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Missouri crewmen test sonar, learn the ropes

Editor's Note:  Jennifer McDermott is on a special assignment aboard the USS Missouri, one of the newest Virginia-class submarines to join the fleet. She will provide updates during her four-day transit with the crew of this advanced submarine.

Underway on the USS Missouri - As the USS Missouri deftly navigated through an area with training objects positioned on the sea floor, a sailor sitting in front of a high-frequency sonar screen called out the bearing and range of one of the objects.

"Possible (sonar) gain. Bearing 288. Range 1,500 yards."

The officer of the deck ordered a full rudder to navigate the ship around the object. At one point later in the sea bed search, the sonar system detected and displayed more than a dozen objects.

The exercise tested the advanced sonar capability that gives Virginia-class submarines a unique combat advantage.

They are the only class built with a high-frequency chin array, a sonar so precise that the sailors operating it can see the height of the waves on the surface and the wakes that boats make. It looks like a chin on the outside of the hull, toward the bottom of the bow.

The sonar is just one of the new tools the crew will rely on to get a better picture of their surroundings as they begin to deploy around the world.

This summer, the Groton-based submarine will begin a yearlong preparation process for its first six-month deployment.

"We are the newest, quietest and hardest-to-find submarine with the most capable sensors and electronics right now," said Lt. Cmdr. David Rogers, the executive officer.

Adjusting to the

rules of sub life

During the testing, a more senior sailor taught Raymond Lai how to analyze data in the control room.

Lai, 25, a fire control technician seaman from California, said he sees himself as an astronaut who goes under the sea.

There is a close camaraderie on board the Missouri (SSN 780). Submerged hundreds of feet in the ocean, they depend on each other with their lives. And with a crew of only about 130 men, every person is vital to getting the job done.

Known as "Doc," Chief Jay Carson said he is the submarine's "physician, counselor, psychiatrist, internal medicine doctor, ER doctor and occupational health guy." He is the one person on board who does not want his job to be exciting, since that would mean someone was injured.

After checking a sailor's blood pressure, he planned to take samples of the ship's drinking water to test the purity. He also counsels the newer sailors who are adapting to the culture on board.

"When learning the rights and wrongs of submarine culture, there's an adjustment period," said Carson, 41, of Ohio, an independent duty corpsman.

Among the do's and don'ts, sailors do stand with their backs against the bulkhead, or wall, when someone else is trying to pass by in the narrow corridors. They don't turn on the lights when they enter their rooms since someone could be sleeping at any time of the day after finishing a six-hour shift, or watch.

They do eat quickly because there's only an hour to cycle everyone through the crew's mess for each meal. Loiterers can get teased, good naturedly, for "camping" at the tables.

If someone forgets a rule, the others don't get mad for long, if at all.

There's no point, said Erik White, since "we know we're all down here together."

'Always at the ready'

Looking at the Missouri's track on the electronic chart display, which looks like a hi-definition television on a table in the control room, White said he fought to get on the Missouri because he was so impressed with the technology on board the USS Virginia during his tour on the first of the class.

"It's really impressive to be able to take a ship like this out and do what we do," said White, 33, an electronics technician chief from New York state.

The seventh ship in the Virginia class, the Missouri just completed its latest certifications at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center in the Bahamas. Although the submarine is not ready to deploy yet, the ship's systems are now deemed capable to do so.

It's critical that the attack submarines in the fleet are "always at the ready," said Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, the commander of Submarine Group Two, who is observing the operations on board Missouri.

"For us, it's paramount that we provide the most ready forces for as much of the time as possible for the security of our country," Breckenridge said. "And we take that responsibility very seriously."

Rogers, the executive officer, said Missouri is ready to join the fight. The crew, he said, "expects to break the mold at every opportunity."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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