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In the dark depths of the Pacific, US nuclear submarines patrol with an eye on China News

Honolulu, Hawaii

Hundreds of feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, protected by some of the most technologically advanced equipment in the US Navy, Rear Admiral Jeff Jablon has a clear vision of the two biggest challenges facing his team.

“In today’s world, we are facing two similar nuclear adversaries where we have never had that before,” he explains aboard the USS Mississippi, a nuclear-powered fast attack submarine belonging to the US Pacific Fleet.

“The Soviet Union, and now Russia, were our fellow adversaries with respect to nuclear capability. Now we are facing China, which has expanded and modernized its nuclear capabilities.”

Earlier that day, the Virginia-class submarine had left its base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and slid beneath the waves into the world’s largest ocean on a routine mission.

Throughout the ship, some 130 sailors were at their posts performing a series of finely tuned tasks.

In the control room were on duty more than a dozen sailors, some scanning sonar for obstacles, others tasked with navigating the dark depths.

Downstairs in the torpedo room, technicians practiced loading weapons to ensure operational readiness at all times, engineers tended to the lower floors to ensure water and hydraulic systems were working properly.

It is a cramped and claustrophobic job, where those on board describe long periods at sea and intense relationships, almost like a family.

“I see them every day, I work with them every day, I sleep next to each other,” Jack O’Brien, a 22-year-old machinist from Massachusetts, says of his comrades.

“And even when we’re in port, we’re still here working from sunup to sundown.”

As concerns grow about an accelerating nuclear arms race in Asia, a CNN team has been granted exclusive access to the USS Mississippi, one of 49 fast-attack submarines in the US fleet, Jablon said, to witness how Washington is stepping up preparations. to deter potential conflict in the region.

The role of these ships – hard to detect, hard to destroy and capable of traveling vast distances – received a new boost when earlier this month the US, UK and Australia announced details of a propulsion submarine deal. that would see greater cooperation between the three countries to counter China’s rapid military expansion.

Under the so-called AUKUS deal, Australia will buy three Virginia-class submarines from the US in the early 2030s, pending congressional approval.

China criticized the deal, accusing the three powers of engaging in a “Cold War mentality” that will make the world less safe.

In November, the USS Mississippi paid a port visit to the western Australian city of Perth, where it conducted training with members of the Royal Australian Navy, the US Defense Department said.

The United States and its allies have also increasingly sounded the alarm about China’s growing military ambitions and territorial claims in the Western Pacific and South China Sea.

Beijing’s ruling Communist Party has also refused to rule out using force to capture Taiwan, a self-governing democracy of 23.5 million that claims to be part of its territory, even though it has never ruled it.

Last month, a CNN team was aboard a US Navy reconnaissance plane over international waters in the South China Sea when a Chinese fighter jet flew too close to intercept it.

“The National Security Strategy outlines that the PRC is our pace threat, and Russia is an acute threat to our country,” Rear Adm. said. Jablon, Commander, Submarine Force, US Pacific Fleet, using an abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China. .

“Most of our submarine force is now in the Pacific,” Jablon added. “At this point, about 60% of our (operational) submarines are located in the Pacific because of those challenges.”

Despite the advances made by the Chinese military, experts say the US still has a significant advantage when it comes to submarine warfare.

“Submarines are one area where the United States maintains an undisputed superiority over China,” said Carl Schuster, a retired US Navy captain and former director of operations at the Pacific Command Joint Intelligence Center in the US in Hawaii.

“They are the only stealth platform with the amazing power and survivability to counter the surface and underground forces of the PLA Navy,” Schuster said.

The Mississippi, like all US Navy submarines, is nuclear powered, giving it essentially unlimited range and time to deploy, needing only to make port calls to get provisions for its crew.

As Jablon said: “All we need is food for the people, and if we take enough food, we could go around the world without resupply.”

Firing nuclear-armed missiles is a mission reserved for the Navy’s 14 ballistic missile submarines, larger vessels often referred to as “boomers.”

But the USS Mississippi’s weaponry remains formidable: Her class carries Tomahawk cruise missiles that can hit targets up to 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away, as well as torpedoes to attack adversaries at sea or below.

When fully loaded, it can also carry up to 25 Mark-48 torpedoes, a heavyweight advanced torpedo that can engage adversaries at sea or below it, said Edward Barry, commanding officer of the USS Mississippi.

Jablon said the US submarine force has increasingly made its presence known to the general public and to adversaries because it achieves a deterrent effect.

“We used to be known as the silent service during the Cold War, (we) never let anyone know where we were operating,” Jablon said.

“In today’s submarine force, we operate extensively with the rest of the United States services and with our allies. So that the adversary knows that we can operate in international waters anywhere in the world,” he added.

China has been massively expanding its navy in recent decades, but it lags significantly behind the US in nuclear-powered submarines, something Beijing wants to change.

The number of China’s ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-powered attack submarines, now numbering six each, is expected to more than double between 2020 and 2040, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report from 2022 on China’s naval modernization.

Meanwhile, the PLA Navy is expected to maintain 44 air-independent/diesel-powered attack submarines, according to the US military.

Writing in the US Naval Institute Proceedings magazine, Mike Sweeney, a PhD student at George Mason University, looks at a numbers and range problem for US Navy submarines.

He says US submarine technology is still superior to China’s, but “may simply not be in sufficient numbers” in any conflict with China.

Jablon, Rear Admiral, gave some more details about how US Navy submarines are dispersed.

Twenty-five of the fleet’s 49 attack submarines are stationed in the Pacific, it said. But some of those submarines, Jablon did not provide details, are unavailable for maintenance or other reasons, he said.

Some analysts say it could be up to two-thirds of the fleet.

“An old rule of thumb holds that for every vessel in operation, two more are required: one preparing for deployment and a second withdrawing from recent operations,” Sweeney wrote in Proceedings.

Of course, China’s fleet would probably face similar maintenance demands, but it only needs to cover two oceans, the Pacific and the Indian, giving the PLA Navy an advantage in the total number of submarines in the Indo-Pacific.

Meanwhile, figures from the US Congressional Budget Office point to another potential problem for US attack submarines: the fleet is expected to dwindle to 46 ships by 2028, before the new build programs kick in and bring the fleet to 69 ships by 2052. .

And last month, US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told a House Appropriations subcommittee that construction of new Virginia-class submarines was “significantly behind schedule” and said construction will be it was performing at a rate of 1.4 submarines per year, well below the planned two per year. year.

Life as a submariner may be unique from other branches of the military.

Sailors socialize aboard the USS Mississippi on March 29.

Because the submarine can submerge in the depths of the ocean for long periods of time, the crew aboard the USS Mississippi have to live in a small, enclosed area with little communication with the outside world.

The crew is normally split into three shifts to ensure the warship is manned 24 hours a day, explains ship commander Barry.

The daily routine aboard a nuclear submarine is largely standardized: crew members must be on active duty for eight hours every day, followed by eight hours of studying, cleaning, and socializing, before being required to sleep. .

“I think America’s greatest strategic asset is people,” said Barry, who has served in the US Navy for 19 years.

“They are well trained, well educated, highly experienced and patriotic. And that’s why I think few people can replicate when they take a ship like this out to sea.”

steven wongo

Steven Wong, a 26-year-old electronics technician from California, said he was a bit surprised when he first joined the unit because of the tight space aboard a nuclear submarine.

“What surprised me the most was how close you come together, these kinds of shared difficulties, and you end up with a really strong bond,” said Wong, who is responsible for operating the nuclear reactor to provide power and electricity.

Staying in touch with loved ones is no easy task given how difficult it is to receive signals in the depths of the ocean.

“The only time we can really communicate is through periscope-depth email,” said Wong, whose wife lives in Hawaii. “Every day I try to access my unclassified computer to get my email. I’m always super excited when I see that unread message.”



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