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An Opinion On Submarine Officer Qualification

The submarine force is proud of its rigorous qualification programs for officers and enlisted personnel. The foundations of these programs are so sound that they are used as the bases for Navy wide qualification programs and of other warfare communities. Because of the emphasis placed on submarine qualification, the junior officers or the submarine force have, over the years, developed as knowledgeable professionals who continue the proud traditions of the United States submarine force. However, it seems that the present officer qualification requirements may be too all-encompassing, detailed, and extensive so as to detract from the valuable learning experience offered by qualification. In fact, some junior officers are likely to become demoralized by the great number of qualification cards requiring action and the mass of knowledge which must be acquired. Without proper supervision by experienced officers, the knowledge level expected of experienced department heads may be required, creating an unnecessary burden on the qualifying J.O. This is particularly critical since, at the onset of qualification junior officers are excited at the imminence or being qualified in the foremost warfare specialty and that they will shortly be qualified to stand a watch which directs the movement of one of the nation’s most costly, complex combatant warships.

Qualification requirements are currently contained in a joint force instruction entitled “Line Officer Requirements for Qualification in SUbmarines.” Included are seven qualification oards varying from the “Officer Basic Orientation Card” to “Qualification in Submarines, Line Officer Requirements.” The average “attack” submariner will be required to obtain nearly 540 different authenticating signatures on his qualification cards, while his SSBN counterpart needs nearly 570. As an example of the volume of material involved, the Officer of the Deck qualification card is 77 pages long. In addition to the cards, is a detailed library of 135 references which are utilized during the qualification process — dependent upon individual ship configuration. The requirements for authenticating signatures range from practical factors such as “hovering with the trim pump” to nearly a full page of knowledge requirements necessary for a check-out on “passive sonar performance prediction.”

In order to be designated as “Qualified in Submarines” an officer must have served on an operational submarine for at least one year and it is expected that junior officers will complete their submarine qualification in less than eighteen months. Included in this eighteen months would be four months (six months for SSBN officers) allotted for Engineering Officer of the Watch I Engineering Duty Officer qualification. The number of signatures described above do ~ however include qualification requirements specified for the nuclear propulsion plant or SSBN weapons duty officer.

Qualification cards were certainly developed with the intent of simplifying the qualification process while improving the qualifying officer’s level of knowledge. One of the goals of these cards was to standardize qualifications between Atlantic and Pacific forces. In addition, rather tban leaving tbe extent of knowledge required to the authenticating officer, qualification standards were developed and are included in the qualification cards. No longer do junior officers have to ask: “What do I need to know to get this signature?•. Fortunately, a detailed bibliography is referenced in each applicable signature section, eliminating an extensive hunt for references needed to obtain the requisite knowledge for a check-out. A major supplier of needed information is the extensive Naval Warfare Publication library — which did not exist until the middle seventies.

What makes qualification a formidable task for our junior officer? The J.O. is trained from “day one” of nuclear power training to strive for and assimilate an extensive, detailed knowledge of each and every nuclear propulsion plant system. To achieve this, the junior officer spends a full year in shore based training at nuclear power school and a propulsion plant prototype. This provides a significant core knowledge that simplifies qualification on the first at-sea propulsion plant. Initial “qualification” becomes essentially an advanced level requalification, using the systems and principles developed in the previous year. The Submarine Officer Basic Course at ~ub School provides the J.O. with an initial base for his submarine qualification. Yet, because of the additional great amount of knowledge required to complete “forward” qualification, the core knowledge received prior . to reporting to a J.0. 1s first submarine is just a beginning. Most of the required knowledge for qualification is therefore learned for the first time during the qualifying period. Because of the emphasis on detail in nuclear power training, the qualifying J.O. tends to believe that an extensive, detailed knowledge of each and every system is desired for submarine qualification. This is not an undesirable goal — at face value. However, because of the great mass of information to be learned, as required by the qualification cards, completion of submarine qualification within eighteen months is an exceotionally difficult task.

It should also be remembered that these same officers are tasked to serve as division officers for ten to fifteen people. A J.0. 1s time is quickly consumed by: formal maintenance procedures that he must research and technically approve before forwarding them on to his department bead and commanding officer; the routine leave/special request chits/personnel-related administration that must be promptly reviewed and forwarded; the different groups or evaluations that must be prepared; the two PHS systems (nuclear and nonnuclear) that many division officers must verity and approve; the five hours of formal lecture training which a nuclear division officer must attend each week; and the extensive ship and engineering drill programs which ensure today’s level of proficiency. As a result, the standards or performance both for a division officer and a qualifying officer tend to be varied in order to satisfy the basic minimum requirements of each. This is, in itself, counter to the pursuit of excellence that our junior officers are ingrained with, throughout their initial nuclear power training.

Despite the diversions during qualification, junior officers still manage to get their dolphins in the requisite time — in most instances. This is achieved by several means. Foremost is the hard work and late hours spent — sacrificing sleep at sea and sacrificing time with family in port. The XO’s and CO’s attempt to get the officers off the submarine by 1700 when in port. But it is often futile, and extra hours on board for pursuing qualification become the norm rather than the exception •• The Submarine Officer Basic Course is designed to alleviate the problem somewhat by recommending that Commanding Officers sign orr 39 knowledge factors based on the training the J.O. has received at Sub School.

Preventing the qualification program from becoming demoralizing and overly comprehensive must become the responsibility of our experienced department heads and those more senior. Although tasked with significant other duties, they must take time to train the junior officers for their qualification. This certainly is not a new idea. But it is one that has been pushed aside because of the management requirements burdening our department heads due to the technical complexity of today’s submarines. This problem is aggravated because department heads usually have only one prior sea tour under their belts. These experienced officers ~ instruct their junior officers that for every check-out there is knowledge that is core and need-to-know, and that other knowledge is merely background “graduate level” and nice-to-know. And such knowledge will ultimately be gained with experience on board and later at the Submarine Officers Advanced Course. As an example, a qualifying officer should not have to understand the specific circuitry of the AN/WLQ-4 “Sea Nymph” ESH system in the same detail which is required for a satisfactory check-out of the Protection and Alarm System of the nuclear propulsion plant. He should rather learn how to tactically use the information supplied by the Sea Nymph system — leaving its operation to Electronic Technicians. This obviously includes an understanding of the capabilities of the system. It should be remembered that the goal in submarine qualification is to make a procedurally and tactically competent watgh officer and not to make an experienced department bead or enlisted technician. Many, like myself, have been told by their first commanding officer that professional knowledge comes primarily as a result of watch standing — not as a result of pre-qualification study. It is therefore important that junior officers get on the watch bill and wear their dolphins as early as is professionally tolerable.

The qualification program must not be allowed to devour junior officers. The standards expressed in tbe qualification cards should be reviewed to r~duce rather than expand the required amount of knowledge. Junior officers should not be expected to qualify on their own — as many have bad to during their qualification. Qualified officers should lead the J.O.’s through their qualification process, not nursemaiding, but teaching and prioritizing an extensive knowledge base, ensuring that the core knowledge is learned and that excessive time is not wasted on peripheral knowledge that tends to delay qualification. The junior officer should continually be able to see the goal of qualification in sight and those responsible Cor this process must ensure that the J.O.s qualify expeditiously and move ahead smartly with their professional growth.

LCDR Russell A. Piokett, USN

Naval Submarine League

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