Bob Hamilton is a newsma11 with extensive experience covering defe11se news. He was a11 embedded reporter on board submarines during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He currently writes for The New London Dav.
It was a submariner’s worst nightmare. Lieutenant Commander Todd Cloutier was at the con while three frigates and their embarked helicopters searched for him. They knew the general area where he was going to be operating and about the time he would arrive. And there were several other officers watching, eager to point out any mistakes he made. Welcome to the final examination for the Netherlands Submarine Command Course, known as Perisher, an appellation which marks the death of many a naval officer’s aspirations.
Cloutier was the first U.S. Navy student to complete the vaunted course on diesel-electric submarine operations. Since it was established in 1995, no Perisher class has ever graduated intact, and 50 percent attrition is not uncommon. So it was with some trepidation that Cloutier accepted the challenge to be the second U.S. submariner to enroll in the course.
“Just before leaving, I did start to think, ‘what if I have to come back? Am I washed up?”‘ Cloutier recalled. “Then, I just decided that if that happened, I would accept that I didn’t make it and go on. But I didn’t want to test that theory.”
On the Sunday he finished his last drill, Teacher, Commander Marc Elsensohn, called him into the wardroom for a personal meeting.
“As I walked in he put out his hand and said, ‘congratulations, captain,’ and I almost looked over my shoulder,” Cloutier recalled. “That just was not a greeting I expected.” Today, Cloutier is the executive officer of USS SEA WOLF (SSN-21 ), and one of the vanguard of officers with experience in foreign fleets, thanks to increasingly close ties between the U.S. Submarine Force and allied navies.
In the Pacific, there is an annual weapons training exercise that brings U.S. and Australian submariners to the same class, on boats from both fleets. Two U.S. Navy submariners have now completed the United Kingdom’s nuclear Perisher course, and U.K. submariners have enrolled in U.S. Prospective Commanding Officer training. Before he retired as commander of Naval Submarine Forces last year, Vice Admiral John. Grossenbacher had opened talks with Canada about a possible exchange program that could eventually put a U.S. lieutenant on a Canadian Upholder-class diesel-electric submarine for a two-year tour.
“As a Force, we’re going to learn a lot about how other people operate,” Grossenbacher said.
Captain James F. Caldwell, commodore of Submarine Development Squadron 12 at the Naval Submarine Base, agreed: “Through those kinds of liaisons, we’re gaining great insights into the capabilities of those foreign navies, and some of those navies have pretty impressive capabilities.
There are subtle differences in how even closely allied navies operate, he noted. The British, for instance, tend to operate their nuclear submarines with the periscope down more than their U.S. counterparts. There are differences in how they collect intelligence, how they take surveillance photographs, and so forth.
“That’s not to say that one of us is doing it right and the other is doing it wrong. But we need to know about these other approaches if we’re going to be able to do our job properly,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got some good things to learn from our association with the British, and the Dutch, and everyone else.”
Lieutenant Commander Stephen Mack was the first U.S. submariner to finish the British Perisher course, and he had to be ready to hit the ground running, because the Royal Navy had made it clear when it offered him the posting that the standards would not be relaxed/or the colonial, as he became known during the course. And the first U.S. submariner to enroll in the course the previous year had not earned his certificate of graduation.
“I was a little nervous,” Mack said. “I don’t think anyone wouldn’t be. But I looked at it as just too big an opportunity to pass up.”
But when Mack completed the course, Teacher, Royal Navy Commander Paul Anderson, who had been an in-your-face kind of instructor always putting pressure on his students to think on their feet, pinned on Mack the set of British dolphins he had himself earned 20 years earlier.
Mack said he had just returned from a six-month deployment on USS TOLEDO when he was approached about taking the assignment to the Perisher course, which would require another extended absence from his family.
He had a few orientation sessions with the British liaison officer at Submarine Development Squadron 12 in Groton before departing, and then was given an eight-week introductory course when he arrived in England last January, before enrolling in the 16-week Perisher.
He said he found himself constantly having to adjust to a different language. Even though everyone used English, the British use port rudder instead of left rudder as a navigational command, they measure water beneath the keel in meters instead of feet and they talk about liters of water in the ballast tanks instead of pounds.
There were also significant differences in the way they the British conducted the business of operating an SSN: on a British boat, the officers handle navigation, instead of a senior enlisted electronics technician-and their charting techniques are unlike what is done on U.S. submarines. On a U.S. SSN during a casualty, the executive officer typically reports to the scene and handles recovery efforts, while on the U.K. boats the XO would go the damage control center and coordinate the efforts of the DC teams from there.
In addition, Mack said some of the equipment on board the British submarines was different as well, though in the tradition of the Silent Service around the world, the most detailed explanation he would provide was, interesting.
Even though the language was a little different, Mack said one thing he immediately understood was his British counterparts’ sense of humor, and the sense of camaraderie. They might poke fun at a classmate struggling with a problem, but they would all stay up through the night to make sure he mastered it.
“We do the same job and do it well,” Mack said. “They have the same high standards there that we have here.”
British graduates of the Perisher course go directly into an executive officer’s spot on a British submarine, and depending on how they do there, some will be chosen to move up to command. His classmates seemed surprised to learn he would spend the next 18 months at Sub School, teaching tactics in the school’s simulated attack center, instead of going to sea. The intention was for him to immediately impart some of his lessons he learned during his Perisher experience to the rest of the fleet. Within weeks of his return he was briefing some of the U.S. Navy’s top admirals as well.
“There is a pretty significant amount of interest in how it worked,” Mack said. “And I think it’s only healthy for us to look at how everyone else operates, and say, ‘maybe there are better ways we can do things.’ They were always asking me the same thing over there-‘what can we do better?”‘
Mack and Cloutier followed similar paths to their respective Perisher courses. Mack enlisted in the Navy in April 1986, and began training as an electronics technician. He was selected for the Nuclear Enlisted Commissioning Program in 1988 as an ET2, and attended the University of New Mexico and graduated with honors, earning a commission in 1991. Cloutier enlisted in the Navy in 1985 and trained as a machinist mate, was picked up for the Nuclear Enlisted Commissioning Program, and earned his degree at the University of New Mexico as well, earning a commission in 1990.
He was riding a submarine as operations officer for Submarine Development Squadron 12 when he got word he’d been picked for the Netherlands course. A few months later he went to the Australian submarine school in New Perth for three weeks of individualized instruction in diesel submarines, then two weeks in their trainer. Within a month, he reported to the Netherlands for orientation.
Though he wasn’t sure if he’d have any free time, his wife Priya and their son Pascal accompanied him to both countries. They packed as many second-grade textbooks as they could fit in a backpack to keep their son current with his studies, and as it turned out during the first few weeks he was home most nights at 5 p.m.
“When I went to Holland in February for my sea ride, they toured New Zealand instead, flying to Holland to meet me when I got back from sea,” Cloutier said. They also managed a tour of Italy, Paris, the United Kingdom and Ireland while he was occupied.
“My son has now seen more of the world than I have, and he’s only 7,” Cloutier said.
Cloutier had more of a language barrier to overcome, but found that Dutch had so much in common with English and German, which he had studied in high school, that he could usually understand conversations in his hosts’ language, and in any event the officers all spoke English. The six people in his class bonded quickly, he said.
“In the history of the Dutch Perisher, there’s never been a class where everybody graduated, but we wanted to be the first,” Cloutier said. “We decided early on: six in, six out.” But fate was not to be denied: one of the officers had to drop out after he had an accident on his bicycle; another was asked to leave because he was not meeting the standards.
During the initial phases of training, which focus almost entirely on keeping the boat safe in busy near-shore waters, it can get quite daunting, even in a simulator, Cloutier said.
“You step out of the trainer sweating and shaking, and hand it over to the next guy,” Cloutier said. “I felt like a junior officer again for the first month.” He had the additional challenge of having to learn the operational characteristics of a diesel-electric submarine that all the other students had served on. But his classmates worked hard to bring him up to speed on the boat.
“At first, I said I was doing it because it was something different, and a challenge, and if there’s a challenge you should go for it,” Cloutier said. Only later did he realize that it was an opportunity to expand his skills as a submariner, to test his own personal limits.
The Dutch Perisher course was started in 1995 after the U.K. Navy switched to an all-nuclear undersea fleet and discontinued training for diesel-electric submarine operations. It has quickly earned a reputation as one of the best training courses of its kind in the world, and officers from Australia, Brazil, Korea, Denmark and other allied countries compete for space in the program.
Perisher graduates speak with awe and a tinge of terror about Teacher, but Cloutier found Commander Marc Elsensohn to be easy to work with .
“Before you get there it’s pure fear of what he could be,” Cloutier said. “It turns out, he was calm, humorous, and attentive. He never missed a detail-and he never forgot to let you know about it.”
Teacher had only three rules: never miss a safety problem; don’t make the same mistake twice; and for God’s sake, don’t let the British detect you (British frigates and aircraft served as the opposing force for the at-sea exercises).
He also said that while his course focused on diesel submarine operations, the skills involved in submarining are the same no matter what drives the boat. And much of Elsensohn’s time was spent teaching his students to define their personal limits: what was the deepest they felt they could safely operate the boat? How close to shore could they drive the boat and feel safe? How much training did they think was enough for the crew?
“At the heart of it, you’re trying to get the same missions done,” Cloutier said.
Out in the Pacific, Commander Barry Bruner, who directed the PCO course for the Pacific Submarine Force in the early stages of an exchange program with the Australians, said the collaborations provide a better understanding of the capabilities of allied navies. The Australians operate the diesel-electric Collins class of boat, which has earned a lot of respect in undersea circles despite some widely publicized problems early in the Collins program.
“The PCOs come out of this course with a much better under-standing of diesel submarines than anyone else in the Navy,” Bruner said. And that is important, given the proliferation of quiet diesels, he said. “There’s a good chance, if we do go to war, it will be against a country that operates diesel submarines.”
In addition, given the participation of Australian forces in Operation Enduring Freedom and other recent multi-nation coalition actions, it is likely that the Royal Australian Navy’s Submarine Force would participate in any naval actions involving the United States in the Pacific.
“If that happens, we’ve already had the experience of doing in-depth, detailed operations with our allies,” Bruner said.
The exchange course in the Pacific fleet goes back to August 2000 when the HMAS WALLER and HMAS COLLINS visited Pearl Harbor and participated in PCO operations, Bruner said, with the COLLINS-class boats simulating diesel-powered enemies in a wartime setting against USS CHICAGO and USS SANTA FE.
The following year, 11 PCO students and two instructors from Pearl Harbor flew to Perth where they split into groups and took turns in the attack centers on an exercise that pitted the USS ASHEVILLE against the HMAS SHEEHAN, he said. Last summer, SHEEHAN visited Pearl Harbor for exercises against USS OLYMPIA.
The two navies have decided to formalize the relationship, alternating every other summer at Pearl Harbor and Stirling Submarine Base in Australia.
Each class typically spends a little less than three weeks under-water taking part in the submarine-on-submarine operations, and the experience they get working on the diesels, and trying to find them, is invaluable, Bruner said.
The submarine officers who finish the course are much better equipped to deal with the diesel submarine threat, Bruner said. In fact, he said, he’d prefer that all four classes every year get a similar opportunity, instead of just one every summer.
“The knowledge level on both sides goes up quite a bit every time we do this,” Bruner said. There’s no question in my mind that this is key to increasing the experience level of submarine commanding officers.”