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by Frank L. "Skip" Bowman
Admiral, USN


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When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941, our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the Submarine Force that I looked to carry the load.... It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril.    

– Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz


The exploits of our World War II Submarine Force are a source of legend, pride, and legacy. Two previous issues of UNDERSEA WARFARE have recounted the heroic exploits of Medal of Honor skippers Commander Dick O’Kane of USS Tang and Commander Eugene "Lucky" Fluckey of USS Barb. Our World War II Submarine Force produced five other Medal of Honor winners and scores of Navy Cross and Silver Star winners – real heroes who laid their lives on the line to preserve our nation in those "days of great peril." Admiral Nimitz’s submariners did carry the load when no one else could do it. Our World War II submarine crews, with only two percent of the Navy’s sailors, were responsible for 55 percent of the enemy’s maritime losses.

More recently, many of the somewhat "saltier" (read older) sailors among us, who served in post-World War II diesel boats and in the nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, can recall with pride the singular role we played in bringing the Cold War to a successful conclusion. Lately, that role is becoming better known to the public, as we’ve seen the submarine story featured on 60 Minutes, Nova, The Discovery Channel, in numerous books, and on the Internet.

Submarines Today –Stressed And Strained
Many short-sighted, optimistic, armchair political-military observers predicted an era of peace, tranquility, and a "New World Order" with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Incredibly, some still cling to this misty-eyed hope. They were, and are, wrong. Today’s world, as you submariners who are out there in it know, is new – but it’s not very orderly. You see it – and feel it – in the length and tempo of submarine deployments, in the frequent "on-the-fly" retaskings you receive, and in the increased operational demands on you for submarine intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Submarines today are working as hard or harder than they were at any time during the Cold War.1

Fleet requirements for submarines on the front lines have not gone down. In fact, they’ve gone up, and they continue to increase. As our SSN force has been cut nearly in half since 1989, the volume of ISR mission tasking undertaken by submarines has doubled, due to the increased national need for information uniquely obtainable by submarines in many new trouble spots around the globe. With 58 SSNs today, and still falling toward 50, we’re already stretched thin by our efforts to meet all the demands. As I said earlier, you submariners who are doing it, know it. Our national leaders are fighting over you, to get enough submarine mission time to meet their needs, and our Fleet Commanders-in-Chief have repeatedly stated needs for a force level of more than 70 SSNs to carry out their heavy, multi-mission tasking. They know that our stealth, endurance, agility, and firepower make SSNs crucial assets in an unstable world, today and for the future. You respond rapidly to any crisis anywhere in the world, giving our national leadership great flexibility. You do what no other platform can do – while on station and forward deployed continuously for months – you can operate either covertly when required, or overtly if desired.

There are numerous real-world examples of submarines executing crucial missions during the past decade. Most are highly classified, but a few have been selectively made public knowledge, like the important and responsive role of our SSNs in helping face down the crisis in the Taiwan Straits in March 1996, as well as some of the various Tomahawk strikes our SSNs have launched. And the pace is still going up, not down. We continue to be called into action in the Persian Gulf, the Adriatic, the South China Sea, and other regional hot spots, every day of the year – and without question, the SSN represents our own premier ASW capability.

Although we currently have an advantage in ASW – causing some, dangerously, to assume away a future threat – we cannot afford to become complacent and lose our edge. Also, as those of you who have done it understand well, the very skills you develop in practicing ASW are put to frequent use in executing many of the other missions you alone can do so well.

SSNs bring powerful advantages to our national leaders and our military commanders. But they’re beginning to feel the pinch as our numbers drop, and they’re faced with gapping some of those SSN missions. A 1998 Defense Science Board task force looked hard at our national security needs for submarines today and tomorrow and at how (and even whether) submarines should play in the force structure needed as the next century unfolds. That study on the "Submarine of the Future" concluded:

Submarines are a key and enduring element of the current and future naval forces – a "crown jewel" in America’s arsenal ... we need more, not fewer SSNs.

I can’t say it any better than that. Fifty SSNs just aren’t enough to do all the things you’re needed for today, and 50 surely won’t be enough to do all the jobs tomorrow. Our submarines are hard-pressed and using every bit of their multi-mission flexibility and endurance, stretching to meet the Nation’s needs with an under-sized force.

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The submarines's broad range of capabilities can be employed
"covertly when requireed, or overtly if desired"

Submarines Tomorrow – The Imperative of Innovation
The future, smaller SSN force levels that follow from budget-driven decisions will constrain deployment options and limit the quantity of deployed days, but will demand the highest quality, technologically overwhelming submarines we can field. Admirals Giambastiani, Konetzni, Fages, and I owe it to you to make sure of this outcome. The accelerating pace of technology will increasingly provide our potential adversaries broad access to more sophisticated and capable military systems and weaponry. Regional powers will have greater capabilities to engage in area denial – using satellite surveillance and targeting, missiles, mines, and short-range, limited-capability diesel submarines, for example, to deny U.S. forces and our allies access to project presence and power in regions of importance to international stability (the Persian Gulf, Taiwan Straits, and Korean Peninsula, to name a few). SSNs, with their inherent stealth, are recognized as significantly capable platforms that are less vulnerable to those instruments of area denial. The continued capabilities of our submariners to succeed tomorrow will depend on the vision and ability of the Submarine Force to rapidly incorporate technological innovation, in order to maintain our margin in a fast-paced technological environment and to optimize the warfighting capabilities of the submarine platform.

There are two types of innovation that are the linchpins of Submarine Force success – tactical innovation and technical innovation. O’Kane and Fluckey were standouts in wartime, because they were tactical innovators. Once the lines were over and the ship was underway, they had what they had. So they never stopped looking for a better way to solve the problem or conduct the approach and attack – and they were their own harshest critics. Today as well, our best COs are innovators – the thoughtful risk-takers from whom we should all be learning.

Although it is undeniable that the face of warfare has changed in the 20th century, it is also important to reflect on another aspect of history, which has driven submarines and submariners to evolve, changing in step with advancements in warfare. Three major submarine wars have taken place in this century: two U-boat campaigns in the Atlantic, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945; and our own Pacific Submarine Force’s campaign, 1941-1945. The Cold War can count here too, in many respects. For submarines – as with other weapons – war itself has truly been the engine of innovation. And thus, history records that these conflicts were instrumental in leveraging the inherent characteristics of submarines for innovative roles well beyond those for which they were originally conceived.

That is why innovation is a central theme of this UNDERSEA WARFARE issue – we’re laying the groundwork today to ensure we will have the ability to effectively incorporate technological improvements into our submarines as we proceed into the next century.

This is not a new resolution for submariners. Looking back, the repeated willingness and ability to embrace technological innovation and put it to full use have been a hallmark of the Submarine Force. Some of our advances, like the transition to nuclear propulsion, the deployment of submarine-launched ballistic missile systems, and the more recent addition of land-attack cruise missiles, have resulted in revolutionary changes in submarine employment and national defense doctrine. Other changes have been more evolutionary – less dramatic, but nonetheless vitally important to the continued advancement of our Submarine Force’s capabilities. The considerable improvements in our 688-class submarines, from USS Los Angeles through USS Cheyenne, are good examples of the incremental incorporation of technology to maintain our edge.


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Admiral Skip Bowman
Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion

Admiral Frank L. “Skip” Bowman was born and grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University and two master’s degrees, in Nuclear Engineering and Naval Architecture/Marine Engineering, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to several sea tours in both ballistic missile and fast attack submarines, Admiral Bowman commanded USS City of Corpus Christi (SSN-705) and USS Holland (AS-32). His ships earned a total of five Battle Efficiency “E”s during his command tours.

Ashore, Admiral Bowman has been assigned to the staff of Submarine Squadron FIFTEEN, in Guam. He served three tours at the Bureau of Naval Personnel, most recently as the Chief of Naval Personnel from July 1994 to September 1996. Additionally, he served two tours on the Joint Staff and was the SSN-21 Attack Submarine Program Coordinator on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. He has been Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion since September 1996.

His more notable personal awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Legion of Merit (with three gold stars)

As I look to the 21st century challenges facing us, I see five key areas of innovation which we’ll need to work on, in order for submarines to continue to evolve and maintain the capabilities needed to carry out the broad and significant roles we are being called upon to perform. In simplest terms, we need to do more to:

  • Get connected,
  • Get payload,
  • Get modular,
  • Get electric, and meanwhile –
  • Remain affordable!

Getting Connected
Our success here will provide the National Command Authority better opportunities to leverage the Submarine Force for access to the littoral environment. Our attack submarines must incorporate new technologies to monitor, report, and respond in real time to the tactical situation, both in shallow-water areas and on the beach – focusing on those complementary capabilities not well-suited to other (e.g., space-based) assets.

In one sense, this means getting better connected to receive and process input from the outside world, using new high-fidelity on-board and off-board sensors. Examples of this include high-resolution sonar systems, mast-mounted electro-optics, more comprehensive electronic support measures (ESM), and novel miniature sensors, such as those that could provide information on nuclear, chemical, or biological agents. It also means better exploiting our use of – and access to – new earth-observing satellites and manned and unmanned tactical reconnaissance platforms, including Unmanned Aerial and Undersea Vehicles (UAVs and UUVs).

Additionally, it means that we must develop information systems capable of assembling all this information on board and converting it into knowledge for use in tactical operations; and then – breaking our historic "radio silence" a little more often – sharing this large volume, "spectacular, multi-sensor take" with battlegroup, theater, and national-level decision-makers, who require it to plan and act on a timely basis. In turn, those external commands and agencies must process and turn around selected portions of their own broader knowledge – of direct and timely importance to our submarines – to better enhance our own tactical picture in real time.

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Affordable Deterrence.
TRIDENT submarines.

Even while getting better connected and breaking radio silence when it is warranted, maintaining our inherent stealth will remain central to our submarines’ unique value as warfighting platforms as the next century unfolds. Frankly, it’s what gives us a prime seat at the table. Innovative concepts are under development to enhance electromagnetic and acoustical information exchange, while remaining stealthy. These include smaller, more efficient mast-mounted antennas, long-range acoustic modems, and towed communications buoys, to permit higher data rates and broader bandwidths at speed and depth. Today’s funded modernization programs will field many of these new sensors and information exchange systems. Purposeful research and development initiatives are also necessary here, as the pace and complexity of technological innovations continue to accelerate.

While stealth continues to be our inherent virtue, let me suggest that we can do more to help the CNO with his peacetime forward presence requirements than we are. There are times when making our presence known would – and will – make sense: Covert when required, overt if desired. Planting the seeds of doubt in a mischief-maker’s mind ("Where did he go? What’s he up to? How many are there?") has some obvious advantages. This is not technological innovation, but another example of tactical innovation. In fact, we used this technique effectively during the blockade of Haiphong during the Vietnam War. In addition to aerial mining of the harbor, a few of our submarines made their presence known overtly, then "disappeared." Using their speed, they approached all the ships moving toward the port, and word quickly spread about the dozen or so submarines surrounding Haiphong. The merchant traffic abruptly stopped – mission accomplished.

Early in a conflict, forward deployed submarines will likely be operated closer to potential adversaries than our sister forces. For this reason, we are becoming ever more valuable participants in the planning, sensor, and engagement networks upon which future command, control, and coordination of the sea-air-land battle will depend. We’ve got to get better connected – with each other, with the Battlegroup, with the Joint Commander, and with the National Authorities.

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Flexible firepower. The flexibility of US submarines allows for rapid
response to contingencies around the globe in a wide variety of roles.
Here, USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723) transits the Suez Canal
with a Carrier Battlegroup.

Getting Payload
Both for controlling littoral waters and for impacting events ashore, submarines will require more warfighting payload. I use the term "payload" in the broadest sense here, to mean more than just "things that go boom." Sometimes we find ourselves at the table, only to be confronted with the "so what?" question. We can make more of a difference. I am including other forms of payload, such as off-board vehicles and distributed sensors. This need for increased payload means seeking more volume and more efficient use of that volume, for things such as off-board vehicles, reduction or elimination of payload propellant and – farther off in the future – for deployment of directed energy weapons and countermeasures.

The Defense Science Board study I cited earlier recommended overthrowing what has been described as the "tyranny of the 21-inch torpedo tube," by employing systems having a more flexible interface with the undersea environment. By removing the size and configuration restrictions imposed by torpedo tube deployment schemes, we will enable submarines to handle more payload and more different types of payloads. Admiral Fages recently signed an agreement with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to study new attack submarine design concepts, with emphasis on innovative attack submarine payload options and the structural means to accommodate them. Even for our present submarine designs, we will need to explore how vertical launch system (VLS) tubes can be adapted to handle a variety of land-attack (or anti-air – or even anti-missile) weapons, and how existing torpedo tubes can be best used to deploy UUVs, or eventually, miniaturized and podded UAVs, in addition to their more traditional payloads of missiles, mines, and torpedoes.

The miniaturization of conventional sensors and the creation of wholly new types, such as nuclear, biological, and chemical detectors, suggest new possibilities for comprehensive submarine-based covert surveillance and monitoring of the littoral battlespace. For example, a network of drifting or subsurface buoys deployed from sub-launched UUVs, along with corresponding air/land sensors carried or dropped by sub-launched UAVs, could be continuously monitored in real time by satellite or submarine telemetry packages.

In the near term, we are also studying potential payload options which could be made available by converting a limited number of excess Trident ballistic missile submarines to SSGNs – large, conventionally-armed attack boats. The available volume of these large submarines with significant remaining service lifetimes could be applied to accommodate a variety of new payload concepts, unhinged from the "tyranny of the torpedo tube." They include – but are not limited to – providing capacity for deploying over 100 offensive precision-strike weapons and offering greatly enhanced capacities and capabilities for the transportation and delivery of Special Operating Forces (SOF).

This innovative look at cost-effective, alternative applications for a small number of Tridents does not affect our continuing national reliance on Trident SSBNs as our reliable, survivable, and premier strategic deterrent well into the next century – an era which is, unfortunately, likely to feature further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Our Trident submarines deploy 54 percent of this Nation’s strategic warheads, using only 34 percent of the strategic budget and less than 1.5 percent of the Navy’s personnel. All this, rolled into a patrolling platform whose whereabouts remain completely unknown to those who would contemplate unleashing terror upon our Nation’s interests, make our Tridents an irreplaceable element of our national security posture for the foreseeable future.

Getting Modular
Modular construction is the most cost-effective and operationally supportable means of providing for technology insertion into our new submarines. Significant modularity is already embodied in the design and construction of the new Virginia (SSN-774)-class attack submarine. This design will facilitate planned technology insertion over the life of the class. In designing follow-on submarines, these modular concepts will be carried to their logical conclusion, to yield maximum flexibility in operation, economy in procurement and construction, and improvement in our modernization rate.

With modular construction, we will also be able to deploy significant payload variations in our submarines using a single basic design. The modular architectural approach implements a basic, standardized structural "shell" that contains the nuclear propulsion plant and ship control functions, along with fundamental self-defense capabilities. Variable payloads can then be configured as "plug-and-fight" modules that would mate with the basic hull form, using standardized electrical and mechanical interfaces. This approach is similar to that used in configuring the Space Shuttle, where interchangeable payload modules are swapped in and out to best support the specific mission needs of each flight. These SSNs with optimized special payloads must preserve the submarine’s core advantages of stealth, mobility, and endurance and retain their important multi-mission capability. But the added flexibility to substantially enhance a chosen mission area – or set of mission areas – would offer a significant advantage over what I’ve called our traditional "Noah’s Ark" submarine design concept, in which "small numbers of everything" are carried aboard each submarine all the time, potentially to accomplish any conceivable submarine mission.

A truly modular design would permit unprecedented flexibility for operational commanders to tailor their fleets. They would be able to use their current and projected mission requirements to determine the optimum mix of specialized submarines (with volume-dominating, special-purpose payloads) versus other, more broadly configured multi-mission submarines – without incurring the operational inefficiencies and high costs of building and maintaining a number of less flexible, specialized submarines built from the keel up.

Getting Electric

There is a powerful agent, responsive, quick, and easy to use, pliable enough to meet all our needs on board. It does everything. It supplies light and heat for the ship and is the very soul of our mechanical equipment. That agent is electricity.

These prophetic words were spoken by one of the world’s most legendary submarine skippers – Captain Nemo, in Jules Verne’s fictional 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Today our Navy’s ships – particularly, our nuclear-powered warships with their "unlimited" reservoirs of stored energy – stand at the threshold of access to remarkable capabilities that Jules Verne could barely have imagined. There are significant operational advancements which could be made possible by emerging technologies, but they require harnessing very large quantities of electrical power. To realize this potential for a step improvement in capabilities, we must pursue the development of modern all-electric ships, incorporating electric drive technology. This initiative stands to yield significant growth potential to advance warfighting technologies.

Just how would electric drive and an "all-electric ship" give us new abilities to do all of this? Well, take a walk into your submarine engine room. Today, on the order of 75-80 percent of the useful power of a submarine reactor is solely dedicated to propulsion; it is either used for speed, or it is not used – but in any event, it is not available to apply to other uses. Obviously then, only 20-25 percent of the reactor’s useful power can be used for other purposes. With electric drive, 100 percent of the power generated would be placed on an electrical bus, from which the skipper would be free to allocate energy wherever, whenever, and however he needs to, in order to meet requirements dictated by the tactical situation. Examples of future uses which would be made possible by this type of increased flexibility in distributing the ship’s generated energy include:

  • Recharging high-endurance, reusable mobile payloads, such as a number of long-range UUVs, and charging UAVs just prior to use.
  • Powering high-energy undersea sensor networks and other distributed, even leave-behind, payloads.
  • Discharging high energy countermeasures against close-aboard, high-speed torpedoes, from which evasion may not be a viable option.
  • Employing regenerative directed energy weapons, which would exploit the stored energy of the reactor (rather than depending on the limited quantity of propellant in the small number of weapons for which stowage volume can be made available).

The Navy’s future fossil-fueled surface ships might benefit from this technology as well, even without a nuclear reactor to provide a large power source, because the same type of flexibility in the allocation of available energy would be realized, along with tremendous naval architectural flexibility and substantial cost savings in fuel efficiency and manning reductions. In short, most of our Navy’s ships might be substantially enhanced by "getting electric."

Submarines stand to gain a crucial additional advantage by using electric drive – the next big step in improved acoustic stealth. As quiet as our submarines already are, we will require further advances here, to keep pace with the proliferation of rapidly advancing acoustic sensor and processor technologies. We have already achieved most of the acoustic quieting that is physically available using current, mechanical drive technology. To do better, we need to change the overall approach to delivering propulsion and on-board power generation.

Maturing technologies – such as high power semiconductors, permanent magnet motors, and magnetic bearings – can be exploited in the near term, to provide the necessary high- torque, power-dense, quiet on-board machinery we will need. Emerging technologies – including high temperature superconductivity and direct energy conversion – offer promising future possibilities of proceeding even farther down this road, achieving very low-loss energy transport and storage, along with the prospect of a simpler propulsion plant, with few moving parts and no steam in the engine room.

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Heroes: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. Our World War II heroes set the
standard of excellence that enabled victory in the Cold War
and sustains the force today. Riding the technological revolution into the 21st Century,
submariners will continue to play a central role in our nation’s combat forces.
Clockwise from top left: USS Barb (SS-220) sailors with WWII battle flag;
USS Columbus (SSN-762) underway; Battlestations aboard the USS Tucson
(SSN-770); and artist’s rendition of the coming USS Virginia (SSN-774)

Remaining Affordable

Those who claim there is no competition in shipbuilding today are missing another post-Cold War reality. We are, in fact, in a pitched competition for limited resources, vying with other areas important to our Nation’s interests – education, transportation, comerce, and social securiy, to name a few. To field a Submarine Force with the number of SSNs we need to do the job, those SSNs must be affordable. The hard budget decisions constraining us to 50 today, even when more are needed, are sufficient evidence of this – and I’m determined to do better here.

We have made, and continue to achieve, substantial cost reductions in the Virginia-class submarine – in areas such as a life-of-the-ship reactor core; a simpler plant design that reduces pumps, valves, and piping by over 40 percent; reduced numbers of watch stations; disciplined incorporation of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment; and a fully computerized design-then-build process of construction.

Methods to reduce the costs of upgrading and maintaining systems in existing submarine classes are also well underway. An example of this is the Acoustic Rapid COTS Insertion (ARCI) "state-of-the-shelf" upgrade for sonar systems, first evaluated in USS Augusta (SSN-710) in 1997 and scheduled for full installation in the fleet by 2005.

We are committed to continuing this cost-limiting approach into the future. Modularity in both power systems and payloads, for example, will be a key factor in containing the cost of submarine construction and subsequent upgrades, as well as permitting a much shorter cycle time for implementing new design concepts. In a low-build-rate environment, this is the most feasible and cost-effective way to field new capabilities quickly to respond to new threats.

But our partners in industry need to do more. They should, and must, understand what is core, and what is process or culture – then challenge any part of the process and culture where we are not maximizing efficiency. For my part, I need to find industrial partners willing to do this and bid a fond adieu to the others.

Since our birth a century ago, the Submarine Force has grown in capability, effectiveness, and value to our Nation on the strength of the sheer guts of our people and continuous – and often daring – innovation in technology, as well as in strategy and tactics. In recent decades, with the impetus of the Cold War, the pace of innovation has accelerated sharply for us, as nuclear propulsion, submarine-launched missiles, digital acoustic signal processing, towed arrays, and countless other technical achievements reached the Fleet. As our next century approaches, the Submarine Force will need to maintain this momentum of inventiveness, in rising to meet the challenges of this "New World Order" with which we are already engaged. With expanded payload capabilities, improved connectivity, increased platform versatility made possible through modularity, and the full electrification of our submarines, we will continue to be a significant and lethal force, and a crucial element in our nation’s arsenal.

I began this article reflecting on our heroes from World War II. I don’t think that’s being nostalgic or wistfully recalling faded glory. I recount the stories of those heroes repeatedly, because they set our standards. They developed the culture of our Submarine Force – they led the way. In the crucible of an extended world war, numerous technologies emerged at a blinding rate, and those new technologies demanded new tactics to employ them. Our World War II submariners took the products of new technologies (the sonars, the radars, the improved torpedo exploders, and more), put them into their boats – with welding rods, baling wire, and white line – and then they figured out how to best employ their gadgets, sharing what they learned with one another and telling their leadership what more they needed to do their job. Using every bit of technology and innovation available – and a whole lot of courage – they regained lost territory, developed a lead, and finally prevailed. Anything less would not have been enough. And our submariners of the 60s, 70s, and 80s continued this legacy. The public is just beginning to understand their enormous contributions during those crucial years of nuclear gridlock with the Soviet Union. Study after study after study has concluded that our country will continue to rely on its submariners far into the 21st century.

That’s where you who are operating our submarines come in. We have a lot of people working on developing and incorporating new technologies as they become available – to ensure the highest quality in the face of diminishing quantity. It’s up to you to take them to sea, though, and figure out how to use them to our best advantage – and to share them with one another, and tell our Submarine Force leadership what works, what doesn’t work, and what you need most in the very integrated and Joint world today.

There’s a long, uninterrupted linkage between our submarines of World War II, our Cold War submarines, our submarines today, and the submarines we’ll operate into the next century. When our Nation needs the Submarine Force, nothing else will do:

It was to the Submarine Force that I looked to carry the load.... It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us....

We have always answered the bell, just as we are in all parts of the world today. These are busy and exciting times for our submarines and our submariners. We’re doing the important and irreplaceable job our Nation needs us to do today, and we’re putting in place the means to maintain our value to our Nation’s arsenal into the next century.