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Each January, the Submarine Force Commanders announce the previous year’s winners of the Battle Efficiency E. These ships and crews represent the best of the Submarine Force, with one submarine crew from each squadron chosen for their accomplislunents during the previous year. There is no doubt that the crews selected deserve to be recognized. However, it’s harder to answer the following questions:

1. Why were the other submarine crews in each squadron not selected?
2. What can these crews do to improve their performance and receive recognition for their Battle Efficiency?

I will argue that the current system, which limits the award of the Battle Efficiency E award to one submarine crew per squadron, fails to recognize deserving crews and sets up perverse incentives which do nothing to advance the professional excellence of and quality of service in the Submarine Force.

How are our current Battle Efficiency award winners selected? Does it depend on examination results? Does it depend on subjective assessments by the squadron staffs? Is there an attempt to share the wealth in awards through the squadron? Does winning one year preclude winning the next? If you’re in shipyard (as so many of our submarines will be in the next few years) are you automatically excluded? Are there other criteria employed? The fact is that at no time in my career have I ever known the answers to these questions. Commodores are pretty much left to their own devices in selecting their Battle E nominees. While this is, on the face of it, a logical prerogative of command, it has the following undesirable side effects:

  • Criteria for selection (if they actually exist) differ from squadron to squadron
  • Criteria can change within the same squadron with a new commodore (on my first ship, we had 3 commodores over 3 years-a not uncommon event in the Submarine Force)

While thinking through how to best position the ship for a Battle E nod, wardrooms in which I have served have tried to read the Commodore’s mind. Does he depend largely on the advice of his staff? Then let’s make sure we schmooze the squadron chiefs and staff officers with five pound 2Ks and burgers on the pier. Does he depend largely on examination results? Then we better get that Above Average or better on the ORSE-which is just about the only external inspection remaining which provides adjectival grades.

Furthermore, the winner take all Battle E system engenders tremendous competition between Commanding Officers and, hence, their crews. CO meetings with Commodores could become cockpits of contention, where the principal agenda item was always overcoming the adversary (the submarine across the pier, not the Soviets) rather than figuring out ways to do things better. Good ideas were not shared, bad experiences were hidden or downplayed-all to stay sweet in the eyes of the Commodore and remain viable for the Battle E.

Clearly this system, while identifying one excellent crew per squadron, did little to advance the Battle Efficiency of the Submarine Force as a whole :

  • Ship training time and energy were skewed to do well on inspections, which today principally means the ORSE. Every incentive exists to train crews to ace ORSE driven scenarios. Choreographing the ship’s crew becomes a principal concern of the Engineer, COB and XO. Testing and interviewing on the latest ORSE hot topics drives short range training plans. If this translates into battle efficiency, the transfer function is obscure and to many junior officers, for whom the ORSE workup and ORSE are an unrelieved misery, as indecipherable as Fermat’s Last Theorem or General Relativity.
  • The lack of standard, objective criteria across the Submarine Force raises questions about the fairness of the award process and, more importantly (since no award process will seem fair to everyone), deprives the Type Commanders of a useful tool to focus the efforts of their crews on force wide issues and problems requiring correction or improvement.
  • The winner take all mentality inhibits teamwork and cooperation among submarine crews. Good ideas are hoarded. Lessons learned the hard way are submerged in obscurity-until an untoward event brings a crew and its shortcomings, staggering and blinking, into the glare of the ex post facto million candle power spotlight.

In the place of the current subjective, winner take all system, I would propose an objective system where every crew who meets the standards would get a Battle Efficiency Award. While there are many ways to set the bar, here’s my proposal for criteria suitable for the award:

1. Average or better on major inspections. In truth, everyone in the Submarine Force leadership is happy with an average on the ORSE. Senior members of the NPEB congratulate Commanding Officers whose ships receive an Average on a successful ORSE. The difference between and Average and an Above Average is often a single drill or set of evolutions. This will put inspections in perspective.
2. For those ships who deploy during the year, a certification from the customer (the Battle Group Commander for CVBG SSNs, the Type Commander N2s and N3s for ISR SSNs, STRATCOM for SSBNs) of their battle efficiency. Each customer can establish a set of criteria for success that they expect from their submerged assets and then challenge the submarines concerned to meet those criteria. This focuses a submarine’s training time and energy on their mission, rather than inspection choreography.
3. For Submarine Force wide issues, the Type Commanders could establish additional objective criteria for their crews to meet. In the current retention critical environment, benchmarks in reenlistments and attrition would be excellent criteria. As other issues come up, other objective criteria can be established. We measure just about everything a ship does, we should be able to employ these metrics to good purpose.
4. For those submarines in an overhaul or DMP (a larger proportion of our Force in the near future), Average or better on their PORSE and a successful Crew Certification could be substituted for the first two criteria, which are only really suitable for operating submarines.

This system captures all the goodness of competition (by setting objective, relevant and appropriately challenging targets of excellence) while avoiding its pitfalls. Everyone will know why they won a Battle E (if they did) or what they need to improve on in future (if they did not). The award will focus more on mission rather than inspections, and wilt recognize that the mission of our brethren rockbound in shipyard is to get out of mere as quickly and with as much proficiency as they can muster. Successful ships will be more willing to share their successes with their fellow submariners in a new, non-zero-sum game version of the Battle E competition. Conversely, frank assessment of errors will be more frequent and their lessons learned more readily available for all to benefit from.

Will more submarines get a Battle E? Almost surely. And they will deserve it. Let’s change now from a system of subjective competition to a system of objective collaboration.

Naval Submarine League

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