Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

Rolling in the deep

Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine the USS Tennessee (SSBN 734) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia after a three-month deployment in 2013

Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine the USS Tennessee (SSBN 734) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia after a three-month deployment in 2013

The beds in the missile compartment are a recent addition. When the USS Tennessee got a technology upgrade, some years after the sub was built, extra crew were needed to serve the servers. This posed a problem, until it occurred to someone that there’s room for a bunk pan in the space between two nuclear missiles. The Trident II launch tubes – of which there are 24 on board – stand 45 feet tall, spanning all four decks of the submarine. The multi-floor missile compartment is the least hectic place onboard. It’s like the stacks in an old college library – a still, private place to put your head down and catch some sleep. Though not just now. “All hands awake!” The voice on the intercom is accompanied by an alarm, loud and insistent. Bong, bong, bong, bong.
An annoying child with a stick and pot.

“Simulate sending all missiles.” This is a lot of missile. Each Trident carries multiple warheads, each programmable to its own destination, with sufficient precision to, as I’ve twice heard it put, “hit a pitcher’s mound”. The ballistic missile submarines of the US fleet, 14 in all, are a roving underwater nuclear arsenal. Along with missiles in underground silos and others on bomber aircraft, they make up the “nuclear triad” of US strategic deterrence. You would be crazy to nuke us, is the message here; we have more bombs than you have, and you can’t take ours out first because you’ll never find the ones on the subs. Ballistic missile submarines have whole oceans to hide in, and a nuclear reactor aboard to generate power and water, so they never need to surface for fuelling. They can stay deep until the food runs out.

The Tennessee’s second-in-command, Executive Officer Nathan Murray, invited me to join him in the missile compartment for the drill. We pass a row of sleeping spaces along one wall, some closed off with black vinyl curtains. Murray points out the bed of a young man who shares his space with the wall coupling for the fire hose. He was woken up last night for a fire drill, and now this.

The Submarine Force has formally acknowledged that it has a sleep problem. Quoting Force Operational Notes Newsletter (Special Crew Rest Edition), “An individual’s sleep at sea is not protected, allowing administrative training, maintenance, and ‘urgent’ matters to routinely shorten or interrupt a person’s sleep…” The crew of the Tennessee endure fire drills, flooding drills, hydraulic rupture drills, air rupture drills, man overboard drills, security violation drills, torpedo launch drills.
They practise launching the missiles more regularly than some people floss. On one hand, you want the crew to be well trained. You don’t want to hit the wrong pitcher. On the other, you don’t want training and drills going on so often that the people tending the bombs and reactors are chronically sleep deprived.

In 1949, submarine schedules allowed ten hours a day for sleep. On top of their “long sleep”, half the crew took at least one nap. Starting in 1954, subs went from diesel to nuclear-powered engines. The result being that there’s a lot more to watch than a temperature gauge and an oil level. On the USS Tennessee, four hours’ sleep has been about the average.

Before coming aboard, I spoke by phone with sleep researcher Colonel Greg Belenky (Ret), the founder of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University, Spokane. Belenky knows what happens when people go from sleeping eight hours a night to sleeping four or five. Their cognitive mojo declines over the course of a few days, whereupon it plateaus, settling in to a new, compromised state. The less sleep they’re getting, the longer their mental abilities deteriorate before they plateau. Which mental abilities? Most. Sleep deprivation shrinks memory and dims the network that sustains thought, decision-making and the integration of reason and emotion, Belenky said. “You know when you have a problem you’re working on and you give up? Then you get a good night’s sleep, wake up, and suddenly there’s your solution? That’s what sleep does. It returns the brain to its normal specs.”

“The prospect of marginally vigilant humans babysitting weapons of mass destruction is unsettling”

On submarines, the junior crew have it worst. On top of work and watch duties, they are preparing for “qualification”, a sort of submarine version of passing the bar: 60-plus verbal quizzes on submarine components and systems plus practical tests on various elements of your particular sub – anything from taking the helm to using a fathometer to blowing a sanitary tank. “I’ll get three hours of sleep one night, and the next night none,” said a long-faced seaman studying dive hydraulics in the vaporiser haze of the Tennessee’s enlisted crew lounge.

The seaman will tell you he’s fine, but Belenky knows he’s not. When people drop below four hours a night, they don’t plateau. Their abilities continue to erode until they end up at the point where sleep researchers have had to come up with special terms, like “catastrophic decompensation”. “Put simply” – and here Force Operational Notes shifts into typographic overdrive, simultaneously boldfacing, underlining and italicising – “failure to get adequate continuous sleep every day results in overly fatigued personnel who, in a matter of days, function at a deficit similar to being intoxicated.”

“Release of nuclear weapons has been authorised.” It’s the intercom man again. Even in a simulation, it’s a sickening thing to hear. I look around at the sailors standing near. One untangles an extension cord. His face betrays nothing. A sailor seated at a control console blows his nose. “Is this what it would be like?” I ask Murray. “If it were the real deal? Would people just be calmly carrying out their tasks, blowing their nose…” The whole business is straight off my fathometer. Murray’s not playing this game. “If your nose is running, you blow it.”

Two sailors hustle past, each holding a corner of what looks at a glance like some kind of Lotto ticket. It’s the code for the key box, the box with the keys to launch the missiles. Two people must have a hand on it at all times once it’s out of safekeeping, for the same reason some airlines, in the wake of the 2015 Germanwings suicide flight, require a second person in the cockpit.

Were this an actual missile launch, I’d wager that adrenaline would keep the crew alert regardless of how long they’d been up. But the normal day-to-day routines of a ballistic missile sub are a good deal less invigorating. Most watches are just that: hour upon hour of watching. Watching displays, read-outs, dials, sonar feed. It’s a worrisome mix: sleep deprivation, tedium and large, potentially destructive items. “The Navy doesn’t want us to publish anything saying that these guys monitoring these nuclear reactors are falling asleep on watch,” Jeff Dyche, a sometime research psychologist at the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory (NSMRL), now with James Madison University, told me. “But we know that’s happening.” Even awake, the tired are poorly suited for standing watch. When psychologists give sleep-deprived people a standard battery of cognitive tasks, their score on measures of “psychomotor vigilance” – paying attention and noticing shit – drops dramatically.

“The biggest risk lies with the seemingly straightforward but in fact reliably harrowing task of surfacing a sub”

I never visited the Tennessee’s reactor and its tenders, because I didn’t have security clearance for that part of the sub, but I did visit the torpedo room. There are four of them, massive as medieval battering rams. Sweetly (I guess), they are named for the torpedomen’s wives. I asked the torpedoman on watch when last a US submarine had had cause to fire a torpedo at another vessel. He thought for a moment. “World War II.” He’s the Maytag Repairman, ready for action in the extremely unlikely event it’s called for. The torpedoman’s watch is a checklist of inspections, walk-arounds, paperwork. Always with the paperwork (by weight, a submarine carries more paperwork than it does people). Outside of the sonar shack and the Missile Control Center, much of the Tennessee remains charmingly analogue. I looked around the missile compartment at one point and thought: tuba parts. The torpedo launch console has big, square, plastic buttons – Flood Tube, Open Shuttle, Ready to Fire – that flash red or green, like something Q would have built into James Bond’s Aston Martin. The missile compartment has similarly retro-looking panels of buttons. They provided the set-up for one of the more quotable things Murray said to me – a line that, were fewer precautions in place, could have joined “Houston, we’ve had a problem” or “Watch this” in the pantheon of understated taglines for calamity: “I wouldn’t lean on that.”

On an intuitive level, the prospect of marginally vigilant humans babysitting reactors, torpedoes and weapons of mass destruction is unsettling. That the scene takes place in a vessel under hundreds of feet of water, all the more so. Statistically, however, the highest risk doesn’t lie in the nuclear reactor compartment or even, for that matter, in deep water. The biggest risk lies with the seemingly straightforward but in fact reliably harrowing task of surfacing a sub.

Logistics specialist seaman Kevin Simpson at the helm of the USS Tennessee in February 2012

A ballistic missile submarine will take you to the remotest places you’ll ever travel and show you none of it. The sub has no windows or headlights, nothing to make it visible in the surrounding black. Below the depth that sunlight penetrates, a periscope is useless. The crew see by sonar, picking up propeller sounds from ships and plotting their distance and course. To remain undetected, ballistic missile subs use passive sonar only: no pinging. Echolocation – sending out sound and timing its bounce-back – would give away the sub’s own location. The Tennessee is blinder than a bat.

Although ballistic missile subs are able to stay deep for months, they typically do not. The Tennessee surfaces regularly, like a whale, to exhale emails. We’re about to come up in a merchant transit lane, which has everyone a little on edge. In the hour-long lead-up to the moment when the sub breaches the water’s surface, someone’s been at the periscope, face pressed to the eyepiece, scanning for anything sonar might have missed. Because the view is less than 360 degrees, he circles slowly, around and again, crossing one leg behind the other, a slow dance with a canister vacuum. You want to be very, very sure there’s nothing up there.

In 2001, the USS Greeneville surfaced directly beneath a 191-foot Japanese fishery training ship. The sub’s rudder sliced the hull, causing the trawler to sink and resulting in the death of nine people aboard. The captain of the Greeneville exhibited what is known in these parts as poor periscope discipline. He scanned for about half as long as procedure called for. Another potential danger for a surfacing sub is “bow null”. If the front of a ship points straight into a submarine’s sonar array, the sound waves emanating from that ship’s propulsion are blocked by its own body and cargo. The Tennessee’s safety officer compares it to “yelling through the trunk of a car to your kids in front of the car”. A helpful, if disquieting metaphor.

It’s the weekend, which can be a more dangerous time to come up. Container ships that are nearing a port outside standard work-week hours will sometimes loiter, timing their arrival for Monday, when pay scales drop back to normal. A container ship is the size of a strip mall, but if its engines are silent, it’s all but invisible to the crew of a ballistic missile sub. Aboard the Tennessee, a sailboat is more worrisome than a warship. Now you understand how it came to pass that the USS San Francisco, in January 2005, ran into an undersea mountain. They’re very quiet, mountains.

Adding to stress levels: last-ditch evasive manoeuvres are out of the question. A surfacing ballistic missile sub is travelling between six and 12 miles per hour. “It’s like a baby crawling out of the way of a truck,” says the safety officer. Extreme caution is ever the mind-set. If a new sonar contact should appear on the screen during surfacing, an “emergency deep” may be ordered. Because, without echolocation, you don’t immediately know how far off the other vessel is. “Be safe now and figure it out after,” the commanding officer said yesterday, as we dove to avoid a ship that would turn out to be several miles off. A ballistic missile sub is a boat without a destination, its course a series of evasions and nervous retreats. Any time a contact is calculated to be within two miles, the commanding officer is called. And, often, the navigator and the executive officer.

And there goes another night’s sleep. “I expect to be woken three or four times per sleep,” the navigator told me. Murray wakes up, too, because he has a speaker mounted on the wall of his stateroom, above his pillow, that picks up the conversation in the control room. He’s like a new mother with a baby monitor on the nightstand. “All of a sudden, out of a lot of background noise and chatter, you’ll catch a certain word or a change in the tone or volume of somebody’s voice. It just snaps you out of a sleep.”

We’re approaching periscope depth. The lights in the control room have been shut off. This is done for the benefit of the man at the periscope, who will shortly be taking a look around in the 5am darkness at the surface. To everyone else up here, many of whom are going on four or fewer hours of sleep, darkness is the opposite of helpful. Not only is it warm and dark in here, but because we’re nearing the surface, the submarine is now rocking gently with the swells. “Torture,” says the helmsman.

For the past four decades, submarines have run on a watchbill known as “sixes”, which divides sailors’ time into six-hour chunks: six hours on watch, six for other duties and studies, six for personal time and sleep, then back on watch. The creation of an 18-hour day saw each sailor putting in six extra hours of watch time every 24-hour period. The problem is that his activities ceased to align with his biological rhythms. He’s now working when his body badly wants to be sleeping. “It’s like flying to Paris every day,” said Lieutenant Kate Couturier, a circadian rhythm researcher at NSMRL.
Without Paris.

The problem resides mainly with the midnight to 8am shift – the dreaded “mids”. You come off watch and instead of sitting down to dinner, you find you’re having breakfast. You’re sleeping from 4pm to 10pm, when there’s often, despite Nathan Murray’s best efforts, something that you have to get out of bed for. To more fairly distribute the suck, the crew swap watch schedules every other week. So instead of flying to Paris every day, it’s every two weeks. The switchover happens on a Sunday, its being normally – that is, when passengers are not coming aboard creating extra work for everyone – the quietest day of the week.

Today is that Sunday. Lieutenant Kedrowski, the man on the periscope platform, the officer of the deck, is switching to mids. It’s his birthday. Happy birthday, Kedrowski. You get to scramble your circadian rhythms and get three hours sleep – in a rack that smells like someone else, because you had to give yours up to some writer from California.

“I’m really sorry, by the way.” I would have been happy to sleep among the warheads. “It’s no problem,” says Kedrowski, with unforced bonhomie. Almost everyone I’ve met down here has been easygoing and upbeat, especially given how tired they must be. I am, to quote the Dole banana carton in the galley pantry, “hanging with a cool bunch”. If everyone in the world did a stint in the Navy, we wouldn’t need a Navy.

Up above Kedrowski’s head, a red light is flashing. Kedrowski explained this alarm box earlier. It’s the one that goes off if the President of the United States orders a nuclear missile launch.

“So this is another drill then?”

“No.” Kedrowski finishes writing something in a three-ring binder and looks over at the box. “It’s kind of broken.” He puts down his pen and listens. “They’re supposed to say, ‘Disregard alarm.’” They don’t, and soon it stops. “They need to fix that,” he says.

The missile alarm is mildly unnerving (good God, what if?) but not particularly frightening. In the queer logic of war in general and nuclear conflagration in specific, 500 feet underwater on an undetectable Trident submarine is the safest place you could possibly be. The crew of the modern ballistic missile submarine endures long hours and gruelling tedium, homesickness, horniness and canned lima beans, but they are spared the thing that keeps most of us out of the military: the nagging awareness that you could be shot or blown up at almost any moment. Better dead-tired than dead.

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme