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LAAFB Engineer Revisits Sub Where He Tested Missiles in 1980's

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- When William Sieg, a Los Angeles Air Force Base contract engineer, saw the recent announcement that the USS Los Angeles (SSN 688) nuclear sub was retiring, the first thought that came to his mind was, "Isn't that the same sub we used to test the Tomahawk Cruise Missiles 25 years ago?" It was the same submarine. He, along with 180 other members from Los Angeles Air Force Base, recently toured the sub and attended the Decommissioning Ceremony.

Back in the early 1980's then Lt. Col. William Sieg was an accomplished KC-135 pilot, A-1 Skyraider instructor in Vietnam, worked on the T-37 Replacement Program, and had testing background from the Air Defense Test Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., when he was selected as the new Director of Testing and Evaluation for the Cruise Missiles Project at the Pentagon in 1981. This would be his first time working with cruise missiles, and also commanding naval officers. His predecessor came to Washington to fill him in, and soon after, he was briefing 100 people about a topic he was vaguely familiar with. "It was a bunch of acronyms at first," he said, "but the team effort was very supportive." That team consisted of 20 military and civilian engineers, along with an extended Technical Analysis Team of approximately 400 people at Johns Hopkins University.

As he learned his new craft, he began to notice concrete differences between the Air Force and the Navy. "In the Air Force, if an officer did the job well, he or she could get promoted, whereas in the Navy, the vast majority got promoted once they'd served at sea. Also, in the Navy, officers only competed for promotion with others in their own career field, whereas in the Air Force, all officers competed against each other," he said. As for physical training standards, "it was totally different! The Navy supervisors and commanders would actually argue who they thought was the most fit, and whoever argued the strongest determined who was best."

During his four years of working with the Navy, one of the high points for him was during a mission at the Tomahawk Command and Control Center in San Diego, Calif. There, he got to witness a live firing of nuclear and conventional missiles, which he described as, "very accurate." But before the testing, the actual loading of the missiles aboard the USS Los Angeles was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

"The Tomahawk was lowered into the main hatch, down the steps into the weapons area. The cruise missile was bigger than a torpedo, and the ship wasn't designed for it," he said. Within the extremely narrow passageways, the missiles were painstakingly loaded and fired. "If it didn't work," he said, "it just got put it back on the shelf!" That isn't to say it didn't take up some room.

Sieg developed a newfound respect for submariners as he noticed the difficulty of living and working on a submarine, where the mission evolved around limited space.

"Three helmsmen would switch off using one bunk during their shifts. While two would be working, one would be sleeping, he said. "The Command Center was also very small. As for food, it was stacked in the hallways, clear up to the ceiling." Living in tight conditions was hard enough, but having to do so quietly was an additional challenge. "The toilets ran silent--everything was as quiet as possible to avoid the enemy," he said.

But if the enemy did come, they could expect a missile ejected by air pressure propelled by thrust tabs nine hundred feet below the ocean's surface. Ironically, the submarine itself was usually only about 30 feet from the surface. "We got to witness a live warhead--a 1,000 pound bomb, destroy a concrete reservoir on San Clemente Island. It was incredible seeing the accuracy on impact," he said, "and all of this was amazingly done with gunnery controls from World War II technology," he said.

The Tomahawk Missile was used in the first Gulf War, and is still used today.

Sieg currently works for the Infrared Satellite Systems Wing's Support Engineering Directorate and Integration Squadron. He's taken the skills he's developed over the years and now applies them to the realm of space. Although the mission is different, the environment is relatively the same...he's working with and learning from a diversified group of people with different skill sets, and through that teamwork comes progress.

As members from LAAFB toured the USS Los Angeles, one person said, "We appreciated the work and sacrifice of these people---close quarters and the 6 hour shifts! And away from family--long stretches--88 to 90 days at a time! We are so thankful to God!"