The Tridents have been on patrol for about 20 years. But while they've been sailing under the sea, the world above has changed. Terrorism, not Armageddon, is the threat today. So the Navy has decided to transform some of the Tridents, and turn the ultimate sword of the Cold War into a weapon against terror.
The USS Florida slips through the Atlantic. Stretched as long as two football fields, her silhouette moves like a shadow on the surface. The Florida is what sailors call a "Boomer," a submarine loaded with enough nuclear weapons to incinerate the former Soviet Union.
Inside, she was designed for one thing -- to carry 24 nuclear ballistic missiles, hide them under the sea and stand by for the order to end the world.
The order would come from the president of the United States to skipper David Duryea of the Florida. A submariner for nearly 20 years, the Florida is his first command.
“We would be given an order from the president to launch a strike,” says Duryea, explaining how he would command the missiles to be fired. “I would be up in the control room supervising the positioning of the ship, making sure we’re at the right conditions to launch the missile. And I would give the order down here to the weapons officer, who would then use a firing key...and give the order, which would actually launch the missile by pulling the switch.”
"Now, this key is just a training one we use for training. The real one is locked up behind the safe."
That key that Duryea is referring to is essentially the trigger for nuclear war.
Each missile carries eight nuclear warheads. Each warhead can be sent to a different target. One Trident sub carries the power of 5,000 bombs like the one that destroyed Hiroshima.
But, as fearsome as the Tridents are, the Florida was recently sailing to its own destruction. Because of a treaty with the Russians, the Navy was sending four of these boats to the scrapyard. That was until the Navy figured it could transform the old Cold War doomsday machine into a weapon with a future.
“It’ll be the perfect platform,” says Duryea. “It’ll be the platform that the joint force commander, the president, the secretary of defense, the fleet commanders, will be wanting to know where it is when they need somebody to do a mission.”
Duryea took us topside to show us what he means. Tridents are unique in the Navy because of their massive missile tubes. Beneath the door, the space is 7 feet wide and 47 feet deep.
“It’s all space. Twenty-four missile tubes,” says Duryea. “This much room to put lots of things in there.”
In the missile compartment, they are planning to make room for 100 Navy commandos, Special Forces known as SEALs. The tubes themselves will be reloaded with launchers that fire cruise missiles like bullets from a gun.
“You think about it like a revolver, like a cylinder on a revolver, and it’ll hold seven Tomahawk missiles,” says Duryea.
There will be a total of 154 cruise missiles on this ship. “Aside from maybe an aircraft carrier with an air wing, there are no other ships that can carry that many cruise missiles,” says Duryea.
In effect, Florida would become part aircraft carrier, part spy ship --invisible beneath the sea.
The submarine can stay submerged for months at a time. They make their own air, their own water, and the nuclear power plant runs for decades without refueling. About the only limitation is the amount of fresh food they carry. It’s served up in abundance, and submariners like to say they have the best chow in the Navy. They should. It’s about the only comfort on board.
The Florida is so jammed with equipment that it almost seems there is no room for sailors. Many of them bunk between the missile tubes. It’s the kind of place where you can think about the end of the world, while lowering your cholesterol.
Florida is one of the oldest Tridents, christened before many members of the crew were. The average age onboard is 24. On any given watch, the man at the wheel could be 19 years old. There are 170 men on board, no women, and no distinction between day and night. The work shift is 6 hours with no days off.
Recently in the Bahamas, the Navy staged a war game to test the crew and the ship in their new mission. On an island, Navy SEALs played the part of terrorists running a chemical weapons plant.
Aboard a ship near the Florida, Capt. William Toti ran a makeshift lab with all the spy gear the Navy hopes to build into the submarine. These stations are linked to spy satellites and planes.
Toti brings down live pictures of the mock weapons plant. “We can get this real-time down to the submarine. The SEALs can look at it real-time as they’re planning their missions, and have a better sense of what’s going on.”
Also spying on the plant is a remote control sub called Seahorse. Believe it or not, it runs on size “D” batteries, the kind you put in a flashlight, except it uses 9,216 of them. It’s surveying the route the Florida’s commandos will take when they go to check out the island.
The Seahorse has spotted something they'll want to know about.
“Now, what we’re looking here for is bottom objects that might interfere with the SEALs landing,” says Toti, pointing to a little white dot that appears to be a mine. “So the undersea vehicle found a sea mine, and obviously that’s an issue.”
Armed with that information, SEALs aboard the Florida are set for a full dress rehearsal. On deck, in the middle of the night, there are plenty of stars but no moon -- just the way the SEALs, in their night vision goggles, like it.
For this experiment, they’ll sneak ashore in rubber boats to check out that chemical plant. But in the future, the remodeled Trident will make it possible for the SEALs to go to work without ever surfacing the submarine.
“They could go out into the water if they were just going to go out and do a mission swimming in, or right into their own mini-submarine. And they can take the mini sub into water we can't get the Trident sub into,” says Duryea.
Docked on top of the Trident will be two mini subs. They will carry the SEALs and their gear to the target. In concept, the SEALs could go back and forth on surveillance missions without the Trident ever giving itself away on the surface.
“The thing about the terrorists is the moment they recognize that you’re on to them, they scatter like cockroaches when you turn on the lights,” says Toti. “You need to be there in a way that you can watch them without them knowing that you watch them.”
Before they were ordered on this experiment, the men of the Florida spent their months on nuclear patrol, carrying on a mission that started back in the 1950s.
Back then, the Navy was in such a rush to carry nuclear missiles that it cut a conventional sub in two and stuck a missile compartment in the middle.
Also back then, the Navy let the late CBS News Correspondent Edward R. Murrow watch the trials, the failures and, finally, the triumph of the first nuclear missile submarine.
Edward R. Murrow: Admiral Rayborn, they look like the doors of doom, don’t they?
Vice Admiral William F. Rayborn Yes, sir, most awesome, more firepower from the missiles that will be stored here than all than all the bombs dropped by both sides in World War II.
Now, 40 years after the Navy turned conventional subs into nuclear missile carriers, it's doing the opposite. The torches are already at work on the U.S.S. Ohio. The work will cost about $1 billion for each of the four subs. About a quarter of that is just to refuel the nuclear reactor. It takes 220 pounds of nuclear fuel, but that will run the sub for another 35 years.
But is the Navy just trying to find a new mission to keep this old, obsolete boat at sea?
“I would argue that the ship isn’t old. Although it’s 20 years old, it may be old to some people,” says Duryea. “The ship was built for 40 years. We’re saving the taxpayers money, instead of throwing out something at half its useful life.”
Florida's next life appears off to a good start. Those SEALs who slipped off the ship landed on the island and planted sensors to sniff out the supposed chemical weapons. They watched the building for days, unnoticed.
Back aboard, the crew tested the sub's new striking power. A cruise missile was loaded into a revolving canister and Duryea ordered the first test launch.
The Navy says the test was a complete success, hitting an imaginary target at sea.
From the control room, Duryea took us up for the best view on a Trident, up the narrow ladder to the top of the tower they call the sail. With the end of its sea tests, the Florida will set course for dry dock for three years of modifications. Fourteen Tridents will remain on nuclear patrol. But the Florida and three others will sail out of a cold war and into a hot one.
“The strategic mission was never to be used, to be a deterrent," says Duryea. "In light of the world today, and the future potential of the world after 9/11, I think this ship will be used some day."