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We took a rare tour of one of the US Navy's most dangerous warships -- nicknamed the 'Sledgehammer of Freedom'

Daniel Brown

The USS John Warner, a Virginia-class attack submarine commissioned in 2015, is the US's third-newest sub.

We got the chance to tour the Warner as it was docked at Naval Station Norfolk.

Named after the former US senator John Warner - but nicknamed the "Sledgehammer of Freedom" by the crew - the Warner can perform a variety of missions for the US Navy, including surveillance, reconnaissance, and search and rescue, as well as launch land-attack missiles, torpedoes, and mines.

The Warner, and submarines in general, is highly classified and rarely seen by the public.

But we got to take a tour of it - here's what we saw.

We walked onto to the submarine pier at Naval Station Norfolk as the sun was setting and the crew members were loading a special-operations force box onto the Warner.

The Warner is 377 feet long, 34 feet wide, and about 50 feet tall. We weren't allowed to photograph the antennas atop the tower, as they are classified.

The ship also has a displacement of 7,800 tons and can hit depths of 800 feet or more.

We then met our tour guide, Senior Chief Mark Eichenlaub, who began by telling us about the cruise-missile-payload tubes on the front of the sub.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBdH72q0vJI

Overall, the Warner has a payload of 38 weapons along with special operating forces.

Now let's step aboard. This short video shows you how.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbKhFJB09VU

Commanded by Daniel Caldwell, the Warner is divided into three levels.

The upper level is mostly living and sleeping (or berthing) quarters for the crew, the middle level is operational space, and the lower level has the nuclear reactor and other engineering devices.

We entered the upper level of the ship, and this was our first glimpse inside. As you can see, it's a little tight in there.

Eichenlaub showed us the "lockout trunk," a built-in Navy SEAL staging area.

"This is actually how we would get SEALs off the ship submerged," Eichenlaub said. "So you would stick a platoon of SEALs in here, 14 guys ... you fill this chamber with water until you match the outer sea pressure. Once the pressure in and outside the ship match, the hatch will lift off open, and they can swim out of a fully filled chamber into open ocean."

Once there, the SEALs can retrieve any weapons or gear from the SOF box (which we saw being loaded into the tower in the first picture).

A short video gives an even better look at the hatch that leads to open water.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHfPI1gB7dM

As we made our way to the middle level, we ran into a group of sailors performing a preventative maintenance check of the ship's electrical components.

On the middle level, we saw the flare and countermeasure launcher, situated in a small office.

Across the hall from the countermeasure launcher is a food closet, one of many that the ship needs to feed the crew for months at a time.

The closets go back about 15 feet, Eichenlaub said, and are packed strategically so the crew can essentially eat there backward.

Service members eat here in the chow hall, the largest open space in the ship. There's even a soft-serve ice cream machine on the right.

On the opposite wall hangs the literal "Sledgehammer of Freedom." The crew began calling the Warner that after the commander used the moniker in a speech before their first deployment.

This one is for the crew, while officers have their own: "the Sledgehammer of Democracy."

The officers, on the other hand, eat in the officer's chow hall and are served by kitchen staff through the door in the back right. The commander sits in the star chair in front of the "Sledgehammer of Democracy."

Here's a close-up.

This is mission control, the most classified area of the ship. As such, all the monitors were turned off, and we cropped, blurred, and darkened anything sensitive.

Sonar, fire control, and navigation computers are all in mission control. Eichenlaub goes into detail about mission control in this short video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iusj80nv0XU

The sonar system onboard is designed with a Large Aperture Bow Array that uses life of the hull hydrophones to detect sound waves produced by other ships and even sea life.

The Warner, interestingly, does not have a periscope and instead uses photonic masts built into the outside tower that provides a view above water that feeds into any monitor on the ship.

Eichenlaub then told us more about fire control, where torpedoes and cruise missiles are launched.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obupSDTN9_E

And this computer is where flares and countermeasures are launched.

This nine-second video shows the two voyage-management systems, which plan and navigate the ship.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1-pTHYPZww

As we exited mission control, Eichenlaub showed us what the crew calls the Fishbowl.

Sailors assigned to the ship are not considered submariners until they receive their warfare qualifications saying they are proficient in every system aboard. Until then, their personal seals are put in this case for motivation.

Every US submarine has a "fishbowl."

The bunks for sailors, or berthing areas, are spread out all over the ship.

And they're a little snug.

Eichenlaub showed us the XO's sleeping quarters.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHfp_7nOl5c

Now let's enter the torpedo room. Behold!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oi9U5KgVUsY

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Eichenlaub said sailors often named the torpedoes, like the one below, after their significant others.

Here's one of the four torpedo launchers in the torpedo room. How quickly they can reload and shoot, however, is classified.

The submariners and sailors who work in the torpedo room also sleep next to the torpedoes.

We were allowed to see only the backup diesel engine on the lower level, as the nuclear reactor is highly classified.

The S9G pressurised water nuclear reactor propels the ship to 25 mph and beyond.

Near the diesel engine is the O2 generator, which provides oxygen to the ship through a ventilation system.

This marked the end of our tour. It was a very cool sensory-overload experience for which we thank the US Navy.