Staff writerYOKOSUKA, Kanagawa Pref. — Seen from dockside, the silhouette of the USS Topeka strikes an unusually humble pose.

An austere sail devoid of fairwater planes juts up from the flat black hull. A white banner draping the gangplank proclaims the nuclear-powered Topeka to be the “defender of the heartland,” a tribute to its namesake city, the capital of Kansas.

But it’s not what’s outside this Los Angeles-class submarine that matters. Despite its desirably simple appearance, the USS Topeka has what the U.S. Navy wants in an aircraft carrier escort: speed, silence and powerful weaponry.

In a rare, but not unheard of, opportunity Tuesday, a dozen members of the local media corps were given a look around the inside of the Topeka while it was moored at the naval base here.

Speaking over the noise from a low-flying news helicopter, Cmdr. Anthony Cortese, the skipper, explained that there were some sensitive areas not included on the tour, then escorted the group aboard.

Commissioned in 1989, the Topeka is the fourth ship of the “improved” Los Angeles class. The Pearl Harbor, Hawaii-based sub is 109 meters long and displaces 6,900 tons. The Topeka’s nuclear propulsion plant, of pressurized water reactor design, produces a speed that the navy only acknowledges as being “greater than 20 knots.”

Despite being 43rd overall in its class, the Topeka in 1992 became the first attack submarine in the Pacific Fleet to deploy specifically in support of a carrier battle group. It is equipped with the highly accurate AN/BSY-1 sonar and weapons control system and armed with MK-48 and ADCAP (advanced capability) torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles, 26 in total.

The only thing this warship seems to lack is extra interior space. Nothing goes to waste in this regard, because nothing can. Tight passageways are shrouded with essential equipment, cabling and storage lockers.

The crew’s mess, which filled up quickly with the arrival of Tuesday’s media group, also functions as a classroom, movie theater and conference area. The wardroom, where the Topeka’s 14 officers must dine in shifts, measures only about 2.5 meters by 3.5 meters.

The control room, although it resembles the various versions seen in recent Hollywood movies, is much, much smaller. The planesman and helmsman, who maneuver the sub, sit only an arm’s length apart. Between them sits a supervisor who relays heading and depth orders from the con, a mere two steps away next to the two periscopes.

At sea, the sub’s crew normally works on an 18-hour rotation — a six-hour watch followed by six hours set aside for training, cleaning, meals or personal chores, and finally six hours for sleep. Such an arduous rotation, however, helps ease another fact of life for the submariner: a shortage of sleeping space.

Even with added cabin-style bedding installed below the racks of MK-48s and cruise missiles in the torpedo room, there are still only two bunks for every three crew members. This practice of “hot-racking” — because the bunk is said to be still warm from the previous crew member — is not as severe for the chief petty officers, who have 12 bunks for 14 men.

But these ratios look extremely generous when compared with another stark reality of life aboard the attack submarine: 135 men must share a mere four heads (bathrooms with a single shower, toilet and wash basin) and coordinate the use of one washing machine and one dryer.

Under conditions like this, privacy quickly becomes a scarce commodity. Even the crew’s e-mail is screened, for security reasons, before it can be transmitted.

Few modern institutions, however, can rival the nuclear submarine for complexity and absolute self-sufficiency. It can generate its own oxygen indefinitely from seawater, but produces less than 0.5 cu. meters of compacted wet garbage from the 400 meals served daily from its galley.

The sub’s food supply in fact likely places the only limitation on the length of time it can stay on patrol. Needless to say, these quantities are not discussed.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.