Living Underwater: How Submarines Work

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12:12   |   Feb 05, 2019


Living Underwater: How Submarines Work
Living Underwater: How Submarines Work thumb Living Underwater: How Submarines Work thumb Living Underwater: How Submarines Work thumb


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  • In all of World War Two, the world used about 5 megatons of explosives.
  • Now, this is a Trident II missile, capable of carrying 12 nuclear warheads together equivalent
  • in power to about 5 megatons of explosives.
  • A single American Ohio Class submarine can carry 24 Trident II missiles.
  • A single submarine can carry a devastating, catastrophic, inconceivable amount of firepower.
  • While in reality due to arms reduction treaties and practicality these boats often carry far
  • less than their maximum armament, submarines can still creep up anywhere, undetected, ready
  • to unleash their firepower, more powerful that the entire arsenal of some countries,
  • in an instant.
  • Submarines are different in purpose to some other elements of a navy.
  • While an aircraft carrier, for example, is intended to be big, foreboding, and noticeable
  • as a means to display a nation’s power to the world, submarines are meant to to be unseen,
  • undetected, an invisible, silent force that could or could not be anywhere at any time.
  • In a way, submarines almost serve a purpose of psychological warfare—an enemy can never
  • know for sure whether a submarine is looming off its shore.
  • While dozens of countries operate submarines, the most powerful and often largest of these
  • boats are those capable of firing ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads.
  • Only six nations are confirmed to have these submarines—The US, UK, France, India, Russia,
  • and China.
  • In addition, analysts have found evidence suggesting that North Korea and Israel also
  • each have nuclear-missile capable submarines.
  • Nowadays, there are essentially two different types of military submarines with two different
  • missions.
  • The attack submarine, the more common kind, is generally smaller and, in combat, attacks
  • other close-range targets like ships using torpedoes, shorter range missiles, and other
  • armaments.
  • The other, often larger type of submarine are those ballistic missile submarines which
  • essentially serve the purpose of being a mobile, hidden launch platform for nuclear missiles.
  • The idea is that, as a stealth launch platform, a country’s submarines would survive any
  • nuclear first strike and therefore be able to retaliate against an aggressor.
  • Ballistic missile submarines are therefore crucial to the idea of mutually assured destruction—if
  • anyone attacks with nuclear weapons, assuming those attacked had nuclear weapons that would
  • survive a strike and they retaliated, both the attacker and those attacked would be destroyed.
  • Therefore, many consider these nuclear missile equipped submarines to actually be a form
  • of nuclear deterrence—they say they reduce the likelihood of others using nukes since
  • they assure their subsequent destruction.
  • Considering that these submarines might survive when a country and its government do not,
  • they therefore need the independent authority to use their missiles.
  • While other operators likely have similar setups, it’s known that the UK’s four
  • ballistic missile submarines each have a letter locked in a safe instructing their commander
  • on what to do if the UK is wiped out by a nuclear strike.
  • These letters are written by each prime minister at the beginning of their term and destroyed,
  • unread, at the end.
  • Each PM essentially has to chose which of the four potential options they want to instruct
  • the sub commanders to do—nothing, to place themselves under the command of an ally like
  • the US or Australia, for the commander to use their judgment, or to retaliate and launch
  • nuclear missiles at the attacker.
  • Of course, what gives submarines their stealth is the blanket of water.
  • American Ohio class submarines are publicly known to be able to go down as deep as 800
  • feet or 250 meters.
  • In reality, it is believed they can go much further.
  • As soon as a sub surfaces, though, their stealth is lost especially in today’s era of satellite
  • tracking.
  • Therefore, it is important that submarines can stay underwater for long periods so that
  • that can dive underwater on one side of the world and make their way to the other undetected.
  • Of course, almost all of the world’s ballistic missile equipped submarines are nuclear powered
  • meaning they have virtually unlimited range.
  • These boat’s reactor cores only need to be swapped every few decades.
  • In addition, most submarines have oxygen generators and desalinators so, like nuclear-powered
  • aircraft carriers, the only thing that really limits how long they can stay deployed is
  • their food supply.
  • How it works on American nuclear subs, which work similarly to those of other countries,
  • is that each boat has two fully staffed crews at any given time—the Blue and Gold crews.
  • The Blue crew will first man the boat while on patrol which lasts, on average, 77 days.
  • The different submarines different patrols are scheduled so that there are always submarines
  • deployed.
  • Despite this long patrol period, in the US Navy at least, submarines are actually known
  • to have the best food of any vessel.
  • Some say it’s because submarines are small—the chef has nowhere to hide if a meal is bad.
  • It more likely has to do with the fact that submarines get a higher food budget than other
  • vessels.
  • Food is important to morale especially considering submarine duty is one of the Navy’s toughest
  • jobs.
  • Of course, fresh food can only last, at most, two weeks, so the meal quality deteriorates
  • as the weeks go by.
  • Eventually, the only ingredients left are canned, dried, or frozen.
  • The sign of food quality deteriorating does mean that the end of patrol is coming at which
  • time the first crew, the Blue crew, would take the boat back to either its home port
  • or a allied overseas port.
  • The Gold crew will then arrive and then both crews will work to complete a turnover, restocking,
  • and maintenance period of 25 days.
  • Then, the Blue crew will fly home for vacation and subsequent training before the cycle repeats
  • again.
  • Most crew members keep this cycle going for years on end.
  • Submariners even live their days in cycles as well.
  • They work eight hours on then have sixteen off to train, conduct maintenance, work out,
  • eat, and sleep.
  • Now, to get a sense of the scale of the largest of these submarines, here’s a Boeing 747-400
  • and here’s an American Ohio-Class submarine.
  • It is almost 2.5 times longer with a hull circumference far larger than the plane’s
  • fuselage.
  • But even this is not the world’s largest submarine.
  • That title goes to slightly longer and far wider Russian Typhoon-class submarine.
  • These are so large that their amenities include a sauna and small pool.
  • On American and most other submarines, the amenities are more lacking, though.
  • It’s important that submariners have things to do in their down-time considering they’ll
  • spend three months without sunlight in a metal tube, but there just isn’t much space.
  • The mess is really the only open space not devoted to work.
  • Submarines tend to have gym equipment but it’s not usually consolidated in one room—more
  • often it’s just spread out in different nooks and crannies.
  • On large Ohio-class submarines, a submariners tiny bunk is their only true personal space.
  • On smaller submarines, like the American Virginia-class, the number of sailors exceeds the number of
  • bunks so the most junior sailors will have to share bunks—while one works the other
  • sleeps and vice versa—and there’s no true personal space.
  • Compared to many surface Navy ships, which have phones, frequent mail deliveries, and
  • even internet, communication to the outside world is limited on submarines.
  • Each submariner is given an email address that their family can send messages to.
  • When the submarine is able to receive communications, all these messages are then sent electronically.
  • Onboard, the messages are all reviewed by a dedicated crew member.
  • They check through to be sure that no information is being sent that they don’t want known
  • by the sailor.
  • For example, they might choose to not pass on information of a family death in order
  • to not affect crew morale.
  • There’s often no way to get sailors off, anyways, so many believe it’s better to
  • leave that news for the end of the patrol.
  • How submarines communicate, though, is complicated because they do, of course, spend months underwater.
  • Almost all radio waves can’t travel through salt water but submarines do need communications
  • to receive orders.
  • Very low frequency radio waves, though, do penetrate water to an extent.
  • That’s why VLF radio forms the core of submarine communication systems.
  • Different navies have large VLF transmitters—for example, the US has ones in Maine, Washington,
  • Hawaii, and elsewhere; India has one on its southern coast; and Australia has one in Western
  • Australia.
  • These VLF signals are able to penetrate the ocean and be picked up by a submarine as deep
  • as 60 feet or 20 meters.
  • One major disadvantage of VLF, though, is that it is very low bandwidth.
  • It can’t even transmit real-time audio signals—the most it can do is about 700 words per minute
  • in text.
  • When deeper, some submarines also have the capability to launch buoys to shallower depths
  • to receive signals.
  • Submarines also typically can’t respond with VLF frequencies since they don’t have
  • large enough transmitters so they have to raise to shallow depths so they can have antennas
  • sticking out of the water to respond.
  • It’s at this depth that modern submarines will often have quick transmissions with satellites
  • in order to download and upload information.
  • There are a few other techniques used less commonly, some new technologies under development,
  • and some separate systems designed for use when the main systems are compromised, but
  • VLF radio forms the bulk of communications with most submarines.
  • But the fact that submarines spend their time underwater in stealth also makes another crucial
  • element difficult—navigation.
  • Both GPS and Radar don’t work underwater since they use higher frequency waves that
  • can’t make their way through any depth of water.
  • What does work underwater is Sonar where the submarine essentially generates a sound and
  • then listens to when and how the sound comes back to map out its surroundings but emitting
  • this sound makes it quite easy for others to track a submarine.
  • Therefore, when operating in stealth conditions, submarines can’t use active sonar.
  • Rather, they use an inertial navigation system.
  • These are essentially systems of accelerometers and gyroscopes that take the last-known accurate
  • GPS position of a submarine and then tracks the submarines movements relative to that.
  • It uses this to estimate position but of course, as time goes on from the last reliable reading,
  • the accuracy of this system diminishes.
  • 24 hours after the last reading, these will drift to only about 1.15 miles or 1.85 kilometers
  • of accuracy.
  • Now, this technique combined with the consultation of maps is usually fine since most of the
  • time the ocean is a big, wide open space but there are a few objects floating below the
  • surface that submarines could collide with—submarines.
  • Some modern submarines are so well cloaked that another submarine just feet away might
  • not be able to detect it.
  • That’s what happened on the night of February 3rd, 2009 when the British Navy’s HMS Vanguard
  • submarine felt a resounding bump while sailing in the East Atlantic ocean.
  • It had collided with the French submarine Le Triomphant seemingly just by chance.
  • Luckily they were going at low speed and there were no injuries but, considering both these
  • subs were both equipped with nuclear warheads, one can only imagine the potential consequences
  • of a more damaging collision.
  • Submarines are dangerous—even in peacetime.
  • They are designed to disappear so, after something does go wrong, they often do just disappear.
  • Many submarine operating countries have rescue submarines that can hypothetically be used
  • to save stranded submariners by going down, latching on, and shuttling sailors to the
  • surface but in practice, these have never really had much action.
  • Sometimes submarines sink, their systems fail, and nobody can get to them before oxygen runs
  • out.
  • As submarines become better at masking themselves submarine tracking technology is simultaneously
  • advancing.
  • There’s some thought that there will be a time when nothing can hide in the ocean’s
  • depths but until then, submarines are a crucial aspect of any modern navy.
  • Nowadays, just as they were in World War Two, even traditional, non ballistic-missile submarines
  • and their torpedos are effective and deadly.
  • One of the best ways to track submarines is also by sonar equipped submarines so it’s
  • a situation where countries need submarines because others have submarines.
  • That’s why there are still hundreds of them somewhere, or rather, anywhere, ready to strike
  • at any moment.
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[13] https://www.stripes.com/news/on-a-submarine-ordinary-activities-are-anything-but-routine-1.93230
[14] http://americanhistory.si.edu/subs/operating/aboard/leisure/index.html
[15] https://www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/enlisted/community/submarine/Documents/EWIS%20CCC_Fleet_Brief_Final.pdf
[16] https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=34251
[17] https://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/10/16/submarine-force-now-24hour-work-day.html
[18] https://fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/slbm/ssbn-726.htm
[19] https://www.wearethemighty.com/articles/this-is-what-its-like-inside-the-worlds-largest-submarine
[20] https://www.cnn.com/2016/05/06/politics/life-on-uss-missouri-nuclear-submarine/index.html
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[22] https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=95177
[23] https://www.quora.com/If-you-are-deployed-on-a-US-submarine-and-a-close-relative-dies-do-they-surface-and-allow-you-to-go-home-for-the-funeral
[24] http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=242
[25] http://www.vlf.it/zevs/zevs.htm
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[28] https://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/engines-equipment/submarine4.htm
[29] https://www.navlab.net/Publications/Introduction_to_Inertial_Navigation.pdf
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[31] https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/submarines-about-become-obsolete-27597
[32] https://www.bbc.com/news/10130909
[33] http://americanhistory.si.edu/subs/work/missions/warfare/index.html
[34] https://www.globalfirepower.com/navy-submarines.asp