Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


CDR Bernacchi is the PCO of USS ALEXANDRIA (SSN 757). He has recently completed the PCO pipeline and prior to that was the Special Assistant for Officer Matters in the Line Locker at Naval Reactors. He has graduate de-grees in Nuclear Engineering and Industrial Engineering from the University of Michigan.

In the July 2005 Submarine Review, CAPT Clautice wrote an article about lessons to be relearned after the SAN FRANCISCO grounding. I want to start by saying that I have nothing but the utmost respect for our submarine forefathers, they are the individuals who made us who and what we are today. There were, however, some points in his article that I thought should be amplified and some paradigms that might no longer exist. I would also like to point out this article is directed to those retired submariners who have given us our great legacy. The following opinions are solely my own and are meant to give our re-tired submariners a perspective from a submariner about to take command and my experiences to get to this point.

There are two general themes that need to be addressed, one is the background and qualifications of our current officers and the second is the training program and how it has recently been altered.

No one can argue that the United States Navy asks more of its nuclear trained officers than any other Navy in the world. Only in the United States are officers who command nuclear powered warships expected to be nuclear trained. This means that our Submariners, Nuclear Trained Surface Warfare Officers, and Nuclear Trained Aviators have to do the job of two officers in every other nuclear navy. These officers are expected to be warriors and nuclear operators. The other nuclear navies always separate these functions so officers can concentrate on either tactics or engineering. This sounds like a great plan – right? The officers have more time to dedicate to their one area of expertise and so they should be twice as good, right? – WRONG!

After having the exceptional opportunity to be the duty/student captain on a high end Australian diesel submarine and observing their navigation using the pool-of-errors method I can tell you that there are some great practices we can take from them – and I plan on doing exactly that. However, I also came away thinking “Wow, they could use some of the things we do well to help them.” When I look at our British Submariner perisher Navy brothers – they have collisions and groundings just like we do yet their culture is completely centered around Navigation where ours is centered around Engineering – so what is the key? What Navy in the world does not have collisions and groundings, can operate nuclear vessels all over the planet and be ready to respond to any tasking? The answer as we all know, is, there isn’t one.

So, is it a good idea for our officers to be required to be experts at both nuclear power and operations? The answer after seeing many different Navies is absolutely – YES. This combined knowledge that our officers have provided a level of backup and redundancy that is not possible in other Navies. So, why the long diatribe about engineering and navigation cultures? The answer has to do with the comment from CAPT Clautice when he said “I suspect the best path to nuclear submarine command is still through engineering assignments and our COs are much better trained in engineering than navigation. The top performing officers are most likely assigned as Engineers Officers. Perhaps this should be evaluated and if so, compensated for by even more emphasis on safe navigation training and practices. ”

I respectfully submit that this perception is just simply not true and this is NOT just because I was a Navigator as a department head. My point of comparing us to the other Navies is to drive home the fact that we expect our more senior officers to be good and knowledgeable in all things NOT just the area they were a department head in – non or partial understanding of any part of your ship is simply not acceptable. In the command pipeline, we are not allowed to think of ourselves as Navs, Eng, or Weps, we are trained throughout our careers to be submarine officers first and foremost. So what does this really mean and how do we put these flowery words into practice would be my next question if I were reading this article. The best way to describe it is with the use of numbers (I know, very nuclear of me):

  • The CO/XO selections boards are truly blind to what department head job you served in- all that matters is how you performed in the job you did have.
  • In my PCO class, there were thirteen of us: Nine going to command and four going to COSS Squadron Deputy jobs. There were ONLY two PCOs who were straight stick ENGs and two more who split toured as ENG and NAV. That left nine of thirteen PCOs who never served as ENG (the break down was eight NA Vs and one STRA T WEPS). At least for my class, you can clearly see there was no preference given to ENGs in selection to command or deputy. This is not a fluke, the classes today are very evenly split.
  • The Nuclear side of the house is expecting more and more of those officers who did not serve as Engineer. In the Line Locker at Naval Reactors there are two post XO 0-5 jobs and two post CO 0-6 jobs. When I was there two of us were not ENG served! So, half of the senior jobs were filled by non-ENGs which allowed the ENG served guys to go get a joint tour or explore other shore duties.

My point in all these examples is that there is a standard that must be met and you are expected to meet that standard through- out your career. Gone are the days when preferential treatment is given simply because you are the ENG. Whether it is the Type Commander looking at operations or Naval Reactors or Fleet Commander looking at engineering- there is one, high standard and you are expected to meet it- period. In today’s Submarine Force, it is the sustained superior performance at sea that matters, not which department head you were (or are).

The second point in CAPT Clautice’s article I would like to expand upon is the role of training and how catastrophes at sea might be avoided. In his article he stated, “despite all the modern trainers and updated training, we are still having these terrible accidents as we had in the early 60s … caused by faulty navigation. ” He is absolutely right that there are no new lessons to be learned in our recent collisions and groundings. However, there is this sense that since our training continues to improve we should never have mistakes at sea. While I completely agree that this would be the ultimate measure of training effectiveness, it is not realistic. Using my background in Industrial Engineer I want to try and compare apples to apples when looking at human factors in the training process. Twenty years ago, we had the most modem submarines and training program in the world. Our training was cutting edge just like our ships- yet we still had problems. Today our ships are the most advanced on the planet and our training has never been better or more advanced, we have simulators and ship based training that could not have been dreamed of just 5-6 years ago- yet we still have problems. Twenty years from now, the follow on or advanced version of VIRGINIA, I am sure, will be the most advanced submarine ever built and I am sure our training will keep pace- will we still have problems? Taking a look at the human factors part of this, when you compare the complexity of the ships with the training of their time period I think that you will find that they are pretty close. Our submarine forefathers really didn’t have it any easier or harder; it was different, but if you look at the level of effort required you will find that the demands were very similar. So what can we do that is different to help prevent potential disasters or just to continue to improve the effectiveness of our Force?

After just completing the PCO pipeline I am convinced the answer is that we have to teach our officers to make good decisions at all levels in the chain of command. We are taught in the PCO pipeline that we have to continue to grow our database of mental models so we can apply them in our daily decision making process. Here is where we are doing things somewhat differently. The Submarine Commanders Course (SCC) and the Naval Reactors PCO course not only demand a high level of knowledge but they force you into making decisions when you are the most un-comfortable and stressed (which they always seem to be able to provide at no extra expense). This new method of how we train not what we train is definitely having an impact. In the last couple of years over 15 officers have failed, rolled back, or resigned from the course- compared to about 2 in the 18 months previous to the “new” course. PCO’s are openly and honestly evaluated during the courses and as you can see from the numbers this has had an effect- again it goes to the point that there is a standard and it must be met no matter what your background is.

The concept of meeting a standard in navigation (there really has always been one for Engineering in our Submarine Force) is being pushed down to the lower levels of our training pipelines. Our junior officers are now required to maintain an officer experience log so senior officers can see where there are potential weaknesses and immediately direct training resources as necessary. Our SOAC (Submarine Officer Advance Course) graduates now have to go to sea and prove they can successfully navigate a submarine at sea. The Command Qualification requirements are now more stringent than ever. The point of all this is – from my experiences, the Submarine Force takes navigation very seriously just like nuclear power and is putting the resources necessary to back that up with training and crucible events throughout the officer’s career which is not matched by any other warfare community. I once had a CO who stated, “There are two areas I will not tolerate an error in- Reactor Safety and Safe Navigation,” I submit that after my PCO training this is, without a doubt, the truth of today’s Submarine Force.

The article also stated: “In nuclear power training, we are taught to trust our instruments and make professional judgments based on what they tell us. But navigation, despite all our modern devices, is still an art, and the prudent and experienced navigator will always have a healthy skepticism towards his equipment and especially his charts. The vast majority of our charts are based upon surveys taken long before it was possible to accurately fix the position of the survey vessel. And yet, far too many mariners believe that their charts are accurate. As such, the Navigator must learn to develop an approach to his task with a mindset that is almost the direct opposite to that of the nuclear plant operator.”

I appreciate this quote right up to the last sentence, if applied correctly, our rigid, methodical approach to nuclear engineering can pay HUGE benefits if applied to navigation. One of the in-structors in the PCO pipeline was a former Tactical Readiness Evaluation team senior member and as the PCO instructor is responsible for much of the Navigation doctrine for the fleet. He was extremely knowledgeable and talented in navigation and taught us an incredible amount of information. When I asked him which ship he was Nav on he laughed and said he was an Engineer (I know – what was I thinking especially since I just gave the one standard speech!) My point is, that during our nuclear power training we are trained to question everything, believe our indications knowing their limitations and what else we should see to corroborate them, and provide forceful backup. All of those hold true when applied to navigation. In the case in question, you would look at the chart datum for all of the charts of the area, see where data is plotted, compare the different datum, transfer when necessary, question what is an estimation and what is fact (the type of chart will tell you this), see what updates have been made, check the electronic data base … This solid nuclear trained approach with the navigation procedures already in place works – we just have to be nuclear in their execution.

I predict CAPT Clautice would ask, .. If this is true, why do we still have navigation incidents?” In CAPT Clautice’s article, he spoke of the Collisions and Groundings as part of the PCO course. We still do this, only now, we are expected to present the data from a command perspective and how our daily decision making process (read operational risk management) might have prevented some of these accidents. What I will tell you is that we learned that we still sometimes live in what the instructors call quadrant 3, which is; we don’t know what we know. This means that in many of these accidents all of the information necessary to prevent them was on board but was not recognized or understood by the crews at the time i.e. we don’t know what we know. Every ship we study had great crews who were well trained and wanted to do great things- no one wakes up and says I want to have an accident today. In fact, in the case of SAN FRANCISCO what the
crew did after the grounding was nothing short of heroic and de-serving of our admiration and a thank you to the fantastic submarines our country builds for us that they could survive such an event. This leads me to my point that from studying the data you quickly see that sometimes it only takes moments for things to get out of control but this could be mitigated by Operational Risk Management.

We will continue to have at-sea incidents until we can train ourselves to not be in quadrant 3, which is a constant struggle. I know that my classmates and I will strive very hard not to live in quadrant 3. Our training was hard but effective, now it is up to us and the incredible men and ships we are entrusted with to keep our ships and crews safe, remain undetected and complete our mission. If we can do this successfully- maybe we will not be reading a similar article in 35 years.

Editor’s Note: Captain Bill Clautice had an opportunity to review CDR Bernacchi ‘s article as a member of the magazine’s Editorial Review Committee. He has submitted his further reflections.

Great article! As I said in my piece published in July 05, I am in awe of the current submariners I meet at NSL functions and elsewhere … and this article reinforces my opinion of them. I am delighted to learn that “gone are the days when preferential treatment is given simply because you are the ENG.” I was also pleased to learn of the increased emphasis in Navigation training. We all agree, there are only so many hours available in ones life and we want a CO to have done it all. The Officer Experience Log should certainly help track this. The answer, as always, is to maintain high standards in all vital areas while training smarter and making use of better technology. It appears this is recognized and being practiced by COMSUBFOR and the Submarine Learning Center. I also agree that skepticism serves one well in both nuclear plant operation and navigation. My point was that too many were not skeptical enough … trusting their charts too much. Yes, the dates were there but too few looked at them and understood the limitations of that era. It appears this also is recognized. The Quadrant 3 concept of “not knowing what we know” (the info was on board, just not used) is not unique. The FBI had much of the info required to stop 9/11 but the MIS system was (and still is) inadequate. This is why we can’t just say there always has been collisions and groundings … why we review them in great detail and make improvements where required. Everyone, active duty or retired, would expect nothing less of the Submarine Force. Finally, why does one submit his personal thoughts for publication and rebuttal. I submit the answer in the case of these two articles is to make a contribution to the body of knowledge and provide a means of communication between the generations. And, if we can do this successfully, we most likely will not be reading similar articles in 35 years.


SGM Stephen Slavtcheff
Dr. and Mrs. Edward S. Eby

CDR Robert G. Pearce, USN(Ret)
Judge Stephen B. Ables

CAPT Marshall H. Austin, USN(Ret)
CAPT John Clair Bajus, USN(Ret)
RADM David B. Bell, USN(Rct)
CAPT Warren P. Chase, USN(Ret)
RADM Walter Nicholas (Buck) Dietzen
TMCM(SS) Alfred Friedrich, USN(Ret)
CAPT L. Patrick Gray, USN(Rct)
CW04 Larry J. “Sandy” Harless, USN(Ret)
CAPT Billy Lee Heid, USN(Ret)
CDR Glen C. Merritt, USN(Ret)
Mr. Stephen Slavtcheff
CAPT George Townsend Smith, USN(Ret)
RADM Norvell G. Ward, USN(Ret)
CAPT William M. Wolff, USN(Ret)

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League