There are many lessons to be learned from the SEAWOLF affair. The piece by Ron O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service in the July issue of the REVIEW described what the submarine community can do to improve its relations with Congress, especially in light of the coming debate over CENTURION.
There is room for improvement in another critical interface between the Navy and the public it serves – the press. It is no secret that relations between the Navy and the press have been strained in recent years. There are good and proper reasons for secrecy – such as national security and contractual propriety – but a perception exists that secrecy in submarine affairs goes beyond good reason, perhaps bordering on arrogance.
The coming years will be crucially important to the future of the submarine community, and it will need a press and public capable of understanding its needs and capabilities if it is to prosper. If these personal and perhaps unpleasant observations from the front lines can help to identify a problem, then the Navy can take an important step towards solving it.
In addition, I have a quite selfish reason for writing this article. As a reporter, editor and author, I cover submarines for a living, and if things hold on their present course, I’ll be out of a job in a few years. As will almost everybody reading this quarterly. So in the interest of preserving our mutual liveli-hood, I’d like to interspace a few personal anecdotes with my exposition to illustrate the root of a problem that, in my opinion, portends great difficulty for the American submarine community.
On April 6 I attended the opening of a collection of submarine paintings at the art gallery in the Navy Yard in Washington. It was a small crowd around the lemonade bow~ and included two faces I immediately recognized — both highly placed submarine admirals. Both left quickly after I anived, without as much as a fare-thee-welL Perhaps their charm reserves were low that night, but the point is that they seemed to pass deliberately on the opportunity for bridge-building with the press in a social atmosphere.
The problem is pubUc: reJatioDS. Apparently for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ll touch on in a moment, the subma-rine community seems to seek in the public eye the same stealth it enjoys under the ocean. Unfortunately it’s impossible for the press to support with enthusiasm what we neither see nor understand.
Traditionally the submarine community uses its charm sparingly. A few key congressmen and their staffers have been aU that is required to gain Capitol Hill approval; a few key administration folks ensure undersea forces receive their due. Of public outreach, there is virtually none.
When I was a kid, I bought a model of the SSBN GEORGE WASHINGTON. I painted the missile tubes green in what the instnl.ctions called “Shetwood Forest,” and marveled that men lived undetwater in close proximity to both nuclear warheads and a reactor for months at time to protect me from atomic attack. It began a fascination with subma-rines that continues to this clay.
Try to find a model of an American submarine today. As member of the lay public, what could I give my son to spark a similar interest?
As a member of the press on the submarine beat, I bounce against the wall of secrecy and silence daily. It inculcates in my sources a sense of guilt when they quietly — and against their impression of the rules — explain why some multi-million dollar project needs continued funding, or why another critical multi-million dollar project was scrubbed.
In the world of the high-tech military, submariners are among the highest-tech of all. Frictionless bearings, optronic periscopes, closed ecologies, submarine psychology, hydro-dynamic advances, elaborate mathematics – all stuff ripe for the science section of the local newspaper, and all off limits to the general press. For those writers more specialized and knowl-edgeable about submarine affairs, the official wall of silence goes up even higher.
I made a bet with a particularly injluentilll admiral one year at the Submarine League annual symposium. He’d made a speech criticizing press coverage of the undersea forces, and I approached him on a break. “The reason we don’t do a good job, is that we can’t get to talk to you guys,” I said.
Our bet: I’d go through channels to request an interview, and he could see what it was like on his end. One year later, at the next Submarine League symposium, I asked him about my request. “Never saw it,” he said.
If it irritates you that most of the news accounts you read of submarine affairs quote only “official spokesmen” and “knowl-edgeable sources,” understand it takes months to process an application through channels for an interview. I’ve got requests in that go back years. People retire before I can interview them.
As a consequence, to do the job, I’ve got to use other sources. People in industry, people on Capitol Hill, and naval officers, able to talk only on background because their contracts or reputations suffer if they back up their comments with their names. If the leaders and thinkers in the community won’t talk for the record, then who will tell its story?
After construction ofthe first SEAWOLF began, somebody at Electric Boat gave a model of the ship to the Submarine Museum in Groton, Connecticut. It was the first time a member of the public could actually see what he was getting for his $2 billion in taxes.
The model was deemed a peril to national security, and security agents removed it. To this day, there is one bad drawing and no model to give non-cleared personnel an idea of what they’re buying.
It does not seem plausible that such a cascade of public relations errors is the result of ignorance. Its root appears to be arrogance, and in this era of budget retrenchment, roles-and-missions reviews, and reorganization, continued arrogance will be lethal.
The demise of the SEAWOLF demonstrated the fragility of congressional support for undersea superiority. While the common wisdom within the submarine community blames the end of the Cold War for the termination, congressional knives were drawing blood long before the Soviet Union folded its hammer and sickle. The administration dido ‘t have the stomach to fight for SEAWOLF, and Congress seemed pleased to fund one more boat and be done with it.
Meanwhile the latest testimony introduced into the Congres-sional Record indicates the best Russian submarines are “at parity” with the best American subs.
My first book on submarine affairs — the only book in this country in the last 20 years to my knowledge that did more than look back – was produced with virtually no help from the Navy. A review in these pages criticized it for its treatment of nuclear power.
I wrote the Director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion, asking for a brief and unclassified tutorial on the subject so I could strengthen my understanding. I haven’t heard back yet.
I have read of another period in recent naval history when arrogance proceeded a fall. After World War ll, President Harry Truman wanted to integrate the military services. The Navy was loath to give up its cabinet seat and independence, and used every bureaucratic trick to prevent its subjugation into a single Department of Defense.
In a new biography of James Forrestal, authors Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley show how the Navy’s resistance and arrogance eventually alienated all its supporters, including Forrestal himself who as Navy Secretary fought so hard to retain the Navy’s privileged position. The main issue at the time was naval aviation, and in the end all the admirals could do was revolt over the question of a new aircraft carrier.
Today the issue is submarines. And while a revolt is unlikely
Today’s admirals are too tame – the old arrogance seems to live on. If history repeats itself, the next-generation CENTURION could fall victim to the backlash.
It took a lieutenant to lay it out for me in simple words. In preparing to write a second book looking ahead at submarines in the 21st century, I dropped off an outline of what I’d be researching with Navy public affairs and asked for help.
The lieutenant looked at my paper for a moment and then asked, “What~ in it for the Navyr In a nutshel~ he captured the root of the problem. The heart of atrogance is selfishness, the unwillingness to share unless gratification is immediate.
The new Navy policy book, produced in May 1992, states: “As a public institution, the Navy has a legal and moral respon-sibility to keep our nation informed about matters under our cognizance. This policy, which applies to both negative and positive stories, ensures that reporting on matters of public interest includes the Navy point of view and gives us the opportunity to secure public recognition of the superb jobs our people do.”
Bureaucrats by nature are conservative and resist change; sailors are conservative because the sea is unforgiving of even the slightest mistake; naval officers are conservative because they are judged by an unforgiving standard; submariners are conservative because they sail the most dangerous sea of all; nuclear operators are conservative because the consequences of any mistake are profound. It is therefore understandable f a bureaucrat wearing dolphins may be the most risk-averse member of the human species.
To deal with the press is to court risk. One’s fate is placed outside of one’s control. Yet by minimizing this risk in maxi· mum fashion, public understandin& and support sufl’ers a gradual but steady and unending erosion.
I’m always on the lookout for writers who might contribute a piece to my newsletter. Ofparticular interest are newspaper reporters in towns with critical naval facilities.
While covering a conference at a city with a submarine shipyard, I ran across a business page writer. Over coffee he admitted he’d covered the shipyard for five years because it was the biggest employer in the area. “Guess how many times I’ve been in that shipyard,” he asked. “None.”
To further the aims of the American submarine community, the public meeds more to evaluate than comparative life cycle costs. Without greater public understanding, the submarine community stands to become a shadow of its former self.
The trend line in authorization for new hulls between 1986-1996 — the transition between the old order and the new – represents a force level of less than half the figure for the past 40 years. Unless the public and its representatives understand the sophistication and utility of the submarine, even this level will be a dream.
The alienation between the writer and the American submariner is nowhere better represented than the works ofthe man most responsible for the popularization of the modem submarine — Tom Clancy. RED OCTOBER was the real hero of his first nove~ a Soviet not American product, delivering an impression the Russians — not the Americans — were blazing new trails in undersea technology.
In his latest work, Sum of All Fears. the only major military casualty is an OHIO-class SSBN commanded by a prissy engineer, and speared by an AKULA II.
Combine this with the popular impression of the Navy driven by the Tailhook episode, the outrageow cover stories given for the IOWA gun explosion and the VINCENNES incident, and you have the ingredients for mass antipathy for America’s oldest service.
By including these personal anecdotes, I run the risk of you thinking I’m a whiner. I’ll admit a more open submarine community, publicly proud of its accomplishments, would make my job easier. But I’m willing to take this risk in a public manner for a higher purpose: submarines are important to our national defense. Unless they are understood by — and promoted to – the American public, force structure will tumble as services fight for roles and missions in an environment of diminishing funding.
The press remains the principal conduit between the Navy and the public. If the press – reporters, editors, authors, columnists and freelance writers – are frozen out, not only will they refuse to entertain the topic of undersea warfare, they will avoid it. And, heaven forbid, should the submarine community ever need the understanding and compassion of the press and public, the stony ground will not tum fertile overnight.
This trend of personal experience and observation is not to denigrate the enormous contnbution of the sailors, engineers, designers, craftsmen and leaders of the submarine community. Rather it is a warning that the old answers of the Cold War don’t fit new conditions. I fear that unless long-held attitudes towards the press and the public it serves are changed, the road ahead will be cold, bleak and sad The community deserves a better fate.
[Stan Zimmennan is editor of Navy News &: Undersea Technol-Qm and author of Submarine Technology for the 21st Century. He has won awards from the National Press Club and the Society for Professional Journalists.]