Nuclear dilemma - 'Big Red' threat

March 04, 2001|By Jim Haner | By Jim Haner,Sun Staff

"Big Red: Three Months On Board a Trident Nuclear Submarine," by Douglas C. Waller. HarperCollins. 336 pages. $27.50.

By any measure, it stands among the greatest marvels of human invention in history -- a ship as long as a 56-story building is high, as wide as a three-lane highway and capable of traveling underwater for months at a time.

It makes its own drinking water, oxygen, heat and electricity for a crew of 160 men. Fully provisioned, it is completely self-sufficient -- whether under the polar ice cap or in the middle of the open sea.

Oh, yes, and there's this: It carries 1,560 tons of nuclear missiles in its belly that could quite readily incinerate at least 14.5 million people, injure at least three times that many more and flatten a piece of the globe many thousands of square miles wide.

Welcome aboard the USS Nebraska, SSBN-739 -- otherwise known as "Big Red," which happens to be the title of a new book by Time magazine correspondent Douglas C. Waller

If you haven't thought much lately about where your federal tax dollars are going, or what it means to be the world's last superpower, or even about such metaphysical questions as the meaning of God, buy this man's book.

Up front, it should be noted that most of the really big questions raised by "Big Red" are left almost entirely unanswered by Waller, a civilian cut loose in the wonderland of a naval combatant for what appears to be the first time. The poor chap is so overwhelmed by it all that his book reads like an owner's manual, full of specifications and whiz-bang that all add up to the most efficient vehicle of mass destruction ever devised.

To be fair, he dallies along the way on the inherent moral dilemmas -- as when he visits with a young sailor at the helm of Armageddon who happens to be the son of a preacher back home in Georgia. But the stickier stuff goes largely untouched.

That said, you'd have to be dumb as a stump if some rather hairy issues don't occur to you while reading "Big Red."

Try this one on for size: the Nebraska is but one of 18 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines operated by the U.S. Navy -- among them, the USS Maryland. As a taxpayer, you are guaranteed that at least two will be at sea at any given time. And two are more than enough to blow the entire planet to kingdom come.

The former Soviet Navy, even at full strength, never came within a thousand miles of finding a Trident in nearly two decades of trying. And even if it did, the Nebraska and her sisters are armed to the teeth with enough torpedoes to sink a squadron of attackers.

Of course, the Russians are currently having trouble providing a head of cabbage and a bottle of bad vodka for the crew of any one of their mothballed attack boats. So even that long-shot threat has been removed.

You don't have to be some sort of peacenik to ask: "What is the point of maintaining a multi-billion-dollar Cold War nuclear arsenal -- land-based missile silos, stealth bombers, theater nuclear weapons -- if the U.S. Trident fleet possesses enough firepower to blow away many times over China, Iraq, North Korea and any other potential rogue nation that might conceivably emerge over the next 30 years."

"Big Red" does not answer the question, but it most definitely raises it.

Jim Haner, a Sun staff writer, is a U.S. Navy veteran who specialized in anti-submarine warfare during four years at sea from 1974 to 1978. He has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and the Bergen Record.

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