In the April 2006 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, page 143-5, Rear Admiral Ray Jones reviews the book Silent Steel, The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Sub USS SCORPION. Jones avers the “book fails to reflect the strong safety culture of the entire Submarine Force … “Commenting on author Stephen John-son’s assertion that there was a “culture of audaciousness that permeated the Submarine Force,” Jones claims “in my 34-yearnaval career in submarines I never once experienced such a culture.”
Speaking from the experience of my own Submarine Force career, I would side with Johnson’s characterization rather than that of Jones. All too often, the established priorities were on schedule over safety. In fact, the culture within the sub force during the 1960-1980 time-frame was not unlike that within NASA that contributed directly to the loss of Challenger and Columbia (http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/caib report 030826.html
The report of the spacecraft accident comments that “resource and schedule strains … compromised the principles of a high-risk technology organization.” “The measure of NASA’s success became how much costs were reduced and how efficiently the schedule was met.” And in a further comment the report states that the “causes of (the shuttle) accident are rooted in the space shuttle program’s history and culture, including … schedule pressures.”
In my experience, these descriptions of the space program could just as easily apply to the Submarine Force during the period that includes the loss of SCORPION. In fact, I would invite interested readers to Jon Howe’s article Polaris Duty: Pinnacle or Predicament? in the August 1967 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. The article clearly details the concerns felt by many as a result of the culture established by the senior officers. It comments on the unnecessary requirements and restrictions and in some instances the absence of the element of common sense. The article concludes with the comment that “the Navy must strive to use the full potential of its people and to prevent newly developing programs from becoming unnecessary endurance contests of dedication.” It reminds me of a classmate who recently conveyed that his decision to leave the navy was finalized when, on receiving orders, he considered the comment of his daughter who reminded him that she had been a new student in a different school in six of the previous eight years.
The endurance contests of dedication resulted from the driving goal of meeting the schedule with little concern for the impact on personnel. Thus one could ask, were the Submarine Force personnel being managed primarily by operating schedule concerns, without appropriate consideration for the development of quality personnel?
As for the issue of material safety, when presented with a choice between quality and schedule, it was not uncommon for senior officers in SubLant to place schedule above quality in making operational decisions. For those readers who might object to that statement, here are two cases in point:
First example: In 1972, USS JACK was in refit with crew and tender personnel undertaking significant repairs. The Division Commander, acting for SubLant, shortened the refit period and directed the ship get underway for the Med ahead of the originally scheduled date. As Commanding Officer I objected to the demands that would be placed on the crew to meet such a schedule (needing to work nights and weekends to complete essential repairs, with the possibility that all necessary repairs could not be made) and requested more time to complete all maintenance. I was directed to get the ship underway on schedule.
Second example: I took command of USS HOLLAND in mid-overhaul at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. It was soon apparent that insufficient manpower and funding had been allocated to complete all the necessary repairs to the ship. The situation was presented to the Sub Lant Chief of Staff who had little sympathy for the situation. The Chief of Staff was asked specifically “Do you want the ship repaired properly, or do you want us to leave the shipyard on schedule?” His reply was “Leave the shipyard on schedule.”
These instances reflect insufficient appreciation for safety considerations and the potential hazardous impact on material condition, repair personnel and crew. In the above examples, an effort was not made to investigate or evaluate the recommendations of the Commanding Officer in order to weigh the detailed facts, thus to ensure safety was not compromised. They also support the comments of Mark A Bradley, published in the July 1998 Proceedings: Why They Called the SCORPION “Scrapiron.” In that article he reviews the history of SCORPION and notes that just over a year prior to her loss she completed the cheapest submarine overhaul in U.S. Naval history as a result of management decisions to limit work. He also comments that the most likely cause of SCORPION’s demise was the Navy’s failure to absorb the lessons learned from the THRESHER.”
Although the establishment of the SUBSAFE program made dramatic improvements in the material condition of our submarines, it remains essential that those responsible for the management of high-risk operations ensure a culture that places quality above schedule when critical decisions are made. The safety of life depends on it. Fortunately, for most of the time the Submarine Force was lucky.