Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Lieutenant Carlson’s article won the Naval Submarine League Essay Prize for Submarine Officer Advanced Course.

Onboard ship, a division conducts training on casualty procedures for a critical piece of gear. The petty officer conducting the lesson shows the sailors the best way to perform the task, and then shows them a different method, explaining ‘the inspectors like to see it this way, so make sure you do this whenever they are looking”‘.

In a submarine tactics class for junior officers, the instructor teaches the required subject matter and NWP guidance, but then adds ‘but the TRE team will look for this”‘.

During a crew certification, a ship is downgraded on a procedure they thought they had performed in accordance with the instruction. When questioned, the inspector admits the method used was within the boundaries of the guidance, but that it was wt the way I’m used to doing it”‘.

Anyone who has served in the Submarine Force for more than a few hours recognizes these examples. There seems to be a certain dichotomy of thinking: normal operations. and the inspection. SSBN’s call their cycles ORSE and TRE patrols. Crews train on what the inspectors are looking for. and run the latest drills from other ship’s exams. We improve our level of knowledge based on deficient areas of the last round of inspections, and skew our training plans accordingly. We accept these methods as normal, part of a proven record of success.

But what kind of success have we achieved? Are we adept at warfighting. or filling out checklists? Can we adapt in rapidly changing battle situations, or do we just conform to the latest set of lessons learned? Will we be ready when Murphy’s law asserts itself, or fall apart because it was not part of a well rehearsed and practiced scenario? As our force structure shrinks, and we commit ourselves to missions that will likely involve non-traditional adversaries, it is high time the Submarine Force takes a hard look at its devotion to the inspection as a means of management.

Management by Inspection

To take advantage of the inspection mentality, many commands have adopted a principle I call Management by Inspection, or MBI. Simply put, MBI involves centering all actions around performing well on the next exam cycle. Some ships follow it wholesale, while others just in part. A master checklist can be used that specifies what to do and when to do it, incorporating lessons learned, recent deficiencies and command preferences. Such a checklist could be provided by higher authority; if not, units generate their own. As soon as the inspection concludes, the checklist for the next inspection is pulled out and the cycle repeats. If the checklist is well thought out and religiously followed, things usually go well; if not, the laundry list of deficiencies is examined, and the checklist is upgraded to eliminate the weaknesses. With MBI, the next inspection determines everything from how many and what kind of drills to run to watchbill assignments and whether extra underway time is needed.

The reason for the widespread use of MBI is not a mystery: it produces results. Forty years of nuclear powered ships with no reactor accidents; guns hit their targets; planes land on carriers; adherence to higher authority directives is checked and maintained. Checklists have allowed us to perform complicated procedures without getting lost in the process, and provide operators with straightforward instructions for their gear. There are of course the occasional glitches, but these are few and far between considering the dangerous nature and awesome complexity of running a modem Navy. It is no surprise then that some ships simply coordinate operations, port calls, manning requests, inventories and all manner of paperwork around being ready for the next exam cycle.

A more subtle reason for the popularity of MBI is the fact that we inspect everything. TRE, crew certification, INSURV, ORSE, admin inspections, NTPI: MBI provides a structure to handle the myriad rules and vastly different requirements of these exams. MBI provides a straightforward method: each inspection has its own checklist, common deficiencies and routines of examination. To succeed, commands can simply train for the inspection, focusing on running the right drills, conducting and documenting required training, and beefing up level of knowledge according to the last set of published deficiencies.

MBI works because the exam structure is known; when each event occurs, how long it should take, what order, etc. We even go so far as to practice the exam itself, giving ourselves a mini ORSE or practice TRE. We have become experts in both giving and taking exams. The coveted Battle E goes to those that do it best, and medals and commendations to those that help get us there. The resulting message, intentional or not, is clear: MBI equals success.

The Advantages of Inspections and MDI

Why use inspections in the first place? What is gained? The answers are very simple:

Ensure compliance. Whether it is operation of a reactor plant or how service records are maintained, the inspection allows higher authority the opportunity to make sure its guidelines are followed. If a checklist is published, it becomes even simpler, since both examiner and examinee are using the same scorecard. MBI assists in this goal as well, since commands can gear their efforts toward showing and documenting compliance with higher authority directives.

Uniformity. In the Submarine Force, the inspection has been widely used both formally and informally to ensure uniform standards and practices. If a type commander wants business conducted in a certain way, the inspection team need only begin focusing in those areas; the word will get around fast about the new gouge, and ships will scramble to ensure they are up to speed. Additionally, the use of an officially promulgated checklist within a governing instruction can help by providing a standardized list of requirements, thus helping to ensure commands are looking at the same things. The more precise the checklist, the more specific the conformity. Again, the MBI method also drives commands towards meeting these standards, real or perceived, in order to do well.

Documentation. In the case of ensuring statutory compliance, such as with radiological controls or funds management, the inspection is a key means of reporting and documenting adherence to requirements. The inspection can be used to document required monitoring and adherence to required standards and to illustrate proactive set f evaluation.

It is an alluring package. Higher authority gets the uniformity and compliance it desires, and is able to use the results as evidence that statutory requirements are being met. Use of MBI at the command level means self monitoring efforts will focus on meeting those requirements, with equal concern for providing a written record they were met.

Predictability. Outside the occasional surprise exam, most ships generally know when their next inspection will be. They can then plan accordingly, running the necessary drills and prepping their paperwork. The crew has a goal to shoot for, and has a deadline for getting its act together. More importantly, the known timeline allows for a week-by-week, _ days until the inspection checklist, so that every effort and review can be choreographed to the last detail. The checklist’s main utility in inspection preparation is predictability.

The Price of MRI

Despite these apparent advantages, Management by Inspection is no panacea. There can be significant drawbacks to overuse of such a method:

Tunnel vision. The first problem with MBI is precisely what its name implies: the tendency to operate around an exam cycle instead of tailoring efforts towards what actually may be needed. The most obvious question: do other areas of readiness suffer when one area alone becomes the focus? If such efforts are used to correct noted weaknesses, it makes sense; but it is unlikely that deficiencies rotate around a set schedule.

Just because the ORSE is the next exam, does it follow that only engineering drills need to be run? If engineering casualties are a viable part of a ship’s overall readiness should they not be run during a TRE? Does a ship’s drill and training program reflect the level of knowledge and operational deficiencies of that ship, or does it only reflect what everybody else is doing? The use of MBI can sometimes make the mission seem like an obstacle, just another hurdle to clear so we can get to the next inspection.

Overzealous use of MBI leads a ship to focus on the latest gouge instead of focusing on its overall needs, especially if it wants to do well in the exam. If not careful, commands may inhibit proactive identification of their deficiencies in favor of being ready for the likely scenario. Such actions can hardly be blamed; professional reputations live and die on inspection grades. Such is the reality of the inspection system.

False Results. The obvious question surrounding scheduled inspections is to what degree actual preparedness is being measured. The logic goes that a ship that does well on an exam is, by definition, probably doing well when not being inspected. Certain trip wires are examined to determine if closer scrutiny is needed, allowing inspectors to cover a lot of ground in a short time. But are such results valid? Just because a ship does well on ORSE, is it because the ship is proficient at running an inspection, or proficient in engineering? Management by Inspection definitely assists in the former, but in no way guarantees the latter.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies: the mere observation of an event changes that event. Inspectors never see the actual level of readiness because the ship knows it is being looked at, and prepares accordingly; this is no secret. While pure observation is impossible, the present system falls far short of providing a true snapshot of day-to-day operations by giving a ship months of advance notice.

Creating the double standard. MBI may be good for passing exams, but it has serious disadvantages. Unless a ship is careful, it can teach its crew that things are done for the inspection and the inspection only. If a sailor is told over and over to do something because the TRE team wants to see it and not because it is the right thing to do, will he do it when the team in not onboard? What motivation has be been given to do it this certain way? Does the method have any validity beyond the inspection? Crews that train for the inspection can easily create a difference between their perceived normal operations and the expected behavior for an exam.

The inspectors themselves have a huge impact on generating this difference. We may read the NWP and get squadron’s opinion on the meaning, but when it comes down to the wire, we concern ourselves with what the inspectors want to see. In a perfect world, this should be the same as what the published standards are, but it is often not the case. It is not uncommon to argue a point on an inspection only to find out the inspector was going off old boat knowledge vice the current guidance. If the inspectors are well versed in the guidance, it minimizes such problems, but what if there is room for interpretation? Is the ship graded on in situ application, or against what the inspector likes? Does the team take time to teach the crew the proper way and the whys and hows behind it, or just drop off a list of hits and leave?

Solutions and Alternatives

As has been discussed, the current inspection system bu many advantages for dealing with the complex business of operating a modem Submarine Force. But there are many ways we can improve the system, and help it to work for us.

Assist vice inspect. There is no argument that the inspection teams that run the exams are experts in their area. But why not put that knowledge to work for the ships, rather than in some adversarial situation? Inspection teams see a wide variety of methods from ship to ship in solving problems common to all units. They are in a unique position to see what works and what does not; they are in an equally unique position to pus this knowledge directly on to the fleet. Instead of waiting until the debrief to find out our deficiencies, let the teams work: with the ship as the inspection happens, pointing out the good u well u the bad. What have other ships done that made this better? Is the ship doing something the rest of the fleet could benefit from? The team could then brief the squadron, allowing a single point of dissemination of the latest trends, both good and bad. Boats could still receive a grade, but would have received invaluable training from the fleet experts in the area of importance. Innovative inspectors have done this for years; it is time to make it standard practice.

Abolish the double standard. The tendency to train for the inspection is not only wasteful, it can be dangerous. When USS STARK was hit by two Exocet missiles in May 1987, it was generally blamed on confusion in CIC, failure to inform the CO of important data and a failure of a few key officers to recognize a dangerous situation. But less advertised is that the ship had just completed a full day’s worth of engineering drills-even though it was enroute to an area of mines, contested airspace and a hot war between Iran and Iraq. Rather than resting the crew or running scenarios that mirrored the mission at hand, STARK was training for their upcoming OPPE, or Operational Propulsion Plant Evaluation. In other words, training for the inspection, not the mission. Devotion to MBI, while not the primary cause of this tragedy, certainly contributed to a lower awareness to potential danger.

Inspections must begin to focus on what the ship will actually be doing in its mission as well as in battle; proficiency in one does not mean adequacy in the other. Is it really likely that an SSBN will need to be well versed in a post SIOP role? Is it heresy to state that it would be a better use of inspection time to ensure it can do its primary mission, and not focus on such an unlikely scenario? Such an approach is being contemplated presently; it should be implemented immediately.

Randomize Exams. Inspections must abandon gouge in favor of frequently rotated scenarios. Ships could be given a standard list of drills and evolutions, which could be changed as common weaknesses are identified. Random exam cycles, coupled with random scenarios, would give commands less of a motive to plan for the next inspection by focusing on gouge and more on their total readiness. Not knowing when the next exam would come would force commands to find ways of monitoring their performance at all levels on a consistent basis. The type commander should then task group commanders with coming up with generalized standards that recognize this goal of overall readiness; exam grading would be geared to recognize such readiness, instead of the ability to make slick binders and pretty displays. More importantly, random exams would give the type commander a truer measure of how the ship performs, vice how it performs after horsing itself up and performing battlestations field day to get ready. Such a system would retain the type commander’s ability to re-focus the fleet when and where ready.

Reduced the exam burden. Our current cycle of exams requires, on average, one major inspection per area per year. SSBN cycles, even though reduced in length, still provide ample time to prepare fur such a schedule; the same is not true for the fast attack fleet. The continued reduction in numbers of subs, the pressure to maintain current mission tasking, and the commitment to a 50 percent pers tempo has resulted in less and less operational time in already limited schedules. A recent innovation in submarine operating schedules now allows one POM training and certification cycle to cover two overseas deployments, in order to allow more underway time to be devoted to mission coverage. Such a system could be easily adopted for inspections. A relaxing of the ORSE and TRE exam cycles to 18 months would fold directly into this new model allowing for extended mission tasking as well as the proposed three crew/two submarine rotation cycle, should it be adopted.

Provide clear standards. One of the most frustrating elements of an inspection is predicting how the inspectors will interpret guidelines and standards. We have all heard of, or been part of, arguments with inspectors as to what means what and if the guidance means one thing or another. Why should the debrief be the first time we hear how the inspection team interprets the NWP? Why do Sub School instructors have to speculate about what the TRE team wants to see, especially since this often changes? It makes even less sense that this information is obtained second hand from debriefs and exam results; why not let the teams inform training centers directly when information becomes important? By not making expected standards and lessons public as soon as possible, the inspection system merely delays their distribution.

This is not to say that higher authority must explain every detail of every facet of operations. But where there has been a clear misinterpretation, or where multiple interpretations exist, a clear explanation is prudent. As stated earlier, the inspection teams are in a unique position to identify such situations and provide immediate feedback to the ships, as well as to the parent Group and Squadrons so that other ships may learn. Such a method still allows ships to experiment with different methods, test their utility, and then pass along that knowledge to the fleet via the exam board.


The CO of my last ship shocked us all when he came into the wardroom for officer’s call and announced that were to conduct all business from now on as if we were going to war. No TRE run, no ORSE patrol-all aspects of operations were to be evaluated for preparedness for battle. We were skeptical at first, until we saw just how different we had to view our efforts. Did we really need to run another loss of Engine Room Fresh Water, or was figuring out how to run welding cables to likely problem areas more important? Practice TMA, or ensure we could assign trackers to every trace? How could we sustain battlestations for a week? How would our mission be affected by the loss of critical gear. not for an hour, but for a week? For many of us, it was the first time we bad truly faced how we would operate, continuously, at war. No inspection had ever prepared us for our duties in such a manner. The present system still cannot.

The fact that such an approach seemed so innovative should sound alarm bells; training for war should not be a novelty. The inspection model and the mentality that it engenders represents a disproportionate percentage of the energy spent by the Submarine Force, robbing us of valuable time and energy needed to focus on ever increasing mission requirements. Are adversarial us against them inspections necessary for a well prepared and battle ready fleet? Maybe so, but they soon may become a luxury we can no longer afford. It is time we re-think our devotion to Management by Inspection, and take the next step toward managing what will soon become the smallest Submarine Force we have had in 50 year.


LCDR George E. Brown, USNR(Ret.)

CDR H. Collins Embry, USN(Ret.)

LCDR Everett W. Faith, USN(Ret.)

CAPT Harold S. Lewis, USN(Ret.)


THE SUBMARINE REVIEW is a quarterly publication of the Naval Submarine League. It is a forum for discussion of submarine matter.;. Not only are the ideas of its members to be reflected in the REVIEW, but those of others as well, who are interested in submarines and submarining.

Articles for this publication will be accepted on any subject closely related to submarine matters. Their length should be a maximum of about 2500 words. The League prepares REVIEW copy for publication using Word Perfect. If possible to do so, accompaning a submission with a 3.S” diskette is of significant assistance in that process. The content of articles is of first importance in their selection for the REVIEW. Editing of articles for clarity may be necessary, since important ideas should be readily understood by the readers of the REVIEW.

A stipend of up to $200.00 will be paid for each major article published. Annually, three articles are selected for special recognition and an honorarium of up to $400.00 will be awarded to the authors. Articles accepted for publication in the REVIEW become the property of the Naval Submarine League. The views expressed by the authors are their own and are not to be construed to be those of the Naval Submarine League. In those instances where the NSL has taken and published an official position or view, specific reference to that fact will accompany the article.

Comments on articles and brief discussion items are welcomed to make THE SUBMARINE REVIEW a dynamic reflection of the League’s interest in submarines. The success of this magazine is up to those persons who have such a dedicated interest in submarines that they want to keep alive the submarine past, help with present submarine problems and be influential in guiding the future of submarines in the U.S. Navy.

Articles should be submitted to the Editor, SUBMARINE REVIEW, P.O. Box 1146, Annandale, VA 22003.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League