In April of 2014, when we visited Brian Tanaka, the Rochester kid and 1992 Lourdes grad was still waiting to take in-water command of the USS Minnesota, the most technologically advanced nuclear submarine on the planet.
After its September 2013 launch and subsequent sea trials, the 7,800-ton sub was returned to drydock in Groton, Connecticut (the undisputed “Submarine Capital of the World”) for what was to be a standard and scheduled 12-month refurb and retrofit before its relaunch.
Two years later, the sub is still in drydock. In early 2015, engineers discovered a faulty weld on an elbow pipe, part of the sub’s nuclear propulsion system. Today, the $2.7 billion attack submarine is, according to reports, close to relaunch after thorough inspections and the removal and replacement of that pipe, located in a difficult to access area near the nuclear reactor.
When we toured the USS Minnesota and interviewed Tanaka, the waiting, he admitted, was the hardest part.
And it hasn’t gotten any easier. Here’s a look back at that 2014 tour.
Brian Tanaka is standing in the middle of a legendary submarine-building shipyard (General Dynamics Electric Boat), in the undisputed “Submarine Capital of the World” (Groton, Connecticut), overlooking what is arguably the most technologically advanced submarine on the planet (the USS Minnesota).
In February, the 39-year-old Tanaka—Rochester kid, 1992 Lourdes grad—took command of the USS Minnesota, the 377-foot long, $2 billion nuclear-powered attack sub that’s been described as “an advanced stealth multi-mission submarine for deep ocean anti-submarine warfare and shallow water operations.”
This is a submarine—the tenth submarine in the new Virginia class—that can sail at more than 27 knots, dive to more than 800 feet, theoretically travel for more than 30 years (on its S9G nuclear reactor) without refueling.
Its lockout room allows an entire special forces team to silently enter and exit the sub. Its electronic eavesdropping abilities are unmatched. It has the capability to carry a mini sub—an Advanced SEAL Delivery System—designed for coastal assaults.
This is a sub that can store and launch up to a dozen Tomahawk BGM109s, million-dollar cruise missiles that can fly an estimated 1,500 miles and, according to the rumors, accurately navigate through an open picture window.
Except, right now, the Minnesota can’t do any of that. Right now, the 7,800-ton submarine is in drydock. Sitting on wood blocks. The Minnesota is in month two of the standard and scheduled 12-month refurb and retrofit that began in March of this year following the sub’s September 2013 launch and subsequent sea trials.
Tanaka—who is waiting to oversee his first in-water command, a dream-come-true commission of the Navy’s newest sub, named for his home state—has to wait another 10 months or so, when they’ll flood the drydock with maybe 10 million gallons of water from Connecticut’s Thames River and finally refloat the USS Minnesota.
This part—the waiting—must be the worst, right?
“As commanding officer my desire is to be at sea with my crew, operating the ship, forward deployed, supporting national security objectives. That’s really the ultimate goal,” says Tanaka.
But this part must be the worst, right?
“While I see this as a necessary part of my command, I will admit I am looking forward to being out of drydock and in the water, since that will allow us to begin supporting national security objectives,” he says.
Which is just the kind of tact and political correctness you’d expect from a 20-year Navy man, a former Washington D.C. liaison between the Secretary of the Navy and the House of Representatives, someone whose boss’ boss’ boss’ boss is the President of the United States.
But Tanaka is not all tact and political correctness. He is, after all, a submariner, and life aboard a sub has been called “weeks of routine punctuated by days of intense focus.” Cramped quarters make camaraderie a survival instinct. You have no choice but to be a people person.
“Normally in the Navy we’re clean cut and clean shaven,” says Tanaka. “But what’s kept me in the submarine force is the camaraderie, the close-knit family environment. When we close the hatch it is just the team on board. We can do things like wear Minnesota Vikings hats and grow beards. We go places as an elite team. We are responsible for each other and we back each other up. We stay focused, but there is time for fun.”
It doesn’t take long with Tanaka—maybe 20 minutes—to get those glimpses of how friends and family describe him: “focused” yet “laid-back,” “intense” yet “easy going.”
You can get glimpses of the guy that friends say doesn’t skip any steps in his early morning P90X workouts. The guy who friends say still laughs out loud every single time he watches Tommy Boy. The guy whose mother says he was “so thrilled to get the Minnesota. You have no idea how excited he was.”
In Groton, we cross the walk bridge leading to the top of the USS Minnesota. And although the ship is in drydock, although it’s mostly manned by General Dynamics’ engineers and shipyard personnel removing and replacing systems, there is no doubt who is in charge.
As soon as Cmdr. Tanaka steps onto the sub, a petty officer stationed like a security guard rings the honorary bells to announce that a commander is boarding—two dings, pause, two dings—in a tradition dating back to the Navy’s founding in 1775 (the same year that the Turtle, the first sub used in combat, attempted to attach explosives to British ships during the Revolutionary War).
That petty officer, though, is there to do more than ring bells. He’s responsible for the safety and security of the ship during his watch. He controls access on and off the Minnesota and, Tanaka says, that petty officer “is armed and trained to use deadly force and had been empowered to exercise those abilities.”
We walk past the countermeasure room (where the Minnesota can deploy various devices to defend against torpedoes) and into the torpedo room (where the Minnesota can store two dozen weapons, including Tomahawk missiles and Mark 48 torpedoes).
Even partially gutted inside, the $2 billion sub still carries a high-tech aura.
Docked just a few miles away, at the Submarine Force Museum, is the USS Nautilus, the first and maybe most famous of the nuclear-powered subs (launched in 1954).
“The most obvious comparison between the two submarines are the physical and technological differences that help us appreciate how far we have come in 60 years,” according to Lt. Cmdr. Ben Amdur, the director of the Submarine Force Museum. “Today’s state-of-the-art [Minnesota] is packed with sensors, weapons, computers, and communication technology that were unimaginable to even the science fiction of the 1950s.”
Another thing the USS Minnesota will have on board that the crew of the Nautilus could not have imagined: women.
Three female officers will be among the Minnesota’s 130-plus crew members.
“Having women on board is a great opportunity for the ship and for the Navy,” says Tanaka. “We’re looking for the best and brightest the country has to offer. It doesn’t matter to me what your background is, your race, sex, orientation. We’re a family. We all come together as a group and treat each other with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
And every one of those crew members, when they leave port for what is often a six-month stint of non-stop, 16-hours-on/8-hours-off shifts, understands the importance of the kind of missions that submariners rarely talk about, even to each other.
“The beauty of the submarine force is we don’t talk about it,” says Tanaka. “That is part of what makes us so successful. The ability to operate anywhere, anyplace, and at the time of our choosing makes us the most capable submarine force the world has ever known.”
They also understand the difficulties of leaving behind family and friends for those extended deployments.
“The long stretches away from family are hard, Tanaka says, “but it gives you an appreciation for the amount of sacrifice your family makes when you are not there. When we are out to sea we work hard and refocus out entire effort on running the submarine. The family has to deal with all of the things that go on every day. When we’re gone we appreciate our families more than ever and that helps build the relationship. Being away gives you a greater sense of passion for your relationship and how important it is to who you are. It makes everyone appreciate family more.”
Even, it turns out, for the commander of the world’s most advanced submarine.
It’s getting later in the day. I’ve taken more time than scheduled. “Do you have something important you need to get to?” I ask Tanaka.
He mentions a meeting with his boss (the Naval squadron commander) and a talk he needs to give to engineering about some nuclear propulsion-related issues.
But, most importantly, the commander of the world’s most advanced submarine needs to get home early.
“My wife’s going to be gone and I am watching the girls tonight,” he says. “So I’ll be doing a lot of really important stuff, like repeatedly reading Goodnight Moon.”