- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008

ABOARD THE USS OHIO (AP) — Capt. Andy Hale stands in the battle command center, watching a flat-screen display that shows what is happening outside on the bow and the aft.

His billion-dollar submarine — the U.S. Navy’s newest twist on underwater warfare — is hovering just below the surface off the Pacific island of Guam as a submersible carrying a team of commandos disappears into the dark waters.

The Ohio is the first of a new class of submarine created in a conversion of 1970s vessels by trading nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles for conventional cruise missiles and several of the launch tubes refitted to deploy the Navy SEALs in submersible boats.

As the submarine cruises across the Pacific on its first deployment since the makeover, China is building its fleet into the region’s largest.

Capt. Hale is showing off the ship, an odd position because the sub is all about stealth.

He can’t talk about where the ship is going. The back of the ship, where the nuclear power plant is located, is off-limits. The leader of the SEAL commando contingent aboard can’t be named and the commandos can’t be photographed in any way that shows their faces.

The Ohio will be making a public statement over the next few months by training intensively in some of the world’s most crowded and contested waters and joining in exercises with Asian allies of the United States. Its first stop for joint exercises was in Busan, South Korea, last week. The maneuvers will showcase the submarine’s abilities to elude detection and operate too deeply and quickly to be tracked.

After that, it likely will do what it does best: vanish.

“Submarines are the original stealth platform,” Capt. Hale said. “Submarine forces have always viewed the Pacific as a very important strategic area. … It’s certainly grown in importance in the last 10 years.”

China now has the biggest submarine fleet in the region, with nearly 60. The United States has strengthened its presence in the Pacific and now has more ships and more subs in this part of the world than in the Atlantic. But they are still outnumbered.

“There are many challenges in the Pacific,” Capt. Hale said. “China is certainly one of them, but it is not the only one.”

China’s subs are mainly diesel-powered, meaning they must surface for air more frequently than U.S. nuclear-powered vessels, and their crews are not thought to be as well-trained as American submariners, who spend several months at a time at sea.

China’s fleet also is focused on patrolling its coastal waters and preparing for any hostilities over Taiwan, rather than on “projecting force” or trying to control distant shipping lanes.

The Chinese are watching to see how U.S. concern translates into changes in the U.S. Navy. When the Ohio, which is based in Bangor, Wash., docked at Guam last month, China’s official Xinhua news agency called the submarine a “warehouse of explosives” and a “devil of deterrence.”

The Ohio has vast firepower and the ability to deploy quickly to wherever it is needed. It has 24 launch tubes, 15 of which have been fitted for multiple Tomahawks — more than 100 in total. That exceeds the number launched in the entire Persian Gulf War of 1991. From an offshore position in the Pacific, it could strike Pyongyang, North Korea. From the Indian Ocean, it could hit anywhere in Afghanistan.

The switch to conventional missiles is a concept born of necessity.

Under a 1992 disarmament treaty, the U.S. Navy had to give up four of its 18 “boomers,” huge submarines that for decades have served as mobile launch platforms for long-range nuclear missiles.

Instead of scrapping the ships, the Navy converted them. The nuclear weapons were replaced with conventional Tomahawk guided missiles and several of the launch tubes refitted to deploy the Navy SEALs in submersible boats.

Because of the sheer size of the sub — 560 feet long — it has more room for its 160-member crew and dozens of commandos than an attack submarine.

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