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Many of today’s top naval leaders are submariners. They entered the Navy during the decade following WWII and spent most of their first 20 years serving in and commanding submarines. Before entering the submarine service they probably served in surface combatants. Then, following submarine command, they were eligible to serve in and command major surface units and forces. Indeed, our CNO–Admiral Jim Watkins–served as XO of cruiser following submarine command, and as a flotilla commander after achieving flag rank. Current and future generations of submariners, however, may not have this same career experience, owing to changes in personnel policies during the past 3 decades. For this reason and because of other fundamental changes in the Navy since WWII, it is likely that less future top-ranking naval leaders will have “cut their eye teeth” in submarines.

Avenues of opportunity leading to flag level command of combatant forces have been cut off.
This change, along with the many demands on submarine officers and their continued shortage,
will limit the opportunities for today’s submariners to become the CINCs and CNOs of tomorrow. Whether this is in the best interest of the submarine force, the Navy, or the nation is a question deserving attention by our Navy’s leaders as well as every naval officer who aspires to command at sea beyond submarines.

Submariners of the U.S. Navy have a proud tradition of outstanding service. Their reputation of excellence, established prior to and during World War II, remains solid today. This excellence is reflected in their philosophy of command, as in all other areas of submarining. It follows that the Navy and the nation would be well served to tap this reserve of top notch talent for use in the broader areanas of naval operations, strategy, and policy. Developments since World War II, however, will probably limit the opportunities for current and future submariners to qualify and compete for commandat- sea or top level policy making assignments outside of the submarine arena.

The major developments in submarining have been the transition from diesel to nuclear power and the advent of sea based strategic nuclear weapons forces. Other significant developments
cover a broad range of technological and tactical developments from much more capable combat
systems to improved tactics for independent submarine operations, and a new concept of
coordinated ASW operation with other naval forces. But the most significant developments have been technological in origin. Great emphasis has been placed on operations, training, and the management of personnel and material essential to maintaining the high standards of performance and conditions established for these programs.

The demands of these developments have been met. Today 1 s submarine force is still the best,
if not the biggest. And it carries a larger share of the national defense burden than it did three
decades ago. During that time, however, other changes have occurred in and out of the Navy that
will have a lasting impact on post submarine command opportunities. Among the more significant
of these are: 1) the reorganization of the national defense establishment, with the creation of OSD, JCS, and the unified and specified commands; 2) the overall reduction in the naval force levels in the early 1970’s, and 3) the creation of a surface warfare specialty in the mid-1970’s.

The impact of the first of these changes has been to create new opportunities for naval officers in defense policy and management, plus joint and combined operations and planning. The impact of the second was to greatly reduce the nation 1 s naval capability, and with it, the opportunity for command-at-sea. It should be noted that, while personnel reductions accompanied force reductions, the number of naval officers eligible and qualified for command-at-sea was not substantially reduced. The third and most significant change for submariners, however, was the decision to subdivide the surface-subsurface major command selection according to warfare specialty. This action precludes submariners from competing for many major command assignments unless they change their warfare specialties.

Today’ s submariner has little opportunity to broaden his naval education and experience prior to his first command tour. He has even less opportunity than his predecessors for pursuing further command at sea assignments afterwards. This combination of developments and actions is made even more significant by the recent trend towards more and more coordinated naval, joint and combined operations. Also, submariners in the relatively few major command billets open to them, are occupied more with training and readiness or material management than with the exercise of operational or tactical command of naval forces. Under the system which has evolved, few, if any submariners will command naval battle groups — the centerpiece of u.s. naval strategy for this decade. So the fundamental question is whether, and how, any of today’s submariners can, or will become tomorrow’s force, fleet, and theatre commanders.

This leads to a number of related questions which warrant consideration by today’s top Navy leadership:

  • What is the feasibility, acceptability and suitability of assigning submariner officers to other duties at various stages of their careers?
  • Is the current policy of not allowing submariners to compete for major surface commands in the best interest of the US Navy?
  • Without a surface command, will command of Navy battle groups, numbered fleets, and major fleets be available for submarine officers?
  • Will continuation of the present (separate community) system produce the top leadership needed for warfighting effectiveness of coordinated naval operations in the years ahead Or, would a “one Navy” approach to qualifications and more open competition for major combatant commands better suit our nation’s naval leadership needs?
  • How should the submariner’s invaluable expertise in areas of anti-submarine  warfare and ship operations be utilized in the future for greatest overall beneift?

From the standpoint of professional development and future opportunity, the group of naval officers most immediately concerned with the answers to these questions include those officers who are approaching, or are in submarine command today. For these officers the pertinent questions are:

  • What are the likely post-command options and opportunities?
  • Which of these options allow a submariner to effectively compete for successive “command-atsea”
  • Will the Navy’s top leadership consider the foregoing questions soon enough to affect those in command today?

Junior officers in submarines are little affected by this exclusion policy, but are apt to be influenced by its negative aspects. Navy leaders should thus consider the impact of current policy on this group, which has three basic options under the present system:

  • For those officers who are qualified and so motivated, submarine command is the first choice. It should continue to be, provided that it is seen as leading to even greater opportunities in the future. Current limitations however, on these future opportunities can be a negative motivation factor for these high caliber officers who ought to be among the leaders of the Navy of the future.
  • For those who are contemplating the possibility of a civilian career after completion
    of obligated service, it is possible that the relative lack of career experience and limited
    command-at-sea opportunity may be an important factor in influencing this decision.
  • Some junior officers will choose to continue a naval career, but will opt out of submarines. The lack of opportunity for a broadening of naval experience as well as the limitations beyond submarine command could well be a deciding factor for these individuals.

Regardless of current policies and whether or not they are changed, submariners will undoubtedly continue to maintain their reputation for excellence. Because of these recent developments, however, their energies will increasingly be focused on submarines and submarining. After submarine command, current Navy policy limits opportunities for command-at-sea outside of the submarine arena — reserving these posts for others. Thus, submariners will command and control independent submarine operations, as they have in the past. But the command of coordinated task group operations, and the higher level of fleet and theater command become more and more “of limits.” Similarly, the availability of top level command or policy assignments is being reduced even though the submariner’s potential for these jobs remains.

Isn’t there a better way — for submariners, and for the Navy?

A.J. Perry


Overheard Remarks by
PCO Approach Officers in the Attack Teacher at the Sub Base, New London


  • “I see the target . . . the angle on the bow is port or starboard something.”
  • “When the target passed overhead, we began to get a handle on the range.”
  • We’ve got to get this guy pretty quick -it’s nearly lunchtime.”
  • Assistant Approach Officer “Take an observation.” Approach Officer –“Not on your life.”
  • “Maneuvering, Conn . . . Make turns for 40 feet.”
  • “I intend to turn around and shoot another unit at the weapon.”
  • “I can only see the target from the waterline up.”
  • “They the enemy . . .  Not we, the other enemy.”
  • “All thru the problem I had a lingering desire to go to the head.”
  • “I came right because I wanted to come left.”
  • “What’s the bearing to the guy at 1300′?”
  • “Angle on the bow . . . zero port.”
  • “I have two contacts, one to the right and one to the left.”

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