ASDS The Future of Submarine-Based Special Operations

by John Whipple
Photos by Michael Roe, Northrop Grumman

The Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) - a combatant submersible developed for clandestine insertion and extraction of Special Operations Forces (SOF) - is currently undergoing the operational testing needed to bring the vehicle to Initial Operational Capability (IOC). A transformational leap ahead of its operational predecessor, the Mk VIII SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV), ASDS will transport SEALs in a dry environment and deliver them ready for action. Its advanced sonar systems and unique electro-optical systems will provide a new level of undersea situational awareness to the embarked SEAL team, and allow them to conduct shore surveillance prior to landing. The personnel who currently support the ASDS program, based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii - and especially those who pilot the vehicle - are forging new directions in undersea capabilities and redefining what may soon be the norm for submarine-based SOF operations for the next 20 to 30 years.

In a recent interview, an ASDS Pilot and Co-pilot offered UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine an exclusive glimpse into what it is like to operate this revolutionary vehicle. Because of the sensitivity of their mission, we've had to withhold their names. "ASDS is definitely the future of both the SEAL and the submarine community, as far as undersea special operations are concerned," the Pilot and current Officer in Charge of ASDS Platoon One explained. "Once we get past our initial hurdles, ASDS has the potential to be a long term program, and it should create a stronger relationship between the SEAL community and the Submarine Force."

Specially configured Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class submarines will serve as host platforms for ASDS, as well as the four Ohio (SSBN-726)-class submarines that have been selected for SSGN conversion and the new Virginia (SSN-774)-class ships that are now under construction. Currently there are two submarines that can host the vehicle, Charlotte (SSN-766) and Greeneville (SSN-772).

"From a submarine perspective, it's exciting," the Pilot said. "We operate in shallow water, close to the bottom, and anchor submerged. This is pretty unique. We're also part of the problem-solving aspect of getting the vehicle ready for certification, and achieving that will be quite an accomplishment. It's very rewarding."

Photo. Caption follows ASDS is pictured here mated to USS Charlotte (SSN-766) off the coast of Hawaii during deep water testing in December 2001.

"This summer," the Pilot said, "we are scheduled to operate with a host ship and conduct launch and recovery testing." He explained that mating equipment is used to attach ASDS to the host submarine, and once it is properly mated, personnel, equipment, and supplies can be transferred between the two platforms. This is similar to current practice with a Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV).

Presently, there are two Pilots and two Co-pilots assigned to the ASDS program. Post-department head submarine officers fill the Pilot billets; the Co-pilots are post-platoon commander SEAL officers with extensive submarine experience. Serving aboard ASDS offers a unique and challenging experience for them both.

"From a submarine perspective, it's exciting," the Pilot said. "We operate in shallow water, close to the bottom, and anchor submerged. This is pretty unique. We're also part of the problem-solving aspect of getting the vehicle ready for certification, and achieving that will be quite an accomplishment. It's very rewarding."

Working towards Initial Operational Capability is particularly challenging in a first-of-its-kind, state-of-the-art submersible such as ASDS. "Our operational and maintenance schedule is pretty fluid, and is driven by the testing program," the Pilot said. "We have a long range schedule that we're working on, but it changes based on what we learn each day." He said that during the testing phase, more time is spent working on the vehicle than operating it. "I would say that 75 percent of the time right now we spend doing maintenance and about 25 percent we are at sea testing the vehicle."

Photo of two sailors on ASDS at surface.Despite the current emphasis on maintenance and problem solving, the Co-pilot agreed that duty aboard ASDS is an exciting experience - even for a SEAL. "It's an operational challenge," he explained. "It's not quite the same as a 25,000-foot freefall parachute insertion, but ASDS is a one-of-a-kind, first-of-its-kind, multi-million dollar submersible, and the responsibility is on you and the Pilot to operate it safely and effectively. I'd say that's pretty exciting."

To be selected for the ASDS Program, SEALs must be post-platoon commander Lieutenants who are SDV qualified and have had extensive experience in conducting submarine operations. "Being qualified in SDVs entails a whole host of diving qualifications and submarine interoperability experience that the average SEAL team guy doesn't have," the Co-pilot said. "There is a specific track you need to go down to become an ASDS Co-pilot. It involves qualifying as an SDV Officer prior to arrival to the program, which gives the potential ASDS Co-pilot extensive experience conducting and supervising undersea special operations." The current Co-pilot - and Assistant OIC for the platoon - was selected after eight years in Naval Special Warfare, including deployments with both SEAL and SDV teams, as well as extensive experience with Mk VIII SDVs and Dry Deck Shelters.

To provide prospective ASDS Pilots with the necessary diving experience, all candidates are sent to Navy Dive School for five weeks of intensive training. "That's a significant factor for a lot of officers in the Submarine Force," the Pilot explained, "because typically after a department head tour you have to push yourself to get into the physical condition needed to make it through dive school. The reason why I was selected for the program was because all the guys in front of me didn't make it," he admitted. "I'm not trying to scare people interested in the program, but it's something that you really have to train for, especially coming off an at sea command for three years. On the average, there's about a 40 percent chance of making it through [the dive program]."

He said that after successfully completing dive training, Pilots can apply much of what they have already learned in their submarine careers to piloting ASDS. "As a submarine officer, you learn all the other skills you really need to drive the vehicle or, as we say, fly the vehicle." Most of what the ASDS Pilot needs to know is picked up as a junior submarine officer and later as a department head. "What he then needs to learn [once accepted in the ASDS program] is how to operate a recompression chamber, basic dive medicine, how to diagnose an injured diver, and how to treat his symptoms for quick recovery. That is why going through dive school and understanding the physical conditions the divers are experiencing before you qualify to operate the vehicle's equipment is very important - everything else they've already learned."

The Co-pilot emphasized the importance of putting pilots through dive training. "I've heard people question the necessity of putting the Pilot through SCUBA school," he said, "but in my mind it is absolutely vital to make sure that everyone on the team knows everything about the diving operations that we are there to complete. It is critical that everybody in that vehicle knows about dive physiology, dive physics, and the implications of any type of misstep, problem, or casualty we might experience while we're conducting diving operations." He added that dive school is also an important aspect of cross training.

"The Pilot is responsible for controlling the vehicle; he's doing the ballast and trim, and he's working on safe navigation and piloting. My responsibilities include life support, lock-in/lockout systems, and sensor systems, as well as communications. There is something of a division of labor in normal operations, but we cross-train so we can cover each other's jobs when the need arises." Despite the extensive experience and training required to operate the vehicle, both men agreed that ASDS is relatively simple to operate.

"The vehicle is very easy to operate," the Pilot said. "There's a joystick we use to control the vehicle, and the only thing that takes time to get used to, from a submarine perspective, is how to use onboard computer screens to ballast and control the submersible." He said they could also fly by wire on the computer, or program the vehicle to practically drive itself. "We can plug in depths and courses, and let the computer drive the vehicle through entered waypoints."

The Co-pilot agreed. "It's pretty exciting to drive. It's very intuitive, and a lot of it is computer- controlled. Once you've gone through the basic qualification process, and you understand the systems, you sit behind the stick and it seems easy to drive." For officers accepted into the program, qualification procedures aboard ASDS are similar to those aboard a submarine - all the way through command.

Despite the limited number of billets available for ASDS operators, the Pilot encouraged any officers interested in the program to take the initiative to find out if the duty is right for them. "I would encourage anyone seriously interested to call us at the facility. People should also look into finishing their SCUBA qualifications as a junior officer and make sure this is really what they want to do. Once they convince themselves that this is a job for them, they should look at the post-department head slate or contact their detailer and find out if billets are available."

The Co-pilot agreed that duty aboard ASDS is an exciting experience - even for a SEAL. "It's an operational challenge," he explained. "It's not quite the same as a 25,000-foot freefall parachute insertion, but ASDS is a one-of-a-kind, first-of-its-kind, multi-million dollar submersible, and the responsibility is on you and the Pilot to operate it safely and effectively. I'd say that's pretty exciting."

Photo. Caption follows Submarines are converted with latching pylons and a hatch in order to host the ASDS for transport to mission areas. Once the mission is completed and the SOF team is retrieved, the vehicle navigates back to the host submarine and re-attaches using these special locking mechanisms. Once ASDS is properly mated to its host, personnel and equipment can be transferred, similar to current practice with a Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV).

The Co-pilot added that serving aboard ASDS is not just a challenge, but a privilege. "From the SEAL side of the house, this is an extremely exciting program to be associated with. For the Special Operations Command, this is what we call a flagship acquisition program... what that means to us is that it's an honor to be selected for the program."

The Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) defines the operational requirements for ASDS, while the Deep Submergence Program Office (PMS 395) of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) is executing the ASDS test program under the sponsorship of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

John Whipple is the Managing Editor of Undersea Warfare Magazine.

 

Illustration. Caption follows

The ASDS system concept illustrates a number of options for forward-deploying ASDS, including transport aboard a C5 aircraft or surface ship.

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