Tom Clancy writes captivating fiction. Ever since Hunt for Red Oclober first appeared on the nation’s bookshelves in 1984, millions of readers have devoured his mix of imagination and technology.
However, his views on the “system” of preparing submariners for command, as outlined in the Washington Post in December and recently in the Virginian-Pilot and the Ledger-Star (“‘The U.S. Navy needs better officer training, a warrior ethic”) warrant comment from a submariner. I am a career submariner. My experience is in command of submarines.
Clancy’s premise is that the Royal Navy’s system is better than the U.S. system in preparing submariners for command. He contends that the British system, which has two pipelines – one based in tactical development for potential skippers, the other for engineers — results in a much better commanding officer, that the “American system requires that a submarine officer spend too much time in the engine room.” He questions the “American fiXation with engineering.”
Clancy contends that the current U.S. “system is a community of officers so molded by their training that risktaking is not rewarded and therefore often avoided. In the tactical arena, failure to run risks makes for predictable tactics — which can spell death.” I have not observed this postulated phenomenon. If anything, the U.S. Submarine Force has developed more unique tactical employment methods in the past 20 years than one could imagine.
A principle which is etched in the minds of every one of my offiCers as they take command concerns doctrine. The definition of doctrine was established by Richard. H. O’Kane, who, as commanding officer of USS TANG (SS-306), was awarded the Medal of Honor and was America’s leading submarine “Ace” of World War II, credited with sinking 31 ships totaling more than 227 thousand tons. He said, “Doctrine is a set of procedures, established through experience, that provides a guide. But doctrine should be flexible, never rigid, for circumstances often dictate complete departure.” The path to command that U.S. naval officers take includes that flexibility and readiness for departure. My skippers are risk-takers — every day.
To address the other key issues he raises, let me first say that the British submarine force is a formidable force, composed of highly trained and dedicated officers. So is ours.
Admittedly, we have different methods of preparing our submariners for command. In fact, a point-to-point comparison of the American and British submarine forces would reveal other differences in platform numbers, capabilities and missions as well. Regardless of those differences, I believe that Royal Navy submariners are better trained in engineering matters than Clancy has surmised. Thus the differences in the tactical and engineering proficiency of British and American submarine commanders is not as great as Clancy would lead one to believe. But since he argues that one training regime is superior, I am compelled to offer more than just a passing comment.
I completely agree with Clancy that the “point of maintaining a military is the ability to go to war effectively … (that the goal to which we should and do train is to] operate the submarine and kill targets.” The submarine force mission is simple: Sink ships. In this day and age, submarines have many additional roles, but the primary mission is correctly stated.
In peacetime, training is a commanding officer’s primary function – making and keeping his crew and ship ready for war. U.S. Submarine Force skippers are responsible and accountable for the entire ship; not only combat systems, but also propulsion systems and the performance of their entire crew in operating those complex systems. They are required to maintain their ships so they can practice these tactics in the demanding environment of the depths that Tom Clancy writes so eloquently about in his novels.
The skipper’s expertise in propulsion as well as in all other areas of the ship, ensures that we can get to and return from the battle. The skipper’s expertise in all aspects of the ship’s operation increases the probability of sustaining his ship’s ability to continue to fight during a period of hostilities.
The survivability and effectiveness of a submarine at sea depends upon the skipper’s knowledge and judgement in all mission areas — navigation, sonar, tactics, communications, oceanography, weapons and weapons delivery systems, damage control and, yes, ship’s propulsion, ballast and auxiliary systems. He is in charge of the entire crew in each of those areas. When a submarine leaves the pier, the knowledge and capabilities within it are the keys to his success.
While the ship’s engineer is key to the operation and maintenance of the propulsion plant, the commanding officer is the one who maintains the big picture and who assesses the interdependence of all ship’s systems and operations. Often, something affecting the ship’s engineering plant has the potential to affect some operation on another part of the ship. The commanding officer requires a detailed knowledge of all systems and the people who operate them in order to make this judgment. The British training system lacks this foundation. In our Navy, it is the foundation of safe, reliable, aggressive and survivable submarine operations. A submarine cannot call for support to solve a problem at sea. If the man in charge does not have command of all the knowledge and capabilities to fight his ship, he is not truly in command.
It takes many years to develop the blend of knowledge and operating experience required in a commanding officer. These years of experience have afforded the submarine skipper the opportunity to receive basic training in submarining and to serve in all ship’s departments (not just engineering or combat systems), to serve as an executive officer, to attend shore-based advanced tactical training to participate in fleet exercises and real-world deployments and to hone war-fighting skills.
In sum, today’s U.S. submarine skipper has been trained exactly the same way he would fight. By the time he has reached command, he has been thoroughly tested and thoroughly prepared. He has operated extensively in the many oceans of the world and knows his potential adversary. He has served on submarines which have performed the mission of strategic deterrence. He has served on submarines that will be employed as a forward defense, to protect sea lines of communication. He has operated in support of battle-group operations against both submarine and surface threats. He has trained or conducted special-warfare teams.
He has done this in open oceans, in restricted waters, in deep or shallow areas from the warm waters of the tropics to under the ice in Arctic regions. He has fired many exercise weapons against an evasive and simulated hostile threat in a variety of scenarios and tough tactical situations. With this background, is the skipper prepared to fight his submarine should the need arise? Absolutely.
By the time our submarine skippers qualify for command, they are at the peak of their operations skills. Despite Clancy’s assertion, youth neither guarantees that one is more capable of handling stress nor that one is qualified for command. Early command is certainly one of the rewards and objectives of submarine service, and achievement of that goal at an early age is important. I took command at age 35. Clancy asserts age 33 is the Royal Navy nuclear submarine command age. We are obviously close.
Clancy himself acknowledges that “Readiness requires that commanders know their profession.” Both the British and United States submarine force commanding officers are true experts in their field. Like his counterparts in other warfare areas, the submariner must know the capabilities of his ship and people as well as himself. Navy pilots must know not only tactics, but systems and how to conquer in-flight emergencies. Surface warfare officers similarly must not know only how to fight their ship, but must understand the impact of an engineering casualty and how to minimize the impact on their ship missions.
U.S. submariners and other warfare specialists in the U.S. Navy are trained to “fight hurt,” that is, to be able to overcome and fiX our own problems that may develop at sea. This is a high-tech world in which we live, and to succeed as a warrior, we must either master the technology or be willing victims when it fails.
Although Clancy laments that the LOS ANGELES class design dates back to his college days and therefore, that “something is wrong,” he also says the “LOS ANGELES is probably the best boat in the world.”
Clancy asks, “Is it as good as it could be?” Yes. With improvements that have been added to that class over the years, it is as good as it can be. Do we need a better, more capable submarine? Yes. That is why the SEA WOLF (SSN21) program is a vital part of our defense program.
Despite a numerical disadvantage, the United States submarine service is widely recognized as the best in the world. At the core of our quality are qualified and dedicated people aboard highly capable ships. The “system” that Tom Clancy has questioned is fine. Our commanding officers are the best. They are “total” skippers, and if the need arises, they will be total warriors.
Vice Admiral Roger F. Bacon, USN[Reprinted from the Virginian-Pilot and the Ledger-Star, Feb. 19th, 1989.]
A PROJECT IN MEMORY OF FATTHER JOHN F. (“JAKE”) LABOON, S.J.
Many of us knew the same man under different titles. For some, he was “Father,” and for others, “Captain.” His family preferred “Jack,” while close friends got away with “Jake,” or at least “Father Jake.” But names aside, Father Laboon’s disarming smile and (despite his imposing 6’6″ frame) his genuine, caring ways made him a friend to all of us. And we all lost a good friend when he died last summer, on August 1st.
From his early years at the Naval Academy, through distinguished service in submarine patrols during World War ll, in Navy chaplaincy thereafter, and right up to the time of his death, Annapolis was always a place dear to Father Laboon’s heart. In the early 80s, he returned to Annapolis, but this time to the north side of the “scenic Severn River,” and to the Jesuit retreat center called “Manresa,” that large white “manor house” that has served as an Annapolis landmark since 1926. Father Jake’s assignment: to renovate the aging plant in order to make it “shipshape” for the next generation and beyond.
Some months ago, it occurred to some of his friends that one appropriate way to honor Father Jake’s memory would be to see his plans for the Manresa chapel realized. The renovation of the Manresa chapel, complete with a bronze etching of “Father Jake’ and a short biography, a list of all his friends who made it possible, and a special annual retreat and reunion for “the friends of Father Laboon” would be a wonderful tribute as well as a reminder that Father Jake still lives and that one more of his many lifetime assignments has been brought to a happy conclusion.
The total cost of the project is $200 thousand. Father Laboon’s many friends can make it happen. More information concerning this endeavor can be obtained from, and contributions can be sent to: Manresa-on-Severn, P.O. Box 9, Annapolis, MD 21404. Contributions should be specified as: Manresa: Laboon Memorial.