Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


In the July and October 2005 and July 2006 issues of The Submarine Review, Captain Bill Clautice, CDR Mike Bernacchi and CDR John Brons respectively agreed essentially that the fundamental cause of the grounding of SAN FRANCISCO was that “the rigid, methodical approach to nuclear engineering” has not been “applied to navigation” or simply put, ” … our nuclear plant operators are being properly trained, but not our navigators” (Bernacchi 124; Clauticel30). However, based on the material provided in this combined discussions alone, that appears to be too narrow a causation. The term navigators more properly should be expanded to encompass the entire field of operations (OPS) and probably even weapons (WPNS). That is, primary emphasis on developing qualified nuclear power plant operators has been and obviously continues to be at the expense of developing equivalent stringent qualifications in OPSIWPNS from the outset of submarine officer-training at SUBSCOL (Clautice 127).

Specifically, initial submarine officer training consists of one year (52 weeks) undergoing “rigid, methodical” [emphasis added] nuclear training followed by ten (10) weeks of “familiarization [emphasis added] training on target motion analysis, periscopes and navigation equipment” in the Submarine Officer Basic Course (SOBC) at the SUBSCOL (Bernacchi 124; Clautice 128). Then it is off to their first boat where “all new Submarine Officers are expected to pass the engineer officer exam in their first sea tour” (Brons139). This initial, primary assignment to the engineering department undoubtedly takes priority over becoming a fully qualified 0.0.D. underway, e.g., Rules of the Road, Piloting, Emergency Bills, initial Diving Officer, and becoming at least somewhat more than familiar with the use of on board Operations equipment, e.g., COMMS, NA V, Electronics, and Weapons systems. This hiatus from OPSIWPNS is further compounded by the fact that once an individual has become sufficiently trained to be useful in the operation of the on board nuclear propulsion plant, “the officer is sent away for several months to engineer’s school to be prepared for the Naval Reactors examination.” Only after passing that exam are they “sent forward” to commence serious training in OPS/WPS (Brons 139).

And yet, all three offer as a solution essentially more of the same basic policy that all “officers who command nuclear powered warships [are] expected to be nuclear trained” (Bernacchi 119). Additionally, CDR Bernacchi recommends a “nuclear trained approach to navigation procedures” (Bernacchi 124). Which is fine, except that as previously noted, the problem is not limited to navigation alone. And in any case, the benefits gained in overall navigation prowness in the force would be largely vitiated later by detailing these “nuclear trained” navigators to the Line Locker at Naval Rectors where “half the senior officers [are] filled by non-ENGs” instead of rotating them back as instructors or managers in OPSIWPNS training programs (Bernacchi 121 ). Captain Clautice suspects that although “our COs are much better trained in engineering than navigation …. the best path to nuclear submarine command is still through engineering assignments” (Clautice 130). However, he tempered this with the observation that assigning “top performing officers … as Engineer Officers … should be evaluated and if [continued], [should] be compensated for by even more emphasis on safe navigation training and practices” (Clautice 130). On the other hand, CDR Brons decries an apparent bias against Engineering Officers (31 percent) in a recent PCO class and suggested that “selection to XO and CO should be available to all officers … in all jobs” (Brons 141). Considering just three major departments, OPS/WPNS/ENG, that appears to be a fairly even split.

Significantly, however, his comments reveal the negative consequences of “rotating division officers into and within the [ENG] department” which results in a situation in which “today’s ENG does not have the benefit of long term, highly experienced division officers supporting him in the management of the department” (Brons 139). This inefficient management situation is compounded by the practice of having the ENG “serving as one of the preferred forward watch officers as well”, ostensibly to maintain and extend his experience in OPS (Brons 140). In which case, both engineering and operations get less than maximum support from such a single individual. For “no servant can serve two masters”; if he tries, dedication to both will suffer. There has to be a better way.

A clue to a better overall solution was offered by CDR Bemacchi’s observation that “our rigid, methodical approach to nuclear engineering can pay HUGE benefits IF [emphasis added] applied to navigation” (124). Although it has been introduced in several specific cases such as the SCC, the new PCO course and the SOAC course, it has not been fully implemented across the entire operations spectrum (Bernacchi 122-23). And for a valid reason, “there are only so many hours in the day” as noted by Captain Lotring (Clautice 129). That reality cannot be changed, but those hours can be divided into two separate tracks, ENG and OPS/WPNS. And therein lies the optimum solution to maximum engineering and operational readiness.

To achieve that goal within an unalterable fixed time and a variable number of new submarine officer accessions, it will be necessary to change the way we train submarine officers, both initially and progressively during their careers. First and foremost, establish a policy of training new accessions along two separate tracks: ENG or OPS/WPNS. Then revamp the Submarine Officer Basic Course (SOBC) accordingly.

All of the subjects and skills that are covered by the material in the Junior Officer Courses, including the use of virtual reality ship handling trainers (VESUB) and Submarine Piloting and Shiphandling Trainers (SPAN 2000) now required by all officers during their first year on board, could and should be instilled during their Submarine Officer Basic Course (SOBC) (Clautice 129). Similarly, many subjects and skills covered in the SOAC, e.g., ship handling and navigation (surfaced and submerged) for department heads could and should be instilled during the SOBC (Clautice 129; Bernacchi 123) . Then the Senior Command Course (SCC) and the PCO course could concentrate on the higher levels of knowledge demanded of COs in the C4ISR spectrum. Concurrent with this revision of the SOBC, elevate the training standards to those equivalent to the rigid standards imposed in the nuclear power training program.

Execution of this policy would have officers electing or selected to be Engineering Officers proceeding directly to nuclear power training facilities. Upon completion of that initial training, they would receive at the same facility a one to two week course on basic submarine operations surfaced and submerged, presented by an instructor from the SOBC (TAD). Then, off to their first boats where they would remain in engineering as a career path.

Officers electing or selected to specialize in OPS/WPNS would receive a similarly rigid training in those disciplines in the SOBC at SUBSCOL. Upon completion, they would receive at the SUBSCOL a one to two week indoctrination in the capabilities, limitations, and safety measures associated with nuclear power plants. Then, off to their boats where in very short order they should become qualified O.O.Ds and contributing members to the OPS/WPNS departments where they will remain as a career path.

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to this radical departure from the current policy that all submarine officers must be nuclear trained. But given the admitted shortcomings in current OPS training and performance, there can be no doubt but that specializing in OPS/WPNS by “nuclear [type) trained” officers can only result in “HUGE benefits” (Bernacchi 124). The ENG community would also benefit, primarily by the elimination of the current policy of rotating all officers through the engineering department resulting in the paucity of experienced division officers therein. And cost-wise is should be at least neutral: a reduction in the number of officers undergoing nuclear power training would be balanced by an increase in the number undergoing specialized training on sophisticated trainers (VESUB, SPAN 2000).

In brief, this two track method of training future submarine officers would result in our submarines being manned by an officer cadre possessing specialized skills in both engineering and operations. And thereby, best ready to carry out the raison d’etre of all warships: to close-superior mobility, ENG/OPS-and de-feat-superior combat readiness, OPS/WPNS-the enemy at sea.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League