The New York Times
North Arabian Sea Journal
By C. J. CHIVERS
January 25, 2012
Potent Sting Is Prepared in the Belly of a Warship
ABOARD THE U.S.S. JOHN C. STENNIS, in the North Arabian Sea — Depending on who describes it, a nuclear aircraft carrier can be any number of things: an instrument of national will, a nemesis to be threatened and watched, a fast-moving and wide-ranging city at sea.
When you are aboard one, though, a carrier is an immense warren of spaces and passageways between bulkheads, each with a purpose. There are galleys and offices, stores and workshops, clinics and weight rooms, a barber shop, a recycling center, machine rooms, nuclear reactors and more.
And here was the room that gives the ship its sting: the primary bomb-assembly magazine.
On this night, 17 sailors had climbed through a small circular scuttle on the mess deck and then descended, handhold by foothold, deep below the water line to a space that few sailors see. Nine levels below the flight deck, behind a heavy locked door, in a large, brightly lighted room arrayed with firefighting sprinklers, a dozen BLU-111 bomb bodies rested on metal pallets on the nonskid floor.
It was late, and much of the ship’s crew was asleep. The carrier vibrated as its four screws cut through the dark sea off Pakistan’s southwestern coast.
Several sailors in red shirts took positions near a metal rack topped with rollers. Others carried large metal fins. Still more pried open boxes holding switches and fuzes. Three sailors lifted the first bomb body with an electric hoist, moving it toward what would soon become an assembly line.
A bomb-building session had begun.
American Navy officers have a line they repeat passionately and often: A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is an imposing and versatile manifestation of the United States’ power. A ship like the Stennis, they say, which was sending aircraft on missions over Iraq one day and over Afghanistan 36 hours later, allows Washington to project influence, unrestricted by borders or basing rights.
To that, Chief Petty Officer Jaime L. Evock, 33, added her own line.
She was watching over the sailors in the red shirts, the uniform that signifies ordnance handlers. They were putting together the parts that allow a carrier and its aircraft to reach inside another country and kill.
Whatever anyone thinks of air power, without munitions and the people who know them, she said, “this ship would just be a floating airport.”
There was something to this. At the end of the long chain of events that puts a carrier near a coastline and Navy strike fighters within range of a ground target, beyond the release point where the aircraft lets go of its ordnance, the final act lies with each missile or bomb descending through the air — which depends on the sailors who assembled it here.
On this night, the red shirts were handling a familiar staple. Each BLU-111 in the stack was a central part of a basic weapon of Western air-to-ground warfare — the general-purpose 500-pound bomb. Each contained 180 pounds of PBXN high explosive within an aerodynamic steel shell.
By itself, though, a bomb body is all but useless. That is where Chief Evock and her team came in: Their task was to carefully attach the components that made them live weapons. Think of a late-night game of Mr. Potato Head on the high seas.
Depending on the particular fins, fuzes and guidance packages that are attached, a BLU-111 can turn into a smart bomb guided by laser or GPS, or any of several kinds of “dumb” bombs, or an undersea mine. The weapon can be configured to penetrate a bunker, or to burrow into the dirt before bursting, thereby reducing the amount of lethal shrapnel and the intensity of the blast wave, to reduce the risk to noncombatants or unwanted damage to property. On this night Chief Evock’s team was filling orders from the carrier’s F/A-18 squadrons for a dozen unguided high-explosive bombs. Between flights to Afghanistan, air crews use these for training runs to maintain their qualifications.
The necessary parts had been carried here from a network of feeder magazines spread through the ship. Petty Officer Second Class Shawn M. Scheffler, 26, walked along the rack of parts as sailors called out lot numbers, compiling what is called a build sheet for each bomb.
For those expecting jangled nerves and beads of sweat as sailors handle explosives, this was the wrong place. Until assembled, released and armed, these bombs are stable. The red shirts worked methodically, with practiced precision and without the dramatic flair seen in “The Hurt Locker,” which covered the handling of explosives of a different sort.
Once the rear fuzes were inserted and set and the fins attached and tightened down, each bomb was ready to be rolled by cart to an elevator that would carry it up to the flight deck. Up there the bombs would be guarded in an area called the bomb farm, waiting to be fitted to aircraft.
The first of the bombs this night were ready in perhaps 10 minutes. Petty Officer First Class Joshua J. Austring, 28, roamed the line, ensuring that the components were tightened to the correct torque.
“Numerous things can go wrong,” he said. “We want to make sure that when the pilots are out there for the Marines, and the Marines ask for something to be dropped, that it is going to work.”
Throughout the process, the petty officers kept records, documenting each step in the assembly; the record sheets will follow each bomb to an aircraft, and through its eventual use.
If a weapon does not function properly, they said, the information on the sheets can be shared with explosive ordnance disposal teams on the ground to help make an unexploded bomb safe. They can also be used to identify mistakes by the red shirts. “If there is a dud, it comes back to me,” Petty Officer Scheffler said.
The sheets are also used when a bomb is flown on a sortie but not dropped; it is returned to this space to be disassembled and all the components accounted for.
Behind Petty Officer Scheffler was the handiwork of previous shifts: bombs to be guided by laser, bombs with GPS antennas in their tails, bombs to explode on impact or in midair.
The Stennis was wrapping up its tour in the Middle East and the Arabian Sea. Soon it would hand off responsibility for providing air support in Afghanistan to another carrier steaming its way.
The red shirts this night did not yet know it, but none of the bombs they assembled would be dropped in Afghanistan, where the use of air-to-ground force has declined as the conditions and tactics on the ground have changed. They would soon be broken back down and the parts checked and stored, and the Stennis’s bow pointed east, toward home.