Honolulu, Hawaii(CNN) Hundreds of feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, combined with one of the US Navy’s most technologically advanced equipment, Rear Adm. Jeff Jablon is clear-eyed about the two biggest challenges facing his team.
“In today’s world, we are facing two nuclear peer adversaries where we have never experienced that,” he explained aboard the USS Mississippi, a nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine belonging to the US Pacific Fleet.
“The Soviet Union — and now Russia — is our equal adversary in terms of nuclear capability. We now face China, which has expanded and modernized its nuclear capabilities.”
Earlier in the day the Virginia-class submarine left its base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and slipped beneath the waves into the world’s largest ocean on a routine mission.
Throughout the vessel, about 130 sailors were at their stations performing many efficient tasks.
In the control room more than a dozen sailors were on duty, some searching for sonar obstacles, others charged with navigating the murky depths.
Inside the torpedo room, technicians practice loading weapons to ensure operational readiness at all times, engineers man the lower floors to ensure water and hydraulic systems are working properly .
It’s cramped and claustrophobic work, with those on board describing long periods at sea and intense relationships, almost like a family.
“I see them every day, work with them every day, sleep next to each other,” Jack O’Brien, a 22-year-old machinist from Massachusetts, said of his companions.
“And even though we’re in port, we’re still here until the sun goes down working.”
AUKUS sub deal
As concerns grow of an accelerating nuclear arms race in Asia, a CNN crew was given exclusive access to the USS Mississippi, one of what Jablon said are 49 fast attack submarines in the US fleet, to witness how Washington is ramping up preparations to avert a potential conflict in the region.
The role played by these vessels — hard to see, hard to destroy and able to travel long distances — was given new impetus earlier this month, when the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia announced details of a nuclear-powered submarine deal which will see greater cooperation between the three countries to counter China’s rapid military expansion.
Under the so-called AUKUS dealAustralia will buy three Virginia-class submarines from the US in the early 2030s, pending congressional approval.
China criticized the agreement, accusing the three powers of engaging in a “Cold War mentality” that would ease the world.
In November, the USS Mississippi visited a port in the western Australian city of Perth, where it conducted training with members of the Royal Australian Navy, the US Defense Department said.
The US and its allies have increasingly raised alarm over 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 the use of force in seizing Taiwan — a self-governing democracy of 23.5 million that it claims as part of its territory, despite not having ruled it.
Last month, a CNN crew aboard a US Navy reconnaissance jet over international waters in the South China Sea, when a Chinese fighter jet flew close enough to intercept it.
“The National Security Strategy outlines that the PRC is our pacing threat, and Russia is a grave threat to our country,” said Rear Adm. Jablon, commander of the Submarine Force, US Pacific Fleet, using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China. .
“The majority of our submarine force is now located 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 China’s military, experts say the US still has a huge advantage when it comes to undersea warfare.
“Submarines are one area where the United States maintains an unrivaled edge over China,” said Carl Schuster, a retired US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. in Hawaii.
“They are a stealth platform with remarkable power and survivability to counter the PLA Navy’s surface and subsurface forces,” Schuster said.
The Mississippi, like all US Navy submarines, is nuclear powered, giving it unlimited range and time to deploy, requiring it only to call at port for provisions for its crew.
As Jablon says: “All we need is food for individuals, and if we get enough food, we can 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 called “boomers.”
But what the USS Mississippi is armed with is still formidable — its class carries Tomahawk cruise missiles that can hit targets up to 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away as well as torpedoes to strike the enemies on or below the sea.
When fully loaded, it can also carry up to 25 Mark-48 torpedoes — an advanced heavyweight torpedo that can hit adversaries on or below the sea, said Edward Perry, the USS Mississippi’s commanding officer.
Jablon said the US submarine force increasingly makes its presence known to the general public and adversaries alike because it achieves a deterrent effect.
“We used to be known as silent service during the Cold War, (we) never let anybody know where we were operating,” Jablon said.
“With today’s submarine force, we operate extensively with other United States services and with our allies. So the adversary knows we can operate in international waters anywhere in the world,” he added.
China has been massively expanding its navy in recent decades, but in nuclear-powered submarines it remains significantly behind the US, something Beijing wants to change.
The number of China’s ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-powered attack submarines, now six each, is expected to more than double between 2020 and 2040, according to a 2022 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on naval China’s modernization.
Meanwhile, the PLA Navy is expected to maintain 44 diesel-powered/air-independent powered attack submarines, according to the US military.
Writing in the US Naval Institute journal Proceedings, Mike Sweeney, a PhD student at George Mason University, noted a number and range problem for US Navy subs.
He said US submarine technology remains superior to China’s, but it “may simply lack sufficient numbers” in any conflict with China.
Jablon, the rear admiral, provided more details on how the US Navy’s subs are being deployed.
Twenty-five of the fleet’s 49 attack subs are stationed in the Pacific, he said. But some of those subs — Jablon would not provide details — are unavailable for maintenance or other reasons, he said.
Some analysts say that could be as much as two-thirds of the fleet.
“An old rule-of-thumb held that for every vessel operating, two others were required — one preparing for deployment and a second decommissioning from recent operations,” Sweeney wrote. in Proceedings.
Of course, China’s fleet will likely face similar maintenance requirements, but it will only have to cover two oceans — the Pacific and Indian — giving the PLA Navy an advantage in total number of subs 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 shrink to 46 boats by 2028, ahead of new programs in construction will fully begin and bring the fleet to as many as 69 boats by 2052.
And last month, US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told a House Appropriations subcommittee that construction of the new Virginia-class submarines was “significantly behind” schedule, saying building was taking place at a rate of 1.4 subs a year, less than the planned two per year. year.
Far from loved ones
Life as a submariner can be different from other branches of the military.
Because the submarine could be submerged deep in the ocean for long periods of time, the crew aboard the USS Mississippi had to live in a small enclosed area with little communication with the outside world.
The crew is usually divided into three shifts to ensure the warship is manned 24 hours a day, explained ship commander Perry.
The daily routine aboard a nuclear submarine is largely standardized: the crew is assigned to active duty for eight hours each day, followed by eight hours of study, cleaning and socializing, before they have to sleep.
“I think the greatest strategic asset of the United States is its people,” said Perry, who served in the US Navy for 19 years.
“They are well-trained, well-educated, they have a lot of experience, and they are patriotic. And that’s why I think there are very few people who can fold when they put a vessel like this in the sea. ”
Steven Wong, a 26-year-old electronics technician from California, said he was a bit shocked when he first joined the unit because of the cramped space aboard a nuclear submarine.
“What surprised me the most is how close you are to each other, these kinds of shared hardships and you end up with a really strong bond,” said Wong, who is responsible for running the nuclear reactor to provide electricity. 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 email in periscope depth,” said Wong, whose wife lives in Hawaii. “Every day I try to go to my unclassified computer to get my email. It’s always so exciting when I see that unread message.”
CNN’s Brad Lendon contributed to this report