ABOARD THE USS NEBRASKA — Navy Cmdr. Gerhard Somlai took long, sweeping scans across the water through his binoculars.
Tethered to a perch directly behind the bridge, Somlai guided the final miles of the USS Nebraska's voyage home.
Only a third of the submarine's black steel hull was above water as it plowed toward its port in a northwest Washington fiord.
Coast Guard cutters chased away curious sailboaters. Aircraft provided cover. A pair of ships stacked with truck-sized, concrete-filled containers kept pace on either side of the submarine like muscle-bound bodyguards.
During the ballistic missile submarine's nearly three-month mission, global hot spots continued to bubble:
North Korea rattled its sabers in response to allegations that one of its submarines sank a South Korean patrol ship in disputed Yellow Sea waters, killing dozens. China expanded its Pacific naval operations. Iran continued to enrich uranium within its borders, bringing continued questions about its nuclear ambitions.
And at home, ratification of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to replace an expired Cold War-era pact prompted more debate in the U.S. Senate.
All the while, the Nebraska quietly roamed somewhere within an area of the Pacific Ocean the size of the area between Texas and Alaska. Hidden from friends and foes in the opaque ocean, the nuclear-powered sub remained in constant communication with the U.S. Strategic Command near Omaha — poised to unleash missiles tipped with nuclear warheads against an enemy.
On this day, though, the sun, breeze and sea air were in Somlai's face, and he was feeling good. The ship's latest patrol had been a success, and the captain was grateful for what his motivated and well-trained crew achieved.
“They understand their mission … and they work very hard keeping the nation safe, knowing that their family's at home,'' Somlai said later. “You leave and come back, and so much has changed in the world.”
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The USS Nebraska is one of 14 Trident-class ballistic missile submarines — nicknamed “boomers'' — in the U.S. Pacific and Atlantic fleets.
Tridents are capable of carrying 24 missiles. Each missile is limited by arms reduction treaties to a payload of up to eight nuclear warheads. The bombs can be delivered with pinpoint accuracy to multiple targets up to 7,400 miles away.
The submarines are the nation's strategic insurance policy, said Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “That is, no one wants to see them ever used, but the fact that we have them makes us sleep better at night,'' he said.
Ballistic missile submarines are a leg of America's nuclear defense triad. The two others are strategic bombers and land-based missiles. The boats' sole mission and fundamental reason for existence is to deter war as the most survivable and enduring leg of the triad.
It's a serious deterrent, said Cmdr. Michael Fisher, who commands one of the Nebraska's two crews.
“Our mission is to go out and come back,” Fisher said. “Our job is to be the one they can't find.''
Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., said the boats' survivability and lethality are significant. “The whole idea we want to convey to adversaries is that you don't want to mess with the United States,'' he said.
Gaffney, an assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, said, however, that he is concerned that budget cuts and arms treaties could harm the viability of nuclear deterrent forces.
President Barack Obama pledged in 2009 to move toward a world without nuclear weapons and has reduced the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy. The administration also supports programs extending the life of ballistic missiles and submarines.
Since its launch 18 years ago, the Nebraska has completed 53 deterrent patrols. Since 9/11, it no longer stops at liberty ports for the crew, and its sail no longer carries its hull number.
“We stay under, and we're quiet,'' Fisher said.
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Tridents are America's largest submarines.
The Nebraska, for example, is 160 feet longer than the height of the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln. It is six feet wider than the three lanes of Interstate 80 between Omaha and the Platte River.
Each ballistic missile submarine has two crews, the Blue and the Gold. Crew sizes range from about 150 to 165 personnel. No women currently serve on U.S. submarines, but some are in a 15-month training pipeline.
The Blue and Gold crews alternate manning the submarine while on patrol. The Navy says this schedule maximizes the vessel's strategic availability while maintaining the crew's training, readiness and morale at high levels. On average, the submarines spend 77 days at sea, followed by 35 days in port for maintenance.
The Nebraska's return to port Aug. 29 meant that another Trident slipped out to sea on patrol.
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Somlai wasn't alone on the bridge as the Nebraska cruised along at 14 knots toward Kitsap Naval Base near Bangor, Wash.
Two junior grade lieutenants were on the cramped bridge high atop the sail — the big vertical fin protruding near the front of the vessel — relaying information between the control room and skipper.
The lieutenants, Benjamin Cavin, 27, and Matt Burmester, 28, stood behind a Plexiglas windshield rigged after surfacing to the front of the sail. They monitored screens plotting the boat's position — including an off-the-shelf Global Positioning System device tucked inside the windshield — as the Nebraska headed southeasterly into the Hood Canal. They jotted current and projected compass headings on the inside of the windshield with a black grease pen — “167,” then “177” — almost due south between the jagged cliffs and cedar forests of the Olympic Peninsula.
Behind them, Somlai watched and listened. Canon binoculars hung from a strap around his neck. He wore Under Armour gloves and a red and black jacket designed to serve as a flotation device.
The radarscope circled near Somlai's head, tracking other surface vessels. Towering behind were two periscope tubes and a pair of communication masts.
Directly below the bridge — down 29 steps via three steel ladders — other officers watched through a periscope and young seamen steered the submarine with airplane-like yokes.
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The Nebraska's two skippers both are 43-year-old commanders who enlisted in the Navy as teenagers.
Somlai took nuclear power training. Fisher enlisted as a nuclear mechanical operator. Both received commissions from Officer Candidate School. Somlai took command of the Blue Crew in January 2009; Fisher took over the Gold Crew in October 2009.
Before taking command, Fisher lived in Nebraska, where he was a Strategic Command officer.
Captains typically serve three-year tours with a submarine.
Fisher, who will command the submarine for the next patrol, said it's an exhilarating experience.
“Everyone has an extreme sense of pride in knowing we're on the front line defending the country,'' he said.
Many of the boat's sailors are young men just a few years out of high school.
“Not just anybody can be a submariner,'' Fisher said. “These are people who not only volunteered to be in the military but they took an extra step and volunteered to be on a submarine. They come with a certain amount of motivation already installed.''
Submariners are cross-trained to perform more than one job. A cook may be a firefighter. A sonar operator may stand security.
On the Nebraska, the final test crewmen face before receiving a “dolphins” insignia as certified submariners is called “The Husker Run.'' The intense drills include firefighting, water pumping and other emergency procedures.
“The premise is that any member of the crew can save the day,'' Fisher said.
He said his crew makes him proud daily, but he is especially pleased with a sailor-led initiative to eliminate drunken-driving charges. Sailors from Fisher's crew haven't had a DUI charge in more than 900 days.
Fisher said the streak is an important morale booster, and the crew is protective of it. Every crewman is on call to provide rides to buddies who have been drinking.
The crews have another challenge looming. Smoking will be banned on all U.S. submarines after Dec. 31.
“We emphasize teamwork, responsible behavior and taking care of each other,'' Fisher said. “It impacts how we conduct our business and how we conduct ourselves at sea.''
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Few places in the submarine have escaped connections to the state that is its namesake. The Omaha-based Big Red Sub Club makes sure of that.
The crew's mess is called the Huskers Cafe. Autographed University of Nebraska-Lincoln footballs, basketballs and volleyballs are displayed.
Big red “N's” emblazon khaki-colored curtains at crew bunks and the wall-mounted trash cans. Red and black Nebraska cushions soften chairs in the navigation center. Servers wear red tunics with the “N'' logo.
A Gene Ronka print of the State Capitol and Memorial Stadium hangs on a wall, autographed by Gov. Dave Heineman.
The boat has a theater-quality popcorn machine featuring Nebraska-grown popcorn.
Nebraska crews usually include at least a few Nebraskans.
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Before the Nebraska slipped into a temporary mooring at Kitsap, the boat stopped, just as it would when submerged for a missile launch. At the start, middle and end of a patrol, the captain tests the vessel's missile hatches to prove they are operational. This was Somlai's final exercise for the patrol.
Forty-five seconds after the order was given to start the dry run, the first 10-ton missile hatch in the back of the Nebraska silently opened. The remaining 23 hatches followed randomly at 15-second intervals. Each remained open for about 90 seconds and then closed.
The eight-minute exercise was conducted in the time required to launch two dozen ballistic missiles. It exhibited the Nebraska's ranking as the third-largest nuclear power in the world when on alert during patrol, said Master Chief Randy Pruitt, the Blue crew's chief of the boat.
Minutes later, Lt. Cmdr. John Stafford, the executive officer, addressed the crew over the loudspeakers. He congratulated the men for a successful patrol and reminded them their work wasn't complete. An inspection team would immediately scrutinize the boat's missiles. Stafford reminded them to continue to be sharp.
He signed off with three words: “Go Big Red!''
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