Sometimes when Capt. Ralph Tindal is crouched atop the bridge of this Trident submarine, heading out of the Port Canaveral channel, porpoises play with his boat, surfing on the bow wave, and it is a toss-up who is having more fun, the captain or his companions.
A Trident on-station spends 70 days submerged and silent, 155 men packed in a tube 42 feet in diameter, carrying 24 MIRVed missiles and more destructive power than was used against Germany and Japan. This is fun? This is an acquired taste. Someone once asked a baseball umpire if there is such a thing as a "natural umpire." He replied, "Yes, but no one starts out that way." Submariners are like that.
The wonder is that there are enough men with an aptitude for this service. A lot are needed: as many U.S. warheads are deployed on submarines as the combined total on bombers and land-based missiles.
Navy captains know Joseph Conrad's words about a ship at sea being "a distant world in herself," a description true of Trident submarines to a degree Conrad could never have imagined. In any ship, Conrad wrote, there is one man, the captain, who in an emergency can turn to no other man. A Trident on peaceful patrol is constantly receiving communications; but, although it can, it does not send messages. During a conflict, any communication with the command authority ashore could be problematic. Firing missiles requires the boat to be stationary and noisy; it becomes a sitting target for any Soviet attack submarine that has successfully shadowed it.
Submerged, a submariner is more limited regarding communications than a man in space. Submariners cannot call Houston control and ask, "What do I do next?" Furthermore, deterrence on the central front in Europe is static, two armies encamped. A Trident submariner's life is isolation, silence and avoidance of detection, 24 hours a day.
As his reward for service away from family and with responsibility for 155 lives and a $1.5 billion boat (not counting the cost of the missiles), a captain is paid less than a middle-level executive of a pretzel company. But he gets the public recognition involved in congressional complaints about his pension, which is not as generous as congressional pensions.
Few Americans can visit a Trident to actually see the sophistication of the systems and the crew's unfailing grace under unrelieved pressure. But many thousands of Americans are reading Tom Clancy's novel "The Hunt for Red October." It is a thriller about the high-stakes, hide-and-seek game that is no game, played around the clock, around the calendar. I asked an admiral, "Is the book a good portrayal?" His terse reply: "Too good." It has a lot of Russian readers.
Forty percent of Trident's cost is in a special quality. The expense buys quietness so the boat can be a black hole in the ocean. For example, to minimize water disturbance, there can be no more than a quarter-inch deviation in the plates along the 560-foot-long hull.
A high-technology Trident is like a handmade pair of shoes: much of the cost is in handwork. Every pipe and fitting must be wrapped in silencing material. To economize space and minimize noise, a tool box must be custom-fitted to a particular nook, and made rattle- proof. This little detail helps keep the deterrent secure, and enables exhibitionists in Congress to throw rug-chewing conniption fits about tool boxes that cost more than the ones sold at the local hardware store.
Traitors who sell to Soviet agents secrets that help defeat U.S. submarines' sophisticated systems for avoiding detection should receive punishment as serious as the damage they do: capital punishment.
But here is a fact indicative of the lethal unseriousness of a government in which policy is driven by publicity values: in order to comply with policies set by Congress, the Navy has more investigators worrying about overpriced ashtrays than about treason. That is not a cost-effective allocation of energies, considering the cost and importance of the quality built into Tridents, and the ability of espionage to devalue it.
It takes 44 months to move a Trident from the laying of its keel to commissioning, at which point the crew, itself a well-tuned instrument, learns what it would be like living inside a fine Swiss watch. Capt. Tindal's boat, the fifth Trident to enter service, has a motto: "The Fifth and Finest." Bearing the name of the late Sen. Jackson, it should be, as he was, the finest.