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Navy Expands in San Diego

Above: Two Navy ships docked in the San Diego Bay.

Audio

Aired 5/21/09

Forty percent of the U.S. Pacific Fleet is home ported in San Diego Bay, and San Diego is only going to become more important to the Navy in the future. Tomorrow, three ships from Ingleside Texas will sail into the San Diego, part of what will be a major expansion of the Navy’s presence here.

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Above: KPBS reporter Alison St. John discusses the Navy's expansion in San Diego.

— Forty percent of the U.S. Pacific Fleet is home ported in San Diego Bay, and San Diego is only going to become more important to the Navy in the future. Tomorrow, three ships from Ingleside Texas will sail into the San Diego, part of what will be a major expansion of the Navy’s presence here.

KPBS Reporter Alison St John takes us on board one of the ships that have already arrived.

Rear Admiral Len Hering, Commander of Navy Region Southwest, says more than 70 Navy ships are already home-ported in San Diego, and 30 more could arrive over the next five years.

“The Quadrennial Defense review that was done about three years ago shifted about 10 percent of the force from the East Coast to the West Coast," he says, “recognizing that the Pacific Theatre is now a theatre of interest and concern for the future.”

Some of the first ships to arrive as part of this expansion are the Navy’s mine countermeasure ships.

The USS Chief is a sturdy little grey vessel, just over 200 feet long, and packed with radar, sonar and equipment designed to detect and dispose of underwater mines. The Captain, Lieutenant Commander John Krisciunas, welcomed us aboard, and offered to give us a tour of his vessel

The business end of the mine sweeper is the stern. This is where Petty Officer Matthew Brewer operates cables that are dragged behind the ship, along with devices designed to trick a mine into thinking there’s a ship overhead. Brewer explains how the USS Chief can sail right over a mine without triggering it.

“We have a lower magnetic signature than any other Navy vessel in the world because we are made of wood and fiberglass," says Brewer. "It’s highly unlikely that this ship would activate any mines our equipment does its job very well.”

Leiutenant Commander John Krisciunas, Captain of the USS Chief.
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Above: Leiutenant Commander John Krisciunas, Captain of the USS Chief.

Captain Krisiunas explains the risks. “There are mines out there designed to trip, based on the noise that a ship makes,” he says. “So they can sit on the bottom lurking, which makes them very dangerous, because the enemy can make specific mines for U.S. ships. So we do have acoustic as well as magnetic sweeps to hit those kinds of mines.”

Brewer points to devices that emit low frequency noises to simulate the low “thwup, thwup” noise of a ship's propeller. He also uses a torpedo shaped device which he says does the same thing only for high-pitched noise. It replicates a ship’s engines: piston hitting, clanging, a crank shaft turning.

The sound of sirens on board the USS Chief are a warning for the crew. Captain Krisciunas explains what they mean. “Normally you don’t want to hear those in an underway situation,” he says. “It means we’re going into a mine field, we’re being attacked or we’re going to conduct an attack. That’s collision alarm so that means something’s gone south so it’ s not good.”

The ship’s nerve center is a darkened control room where sonar screens show images of everything going on around the ship, both above and below the surface of the ocean. This is where the operator of the ship’s remote controlled submersible works, and this is where the captain directs operations when mines are spotted.

Down steep ladders, at the bottom of the boat, a bright yellow sonar device hangs over a large square hole in the hull, with sea water lapping at the bottom.

Mine man third class Goddard says he’s had some interesting glimpses through that hole.

“ I’ve seen a lot of dolphins,”he says. “We’ve seen sea turtles, fish, sometimes we try to fish when we’re out to sea, I had a bite once, I never caught anything but I had a bite!”

But Godard can catch mines. He can drop the sonar device to the bottom of the ocean if necessary, to get a closer look at suspicious objects. If one is positively identified as a mine, the ship’s remote control submersible that can be deployed to blow it up.

Captain Krisciunas says the mine sweepers are moving from Texas to be stationed next to the submarines at Point Loma, to form what the Navy is calling an “Undersea Center of Excellent.”

“Iran has a great contingent of mines,” he says, “and the Chinese have a great contingency of mines, as well as North Korea, so being in Texas kind us put us in the position of being in a kind of no man’s land in terms of being deployed. Being out here in San Diego, you’re obviously closer to the Pacific side of the house.”

The mine countermeasure command will bring about a thousand people - sailors and their families - to San Diego.

“It’s not glorious,” Krisciunas says, “but it’s a necessity. Someone has to go in and ensure that the water is free of mines so the aircraft carrier and the mighty missile ship can come in and do their job. So it is dangerous, but our guys love it - we take pride in what we do and it’s always good to be the first folks on station making sure things happen right.”

Next year, a third nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, is scheduled to arrive in San Diego Bay, bringing over 3,000 more military personnel to the waterfront.

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