Lieutenant Gabriel’s article was selected as the winner of the Naval Submarine League’s Essay Comest for Qass 98040 of the Submarine Officer’s Advanced Course.
The current training pipeline for submarine officers was developed to provide only the best and brightest nuclear-trained officers to keep the reactors in the fleet safe. Without a doubt, we can say, “Mission accomplished.” Given this background, I ask two questions: 1) What price have we paid in achieving that goal? 2) Does every officer onboard really need to be nuclear trained?
While giving advice to bis sons upon their commissioning, a Navy Captain passed along this little bit of advice to help them stand out among their peers: “Drive the ship professionally-most nuclear JOs can’t.” I think that it is a great piece of advice, but should it be? The days of tracking the (noisy) bad guys in deep water are essentially over. We must place our emphasis on developing tactics and weapons systems for the littoral environment, to counter the increasingly more capable non-nuclear submarine.
I believe we have lost some of the tactical proficiency and innovation that was possessed by previous generations of submariners. The first three years of any submarine junior officer’s career in the Navy are focused on mastering the engineering plant. Of those three years, the first 15 months are spent in training commands, yet only three of those months are spent on non-nuclear training. A JO’s first two years onboard are dedicated to initial qualifications and preparing for the engineer’s exam, with the requirement that the officer spends at least one year as an engineering division officer. Most JOs spend two or more years in the Engineering Department. After about one year onboard, the JO has earned his dolphins and is qualified to drive the boat. Are those qualifications as rigorous as the nuclear training he has been through and is still receiving? Surveying among my peers, the answer I received was a resounding “NO” The tactical and ship handling development of JOs is left almost solely to the individual command. True, we have improved and standardized the process of non-nuclear qualifications and knowledge with the advent of the junior officer schools, but our actions overshadow the good intentions of these schools. Recently, one Submarine School instructor was heard lamenting that oftentimes JOs are called back to the boat from these schools for reasons such as drydocking the ship or performing intricate engineering evolutions. While attending these schools the JO usually retains all of his duties on board, including standing duty during weekdays. Compare this to the efforts made by the boats to ensure that the JO is completely uninterrupted while studying for his engineer’s exam at NEO school: usually two months with no divisional duties or responsibilities, and only weekend duty on the boat. We send a clear signal to the young impressionable JO at that point: “Mastering the forward end of the boat is not as important as mastering the aft end.”
To be competitive in today’s Submarine Force, an officer must prove himself in the nuclear arena. Some of the hurdles along the way include the initial training pipeline, qualifying as Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW), and then standing that watch during ORSE, as well as passing the engineer’s exam. For career-minded officers, the most sought-after shore duties are billets that place them on the fast track. Those duties have traditionally included instructor duty at one of the prototype sites or at Nuclear Power School (now Naval Nuclear Power Training Command). Again, what kind of signal are we sending? Being a heavy nuke is the best, if not only, way to be competitive and to move up.
Only recently have we seen more than a smattering of COs and XOs that were not engineers during their department head tours. Thus, as could be predicted, the fleet’s focus has been on safe reactor operations. Tactical thinking beyond the basics has routinely been left to be taught to prospective department heads while at SOAC. The JO schools do well to educate our JOs about the systems and operations of the forward end of the boat, but by comparison, it provides the equivalent of only a Basic Engineering Qualification (BEQ) level of knowledge.
In this era of reduced numbers of submarines and submariners, we are looking high and low for ways to make the Submarine Force more viable and budgetarily competitive. With the deployment of the Tomahawk cruise missile, we have adopted strike warfare. Since then we have had a steep learning curve in the employment of that weapon system. We relearned a costly lesson from World War II. Not only must we have a weapon system that works properly and has been thoroughly tested, but also a crew that knows how to employ that weapon system and practices it regularly. Why did this happen to us? Where was the emphasis of our training? I would hazard a guess and say that it was (effectively) not focused on shooting Tomahawks and was probably more concerned with safe reactors and shooting torpedoes in an open ocean (deep water) environment.
One possible solution is to operate our Submarine Force accessions more like our Royal Navy brethren. They split engineering and operations officers from the outset. There are advantages and disadvantages to this system. As a community, we should analyze this as a serious option for the future.
One big advantage is the development of tactical thinkers at a young age. By allowing an officer to concentrate on driving the boat and thinking about tactics from day one, we can foster and will yield more tactically proficient submariners. As human beings, we improve with practice and repetition. I feel that some of our submariners should concentrate on the forward end of the boat while others focus aft. If we lock all our JOs in the engine room from the outset, then we can reasonably expect good nuclear supervisors and poor ship drivers.
Another tremendous source of talent that the Submarine Force is all but ignoring is the submarine nuclear LOO community. Currently, as in the recent past, we have utilized LDOs for submarine new construction and refueling overhauls, with the understanding that it allows more line submariners to deploy, drive ships and become tactically proficient. This is a tremendous idea and should be enlarged to include nuclear LDOs in the wardroom on a permanent basis. The aircraft carriers have several nuclear LDOs assigned, why shouldn’t we? After talking to several nuclear-trained SWOs, the overriding opinion is that the LDOs are easily among the most knowledgeable and technically competent nuclear-trained personnel onboard. They have a tremendous base of technical knowledge and leadership experience that the seagoing Submarine Force is not utilizing and thus wasting. Why?
The idea of utilizing LDOs in the Engineering Department as division officers, and even as the engineer, creates some unique problems, yet has the potential to solve many others. True, we would have to create more LDOs, but that could actually help the accession rate and retention of nuclear-trained enlisted personnel, which has been somewhat troublesome lately. There would be many more opportunities for them to put on the khaki, and thus we could attract and retain more talented people.
Another hurdle to be overcome would be mapping out the career progression of nuclear officers, nuclear LDOs, and non-nuclear submarine officers up through a command tour. We could again study the Royal Navy’s system, and adapt it as we saw fit.
With that course, however, we would have the difficulty of selecting Conunanding Officers and Executive Officers that would have little or no nuclear training up to that point. This obstacle has actually already been overcome in the nuclear aircraft carrier/nuclear surface community. The CO and XO are (tradition-ally} aviators and their first taste of the nuclear world comes right before their tour as the XO of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The precedent has been set at Nuclear Power School, which has been slightly modified to teach these PXOs what is important, while allowing their non-aviator nuclear trained to classmates to delve completely into the details of the plant and its operations. The nuclear training pipeline could be further modified to include a separate PXO/PCO course, taught at the level of detail and understanding required for continued safe reactor operations aboard submarines.
As of late, we, as submariners, have improved in our tactical warfighting skills, but I believe that this area is sti11 hampered at times by a nuclear mentality.
In my opinion, the requirement that all submarine officers (with the exception of the Supply Officer} be nuclear trained should be carefully reevaluated. Shifting our Submarine Force to a split community would not be an easy transition, but in the long run, could pay large dividends. It may save us, submariners, from extinction, or possibly (gasp!} bring a non-nuclear propelled submarine back into U.S. inventory.