deep as he could to get out of there.

    In the radio shack forward of the control center, alarms began beeping on the standard information-display consoles as the emergency-action messages (EAMS) from Strategic Command began interrupting routine radio traffic and flashing on the screen. Radio operator Eric Liebrich quickly opened the safe that stored the cryptographic manuals and code books they would need to decipher the EAMS that had begun pouring in.

    The Pentagon assumes that in a nuclear crisis its communication centers would come under enemy attack, so it has dozens of ways to send messages to Tridents over scores of independent transmitters based in space, on land, at sea and from airplanes. When the Strategic Command sends out an emergency-action message, it is automatically relayed to all these stations for transmitting to the Tridents. The Nebraska wasn't getting just one EAM. Dozens of them were pouring into the sub. stratcom was bombarding the Trident with the same message.

    Liebrich ripped pages off the printer and began decoding the first six groups of scrambled letters. Dan Montgomery, the radio shack's chief, had already arrived and was watching over Liebrich's shoulder as he decoded. It was an EAM for the Nebraska.

    Montgomery rushed out of the radio shack and to the conn, where Kinman paced back and forth. The radio chief spoke in a low voice to the lieutenant, then Kinman reached up for the microphone over the conn.

    "Alert one, alert one!" Kinman announced on the speaker system, his heart now thumping.

    Officers who weren't standing watch dropped paper work on their desks, swallowed one last mouthful of lunch or rolled out of racks to dress quickly. They all sprinted to the control center. Six of them were assigned to decode and process an emergency-action message. Volonino had divided them into three two-man teams. When an alert one was announced, the first two-man team to reach the radio shack began processing the message.

    The small, restricted op-con room, which was connected to the radio shack by another door forward, was now cramped with four officers and Montgomery inside it. The officers spread out code books on a table, which was folded down from the starboard bulkhead. They began unscrambling the rest of the message, reading off the four-letter groups and comparing them with the decryption instructions in the manuals. The decoding had to be done by hand, but the men worked quickly. Most EAMS took less than 10 minutes to decode if the message was intact.

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