SHE'S 27 YEARS OLD, the grande dame of espionage. Highly decorated and purposely mysterious, the USS Parche, a 6,400-ton attack submarine filled with 112 Puget Sound sailors and officers, is sure to be prowling the depths of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea this week, gathering war data as America's No. 1 spy sub. Its computerized high-tech gear is so valuable that the boat reputedly has been rigged for self-destruction should it be captured.
The Navy has little to say about the Parche ("par-she"), a Sturgeon-class sub equipped with a claw to grab objects from the ocean floor. Officials keep her 298-foot profile so low, you likely didn't know she's your neighbor 20 miles away in Bangor. "As always," Lt. Kevin Stephens, the Navy spokesman for Bangor, said Tuesday, "I can't talk about the Parche." The 7,000-acre sub base on Hood Canal is best known for its eight Trident nuclear submarines, two football fields long and armed with enough N-warheads to make Bangor, if it were a country, the world's third-greatest superpower.
But it's the Parche, Bangor's lesser-known little boat capable of ferrying Navy SEALS to their targets, that's seen as important to, ironically, the desert and mountain assault on landlocked Afghanistan. The Parche, equipped also with missiles, is an integral part of a U.S. sea and space defense/espionage net that is monitoring enemy conversations and movement to help plan air and ground assaults.
The Parche crew quietly augments an estimated 7,000 military personnel from Puget Sound Navy, Army, and Air Force bases seeing Afghan duty, making up roughly one-quarter of U.S. forces there. The supercarrier USS Carl Vinson, homeported in Bremerton and the launch pad for many of the ongoing sorties, alone carries more than 5,000 personnel.
Though Bangor's Trident subs figure to be in the region, they obviously aren't seeing action, and hopefully won't be. "Remember," says Bangor spokesman Stephens, "that the only offensive weapons on Trident subs are nuclear weapons, carried for their strategic nuclear deterrence mission. If those had been used in Afghanistan, I'm sure someone would have noticed."