A Sub’s Dependence On Sonar

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - July 12, 2006
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“Dive! Dive! Dive!”

The order over the submarine’s loudspeaker system carried an edge of urgency.

“Ooogah! Ooogah! Ooogah!”

The klaxon split the closeknit molecules of air, leaving no doubt the USS Santa Fe, SSN (sub surface nuclear) 763 was about to slip below the water’s surface, and every hand had best pay attention to the transition from “on” to “under.”


The mental concentration in the boat’s operations center was palpable as the two young sailors at the “conn” (helm) operated the bow and stern planes, and the rudder with steering yokes resembling those on any large aircraft.

Others focused on depth and pressure gauges.

Engineering specialists monitored the nuclear reactor, which provided the propulsion.

The “Officer of the Deck” rotated the periscope through a 360-degree sweep of the horizon to fix upon the navigation display the positions of nearby surface contacts.

As an observer, I marveled at the detail and coordination devoted to a seemingly routine maneuver. But then I realized, “Hey, this ain’t that much different from flying.”

Over the years I had lectured on leadership to several classes of prospective submarine commanding officers at the “Commander Submarine Forces Pacific” (COMSUBPAC) Headquarters at Pearl Harbor, and the promise of an “overnight” on a nuclear submarine was being fulfilled. I and two other guest observers had embarked early morning at the pier, stood atop the conning tower (now called the “sail”) with the skipper, Cmdr. Steve Perry, and the petty officer of the conn as we maneuvered out of the harbor to the open sea.

Just for perspective, the Santa Fe is 60 feet longer than a football field, and is basically tubular with a diameter of 33 feet. She has a top speed “greater than 25 knots” and goes to a depth of “greater than 800 feet.” With a crew of 14 officers and 128 enlisted, she is a formidable fighting ship, carrying an arsenal of MK-48 advanced capability torpedoes for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, as well as 12 cruise missiles in vertical launch tubes. She can deliver underwater mines in coastal areas and covertly insert teams of Special Forces.

Like most nuclear-powered submarines, she can remain submerged at sea for long periods of time, and produces her own water and oxygen. Endurance is limited mainly by how much food can be stored aboard.

Our day at sea was packed with simulated beach reconnaissance, a torpedo run on a simulated target, and touring the entire boat, except for the nuclear reactor space, which requires both a special security clearance and a medical clearance. All crewmen wear dosimeters to detect any escaped radiation - practically a formality given the impeccable safety record of our nuclear-powered Navy. The torpedo bay was the only space on the ship that was unobstructed from the port to the starboard side. It doubles as a bunk room when extra “special operations” personnel are aboard, each man making a nest between or beneath the sleek, deadly torpedoes.

As I looked over the shoulder of a sonar operator analyzing the sound traces on the screen before him, he explained the subtle differences between the “signature” of a whale and another submarine, or between the traces of “active” and “passive” sonar. And it became clear how vital is the use of sonar in the submarine’s overall war fighting capability.


Particularly impressive were the closeness and camaraderie of the crew - from the officers’ wardroom to the enlisted mess deck (dining space), to the cramped work spaces throughout. When the closeness requires crewmen to turn sideways just to pass one another, there has to be harmony and patience. It also explains why submarines have remained off limits for female sailors.

After spending the night 500 feet underwater, I found hot coffee in the wardroom, and a few moments to reflect upon the pride and professionalism of the Santa Fe’s crew, all truly qualified to wear the coveted emblem of the submariner - the silver dolphins, gold for officers - on their chests.

Again surfaced, I stood atop the Santa Fe’s sail as we approached Pearl Harbor, the bulbous bow wake coursing smoothly across and around the hull. The early morning sun sparkled off the pod of dolphins escorting us homeward, and I thought, this must be the moment that many a submariner has thought, “Now this is the Navy I shipped over for!”

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