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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Hawai'i submarines play key role in war with Iraq

 •  Graphic (opens in new window): Submarines at war with a desert nation

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

The first Tomahawk missile launched to open Operation Iraqi Freedom — reportedly with Saddam Hussein's name on it — was fired by the Pearl Harbor-based submarine USS Cheyenne.

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At least four Pearl Harbor attack submarines have fired cruise missiles in the war, the most ever for Pacific Fleet. Half of Hawai'i's 16 operational subs are on deployment to the Middle East or western Pacific, which also is one for the record books.

"As far as anybody could remember, this was the most subs that we had deployed at any one time," sub base spokeswoman Cmdr. Kelly Merrell said yesterday. "Certainly, submarines have been very, very involved in the strike missions since the war began."

Normally, only four to five Pacific Fleet submarines are deployed at any given time. But in wartime, and with fewer old Cold War foes to face, "as their availability has increased, so has their usage (in operation Iraqi Freedom)," said Patrick Garrett, an analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, which tracks military activity.

"The number of improved Los Angeles-class submarines that were available during the first Gulf War was pretty small," Garrett said.

The newest submarine in the Pacific force, Cheyenne was among four U.S. ships and two submarines to fire Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles on March 19 from either the Persian Gulf or Red Sea. Their target was a bunker in a residential part of Baghdad believed to be occupied by Saddam.

Three other Hawai'i submarines — Columbia, Key West and Louisville — also would fire the low-flying missiles in succeeding days.

That involvement, which Pearl Harbor submariners say continues the pride they have in the "silent service," also charts technological advances made since the first Gulf War, when only two U.S. submarines — including one from Pearl Harbor — were used in the conflict.

"I'm not so sure there's been ... an increase in the level of pride we have in our guys — we've always been very proud of our sailors out there," said Master Chief Robert Hamilton, command master chief of Submarine Squadron One at Pearl Harbor.

Squadron One's submarines include Greeneville, Charlotte, Buffalo, La Jolla and Los Angeles.

"In this particular case (in Iraqi Freedom), it's just been more evident to the public as well as other personnel in our service to see what submariners have a chance to do," Hamilton said.

Starting with USS Providence (SSN 719) out of Groton, Conn., commissioned in 1985, 12 vertical launch tubes were added to the attack submarines, which have anti-submarine warfare as a mission to a lesser degree following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Navy also plans to convert four Trident ballistic missile submarines — none of which is based at Pearl Harbor — into guided missile submarines capable of carrying 154 Tomahawks and 102 special operations troops.

Garrett said the submarine's primary role continues to be intelligence gathering in the post Cold War world.

"(But) I think it's a truth, or reality, that submarines that get deployed in the future are going to have to have a Tomahawk capability or cruise missile launch capability," he said, "whether it's with the (Trident) conversion that they are undertaking as we speak, or if it's the development of the Virginia class of submarine."

According to the Navy, the first employment of a submarine-launched Tomahawk missile was in the first Gulf War in 1991, when the Pearl Harbor-based USS Louisville first fired missiles into Iraq. The USS Pittsburgh also launched cruise missiles. Twelve missiles were fired by the subs, accounting for 4 percent of the total launched.

In Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the Pearl Harbor-based submarine USS Key West was the first ship in the Arabian Gulf following the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Key West and Providence both fired Tomahawks in the conflict, in which United States and allied submarines accounted for 37 percent of the cruise missiles launched.

"There's been a capability change, and there's been a sheer number of targets change," Garrett said. "The reason why Tomahawk missiles weren't used significantly in Afghanistan is quite frankly, they didn't have any targets the Navy wanted to expend a million bucks to destroy."

In the first Gulf War, meanwhile, "they used a ton of Tomahawks, but they only had a few submarines capable of launching them," Garrett said.

Reach William Cole at 525-5459 or wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.