Nuclear-armed U.S. submarines that went more than a decade without calling on foreign ports in part because of post-Sept. 11 security concerns are once again visiting other countries, a shift intended to underscore their global presence and lift sailor morale.
A stop in September by USS Wyoming in the United Kingdom was the first of what are expected to be occasional visits to foreign ports.
Michael Connor, a retired Navy vice admiral who served until September as commander of the American submarine force, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the change reflects a desire to emphasize that the submarines are all over the world and also to give the crews an experience that is open to sailors on virtually all other Navy ships.
"The fact that a port visit is a possibility, even if it can't be delivered on every patrol, that is a big deal to the sailors. I know it was a big deal to me," Connor said. He said port visits such as the recent stop in Faslane, Scotland, also promote professional development by reinforcing a crew's ability to navigate and resupply their sub anywhere in times of crisis.
The Navy has 14 submarines with nuclear warheads that roam the oceans as part of the U.S. strategy to deter an enemy strike.
The crews that operate the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines, also known as "boomers," typically deploy for 70 to 80 days at sea with limited opportunities to surface for training. The smaller attack submarines, in contrast, deploy for roughly six months with about four port visits, some for maintenance and others for "liberty" or crew morale.
Connor said retention rates for sailors on ballistic-missile subs are among the highest for Navy organizations, but lengthy internal Navy deliberations concluded the port visits are an important incentive.
"It's a huge motivator," he said. "It's a reason people want to be in the Navy. It's a reason people want to be up to date on their qualifications so they're allowed to go ashore and take this time."
While port visits took place occasionally in the 1990s, several factors led to them coming to a halt after 2003. Connor said the thinking after the Sept. 11 attacks was that the subs were too special to assume any risk at all. In addition to security concerns, a spokesman for the submarine force, Navy Cmdr. Tommy Crosby, said there has been limited flexibility in scheduling as the number of ballistic-missile subs is down from the 18 the Navy had in the 1990s.
The primary reason for the Scotland visit, Crosby said, was "to strengthen cooperation and interoperability between the U.S. and the U.K. and to demonstrate our capability, flexibility and continued commitment to our allies."
A retired Navy officer who served on many submarines, James Patton of North Stonington, Connecticut, said port visits can make a difference especially for sailors on the ballistic-missile subs, known as SSBNs. He remembers attack submarines as far more fun with their multiple missions, while the larger, nuclear-armed subs focused largely on avoiding being detected by others.
"The SSBNs got a little boring," he said.