The American navy had already learnt in 2000 that Swedish submarines are worthy adversaries. At that time HMS Halland, the HMS Gotland’s sister ship, in the Mediterranean in order to "be put through technical, tactical and operational tests in saltier and warmer waters than those in the Baltic Sea, in preparation for the Swedish Armed Forces future participation in those international submarine operations on which the Government had decided within the framework of the European Union" The Americans made a note of how silent the Swedish submarines were and, consequently, how difficult it was to discover them.
Feather in the cap
It was against this background that, the following year, the head of the US Navy’s research centre, discussed the need for joint exercises with Sweden’s then defence attaché in Washington, Rear Admiral Bertil Björkman. Björkman made the interpretation that this was an indirect request and emphasised that such a proposal must go through the proper political channels, but that he was prepared, if it were so wished, to raise the question at a higher level.
Björkman went home to Sweden and, under the greatest secrecy, reported back to the highest levels of both Armed Forces and government. They gave a positive response and Björkman could, on his return to the US, commence negotiations on the conditions for collaboration, a process which took around fifteen months to complete.
– Few realise what outstanding PR this has been. It was certainly a feather in the cap for Sweden, says Björkman. At the same time he emphasises the efforts of the crew, who performed their tasks in an exemplary manner
In the summer of 2005 HMS Gotland was stationed at the American naval base Point Loma in San Diego. With Point Loma as home base, HMS Gotland participated in a number of exercises, including submarine search missions involving US ships, aeroplanes and helicopters.
Lieutenant Commander Peter Östbring, the first head of the Swedish contingent, was also the first from Sweden to arrive in San Diego in order to build up a network of contacts.
– HMS Gotland has been involved in collaborations with most of the units of the Third Fleet. Our task has been not only to participate in exercises with large constellations of vessels, but also to avoid capture by American submarine search missions, says Peter Östbring.
When asked if any equipment had been modified or replaced in the run up to the assignment in San Diego, he replies that certain modifications to the radio communication equipment were necessary in order to ensure compatibility, but in all other important regards HMS Gotland was equipped as usual.
Even if service on Swedish and American submarines bears many similarities, there are also a number of differences. Female crew members are nothing strange on a Swedish submarine. A woman crew member works under the same conditions as her male counterparts. In contrast, women are never to be found serving on American submarines. They have an entirely different attitude towards female crew.
Lieutenant Commander Paula Wallenburg is a submarine officer and was part of the crew of HMS Gotland. She was attached as an observer to the crew of USS Jefferson City and she was immediately aware that some were uncomfortable with a woman on-board, and that some were even overtly hostile to the notion.
– Things got better as time went on. They usually do, as long as you have an open and giving attitude, says Wallenburg.
She tells as well of the "benefits" that were forced upon her as guest on-board an American submarine, for example that she was allocated a three person cabin for her own use. Wallenburg tried to explain that it was quite unnecessary but she says that her efforts in this regard made not one jot of difference. Crew structures also varied between the two fleets. Paula Wallenburg relates that when on land she planned activities at sea. On-board she was head of starboard watch as well as Fire Control Officer for the vessel’s torpedoes. As head of starboard watch she was responsible to the commanding officer for the submarine’s manoeuvring and navigation. The position also involves supervision of navigation, bottom depth, transmission and reception of messages. On top of all of that, documentation must be made and reports written. American visitors to HMS Gotland were surprised at how many tasks were allocated to so few people.
– We allow a significantly greater degree of responsibility rest in the hands of the individual member of personnel. For us this is a natural way of doing things, while the Americans take a more restricted view of their respective tasks on-board. There is nothing wrong with that, it just a different way of approaching matters, opines Wallenburg.
Orange radar screens
The US vessels on joint manoeuvres with the Swedish included, for example, destroyers of Arleigh Burke class, cruisers of Ticonderoga class and the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which is the American Navy’s newest aircraft carrier. HMS Gotland participated also in exercises with the anti-submarine maritime patrol aircraft P 3 Orion, the anti-submarine helicopter Sea Hawk and the fighter jet F 18 Hornet.
Conditions were totally different from those to be found in Swedish waters. While depths reach seldom over 100 metres in the Baltic, the ocean bottom, in the areas in which the manoeuvres were performed, can lie thousands of metres below the surface. The higher salt content of the water alters, for example, how buoyancy is calculated. Water currents and wind conditions also differ from those in Swedish waters. But that was the point of the exercise – to learn from each other.
– We have to adapt our course of action to the fact that our opponent in the manoeuvres consists of aircraft carriers and cruisers. Apart from that, there is no real difference between operating in the Baltic Sea or the Pacific Ocean, Östbring explains.
However, the sound environment for the sonar operators is very different. The sounds of the Pacific Ocean’s animal life, including the whistles and clicks of whales, are not at all like those to be heard in the sea channels of the Swedish coast.
– On several occasions our sonar screens turned orange, as Paula Wallenberg tells it. It turned out to be a school of dolphins wanting to play. When you have four thousand metres of water below your keel, you feel quite small, but with a school of dolphins just outside, it doesn’t feel quite so lonely.
Text: Rolf Arsenius