Postmark from Bangor: Deterring the unthinkable
Seattle Times staff reporter
In the months since Sept. 11, we have been exploring the places and people that create an American ethic. Join us as we continue our series of reported "postcards" from the road.
As U.S. forces in Afghanistan mop up what's left of the Taliban, the men and women at Naval Submarine Base Bangor can look back at the past four months and say, with satisfaction, that they did absolutely nothing to contribute to the war effort.
The Bangor folks like it that way. So does the rest of mankind.
For newcomers to Puget Sound: Bangor, 20 miles west of Seattle, is home port for the Navy's entire Pacific fleet of eight Trident nuclear submarines.
Tridents do not deliver troops, collect intelligence or carry conventional weapons. Their sole function is to launch long-range nuclear missiles. Each sub, armed with as many as 192 nuclear warheads, has the destructive capacity of 1,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
The evolution of weaponry can be summed up like this: It began with rocks and clubs many thousands of years ago and arrived at its present pinnacle with the Trident nuclear submarine, the most powerful weapons system ever devised — and never used.
The Trident mission is to deter nuclear war by presenting such a devastating threat that "no country will take us on in a serious way," said Adm. Charles Griffiths Jr., commander of the Trident Pacific fleet, who on the day we visited had laryngitis but otherwise appeared quite commanding.
If a single Trident missile were fired, by definition, the Trident mission would have failed, not to mention that some place on Earth would be visited by unthinkable destruction. For Tridents, simply "being" is much preferred to actually "doing."
All on high alert
This doesn't mean Sept. 11 has had no effect here. On the contrary. While much of the country, four months after the attacks, has seemed to relax just a little bit, the submariners here remain on high alert.
Bangor must assume it is a prime terrorist target. U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, has said that he "can't think of a more significant target on the West Coast." The awareness of being a bull's-eye, said Griffiths, is "keen and universal" among the base's 6,000 military personnel.
The air space above the base, on Hood Canal along the western edge of the Kitsap Peninsula, remains closed. Heightened security patrols continue along the base perimeter. Public tours of the base have all but stopped. The Navy has implemented other security measures that it won't talk about.
Once you get past these, and past the checkpoints, the base can seem, at least from a passing car, almost serene. A vast portion of its 7,200 acres is forestland, groomed at the edges where concrete buildings rise up. The place has the look and feel of a college campus by the sea. Most of the people walking around are in their early 20s, a majority of them in civvies.
It's when you get to the water, on the canal, particularly on Delta Pier, that you might remember you're on a military base.
Trident submarines and their crews go out on 70- to 80-day patrols, going wherever they damn well please and not telling anybody where that is. There are a total of 18 Trident subs, eight at Bangor and an Atlantic fleet of 10 in Kings Bay, Ga. At any given time, between eight and 11 Tridents patrol the world's oceans.
At the end of a patrol, a Trident of the Pacific fleet returns here, to Delta Pier, to be refitted, which means cleaned, repaired and resupplied.
Like an orca — or a huge bullet
When we visited Delta Pier, the USS Michigan, one of the oldest Trident subs, was being refitted. Only a fraction of the vessel was above water, like an orca with only its dorsal fin and back visible. The sub's sail thrust above water, while below, its black hull measured 560 feet long (nearly as long as the Space Needle is tall) and four stories in diameter.
In the open sea, when it's cruising along the surface, a Trident can seem darkly regal in the way it parts the water, quietly and unrelentingly, its vast bulk remaining below surface, as if hiding, a secretive animal. It emanates the sleek singularity of a massive bullet, a bullet that can destroy nations.
But here, on Delta Pier, it looked like just another machine getting a tuneup. On the sub's deck, helmeted workers swarmed the sub's deck, climbing scaffolds, carrying hoses and tools, and skipping over an intricate web of metal ducts that protruded from every porthole and entrance.
Toward the boat's stern, a herd of sea lions reclined as if on vacation at the beach, an incongruous but routine sight. Whenever a Trident parks at the pier, the sea lions immediately park themselves on the warm metal.
Etched into that surface, a few dozen feet from the boldest sea lion, were 24 circular outlines, each denoting a missile hatch.
Every Trident can carry 24 long-range missiles, each with as many as eight nuclear warheads. The hatches open like clamshells. Once fired, the missiles would rocket out of their massive tubes.
The specter of terrorism
Nothing short of a direct order from the president can start the complicated sequence of activating a missile for launch. The Navy has such stringent safety mechanisms that even anti-Bangor activists don't fear an accidental launch or nuclear explosion.
What they fear, in the post-Sept. 11 era, is a terrorist attack. What if a missile or plane were to drop onto a parked Trident? What if someone sneaked a bomb on board?
One result could be a "dirty" nuclear explosion, according to the anti-nuclear-weapons group called Ground Zero Center for Non-Violent Action. This group has protested the presence of Trident submarines since the base's opening in the late 1970s.
Glen Milner, a longtime member of Ground Zero, said such an attack could ignite the propellant within the missiles, causing a conventional explosion that could release plutonium into the air.
The Navy dismisses the possibility as farfetched, but refuses, by policy, to discuss hypothetical situations.
"We have never publicly talked about 'What if?' kind of stuff," said Lt. Kevin Stephens, spokesman for the Trident fleet at Bangor. Doing so, he said, "would reveal our capabilities."
Suffice to say, Stephens said, that since the attack on the destroyer USS Cole in October 2000, and more so since Sept. 11, the Navy has viewed security "in a whole new way, thinking way outside the box and looking at every scenario."
Scenarios the Navy would not have considered, in the recent past, Stephens said: "It's considering them now."
This new level of security awareness has an official name: Force Protection.
"It's a new mission for the Navy," said Stephens. "These days, the Navy doesn't move a ship from Point A to Point B without thinking of Force Protection. ... We're taking all necessary and reasonable measures."
Bangor, nestled here in the watery folds of Puget Sound, is a place built on the unthinkable. The military spent billions of dollars creating and maintaining machines that could wreak the unthinkable so that the unthinkable will never happen.
A new nervousness
The new era brings just what this place does not need: another layer of complexity and a new list of things too awful to contemplate. But think they must. Under the college-campus veneer is a new nervousness, a twitchy-eyed anxiety that can't afford to blink.
It's on board the heavily armed ships that cruise up and down Hood Canal, because you never know when a garbage scow or trawler may be carrying an enemy.
It's in the eyes of M-16-wielding soldiers stationed at checkpoints, on guard platforms and towers, behind new rows of razor wire and concrete. It's in the antennae that seem to spring up any time an unfamiliar face — or unfamiliar anything — appears in the vicinity, in the sky, in the waiting room.
It's in the strained, closed-door discussions of possibilities, with planners and strategists reckoning with the multitude of potential threats. "What if" opens the door to infinity.
The reality of the old military adage about a soldier's duty has risen to a new level: Soldiers must keep watch, and today must dwell in the realm of the unthinkable, so the rest of us don't have to. It's got to be tiring. It makes us think that when a submarine crew leaves the surface of the world and plunges to the depths of the ocean, into its watery silence, that in some ways it must be a nice break.
Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alan Berner can be reached at 206-464-8133 or email@example.com.
See previous dispatches from the postcard series and from "Crossing America."