The damaged US Navy fast attack nuclear submarine Connecticut (SSN-22) made a secret trip from Guam to San Diego over the past few weeks, with the submarine arriving unexpectedly in San Diego Harbor on the morning of December 12, 2021. The trip was likely incredibly uncomfortable and fraught with dangers. To give us a better idea of the risks involved and what this ordeal would have been for Connecticut crew, we spoke to our friend and veteran submariner Aaron Amick who spent 20 years on submarines as a Sonarman and now runs the excellent Sub Brief website which covers all submarine matters and naval warfare.
A little history first. the sea bass Class submarine, of which there are only three, crashed into a seamount on October 2, 2021 in the South China Sea and then limped towards Guam where damage was assessed. Although the extent of the damage is not known, the entire forward sonar dome of the boat was torn off as a result of the impact. Connecticut will now need major repairs, probably spending years in dry dock, in order to get back to sea, if he is indeed able to do so. Still, just getting her to a place where she can receive that level of attention was a major undertaking, with the stricken submarine traveling more than 6,000 miles in what would have been an endurance marathon for his crew, whose management was quickly replaced following the accident.
So, with that context in mind, here’s our exchange:
Given what we know of ConnecticutIn the event of a collision and damage, one would think he would not be able to dive safely and would have made the trip from Guam to California on the surface. Is this also your assessment?
Yes. I think they transited on the surface, with at least one support vessel, at an average speed of 10 knots.
How does it feel to travel in a submarine while it’s on the surface? What does it do in different sea conditions?
A submarine on the surface is constantly rolling from side to side, even in the calmest seas. This would have caused “seasickness” in sensitive people. If the rolls were big enough, it would have been difficult to move or even sleep in a bunk. Most of the bunks have a towel rack, I had to hang my forearm on it to avoid being thrown onto the deck in rough seas.
The lack of sleep, or the little sleep of the sailors, probably resulted in great fatigue after the first few days of this 20-day plus voyage. Being seasick and exhausted is not ideal for standing. Chances are they’ve implemented flexible or increased watch rotation for anyone who couldn’t finish their watch.
The watches are reduced during surface transits. For example, you don’t need a dive officer. Sonar watches and other stations operate with minimal staff. In fact, on the surface, sonar is rather useless and Connecticut the bow sonar network is totally useless in its current state. the sea bass class has other sonar arrays along its flank that may still work. They may have chosen to manage these systems, but at first glance, radar is probably the primary sensor for contact management. It is therefore possible that some crew members were airlifted to the United States and that there was a reduced “skeleton” crew on board during the transit.
That being said, due to the damage to Connecticut, there were likely additional watchmen watching the forward bulkhead of the pressurized hull and any penetration of the hull below the waterline.
The ride is bad enough with the dome on. I imagine it was a very crazy race for the crew considering the damage. I guess everyone was exhausted when they reached San Diego.
What are the general risks associated with surface travel?
The greatest risk in peacetime on the surface is collision. Submarines are not as fast and less maneuverable than their surface counterparts. This forces officers to anticipate and plan maneuvers to avoid close contact.
The safety of the bridge watchmen is also a concern. A watchman on deck can fall overboard and inclement weather can cause everything from heat exhaustion to frostbite. Watching the bridge with sick and tired sailors can spell disaster.
In this case, there would be at least one officer and one enlisted lookout on the bridge. [atop the submarine’s sail]. If things are busy, they can add an additional speakerphone to handle communications under bridges, but this is only in extreme situations like when there is a high number of close contacts near shore.
What about a situation where the boat cannot dive at all?
Planning the trip is a big part of the transit of a damaged submarine that cannot dive. The weather, especially the sea state, is believed to play a role in the route from Guam to the west coast of the United States. Maybe they had to bypass foul storms.
For ventilation, they probably had the deck hatch open at all times. If this were the case, the rain would have easily penetrated the interior of the submarine. It would require frequent attention to keep it from pooling.
One might think of traveling at low speed due to the damage to Connecticut and not being able to dive would result in an arduous journey lasting at least over 6,000 miles. How do you think the trip went for the crew?
I think the trip was tedious, exhausting and miserable for everyone on board. For anyone who was seasick, it was a nightmare trip.
What about the preparations for such a trip?
They would have explained the trip in detail before setting off. Plot of a route, obtained from the squadron’s water space (Water space is a deconfliction much like “airspace.” Imagine if the squadron is part of a network of air traffic control around the world) and coordinated with an escort support vessel. The weather probably played a big part in when they left and how they crossed the Pacific.
I think they would have had a lot of easy meals to prepare. Maybe even MREs in case they can’t cook on the high seas. It’s common to serve “cold cuts” on the surface if cooks can’t keep the food on the grill. Cold cuts are just processed meats and cheese pre-sliced with sliced bread.
She had to have escorts. What do you think an appropriate asset set would be to see her return to safety in the continental United States?
I would expect, at a minimum, that there would have been an armed escort to provide additional security, detection and communications support. Maritime aviation should have been part of the escort, but not a necessity.
Preferably, an underwater rescue and support vessel should have been sailing close to it the entire trip. Not sure if one was available or in Guam so it is possible that this did not happen.
Based on the very limited information currently available to us, do you think the USS Connecticut can it be put back into service?
This is purely speculative on my part, but if there is no significant damage to the prime mover (powertrain), I believe it will return to service after a long period of dry-docking and recertification.
I am very proud of the officers and crew who managed this trans-Pacific voyage aboard a damaged submarine. It was very risky and could have ended with the loss of the ship. Their professionalism and determination brought USS Connecticut house and that’s quite an achievement.
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