By LT. ASHLY WISNIEWSKI, SUPPLY OFFICER USS VIRGINIA (SSN 774)
The difference between working on an older platform of a ship and a new platform in today’s Navy can be similar to having an older car versus a brand new one; the elder is based in more manual systems and the newer more computer based. The watchstanding, the systems, and the roles of Sailors vary in different ships and different platforms. This is the reason that Sailors must requalify every time they go back to sea. United States submarines are some of the most complicated platforms in our arsenal. Over the last few years, I had the pleasure of serving on a few different submarines. I completed most of my submarine qualifications aboard USS Ohio (SSGN 726) (GOLD) and served as Supply Officer aboard USS Maine (SSBN 741) (GOLD) and am currently serving aboard USS Virginia (SSN 774). The major difference between an Ohio-class and a Virginia-class submarine is their size as well as their mission.
An Ohio-class submarine is large, actually longer than a DDG, and does not maneuver very well. Everything about her is manual. Various switches and valves must be manipulated to do almost everything including pressurizing the fire main and deploying the towed arrays. Communications are done with sound powered phones or MC circuits - even that was different than when I served on USS Decatur (DDG 73) as an ensign.
Watchstanding on board a submarine requires you to know entire systems, where the valves are, and everyone’s immediate actions if there is a casualty. As a supply officer, we are held to these high standards when we qualify for diving officer of the watch, contact manager, and ultimately our coveted dolphins. Proceeding to periscope depth on any submarine can be one of the most stressful evolutions, especially as a newly qualified diving officer of the watch. The entire evolution is manually controlled by the watchstanders, from determining the trim of the ship to moving the stern planes and fairwater planes to maneuver the boat to ordered depth. For the supply department,the benefits of this larger ship is storage space and loadout capabilities along with it being one of the most well funded vessels in the entire Navy.
It is abundantly clear that logistics were a focus when building a ship of this class. Loading food is performed at a warehouse in what we call “mods,” essentially pre-made metal shelves that can be craned directly into stowage areas on the boat. Logistic escape trunks can be removed to allow for the onloading/offloading of larger items that may not necessarily be able to be moved otherwise. SSBNs specifically were built to stay at sea. This is also the reason for two crews. Logistically, we need to be able to return to port, turn over immediately and get back out to sea within a few days to support the primary mission for months at a time. If we were not able to move supplies on and off the boat so efficiently, this would not be feasible.
USS Virginia is fast, sleek, and turns on a dime, but compared to an SSBN she is much smaller. She starts and stops with the push of a button. On an Ohio-class submarine, the most junior Sailors on board are driving the boat, moving the stern planes and the fairwater planes to maintain depth. On USS Virginia, this is not the case. Instead, we have a pilot and co-pilot who are senior enlisted Sailors who work in tandem with the computer system to drive the boat. Walking into control, you immediately notice that technology is the backbone of this platform. Touch screens can be found where switches would be on a SSBN. On a SSGN, the fire control system is vastly improved from a SSBN and similar to that of a Virginia-class. Going to periscope depth means typing in your ordered depth and the computer adjusts the ballasting as necessary. If we have an emergency and need to dive from periscope depth, you press a button, where as on a SSBN you have to rely on the timely appropriate reactions of the watchstanders to ensure the safety of the ship.
Logistically, USS Virginia is completely different than any ship I have served on. This platform is built to be paperless. Our instructions, procedures, and logs are all maintained on computers or tablets. As a technology-based vessel, equipment tends to be much more expensive since we rely so heavily on electronics. However, fast attack submarine funding is not as readily available and the supply system has not yet caught up to demand. Some required repair parts are not yet stocked and, as a result, we resort to cannablizing from other Virginia-class submarines. Also, when comparing a SSBN and SSGN, a drastic difference exists with the space available to store food and supplies. The crew must thoroughly coordinate and plan with the command when they are going to load items and where those items will be stored for the duration of our underways. This planning must occur weeks to months in advance to ensure the availability of space for mission critical items.
Whether we serve on a new or old submarine platform, the mission of the ship remains and, as supply officers, we adjust to ensure its success. The structure of the supply department is the same no matter where you serve but it can differ as a larger or smaller scale. The experiences I have had on a submarine have been extremely rewarding no matter the differences. There are different challenges, different advantages, and different people to lead the charge. As Sailors, we rise to meet the mission before us.