CDR Brons served in four SSNs highlighted by bookend tours as Commissioning Engineer of STURGEON, the first of the 637 class and Commissioning CO of Richard B. Russell, the last of the 63 7 class. After retiring as Deputy Senior Member of the LntFlt ORSE Board, CDR Brons spent an additional 25 years in a variety ofma11ageme111 positions associated with commercial nuclear energy.
The July and October 2005 issues of The Submarine Review have brought an interesting exchange of articles stemming from the grounding of SAN FRANCISCO. In July, Captain Bill Clautice wrote about sound lessons learned earlier regarding safe navigation. As a final thought he opined, “I suspect the best path to nuclear submarine command is still through engineering assignments. . . . The top performing officers are most likely assigned as Engineer Officers.” In October, Commander Mike Bernacchi responded providing many perspectives about current emphasis and innovations in training. He also included information regarding the selection of officers for command.
Specifically, CDR Bernacchi noted that in his PCO class of 13 there were only four officers who had served as engineer. Two of those had served a split department head tour and two had served their entire department head tour as engineer. CDR Bernacchi stated that, .. gone are the days when preferential treatment is given simply because you are the ENG.” In his brief response to the article Captain Clautice said that he was delighted to hear that. I do not think anyone should be given preferential treatment but rather treatment based on merit, but CDR Bernacchi’s statistics suggest a bias against officers who serve as Engineer. I am not so sure that this is a good thing.
It seems to me that the Engineer’s job is the most difficult of the department heads. The engineer has the largest department by far. The number of people to manage and to train is almost universally recognized as a good measure of the degree of job difficulty. Unless things have changed radically, the number of discrete training requirements per man in the department is also substantially greater than for weapons and navigation. I suspect this training and management aspect is even more difficult today than when I experienced it for several reasons. One is the current emphasis on rotating division officers into and within the department. All new Submarine Officers are expected to pass the engineer officer exam in their first sea tour. Given the requirement that they have spent a certain amount ohime as an engineering division officer and the relative numbers of officers in each ship’s pipeline, today’s ENG does not have the benefit of long term, highly experienced division officers supporting him in the management of the department. More of his division officers are in a learning mode more of the time than they were in the past. When they are trained and qualified, they are rewarded by being sent forward.
In addition, it seems from my conversations with current submariners that the Engineer has Jess support in the way of highly experienced chiefs. I do not mean in any way to demean today’s CPOs, but the fact is that the Navy’s current practices can accelerate the time in which an individual can become a CPO through incentive promotions, exam performance, etc. A sharp petty officer can be a staff pick-up at the prototype, make second class before he sees his first boat and make chief before his second boat. There is no doubt that the people who achieve the grade of CPO at JO year’s or less service are sharp and aggressive. But there is something to be said for experience as well. Although, I do not have any statistics to support me, I would say that most CPOs in my day had the benefit of more than 13 or 14 year’s experience and probably less shore time than their counterparts of today. They were in a better position to be highly supportive in the management of the department and to serve as role models and trainers for the developing junior officers as well as for the enlisted members of their divisions.
The engineering department is also the beneficiary of the most help in the form of outside observers checking administrative and technical detail from the squadron, the Naval Reactors field office and others. There are also the visits from almost everyone in preparation for safeguards examinations and the well established none of self reporting even the most minor occurrences within the nuclear part of the department. The effect of all these things is that the entire chain of command is aware of all of the even slight shortfalls in performance in the engineering department. I do not think that there are equivalent parallels in other submarine departments.
All submarine engineers share these two aspects of the their demanding job, lots of help in managing a major department from above, and little in the way of experienced, stable officer and senior enlisted help working for them. The SSN engineer faces some additional factors. The very best that he can hope for in classroom training of his department is carved out of the always concurrent requirements for watch standing and maintenance. When he finally trains a junior officer to the point that he might actually be useful, the officer is sent away for several months to engineer’s school to be prepared for the Naval Reactors examination. But these difficulties are relatively minor compared to the problem caused by too few SSNs and the current ops tempo.
From everything I read and hear, there are far more demands for SSNs than can be met. It seems that today’s submarines are seldom blessed with much, if any, time for independent steaming. When the boats go out they are doing something in an operational sense. There is simply too much demand for the boats to allow them the luxury of a few weeks a quarter in which they have dedicated time at sea to work on purely internal ship’s training like engineering and other ship’s drills. It is my thesis that today’s times at sea are better suited to the needs of navigators and weapons officers in the training and development of their departments than they are for the engineer because of the nature of the concurrent exercises, the ship’s tactical configuration and exercise constraints. Again the difficult job of the engineer is made more difficult because he has to train more people with less experience on a catch as catch can basis. In all likelihood he has to do this while also serving as one of the preferred forward watch officers as well. (Please note that I do not suggest that he be taken off the forward watch bill, it is probably what preserves his sanity and is probably the part of being a submariner that he loves the most.)
In view of all these things I suspect, as did Captain Clautice, that the submarine chain of command, Naval Reactors and BuPers continue to choose the most promising JO’s for assignment as engineer. In addition, beyond this selection, there has always been a sub-selection for those chosen to take on assignments on submarines that are in trouble or for key, post engineer jobs. One would expect that a significant percentage of these young men would be sufficiently successful to compete for assignment as XO or CO.
I don’t mean to infer that the job of the Navigator or the Weapons officer is without difficulty or that the officers in these billets aren’t deserving of a good shot at the command job. With all these things in mind though, especially the high degree of performance-based selectivity for the engineer job and the degree of difficulty inherent in the job, I wonder why there aren’t more engineers represented in the PCO ranks? I am sure that the statistics presented by CDR Bernacchi are representative and not an isolated example or he wouldn’t have said, “gone are the days … ” and provided statistics that show that proportionately fewer engineers are selected for command.
My bottom line. Can it be that the difficulty of the engineer’s job and the relative abundance of emphasis on even the most minor problems in the engineering department exposed by self disclosure and by an army of outsiders are inappropriately reflected in the fitness reports for these young officers and inappropriately influence the selection process to XO and CO? If so, what does this mean for the long term? Selection to XO and CO should be available to all officers and good performance should be recognized in all jobs but if the screening and selection process for engineers remains in place as it was years ago, and I believe it does, then I am very surprised to see less than one-third of officers selected for command level billets be engineers and I have to wonder why?