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Henry
M. Jackson
Aces FCET

by MTC (SS) Peter L. Beck, USN

Henry M. Jackson Aces FCET

 

"MISSILE AWAY!!" sounded over the ship's announcing system, signaling the culmination of countless hours of complex planning and preparation for one of the most successful TRIDENT I (C-4) Follow-On CINC Evaluation Tests (FCETs) in the history of the TRIDENT Missile program. As the last of four FCET missiles roared into the night sky off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, every man onboard the USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN-730) felt pride and quiet satisfaction in having demonstrated once again the extraordinary reliability that makes our ballistic missile submarine force the keystone of our Nation's strategic deterrent.

FCET - The Ultimate "Dress Rehearsal"
The FCET exercises the SSBN Strategic Weapons System under the most operationally realistic conditions possible. The Director, Strategic Systems Programs (DIRSSP), established the FCET program during the 1960s to ensure that the Navy's strategic weapons and command and control systems will always operate as designed, and to provide strategic planners with up-to-date and accurate missile performance data. Over nearly four decades, the FCET program has guaranteed that the Navy's part of the U.S. strategic triad remains a viable deterrent. Each FCET, conducted for one Pacific- and two Atlantic-based SSBNs per year, tests the entire sequence of operations that an SSBN would perform in unleashing a nuclear retaliatory response, including the transition from alert patrolling to war, strategic communications connectivity, and actual launching of test missiles. Normally, the randomly-selected SSBN deploys on its scheduled deterrent patrol, unaware of its impending participation in an FCET. Early in the patrol, the chosen SSBN receives a message directing the crew to conduct the FCET and ordering an immediate return to port for test preparations. Upon arriving back at either of the SSBN home ports, Bangor, Washington, or Kings Bay, Georgia, the ship is moored at the Explosives Handling Wharf (EHW), a specially designed structure used for loading and unloading submarine launched ballistic missiles. Almost immediately after the brow is across, the missile conversion process begins. Since the test must be as realistic as possible, no "special" missiles are used, and in fact, no missiles are actually removed from the submarine at all. Candidate missiles chosen from those already onboard the ship are reconfigured for the test by installing test payloads, telemetry equipment, and range safety destruct packages on each. The ship's crew, local Strategic Weapons Facility personnel, and a special team of Navy technicians from the Naval Ordnance Test Unit (NOTU), Port Canaveral, Florida, perform the conversion. Additionally, to avoid compromising the realism of the test, the ship is not allowed to undergo any repairs beyond the capability of a crew at sea unless they are necessary for the ship's safe return to patrol and could have no bearing on the outcome of the test. This ensures that the ship is in the same material condition for the test launch that it would have been had it not returned to port. When the conversion process is complete, the SSBN returns to sea and transits to the Atlantic Missile Test Range off Cape Canaveral, Florida. As the ship arrives in the designated launch area, it immediately assumes a normal operational pattern typical of a deterrent patrol. This includes placing the strategic weapon and communication systems into an "ALERT" status, ready to launch missiles when directed by the National Command Authority. Without warning, the ship then receives an Emergency Action Message (EAM) directing it to launch the test missiles at a designated time. The crew mans Battlestations Missile, slows the ship to hover at the ordered launch depth, prepares the missiles and weapon system for the launch, and commences shooting missiles as directed in the message. After the last missile is fired, the ship returns to port for the test recovery phase. During that process, launch debris is cleaned from each of the empty missile tubes, missile ejector units are replaced, and the entire weapon system is tested to verify normal operating conditions. Finally, the expended missiles are replaced, the SSBN is restored to its pre-FCET configuration, and it returns to sea to complete the remainder of its deterrent patrol.

Henry M. Jackson Gets the Call
During the spring of 1999, the Jackson's Commanding Officer, CDR Paul D. Ims, received notification that his ship had been selected to conduct the 50th Trident I FCET. This particular FCET would require a transit from the ship's homeport of Bangor to the Atlantic Test Range, and both the conversion and recovery phases would occur at remote sites - Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, and Port Canaveral, Florida, respectively. With only one day's notice, CDR Ims and his crew shelved all their prearranged patrol plans and made preparations to conduct the FCET. This would challenge the entire crew - from the navigation team in readying charts for seldom-traveled waters, to the Weapons Department preparing for the FCET itself, to the Engineers in re-planning their training for an upcoming Operational Reactor Safeguards Examination (ORSE). The ship set sail at best speed for the Panama Canal but managed to provide everyone onboard some memories for a lifetime by conducting a traditional "Shellback" initiation ceremony to commemorate crossing the Equator. MM3(SS) Corey Wilemon, one of the initiates, observed that, "It was kind of messy, but really fun - and next time, I'll be dishing it out." This event had the added advantage of allowing the whole crew to take a day off from the busy schedule of preparations. After transiting the Panama Canal, the ship turned north and headed for Submarine Base Kings Bay, where Jackson commenced the FCET conversion process, assisted by the combined efforts of COMSUBRON 20, Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic (SWFLANT), Trident Refit Facility (TRF) Kings Bay, and the NOTU. With these dedicated professionals functioning as a single efficient team, the FCET conversion phase was completed flawlessly. Following the conversion, Jackson departed Kings Bay for the test range and commenced patrol operations. Early on the second day underway, the expected report was heard from Radio: "Conn, Radio, receiving EAM" (which was transmitted from CINCSTRAT in Omaha.) The ship immediately went to Battlestations Missile. After an ensuing flurry of standard operating procedures involving both the ship and the range, all was in readiness, and the launch sequence commenced. At the moment of truth, we heard the unmistakable sound of the ejector firing, and our 18,000-ton ship jumped in the water as a 38-ton missile was powered from the ship in less than a second. As the Weapons Officer, LT Wil Frey reported "Missile Away" to the Captain, the missile broke the surface of the ocean, ignited its first stage rocket motor and roared off on its trajectory across the Atlantic. Said STS3(SS) Travis Rogers, a battlestations sonar operator, "It was very loud…we could even hear the rocket motor ignite." Seconds later, the event was repeated, and before the first missile disappeared into the clouds, its partner could be seen leaving the surface of the ocean. The next day, two more missiles were launched, completing the FCET sequence, and the ship proceeded to Port Canaveral to conduct missile tube recovery operations. Again, the NOTU team was there to assist the crew in completing the FCET recovery phase well ahead of schedule. During our work on the recovery phase, we learned that each of the four missile launches had achieved its FCET objectives. A clean sweep! This 50th FCET for the TRIDENT I (C4) weapons system took place 19 years after its fleet introduction - and several years beyond its designed service life. The near perfect results we achieved are a great testament to the dedication of the TRIDENT SSBN community, both afloat and ashore, to providing the nation with a survivable deterrent force of unsurpassed reliability. The crew of Henry M. Jackson is proud to be on that team.

Chief Beck is a member of the Blue Crew of USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730).


What's an FCET?


The CINC Evaluation Test/Follow-on CINC Evaluation Test (CET/FCET) program is one of the two major test series that measure the performance of the U.S. Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) Strategic Weapon System during its deployed life. The other is the Patrol Evaluation Program.

The Secretary of Defense, through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has directed that strategic weapon systems, less nuclear material, be tested under conditions that simulate their expected wartime usage to obtain representative planning factors for generating the annual Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). CETs are conducted early in the deployed life of a specific weapon system until sufficient data are obtained to determine its reliability and accuracy at specified confidence levels. FCETs (Follow-on CETs) are conducted on an annual basis thereafter to detect any significant changes in the established weapon system's reliability and accuracy. The CET program is complete for both TRIDENT I and TRIDENT II, but the FCETs continue

The specific objectives of the tests are to:

• Obtain under representative tactical conditions, valid operational reliability, accuracy, and other performance factors for use by the U.S. Strategic Command in war planning

• Ensure that any significant degradation in system performance during the life of the weapon system is identified and to provide diagnostic information about it

• Determine the adequacy of tactical procedures

• Provide actual missile firing experience for SSBN crews

The extraordinary record of successful submarine FCETs is a clear and continuing demonstration of the ability of the two SLBM weapon systems to meet their mission of strategic deterrence and assure our national survival.

– Director, Strategic Systems Programs

 

 



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