Student experiences life aboard a U.S. nuclear submarine

GW graduate student Kurtis Cooper said he was constantly terrified of the possibility of a nuclear holocaust while growing up.

He said he was glad when the government ranked the cities that would be struck first by a nuclear attack that his hometown was never among them.

The week before Thanksgiving, Cooper got the opportunity to face his fears when he rode aboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, one of 18 U.S. Ohio-class nuclear submarines.

I climbed down into the submarine and was walking down this long hallway lined with concrete cylinders, Cooper said. In those cylinders was enough nuclear power to destroy a world.

Cooper estimated if each missile was carrying about 10 warheads, this submarine alone could destroy an area as large as 240 New York cities. The United States has 18 such submarines.

Cooper spent about 24 hours on the submarine with GW Professor Steven Livingston. Cooper was aboard the submarine as part of his Media and Security fellowship, a training ground for defense correspondents. Cooper said learning about how the United States defends itself is critical to reporting on it.

But Cooper and Livingston did not just go for a ride on the submarine – they maneuvered it.

Once we got far out enough to sea and dove under water, they let us drive the submarine, Cooper said. They were allowing us to drive around this billion-dollar machine with 24 nuclear missiles on board. It was like playing a very big video game.

We did maneuvers they called angles and dangles, Livingston said. They are basically what the Navy calls their evasive maneuvers.

Cooper said his favorite part of the trip was when the submarine was above water, and he would go out on the bridge and watch the sunrise and the sunset.

At nighttime the stars were as bright as you could possibly imagine, Cooper said. This extra time also gave Cooper an opportunity to talk to the men who practically live on the submarine.

It was amazing to me how smart all of these men were, Cooper said. Even the lowest ranking sailors were teaching me things about nuclear technology that I could not understand when I was in class.

We talked a lot about their families, and even about how the Navy is now trying to put women on submarines, Cooper said. The sailors all hated the idea. They said their wives were even less enthusiastic about it.

Cooper said one of the chief enlisted officers had been on submarines dating back to the mid-1980s during the Cold War. He said the officer explained to him the difference between 15 years ago and now.

The officer said that during the Cold War they were always looking and at the same time hiding from the enemy, Cooper said. Now they simply go to sea and have orders to disappear for two months at a time. Cooper said each of the Navy’s 18 Ohio-class submarines patrol an area about six states in size and said even the Navy does not know where they are in that area.

While on board, Cooper made a few trips to the sonar room.

It is amazing what little sounds you can hear, he said. Somebody could tap a pen on the wall in the room we were in, and I could hear it through the sonar (which is based outside on the nose of the ship). The people that listen to the noises in the sea are so well-trained that if they heard an engine from a boat miles away, they could tell you what type of boat it was. They tried to explain to me how they did it. All I could do was nod my head.

Cooper said the sounds on a submarine are not like the ones you hear in the movies.

These machines are designed to make practically no noise, he said. So when you are down there, nothing sounds different. In the movies you normally hear those beeping noises. I was actually disappointed when I did not hear any of those.

The only difference he noted was a soapy smell that was from air purifiers. He said he got used to that almost instantaneously.

I found it amazing how when I first got on the submarine it was this powerful weapon of mass destruction with 24 nuclear missiles on board, and then by the time I left it just felt like `Hotel U.S.S. Pennsylvania,’ Cooper said. Living with all that power becomes a way of life for all of these sailors. It is very odd.

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