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CHIPS Articles: Connecting with the Fleet: A Soldier's First Impression Aboard a Submarine

Connecting with the Fleet: A Soldier's First Impression Aboard a Submarine
By Giovanni Modica, PMW 770, PEO C4I - July-September 2018
At the tip of a long concrete pier at Naval Base Point Loma, a black steel cocoon peeks above the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean. Across the bay, San Diego’s bustling downtown is largely unaware of what lurks below the water’s surface as its residents move about “America’s Finest City.”

Walking towards the submarine, I’m welcomed by a banner declaring “ON TIME. ON TRACK. ON TARGET,” along with two Sailors carrying loaded M4’s, tasked with ensuring the security of the billion-dollar vessel.

“Permission to come aboard?” our guide, Lt. Trentt James, requested as we approached the brow, a metal footbridge to cross from the pier onto the submarine.

“Come aboard,” replied the topside sentry, after rendering a customary salute.

Having supported the Undersea Communications & Integration Program Office (PMW 770) for the last six months, I was excited to board my first commissioned operational submarine, USS Scranton (SSN 756), along with 20 of my colleagues. Being an acquisitions and system integration-focused program office, PMW 770 provides vital command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) capabilities to the Navy. Though many in the organization are veterans, with a small portion being active duty Navy personnel, working day-in and day-out at the former aircraft hangars that house our parent command Program Executive Office C4I (PEO C4I) removes me and my colleagues from regular interaction with the end-users who rely on our products and capabilities. To deliver maximum value to submariners, we feel it is important to engage with the fleet and try to empathize with the challenges they face on a daily basis.
Prior to becoming a management consultant, I served as an Infantryman in the North Carolina Army National Guard. I remember harboring a disconnect from those who were supporting our ability to engage with the enemy. Acting as the ‘tip of the spear,’ it felt as if the Soldiers and people behind the scenes providing us with equipment, services and tactical support didn’t understand the plight of the Infantryman. In giving submariners a human face to the supply chain of their equipment, we hope to give them greater confidence in their gear and show that the teams supporting them are as committed to the mission as they are.

“Down ladder!” we called out while descending the weapons shipping hatch ladder.

Despite being nearly 30 years-old, Scranton, a Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine is still a marvel of engineering. It’s affectionately called ‘Iron Horse.’ I was amazed at how much equipment, technology and personnel are efficiently packed aboard Scranton. Every piece of equipment has an assigned location, each item perfectly placed — as if a massive game of three-dimensional Tetris were constantly being played. Los Angeles-class submarines are a testament to the ingenuity and mental power of their designers.

Over the course of my six years as an Infantryman, I wore many different “hats” depending on our mission and the needs of my unit — Radio Telephone Operator (RTO); Bradley Driver; Bradley Gunner, dismount; Tactical Operations Center (TOC) Support; Humvee and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) Driver; Light-machine Gunner and Heavy-machine Gunner. I gained a breadth of knowledge, but never became a master at any particular role.

A submarine is much like a finely-tuned Swiss watch: an assembly of highly specialized yet interconnected pieces that must work in harmony to produce an incredible outcome. Twenty-two watch standers are tasked with maintaining the ship’s operational and tactical position, while another 40 submariners run the ship, from using reverse osmosis to prepare drinking water to pressurizing the tubes in preparation for launching a torpedo or tomahawk missile. Every submariner is trained to be an expert in the exact function the rest of the crew needs them to be, but must also understand the roles of those around them.

I couldn’t help but smile when I saw a ‘Sailoralt,’ a display of submariner ingenuity to life-hack their challenging environment in order to be more comfortable or streamline their working operations. Fabricating zarfs, or coffee cup holders to provide Sailors with essential caffeine, reminded me of when we would rig one of our radio headsets on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle to transmit music from the vehicle commander’s iPod to everyone’s headset to help drown-out the rumbling of the 27-ton armored personnel carrier.

Most shocking to me though was the crew’s berthing area. I now realize that I can never complain to a submariner about spending a few months of my deployment as the sixth occupant in a standard four-man Containerized Housing Unit (CHU). Though cramped, this pales in comparison to “hot racking,” the practice where lower enlisted Sailors sleep in rotation and three Sailors share two beds. With three triple-decker bunk beds in a stateroom and minimal storage space for personal items, the standard accommodations make a San Francisco micro-apartment look like a villa.

As our tour came to an end, we thanked those aboard Scranton for being such great hosts and sharing their experiences with PMW 770. By the conclusion of the tour, I felt reinvigorated in my job, knowing how critical the services are that we provide to the fleet. As an Iinfantryman, there was a high level of braggadocios ego, where reverence was only given to other combat arms Soldiers and ‘Doc.’ However, after just over an hour aboard a submarine I gained a new-found appreciation for the ‘Silent Service’ and the men and women who serve in one of the Navy’s most intellectually and mentally challenging environments.

Interested in touring a submarine in San Diego? Organized and recognized groups, such as youth and school programs; community, civic and business organizations; government agencies; and the like, can contact Submarine Squadron 11 at http://www.csp.navy.mil/css11/Tours/

To learn more about PMW 770’s mission and top programs, download a Fact Sheet here.

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