Submarine frequently asked questions


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Nov 8, 2009
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There are some interested answers for you to know about submarines and crews' work inside. :D


What is unusual about serving on a submarine?

A submarine is among the most technologically advanced machines ever built. The combination of computer technology, precision navigation, atmosphere regeneration, sensitive sonar equipment, sound quieting, nuclear power, and precision weapons make for a most unusual environment. Imagine working and living in a 300-foot long, 30-foot wide, three-story building with no windows and surrounded by technology. Then lock the doors, submerge beneath the surface of the ocean and travel silently underwater for months. This requires a tremendous amount of skill, knowledge, personal discipline, and teamwork. Over one hundred crewmembers work and live together for months at a time to defend their country and protect U.S. interests around the world.

How big is a submarine?

The U.S. Navy has two principal classes of submarines: attack submarines and fleet ballistic missile submarines. Attack submarines, which seek out and attack enemy ships and submarines, are smaller and faster than missile submarines. Most U.S. fast attack submarines are of the USS Los Angeles class. They are 362 feet long-just longer than the length of a football field-and 33 feet wide. They displace almost 6,900 tons on the surface and 7,200 tons when they are submerged. U.S. fleet ballistic missile submarines of the USS Ohio class (a.k.a., Trident submarines, referring to the type of missile which they carry) are 560 feet long (almost the length of two football fields, a few feet longer than the Washington Monument). They have a beam of 42 feet and displace almost 17,000 tons on the surface and 18,750 tons when submerged.

How are people on a submarine organized?

The crew is divided into different groups depending upon their job. For example, the Executive department works for the XO (the second officer in command) and performs various administrative tasks. The Engineering department, under the supervision of the Chief Engineer, is responsible for the safe operation of the nuclear reactor. The Weapons department is managed by the Weapons Officer and it maintains the ship's torpedoes, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and sonar suite. The Operations department which works for the Navigator charts the ship's position and operates the communication equipment. Lastly, the Supply department under the Supply Officer manages the ship's stores, machinery spare parts, and cooks the meals.

How old is the commanding officer of a submarine?
The average age of a Commanding Officer is 38-42.

What special training is required to be on a submarine?

Submariners are some of the most highly trained and skilled people in the Navy. The training is highly technical and each crew has to be able to operate, maintain, and repair every system or piece of equipment on board. The jobs needed to safely operate a submarine include, but not limited to, electricians, chemists, reactor equipment technicians, sonar operators and repair technicians, electronic system maintenance and operations technicians, torpedo and weapons technicians, propulsion and machinery operators, navigators, clerks, cooks, and supply specialists. Basic shore-based training teaches submariners fundamental skills before they are assigned to the submarine, but each crewmember continues to learn and gain more expertise after they are assigned aboard the submarine. As sailors gain operational experience, they receive advanced training in equipment maintenance, troubleshooting, and advanced operational techniques. Training continues throughout a Submariner's career to keep pace with technological developments. Regardless of their specialty, everyone also has to learn how everything on the ship works and how to respond in emergencies to become "qualified in submarines" and earn the right to wear the coveted gold or silver dolphins on their uniform.

Can women go on submarines?

Women are not currently assigned to submarine crews because of the very limited habitability and privacy onboard a submarine. However, women have been on submarines for short durations as civilian technicians for specialized equipment testing, family members for one-day dependent cruises, and female midshipmen conducting two-day orientation cruises.

What does it feel like to be on a submarine underwater?

Although it is difficult for most people to imagine living on a submarine, challenging submarine living conditions actually build strong fellowship among the crew. The crews are highly motivated, and quickly adapt to changing conditions. It is a busy life of specialized work, watches, and drills. There are four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midrats. There is always plenty of food. Crew members usually get about six hours of sleep per day; most people fall to sleep very quickly because they are tired after a long workday. The days pass without sunrises and sunsets, because on a submarine operating at sea, the only view of the sky is through the periscope! Compared to life on a surface ship, submarines are quieter and the ride is smoother because the submarine is rarely affected by the surface waves. The air is cleaner than the air outside, and many submariners notice the strong smell of the ocean when the hatch is opened after a long time.

Do you get claustrophobic?

No. All prospective Submariners are evaluated for claustrophobic tendencies. People who tend to get claustrophobic are not allowed to become Submariners.

Can you feel the waves on a submarine when it's under the water?

It depends on how big the waves are at the surface and how deep is the submarine. During normal weather conditions, a submerged submarine will not rock with the motion of the waves on the surface. In fact, during even moderate storms the submarine stays perfectly level at its submerged depth while the waves crash above. In extremely violent storms like hurricanes and cyclones, wave motion can reach 400 feet or more below the surface. Though not as violent as on the surface, these large waves can cause a submarine to take 5 to 10 degree rolls.

What does the crew do during its free time?

At sea, the typical submarine day is 18 hours long, not 24 hours. Submarine crews are divided into three watch sections. Each section is on duty (on watch) for 6 hours, and then spends 12 hours off watch. When on watch, the crew members are actively operating their assigned equipment. Examples of watch stations that are manned continuously at sea are: Radioman of the Watch (operates radio equipment), Quartermaster of the Watch (determines the submarine's position in the ocean), Engine Room Lower Level Watch (operates all equipment located in the lower level of the engine room), Throttleman (operates the throttles which control the main engines, which, in turn, control the speed of the ship's propeller) and Planesman (operates the submarine's diving or steering controls). Under normal conditions, there are approximately 25 crew members "on watch" at the same time. Under special conditions, such as battle stations and when entering or leaving port, everyone has a watch station.

During the 12 hours out of each 18-hour day that submarine crewmen are not actually on watch, they engage in a wide variety of activities. Crew members who are off watch eat, attend training sessions and study, both for advancement examinations, and in order to become qualified to stand other watchstations. Others may perform routine preventive maintenance on the equipment that they are responsible for (e.g., a radioman periodically changes emergency batteries on some of his radio gear, an electrician periodically inspects the ship's wiring for problems, etc.). A wide variety of activities are available during free time. The ships carry about 400 movies, which are exchanged for newer ones in each port. Card games and various board games, such as a Backgammon or Cribbage, are also popular. There are also some athletic equipment on board, such as an exercise bike, versa climber, rowing machines, and free weights. U.S. fleet ballistic missile submarines have more athletic equipment than SSNs because they have more space. SSBNs are so large that some people even run marathons by running around the perimeter of the missile compartment many thousands of times!

What do you eat?

Being a cook on a submarine is a very important and demanding job. The quality of food served has a great impact on crew morale. Imagine shopping for 120 men for six months and planning every meal! Submariners eat the same food as you would find at almost any table in an American home. They have ongoing contests to determine which ship cooks the best meals. The fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, and milk usually don't last for more than a few weeks, but the creative cooks on submarines work wonders with canned and frozen foods to supplement the meals they create. Submariners have four meals per day - breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight rations, commonly known as "midrats." Menus include eggs, hotcakes, and cereal for breakfast; deli sandwiches, hamburgers, and pizza for lunch; pasta, steak, chicken, and pork dishes for dinner; and leftovers for midrats.

Where do you keep all the food stored?

Submarines have several storerooms, refrigerated rooms, and freezers. On long deployments, however, the amount of food required exceeds available storage space. Cans of food are stored on the floors in the passageways throughout the ship and people simply walk on the top of the cans.

Where do Submariners sleep?

On U.S. Navy submarines, living quarters are called "berthing areas" that provide no more than 15 square feet of space per man for sleep and personal belongings. On most submarines, each crewman's bed (called a bunk, berth or rack) has a reading light, a ventilation duct, an earphone jack for the ship's audio entertainment system, and a curtain to provide a small (but welcome) measure of privacy. The crewmen store their clothing and personal belongings in a sturdy pan-like locker beneath their mattress. When a U.S. Navy submarine is at sea, lights in the berthing areas are normally dimmed. About one third of the crew is asleep at a time because submarines operate 24 hours a day. The crew works in shifts, normally six hours on, 12 hours off. Only the captain and executive officer of the submarine have private rooms, called staterooms, in which to work and sleep. Sometimes, there are more people onboard than there are regular bunks. When this happens, a few of the crewmen have to sleep in makeshift bunks in the torpedo room. These temporary bunks are fitted on storage racks where torpedoes and missiles are normally kept. Space is always very limited on submarines, and there are very few large or open spaces where people can make a bed.

What clothes do you wear?

When in port, crew members wear regular Navy uniforms. At sea, members wear one-piece blue coveralls called "poopy suits." They are very comfortable to wear and reduces the number of clothes the sailor has to bring to sea. Submarine crews usually wear sneakers or other soft bottomed shoes when at sea, as sound quieting and stealth are always foremost in a submariner's mind.

Who does the laundry?

On U.S. Navy submarines, there is an area designated for laundry, typically with one washer and one dryer. Laundry is done weekly by division on a rotational basis. Each division appoints someone weekly to perform this task.

How does the submarine crew get medical attention?
All submarines have a highly trained, experienced medical specialist on board called a hospital corpsman. These individuals receive training similar to that given to a physician's assistant in the civilian world. In emergencies, these individuals are even trained to perform basic surgeries. Preferably, however, emergency cases are either rapidly delivered to a shore facility by returning to port or by helicopter emergency medical evacuation from the submarine. It may also be possible to transfer the sick person to a better-equipped surface ship either by small boat or helicopter.

How do you get air on a submarine?

Outside air is brought on board the submarine through access hatches while in port and through a snorkel mast while submerged at periscope depth. Once the submarine submerges below periscope depth, there are machines that continuously clear the air of contaminants. There is also oxygen-generating equipment on board the submarine to further replenish the air that Submariners breathe. The air on a submarine is continuously monitored and maintained for habitability.

How do you get letters on submarines?

Letters and packages mailed to submarines while they are at sea are forwarded to the next port that they are scheduled to visit. The crew is always very excited when there is mail call during a deployment. (You can't receive home-made cookies via email.)

Can you get e-mail on submarines?

With today's technology, submarines can send and receive e-mail while in port and under limited conditions while at sea. The Navy is working to expand e-mail connectivity without compromising submarine stealth and security. On longer deployments, crew members receive limited communications known as "family grams" via the submarine's normal message traffic.

How far away can you hear other ships?

Submarines use large underwater listening devices called "sonar" to navigate and detect other objects underwater. Submarine sonar is affected by weather, water temperature, biologics, and other natural conditions. A submarine can often hear a ship miles away.

How does sonar work?

Sonar (SOund NAvigation and Ranging) gives our submarines virtual "eyes" underwater. Sonar is used primarily to detect ships and submarines. There are two types of sonar: active and passive. When using active sonar, a submarine transmits a pulse of sound into the water and listens for how long it takes to bounce off another object such as a ship or submarine and return. This gives information about that ship or submarine's direction and distance away. Unfortunately, if a submarine uses active sonar, all the other sonar-capable ships and submarines in the area would know that the submarine is there. Since the primary advantage that submarines enjoy is stealth (other ships don't know where they are), most submarines rarely use active sonar. Passive sonar listens for the sounds coming from other ships and submarines. When a submarine uses passive sonar, it is able to obtain information about other ships and submarines without revealing its own position. Like detectives examining a crime scene, skilled sonar operators can determine such things as ship speed, number of propellers and even the exact kind of ship just by listening to the sounds.

What does sonar sound like?

Active sonar makes sounds much like the "pings" you've probably heard on TV shows and in movies. Submarines usually don't use active sonar because after the first ping, the submarine is no longer covert. Instead, they use passive sonar. Passive sonar listens only and puts no noise in the water.

Does active or passive sonar affect the marine environment?

Navy sonar has little or no effect on marine life. Active sonar is like the echo locator used by some deep diving whales to hunt for prey. Passive sonar has no effect on marine life.

Can you hear whales, porpoises, and other sea animals?

Yes. Advanced sonar systems are designed to listen for man-made noises from other ships and submarines, but they can also hear the many natural sounds of the ocean including whales, porpoises, and shrimp. It is really very noisy underwater if you have the right equipment to listen carefully. Our sonar technicians are proficient at identifying the many different sounds underwater including sea life or biologics.

How do you get rid of trash or waste on a submarine?

Submarines store their non-biodegradable waste until their operations allow them to unload it when in port. Waste is then transferred to a shore facility. While at sea, a submarine follows procedures set forth in international law. Today, the U.S. submarine force is taking steps (such as the use of improved packaging) to dramatically reduce the amount of waste discharged at sea. In addition, submarines are installing systems to turn food waste into biodegradable pulp that can safely be disposed of overboard. Plastic material is compressed and stored onboard until the ship returns to port where the material is recycled or disposed of properly.

How do submarines help in modern conflicts like Kosovo or Iraq?

Submarines are always deployed in the oceans around the world, and with their nuclear reactors and great speed are often the first ships on station when a crisis develops. Fast attack submarines also travel with U.S. aircraft carriers and their escorts to protect them from enemy submarines or ships. Submarines can also be a silent detection post, listening for enemy communications, allowing us to learn much about enemy plans and capabilities. They can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles very accurately into enemy territory or quietly deliver a small reconnaissance team to a shore close by.

Do submarines help find old shipwrecks?

Yes, advanced sonar systems can locate objects on the ocean floor. The Navy research submarine, NR-1, has been used to explore Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea. Other smaller submersibles have been used for locating ships and other items such as the Titanic, which sank in 1912, and the Challenger Space Shuttle, which exploded in 1986. These smaller research submarines are equipped with "outside" cameras. They can also be remotely controlled from a nearby surface ship.

How did the submarine contribute to winning WWII?

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, many of the U.S. Navy's front-line Pacific Fleet surface ships were destroyed or severely damaged. The submarines carried the war to the enemy and were asked to independently hunt and destroy enemy ships and submarines. They did it very effectively and without the assistance of other supporting ships. The submarine force was the most effective anti-ship and anti-submarine weapon in the entire American arsenal during the war. Our submarines, though only about 2 percent of the U.S. Navy, destroyed over 30 percent of the Japanese Navy, including 8 aircraft carriers, 1 battleship and 11 cruisers. Our submarines also destroyed over 60 percent of the Japanese merchant fleet, crippling Japan's ability to supply its military forces and industrial war effort.

What is the difference between a WWII submarine and a modern submarine?

World War II submarines were powered by diesel engines on the surface and batteries when submerged. They could not go faster than 10 knots underwater for more than one hour, and they could not normally stay underwater for more than one day at a time. They carried diesel fuel for less than 90 days. They were not designed to dive deeper than about 300 feet. Today's nuclear submarines can go faster than 25 knots, dive deeper than 800 feet and stay underwater for more than 90 days (limited by the amount of food stored on board).

Submarine Frequently Asked Questions

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