YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, JAPAN — The U.S. Navy’s fast-attack nuclear submarines are usually supposed to stay out of sight, but when the U.S.S. Hawaii docked here late last week, the apparent idea was to make a very visible impression.
Big, dark, looming in the harbor waters, the Virginia-class nuclear sub showed up to reassure the uneasy Japanese that American power is still on their side, and still a force to be reckoned with.
“The United States’s capability used to be big and present on land but has increasingly been moved to the sea or back to the U.S.,” said Scott Harold, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation.
“Our allies don’t see us as much anymore, so they don’t feel as secure anymore. We can remind them, as well as our potential adversaries that might threaten us, that we are there,” he said.
This message of reassurance is especially important at a time when — despite the rhetoric about a “pivot” to Asia — the United States remains overwhelmingly focused on the Middle East. But raising the Hawaii and showing off its features also serves as a reminder to China and North Korea that the United States remains a formidable force at sea.
Just to underline the point, the Navy invited the press and other guests aboard for a look-see. The takeaway? Nuclear subs may be jaw-droppingly high-tech, but not even their most ardent proponent would suggest that these beasts were made for comfort.
Just ask Sam Shorts, the 6-foot-8 supply officer on board the U.S.S. Hawaii, who knows all the spots on board where he can stand up straight. Most of them are small spaces where his head can squeeze between a light bulb and some metal pipes.
As for the bunks, squeezed six to a cell-like room with barely 30 inches between the mattress and the bed above, Shorts estimates they’re 6.5-feet long at most.
Still, he’s not complaining. “I jumped at the chance to serve on a submarine,” said Shorts, who was wearing the Navy’s mystifying blue camouflage uniform (wouldn’t sailors want to be seen in the water?), in the wardroom of the U.S.S. Hawaii.
Although China is putting huge efforts into increasing its submarine fleet, and even cash-strapped North Korea likes to show photos of Kim Jong Un atop a Soviet-era sub, the U.S. boats are in a league of their own.
“I would take this ship and this crew against any submarine in the world,” said Cmdr. William Patterson, the Hawaii’s commanding officer.
The Hawaii is a $2 billion, 377-foot-long stealth boat that can carry 150-plus crew, 20 torpedoes and a dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles. One of 10 in its class, it is capable of launching strikes in the sea and onto land, conducting clandestine missions, and launching SEAL special forces into the water — and getting them back again. Based at Pearl Harbor, the Hawaii patrols the western Pacific, usually undetected.
The Navy has used its subs to send public messages before. During a tense standoff between China and the Philippines over the disputed Scarborough Shoal in 2012, the Navy surfaced another Virginia-class submarine in the area to make sure the Chinese knew it was there.
“It was a show of force in response to bad behavior,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security. The visit of the Hawaii here, he said, “is not the same as the Scarborough Shoal, but the U.S. is taking a beating for looking weak and impotent and also for not properly resourcing the pivot, backing up our allies.”
There was widespread consternation in both Japan and South Korea last year when President Obama threatened to launch airstrikes on Syria but then backed away from them. The general sentiment in both countries’ halls of power was that, having made such a public declaration, Obama should have gone through with it, no matter what.
The Hawaii’s job is not simply to threaten or unleash destructive power. Modern subs have advanced electronic sensors that collect intelligence by locating radars, missile batteries and command sites, as well as monitoring communications and tracking ship movements.
“One of the reasons we send them into China’s exclusive economic zone is to try to find out what they’re making and what they’re doing,” Cronin, of CNAS, said.
Showing off the unique features of the Virginia class in the Hawaii’s control room, a large (for a submarine) space aglow with lights, the commander said the biggest difference was the shift to electronic rather than mechanical systems.
“It’s all about the periscope,” Patterson said, holding a joystick that looked like something a video game player might use, swinging the camera around to show the people on the pier outside.
The addition of an infrared camera also has been revolutionary, giving the crew the same, clear picture at all hours.
“SEALs talk about ‘owning the night’ because of the technology they have,” said Rear Adm. Stuart Munsch, who is in charge of all American submarines between the international dateline and the Red Sea. “This is our equivalent — we own the night at sea.”
The silver metal lock-out trunk enables as many as nine SEALs and all their equipment — including a mini-sub or dry-deck shelter — to go out of the submarine, through an intermediate chamber and out into the ocean.
Emerging from the boat and into the blazing sunlight outside, the tour over, Munsch stood in front of the foreboding black Hawaii to sum up its role.
“In peace time, submarines add certainty,” he said. “In combat, we take this same capability to sow uncertainty in the minds of the enemy. They don’t know where we are, or when we will strike.” Anna Fifield is The Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington DC, Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East. The Washington Post By Anna Fifield