Aircraft carriers are busy and imposing. Destroyers — sleek and muscular like race cars. Amphibious ships show up after disasters to deliver relief supplies and white-painted hospital vessels tour the Third World on missions of mercy. But of all the U.S. Navy’s hundreds of warships, the ones that matter the most during an actual shooting war are the ones you rarely see.

“There two types of ships: submarines and targets,” according to an old Navy saying.

Silent, deadly and elusive, America’s roughly 50 nuclear-powered attack submarines prowl the oceans in peacetime gathering intelligence and practicing their deadly skills. If the unthinkable happens and the U.S. must do battle with a major foe with its own fleet, the Navy’s subs would be the decisive weapon, ruthlessly sweeping the seas of enemy ships.

To understand how a modern attack submarine works, in 2009 photographer and Medium contributor Bryan William Jones spent some time aboard the Los Angeles-class USS Toledo off the Florida coast. He snapped these photos.

Bryan William Jones photo

“The mission of the USS Toledo is principally to deter aggression, though other missions involve intelligence-gathering, anti-ship and anti-submarine operations, strike, mining, search and rescue and discreet insertion of Special Operations Forces,” Jones tells Medium. “The Los Angeles-class submarines form the backbone of the U.S. submarine fleet with a total of 42 boats in the class currently active.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“Much has been written about the statistics and capabilities of these boats, but the absolute limits of these submarines are classified,” Jones says. “Nominally, they are capable of 25 knots and maximum operating depths of greater than 800 feet. The reality of course is that the boats’ operating envelope is significantly greater, with greater test and crush depth ratings and flank speed ratings underwater of 30 to 32 knots. For the record, we were cruising right around 650 feet at 20 knots for a good portion of our journey down the coast.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“The USS Toledo was originally commissioned back in 1995, but entered into a depot modernization period in 2007 in Newport News, Virginia, where extensive upgrades to the boat’s sonar, combat and weapons systems were performed. This cruise was part of the redelivery of the boat after modernization was complete in February 2009.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“While the USS Toledo is one of the smaller submarines that the U.S. Navy operates, it is still a 360-foot-long machine with a 33-foot beam and a surface displacement of over 6,200 tons. The boat’s compliment is typically 14 officers and 132 enlisted men.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“The Los Angeles-class submarines were designed in the 1970s to function almost exclusively as escorts for aircraft carriers. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the original purposes of the Los Angeles class were in doubt, yet today the scope of the subs’ missions have significantly expanded to include intelligence and delivery of Special Operations Forces. These submarines can deploy with very little notice and stay on station for months at a time.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“Interestingly, unlike Russian and Chinese submarines, typically the most junior crew members helm an American sub, giving crew members as young as 19 or 20 a huge amount of responsibility. In the Russian and Chinese navies, only the most senior members of the crew man the helm.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“Submariners are actually double volunteers. First they volunteer for military service, which means eight weeks of basic training and indoctrination into U.S. Navy life. Individuals wanting to become submariners subsequently volunteer for undersea duty. Upon being selected for subs, a submariner obtains specific training for another eight weeks, learning firefighting, escape techniques and physics.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“All sailors also attend schools designed to give them skills related to their specific job on the submarine. These schools teach everything from the fundamentals of electronics to nuclear powerplants, navigation, mechanics and more. The Naval Postgraduate School also offers courses to officers in engineering acoustics, physical oceanography, electrical engineering, operations research including tactical applications and even courses of study in applied mathematics and computer science.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“The sonar room functions as the ears of the submarine. This division is absolutely critical to maintaining or preventing contact, gathering intelligence and ensuring that the submarine itself is operated in a quiet fashion. With the recent retrofitting, the USS Toledo now has a new sonar array with over 1,000 individual sensors embedded in the bow.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“The USS Toledo operates the latest Raytheon AN/BYG-1 combat and sonar system. The AN/BYG-1 comprises a group of systems involved in tactical control, weapons control and networking. Sonar operations provide for acoustic detection, tracking and localization, recording and analysis. Some data handling and data classification from the flank sonar array, the cylindrical sonar, passive ranging sonar, TB-29A twin line towed array and internal noise monitoring through submarine wide embedded accelerometers operate through this system.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“I was actually surprised that more modern data-handling and multi-spectral data display has not made it into the latest submarines. In a sense, modern subs are still using the same paradigms for listening to, detecting and tracking sonar contacts that they have used for decades. That said, the ability of the sonar operators to interpret sonar information is impressive. They can tell biologic signals — whales, fish, even shrimp feeding — from surface ships and classify aircraft and ship traffic by type, speed, heading and the number of propellers.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“Armament is substantial. The USS Toledo carries upwards of 14 Mk.48 torpedoes fired through four forward torpedo tubes. In addition, there are 12 vertical launch tubes designed to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles making conventional or nuclear attacks on land at distances of up to 2,500 kilometers.”

Bryan William Jones photo

“Most sailors live 18-hour days with six hours on watch and 12 hours for maintenance, training, rest and recreation. Given that humans have an intrinsic 25-hour circadian rhythm that fits into a 24-hour day, there may be valid issues associated with that schedule. The new broad-spectrum, low-level fluorescent lighting used aboard many submarines gives some sailors headaches. Light issues aside, there are plenty of stimuli on board the Navy’s primary ship-killers to ensure an entrained circadian rhythm.”

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