SEVEROVDINSK, Russia -- Army Maj. Ron Alberto has to be one of the military's most frequent fliers. The 16-year veteran ordnance officer travels the international airways with one thought in mind -- destroying Soviet-era nuclear submarines.
Each month, Alberto travels between his home station at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in Dulles, Va., and the Russian Federation. He spends up to three weeks a month in places like the Zvezdochka, SevMash and Nerpa shipyards near Archangel, a city on Russia's White Sea coast, just below the Arctic Circle.
During the Cold War, Russian workers at these sites built and maintained ballistic missile submarines. Workers at SevMash built Russia's Typhoon-class subs, the world's largest. Today, they spend their days using American-supplied equipment and technology to dismantle Soviet-era vessels.
The United States, through its Cooperative Threat Reduction program, will help Russia scrap 31 nuclear submarines by 2003. Since 1992, U.S. specialists have helped disassemble one Yankee- and six Delta-class submarines. The Russians have destroyed another five subs on their own. U.S. officials recently awarded SevMash shipyard a contract to scrap a Typhoon.
The Russians' six Typhoons are about 570 feet long, 75 feet wide and displace 48,000 tons submerged. They dwarf the next-largest Russian Delta IV and U.S. Ohio subs, which are only about 10 feet shorter, but have half the width and one-third the displacement. Eventually, the Russians plan to destroy all but one of the giant subs.
Alberto is the threat reduction agency's submarine elimination project officer. He verifies that contracted work is done and monitors the program. Back at agency headquarters, his partner Navy Cdr. Mark Baker, a submarine warfare specialist, helps deal with the spent fuel and radioactive waste aspects of the elimination process. The two have worked together on the Russian project for close to a year, said Baker, who has traveled to Russia nine times in the past year.
Working with a translator, Alberto provides technical expertise to the Russian contractors. It's a job he said he finds particularly rewarding.
"You really feel like you're making a difference," he said. "It's one of those few projects that I've been involved with where you can actually start and finish something. It takes about 12 months to finish two submarines." Since March 1998, he's seen to the destruction of a half dozen subs and expects to be involved soon in scrapping another 10.
Alberto estimates the overall project may finish ahead of schedule. The three Archangel shipyards are dismantling 17 submarines, and a fourth shipyard in the Far East has 14 to do, he said.
At Zvezdochka shipyard, massive missile launch tubes rest next to mounds of hull pieces in a work yard. The metal subs are cut into 20-ton sections that are then chopped, formed and pressed into cubic-meter blocks. The European-standard-sized chunks can be smelted all over the continent, Alberto said.
The United States provided all of Zvezdochka's scrapyard machinery and infrastructure, he noted. Nearby, U.S.-funded construction is under way for processing facilities that will remove the subs' nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes and convert them into forms suitable for long-term storage or reuse, Alberto said.
The submarine elimination project is Alberto's fourth Cooperative Threat Reduction assignment. Globetrotting and coping with new people and new cultures are nothing new for the Army officer, whose father was in the Air Force.
"I went to high school in Oregon. I went to college in New York. I've moved around my entire life." He's lived in 18 places in the past 16 years.
His biggest challenge, he said, is getting the Russians to share information so that he can ensure the project is "accommodating the needs of the U.S. government and the interests of the American taxpayers."
Having to work through a translator adds a new dimension to the job, Alberto noted. "You can use that to your advantage at times," he said. "There's a lot of body language and I try to use that effectively. I try to read their body language. As I've grown in the program, I basically know what they're going to ask me."