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Sea Stories: The Knife Fight


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Sea Stories: The Knife Fight

 There is an unfortunate but imperative dictum which runs throughout all human experience, but especially through military service:  LIFE ISN’T FAIR. Sometimes the conditions are stacked against you, but duty demands that you must carry on and continue your mission.  This can easily get you killed, but such is the nature of warfare.  And sometimes, you can win against overwhelming odds, if your spirit is up to the fight.

The Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7) class Guided Missile Frigates were outstanding little ships, but they were designed to be fairly inexpensive.  The “Flight I” early versions were given modest capabilities, and optimized for operations in relatively shallow, littoral waters.  They were designed to hunt submarines and were acoustically very quiet and hard to detect.  But they had a fairly low powered, higher frequency hull mounted sonar (sometimes derisively called the “Helen Keller system”), and they embarked a practically antique helicopter, the SH-2 Sea Sprite.  Later versions got better helicopters and a vastly improved towed array passive sonar, making them far more formidable anti-submarine platforms.  But my ship was one of the early “Flight I” ships.

In 1988, we were undergoing Refresher Training in Pearl Harbor, HI.  As part of that training period, we were ordered to participate in a combat simulation exercise against a Los Angeles -class fast attack submarine.  Any surface ship is at a disadvantage against a submarine.  The environment and odds highly favor the sub.  It’s a much better deal to send a helicopter out to kill him!  A modern attack submarine is one of the most lethal weapons ever designed by man, and at that time, the Los Angeles boats were the top of the line.  Quiet, fast, deep-diving and supremely deadly, an LA was a surface ship’s worst nightmare as an opponent.  My little frigate was severely overmatched.  And we had no helicopter, so it was all up to us.

We were directed to proceed to a specified box in the Pacific Ocean, and there to attempt to find the submarine.  Their mission was to sneak past us.  This simulated the submarine passing through a guarded geographic choke point or other constrained area to engage on a further mission, something boats like this do from time to time.  Recognizing that our ship’s sensors were not capable of deep-water detection, the submarine was given a “hard deck” depth limitation, below which he was not allowed to operate.  This simulated a shallow water littoral location instead of the deep Pacific where we actually were. Rather than a long-range engagement, this was to be an old-style knife fight between a ship and a submarine.   The sub usually wins these affairs.

The exercise window began.  We did our thing, quietly patrolling the box and looking for any indication of our opponent’s presence.  As we commenced, one of the REFTRA inspectors casually mentioned that the boat we were hunting was considered to be one of the best in the fleet, and that the Commanding Officer was a favorite or protégé of the Commander of Submarines, Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC).  And the Admiral was personally onboard the boat.  Right now.

Needless to say, the stakes of this particular game just got higher.  Reputation was at stake.  We had a basic idea of what the boat was perhaps likely to do.  We had our mission orders.  And we got a very slight trace of a contact indicating that there might be a submarine out there.

When you are overmatched, it is often a good idea to take the initiative.  So we did!  We quit trying to be quiet, brought the ship up to full speed, and making an educated guess about where the submarine was likely located, we went active on our sonar, blasting sound pulses out into the ocean and listening for echoes, like something out of World War II.  And there was the boat.  We nailed it. 

We quickly got right over the top of the boat, and stayed there, shaking it like a terrier shakes a rat.  30+ knots of speed, hard rudder turns, the ship heeling and shuddering as the submarine beneath us tried everything possible to shake us off.  He tried full speed turning, crash stopping, firing decoys, and any other tricks in his bag, to no avail.  We were later told that COMSUBPAC got increasingly  irate as his boat could not break contact with a measly little Flight I FFG.  Finally, after a very extended period of active contact, the Admiral removed the exercise hard deck limitation and allowed the submarine to submerge deeply below the ocean temperature thermocline, which acts as a sonic barrier.  The boat slunk into the depths and was heard no more.  In that environment, he would surely have evaded or destroyed us easily.  But in the shallow water which we were designed for, we gave him as much as he could handle and more. 

In time of war, if ordered, a little ship like mine would follow orders to take on an attack sub, no matter what.  We would likely be sunk as a result.  Life isn’t fair.  But in time of war, an attack submarine would also follow orders to try and sneak past a guard frigate in shallow water.  And he might lose that knife fight, too.  Life isn’t fair.  Sometimes the underdog wins.  That was a good lesson for both of the fighters on this day.

Edited by Gunboat1
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