NORFOLK, Va. - Across the U.S. Submarine Force, submarine squadrons are humming with activity to deploy, maintain and prepare undersea forces despite challenges presented by Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Commander, Submarine Squadron (SUBRON) 6, an attack-submarine squadron in Norfolk, Virginia, recently illustrated the importance of the submarine force’s determination to deploy attack submarines and keep adversaries at bay.
Squadron staff developed and executed a COVID-19 plan setting the standard for Atlantic-based attack submarines to deploy with total assurance that crew members are infection free. For national security reasons, details about the submarine and its schedule remain classified; however, SUBRON 6 Commodore Capt. Jeffrey Juergens called the effort “wholly unprecedented” in his naval career.
“There was a lot of work to put everything together on short notice, but we understood the restrictions that we had to have in place and we were determined not to deploy with anyone infected with COVID-19,” he said. “Our medical and operations departments put together a testing regime, made sure they had the most up-to-date guidance, and knew what to do in case we had someone test positive.”
In contrast to a surface ship, the tighter confines of a submarine create an even higher-stakes Tetris puzzle for submarine squadrons to solve. Additionally, it is important to keep morale high for the Sailors, who have months of underwater operations waiting on the other side of the sequestration.
The resulting partnership between the squadron’s leadership, operations and medical department – along with the submarine crew – allowed the puzzle pieces to slide together nicely.
“We are used to piecing the puzzle together, but this was a puzzle no one had seen before,” said Senior Chief Electronics Technician (Submarine) Joshua Sisk, who was responsible for managing many of the moving pieces. “Fortunately, the submarine community is especially skilled at making things happen when a problem presents itself.”
It is often said that a well-placed attack submarine can cut the fuse on a battle before it starts. That’s because attack submarines provide the Navy, and combatant commanders, with an unmatched toolset to deter and respond to aggression.
“The fact that they surface and go into port gives the Navy a presence abroad,” Juergens said. “It becomes more important when they leave because adversaries don’t know where they are. With an asset like a carrier, we still know where it is. With a sub, they have no idea where it is.”
Not only do attack submarines play the more well-known roles of hunting other submarines and surface ships with torpedoes, but they also carry a healthy payload of Tomahawk cruise missiles for shore-based targets and perform surveillance and reconnaissance roles.
“Many of the missions and tasks that combatant commanders have out there rely heavily on the Submarine Force,” said Capt. Jason Pittman, the squadron’s deputy commander. “So it is vitally important that we are out and demonstrating that even in a global pandemic we can still get the mission done in a safe manner for the crew.”
Like the shark depicted on its command logo, SUBRON 6 never sleeps. It continues relentless pace to man, train and equip its fleet of 15 attack submarines home-ported or undergoing maintenance in Norfolk, Virginia.
Consisting of staff and senior leadership, the squadron also fulfills the role of a Submarine Support Center, covering all aspects of submarine operations from effective submarine employment to safety, logistics, weapons loads, maintenance and pre-deployment work. This includes preparing submarine crews in all facets of operations, including tactical and operational readiness for war, inspection and monitoring duties, nuclear and radiological safety, and development and control of submarine operating schedules.
“Our focus is really cradle-to-grave prep for a submarine to operate,” Juergens said. “We are looking for the best Sailors, chiefs and officers to be on our staff up here.”
Faced with the unprecedented threat of having COVID-19 take down a submarine that is deploying, the team at SUBRON 6 did what submariners do best: weigh the risks, calculate the way ahead, and move in for the kill.
“As a submariner, your whole job deals with managing ambiguity. You live on sonar and can’t see underwater, all you can do is listen,” Pittman said. “When deployed at sea, we are isolated and expected to make decisions without all the information we’d like to have.”
For Sisk, who the squadron commander credited with much of the COVID-19 pre-deployment heavy lifting, nothing in his 19 years of submarine operations quite compares to deploying a submarine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sisk orchestrated personnel interactions, to include testing the entire crew before and during sequestering. He also had to protect the “COVID-free bubble,” including managing repairs and enabling supporting tasks, such as parts delivery on the pier without crew interaction.
Working across multiple entities, Sisk and the squadron team also procured a pierside berthing barge in unprecedented short timing, and coordinated with the Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) office to keep the crew entertained and high-spirited.
“We knew that if one person who has COVID-19 went down there, then it would affect the whole crew,” Sisk said.
As a result of the combined efforts of the squadron, submarine crew and partner organizations, the submarine deployed exactly as scheduled.
“It was a great feeling when she deployed, knowing that all the effort ended in success,” Sisk said. “We’re now getting lots of phone calls from our counterparts to share lessons learned. Until further notice, this will be the new norm.”