Big Red: The Three-Month Voyage of a Trident Nuclear Submarine, Douglas C. Waller

Harper Torch, 2001, 448 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-82078-1

A few years ago, this book would have been impossible. Tensions ran high between the United States and Russia and the lurking presences of the nuclear-armed Trident submarines was an integral part of the United States’ nuclear deterrent. Even if Russia could target (and presumably destroy) all of the United States’ known terrestrial nuclear sites, it simply could not account for the submarine fleet. Automatically assured mutual destruction. Stalemate even before the game had been played.

In such a context, releasing even a shred of information on the inner workings of a Trident submarine would have been foolhardy. That’s why the Trident program remained shrouded in mystery even as other areas of America’s military capabilities were endlessly hyped, such as in George C. Wilson’s Super Carrier —a book which meticulously described the latest and greatest Lincoln-class nuclear aircraft carriers.

But things have changed, and even though several navies still maintain a submarine fleet, their capabilities remain ridiculous when compared to the American underwater might. As the back jacket suggests, the 18,500-ton, $1.8 billion Trident submarines are “taller than the Washington Monument and wider than a three-lane highway”. Oh, and they carries enough nuclear weaponry to glassify whole countries, if the American political leadership so chooses. (Meanwhile, Canada has problems ensuring hull integrity for the four used British-built submarines it just purchased.)

In this context, explaining the inner workings of a Trident submarine serves two purpose: First, terrify any county even dreaming of going toe-to-toe with the Americans. There’s a good reason why fifty cents out of every defence dollar spent in the world today is American; maintaining even one of those submarines, let alone building it, would tax the capabilities of almost any other nation on Planet Earth. Second, an exposé of the Trident program might just ensure that such weapons remain in service at a moment where serious questions are asked regarding the need for an underwater deterrent.

Certainly, few are going to remain unconvinced of the impressive professionalism of an elite Trident crew after reading this tell-all description of a typical Trident voyage about the USS Nebraska. Correspondent Waller takes us inside almost all areas of the ship, from the bridge to the trash disposal area, from the mess to the chambers in which the nuclear missiles are stored. Even in peacetime, don’t think that deployment are easy for the crew; it’s drills, drills, drills all the time, and the first few days of operation end up being mostly sleepless ones.

Waller’s style is brisk, to the point and filled with fascinating details. It’s a telling comment than to point out that the most mundane elements of underwater life (food, entertainment, worship) are described in as many fascinating details as the more exciting trials, such as hostage-taking training scenarios, a description of the nuclear firing sequence and simulated war-games. A lot of attention is also paid to the men manning the machines, as dozen of sailors are interviewed and invited to discuss the paths they followed in order to serve aboard the USS Nebraska.

All in all, Big Red will doubtlessly appeal to military buffs, engineering geeks, as well as anyone with a deep interest in one of the most secretive areas of the American military forces. The depth of reporting is thorough enough that the book will doubtlessly act a primary source for countless techno-thriller writers in years to come. In the meantime, Big Red truly stays the definitive layman’s text on Trident.

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