Special Tactics Airmen train on submarine

  • Published
  • By Petty Officer 1st Class Michael S. Howlet
  • Submarine Group 9 Public Affairs
A U.S. fighter pilot has been shot down. He is injured and behind enemy lines. But he has established communications and is evading the enemy. Time is a critical factor. He needs to be rescued, and he needs to be rescued now.

Submerged off the coast lies 19,000 tons of stealth in the form of a submarine. The Ohio-class Trident ballistic missile submarine is being converted to carry smaller Tomahawk missiles. It has storage and operational equipment to support up to 60 special operations forces.

The sub is a joint platform that caters to all services' special operators. And if all else fails, it has 156 Tomahawk missiles at its disposal.

A team of operators from an Air Force special tactics squadron is stationed nearby. They receive word their unique services are needed.

The team includes pararescuemen, who are trained emergency medical technicians capable of infiltrating any environment or combat zone to rescue personnel. They’ll be joined by their combat controller teammates, air traffic controllers who jump in before all other friendly forces to control air power and fuse command and control for clandestine missions. Add their comrades, special operations weathermen, and an STS makes a versatile team.

On this mission the STS operators had to fly out on a Navy search and recovery helicopter to meet the submarine. They descend to the slippery deck by rope. The Airmen go below with their gear to set up for the rescue mission.

The submarine dives and moves closer to the shoreline where it surfaces. The STS team pulls all their gear, inflatable boat, and engines through a hatch, inflate their boats and zoom to the shore. The plan calls for recovering the downed pilot, treating his injuries and speeding back out to sea for a rendezvous with the sub.

It’s scenarios like these that require cooperation between the services. It also requires practice to iron out the wrinkles in the process. That’s where the USS Alabama stepped up to provide a practice platform for the Air Force’s 22nd and 23rd STSs from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., and Hurlburt Field, Fla., respectively.

The Airmen spent a week last month aboard the Alabama practicing various scenarios in which their services would be required. The Alabama is an Ohio-class fleet ballistic missile submarine and served as a surrogate for its brothers nearing completion of their conversions in the shipyards.

The goal of the exercises was to test concepts being worked into the new mission for the submarines, such as the rescue scenario.

Another test conducted was the first launch and recovery of an unmanned aerial vehicle from a submarine, said Navy Lt. Tyler Johnson, Submarine Squadron 9’s attack weapons systems officer. He helped coordinate the exercises.

“We had four goals to this exercise,” Lieutenant Johnson said. “The first goal was to further define the tactics, techniques and procedures for the SSGN program. Second, we wanted to prove and expand on our joint interoperability. We wanted to provide the Air Force with an opportunity to conduct amphibious training with a unique Naval resource.

“Also, we wanted to give the crew of Alabama an opportunity to conduct SOF training,” he said.

Exercises went on day and night, offering different environments to challenge the Airmen and the Alabama’s crew.

“This was a great opportunity for some of our younger troops to train with their joint counterparts and have an impact on the evolving (submarine) program,” said Lt. Col. Mike Sneeder, the 22nd’s commander. “It was a challenging environment fast-roping onto the slippery decks and learning to maneuver on the submarine.”

His teams also learned some appreciation for the submariners’ lives aboard the boat.

“One of the things we had to figure out was how to get our boats, engines and gear down the hatches and stowed on the submarine with such limited space,” Colonel Sneeder said.

Colonel Sneeder talked about lessons learned regarding the UAV launch and believes it has a future aboard the SSGN class.

“The UAV is definitely another SOF asset that can be launched from this platform. We were able to identify some areas of improvement, which was the whole reason we were there,” he said.

His teams also benefited from the opportunity to learn from the submariners.

“The more we learn and are exposed to, the more effective we will be in different mission profiles,” he said.

The Alabama’s crew impressed the SOF operators with their professionalism.

“It takes a very professional and patient crew to work through the kinks in these brand-new tactics with us. Because of their outstanding professionalism, we were able to accomplish more than we had originally set up to do,” Colonel Sneeder said.

The extra training tested more capabilities, such as recovering inflatable boats on the submarine, and saved money by packing more training into the limited amount of time allotted.

As the Navy increases its activity close to shore, the ability to operate jointly with the other services will play a more dominant role in its future -- a future the Air Force looks forward to being a part of, Colonel Sneeder said

“Our mission statement since 9-11 is to support the global war on terrorism, and the SSGNs will enable us to train and mix with the other SOF operators to bring air power to the objective from a submarine,” the colonel said.