“He’s a Nuke!” The phrase is often cynically applied to the reputed stereotypical engineering-oriented nuclear trained officer. It expresses what is one of the popularized problems with the submarine community — its perception as an organization overly concerned with nuclear plant safety. The belief that this emphasis comes at the expense of tactical prowess fosters the perception of submarine officers as expert technicians but only adequate tacticians.
First, is the perception accurate? Claims that the U.S. submariner is excessively engineering oriented are refuted by professional opinion to the contrary. Tom Clancy, author of “The Hunt for Red October” suggests in a recent editorial that the U.S. Navy concentrates on engineering instead of tactical development. His thoughts echo those of some naval officers who speak from experience of the disparity in emphasis between tactics and nuclear training. Commonly cited is the disparity between shipboard preparation for Tactical Readiness Examinations and the seemingly all-important Operational Reactor Safeguards Examination (ORSE). Other incriminating factors include the dedicated schooling and interview process for submarine Engineer Officer qualification, and the implicit requirement of command-track officers to have served a tour as Engineer.
Who is right? To the young Engineering Officer of the Watch standing watch in maneuvering and preparing his engineering division for the grueling ORSE board, there is decidedly too much emphasis on engineering. To him, the engineering department training, engineering seminars, and around the clock drills are forever preempting the more fun and more important, “front end” challenges of shiphandling and weapons employment. To non-submariners, there is conflicting evidence that suggests that submariners represent the elite of a sophisticated and capable Navy, while also suggesting the Navy would do well to more closely pattern its submarine officer training after that of the Royal Navy.
There is no definitive answer to an issue over which reasonable people can disagree. Although the ongoing professional dialogue has allowed a productive airing of differing views, it is hard to support sweeping changes to a system that has developed uniquely impressive operational capabilities and an unblemished submarine nuclear safety record.
What, if anything, should be done? Let’s get back to the original issue of perception: that within the Navy, and increasingly in other circles, submarine officers are seen as engineering “machines” deficient in undersea warfare. Although the accuracy of the perception will remain in dispute as long as nuclear power remains on submarines, the presence of the perception is real and should be addressed.
Why does the perception of submariner officers as being engineering-biased exist? First, because our submarines are powered by nuclear reactors. No one can dispute the tremendous tactical advantage this affords a submarine. Nuclear power makes our subs uniquely capable of carrying out the forward-oriented missions of our Maritime Strategy, including the crucial anti-SSBN mission performed under the ice only by nuclear submarines. The engineering that so perfectly complements the U.S. submarine’s missions presents a potential for dire operational and political consequences. To carry out the warfighting missions safely and responsibly, the force must develop officers with complete confidence in their submarine’s capabilities. Officers deployed in forward areas on independent missions must be completely capable of maintaining their ship in top warlighting condition. The submarine must be kept mission capable without the support of tenders and shore based repair facilities heavily relied upon by other naval elements with different missions. When the required engineering training encourages the type of aggressive shipfighting borne of knowledge and confidence, it enhances the submarine’s exciting role. When this same training fosters an exceedingly risk adverse attitude, it compromises wartime effectiveness, and becomes a tactical handicap. Most submarine officers can look proudly on the high operational readiness their boats have earned through special operations and other tactically rewarding deployments. The engineeringfirst perception, though, is perpetuated by a minority of submarines in the fleet that establish engineering as of top priority.
Second, the perception exists because we in the submarine force perpetuate it through action, inaction, and oversight. The traditional “Silent Service” unwillingness to publicize even routine operations skews non-submariners’ interpretations of what submarining is all about. Within the community, shipboard priorities on some submarines misdirect the needed focus on warfighting. The shipboard training program, for instance, that religiously requires the entire wardroom to attend all engineering-related training, but leaves weapons and operations training to respective departmental personnel, encourages the perception and fosters its development into reality. Again, submarine skippers stressing engineering at the expense of tactical prowess are in the minority, but are numerous enough to give the perception unwarranted credibility.
An area affecting perception is submarine officer accessions. In the Naval Academy and NROTC Units, the percentage of male Navy midshipmen volunteering for submarine duty has declined over the last five years. Surveys show that, among other reasons, the perception of junior officers spending their tours isolated in nuclear-related work is responsible for turning many candidates away. With the Navy’s most powerful, sophisticated, and sensitive equipment operating at both ends of the submarine, the emphasis has to be clear: warfighting first, engineering expertise necessary.
To illustrate the problem, consider a first class midshipman at the Naval Academy and see how he perceives the submarine community. After several years’ exposure to the various warfare communities, this young man can discuss his career options with officers from: Aviation Warfare, Marine Corps, Surface Warfare, and, pointedly, Nuclear Power. Sure, most Nuclear Power Officers are submariners with valuable operational experience, but their designation as NPO on some official instructions suggests an engineering emphasis that is counterproductive. The need for one individual to coordinate all nuclear accessions (submarine and nuclear surface ship) is questionable anyway. It certainly doesn’t warrant the preemption of Submarine Warfare Officer as the submarine representative’s acknowledged title.
To continue, consider the midshipmen who have decided to take the requisite interviews for accession into submarines; He will go to Naval Reactors, respond to a battery of engineering-related interviews from NR staff, and finally be asked some broader personal questions to determine his motivation toward the nuclear power and, we hope, submarine program. One can argue that the questions asked by the design engineers implicitly determine a candidate’s submarine officer potential as well as his potential as an engineering watch officer. The fact remains that this nuclear hurdle is clearly the substantive criteria which future officers must satisfy to get subs. The conclusion is clear in the minds of many: if you’re a good “nuke”, you’ll make it in subs. The matter is extrapolated by Clancy and others to include officers at all levels in the submarine community.
How to make it better? Simple measures include refocusing the accession programs and renaming billets in the community to emphasize the development of complete submarine warfare officers as opposed to nuclear-trained officers. Reestablishing the commitment to warfare expertise means providing a submarine officer accession channel distinct from a surface officer, nuclear-trained channel. It also means that a midshipman will go on a submarine cruise, instead of being detailed to a nuclear cruiser, and will talk to the Submarine Warfare Officer instead of the Nuclear Programs Manager. Naval Reactors should maintain centralized control of the intense engineering training so crucial to the submariner’s warfare specialty. The process will start, though, with Submarine Officer interviews, as opposed to Nuclear Power interviews. The interview material can be supplemented, not replaced, with material geared toward the selection of capable warfare officers, not explicitly nucleartrained officers. The distinction serves to promote the wellroundedness of submarine officer expertise and dispel the myth of submariners as simply undersea engineers.
Some will argue that there is no perception problem. They probably have read material proclaiming the submariner as the Navy’s elite, but haven’t seen the accession statistics for the submarine program and the reasons given for not entering the program. The absolute numbers, which show an improvement this year, belie the steady decline in the percentage of volunteers from recent graduating classes.
Others will acknowledge a perception problem, but say “so what’!” They will argue that we have a job to do, and outsiders’ perceptions of our capability are inconsequential. Their point is a good one. There should be no dispute about the relative importance of our perception among nonsubmariners and submariners alike and our acknowledged ability. However, the submarine force is losing competent and dedicated officers to other communities partly because of a perceived imbalance in the system. In the eyes of young midshipmen, perception becomes reality.
Finally, still others will agree that there is a problem but argue that the costs of fiXing it exceed the benefits. Certainly the widely held perception must be addressed. The officers defending the country aboard submarines — in maneuvering or in the attack center — deserve to be recognized as true professionals in their warfare specialty, and not as the tactically deficient “nuclear engineers” so commonly perceived.
LT Kenneth M. Perry, USN