Dear Rear Admiral Haney,
You asked me to consider what we might do to improve ourselves as the Submarine Force. While many might discredit me for my relative inexperience and citation of anecdotal evidence, I am extremely grateful to have this opportunity to voice my thoughts on what the Submarine Force ought to do to remain the credible, self-sufficient, covert, and low-vulnerability force that provides our leaders flexibility in their wielding of the military as an instrument of national power. You clearly value the ideas of all, even those markedly junior to you; otherwise, you would not have solicited my personal thoughts. Your leadership is representative of our finest.
My approach here will be to derive strategic imperatives for the Submarine Force by considering our comparative advantages as a credible, self-sufficient, covert, and low-vulnerability force. By determining the root causes for attitudinal trends that prevent maximization of our comparative advantages, we can then develop associated corrective actions that are, in my opinion, the strategic imperatives for shaping our force.
The mission of the Submarine Force makes quite clear what comparative advantages we bring to bear on national security challenges:
Simply stated, the Submarine Force is singularly unique because of its ability to be stealthy and self-sufficient. This self- sufficiency comes not only from the flexibility in operations provided by nuclear power, but also from the cadre of highly- qualified and well-trained volunteers who man our submarines. This group of self-selected volunteers is extremely self-motivated and capable of accomplishing tasks that might otherwise be elusive to individuals of lesser talent.
For the Submarine Force to maintain its lofty position as the provider of premier undersea assets anywhere in the world while keeping untarnished the track record of over fifty years of safe nuclear operations, we must maximize our comparative advantages. We can do so through a commitment to training our volunteers to their strengths; we should fit each Submariner’s acuities to need. We can enhance these strengths by tracking closely the time that our volunteers must spend to complete their jobs; we should focus each Submariner’s time on their strengths and not on unrelated or unnecessary requirements. We can channel this increased focus by optimizing the self-sufficiency of the individuals who comprise the Submarine Force; we should improve each Submariner’s understanding of how his or her individual talents fit into the larger contexts of their units. We are, after all, a “Global Force for Good,” because it is the sense of service and duty that draws our volunteers.
Root Cause Analysis
During my short tenure as a submariner, numerous submarine commanding officers have been relieved of duty for loss of confidence each year. Additionally, it seems that we as a force suffer from an at-least-annual public reprimanding of divisions of nuclear-trained personnel for falsifying logs. While one cannot say for certain that there is an increasing trend in these occurrences, it seems we also cannot disprove the opposite. That is to say, it is difficult to assess whether there is a decreasing trend in these occurrences.
These occurrences reinforce some of the disturbing attitudes that limit how the comparative advantages of the Submarine Force are fully realized. Nearly everyone, including myself, is guilty of continuing these very attitudes, which also makes apparent to me the need for significant leadership in bringing change to our force. Attitudes beget attitudes, and maximizing our comparative advantages may require a shock to our ways of doing business, although my intuition tells me that cultural shock may not be necessary because the Guiding Principles of the Submarine Force already align with what we must do.
These disturbing attitudes will be the pitfalls of the Submarine Force. Though good leaders may be able to negate or ignore the influence of these occurrences on their leadership styles, we as a force cannot ignore what incentives these trends are creating. Namely, the Submarine Force continues to drive further and further to micromanagement that permeates all levels of leadership from the division officer level where I served to captaincies and beyond. We are replacing trust with procedures, and we are becoming increasingly risk averse to avoid the possibilities of mistake. We are reducing the authorities of subordinates to make independent decisions, and we are raising the burden of responsibility for each successive level of leadership. I could cite individual examples to highlight these further, but I contend there are few people who are untouched by these attitudinal trends, and therefore I do not need to do so. These trends are disturbing because they present a direct affront to those comparative advantages that make us a great Submarine Force.
Add on top of these attitudinal trends the myriad competencies for which each member of the Wardroom is held responsible. Every submarine officer must be a nuclear engineer and a tactician. He must be a maintenance supervisor in port or in drydock while also being a watch officer out at sea. He is a scope operator and contact coordinator, Officer of the Deck and Engineering Officer of the Watch, all while training to become a department head, executive officer, and commanding officer. And regardless of position, he is expected to give training, monitor training, verify the adequacy of training for engineering and tactics both while monitoring engineering evolution and weapons loads. Calculating the amount of time that any one officer can dedicate to any one task is simple: hours in a day are constant while the number of tasks goes up. Therefore time per task goes down.
Our Submarine Force has an amazing record of over fifty years of safe nuclear operations. If we are to keep this record untarnished, we need to take a hard look at what we expect of our officers. The truth of the matter is that in this globalizing world of irregular and hybrid warfare threats, the Submarine Force must continue to adapt and adopt larger mission sets. Using the simple math above as the number of tasks continue to rise, the amount of time each submarine officer has to be good at each task and complete each task well is going down rapidly. We risk becoming decent at everything while being great at nothing because the number of responsibilities each officer has continues to rise. And each Submariner knows that nuclear safety is not satisfied by decent officers; nuclear safety is only ensured with great officers.
As the amount of time per task goes down, it is not unreasonable to conclude that more mistakes will likely be made. As a response, submarine crews increase the level of backup to the point where now, as an example, the training petty officer writes the training exam, which gets reviewed by the division officer, the department head, the executive officer, and the commanding officer. As the time per person continues to go down for reasons explained earlier, the solution to involve more people makes sense; collectively, the process merely splits the time one individual would have spent reviewing amongst several people .But while this may work in theory, in practice it reinforces an already difficult trend of reduced time to get the job done. One of two things can happen in this scenario: either each individual spends more time reviewing the material than he can afford or does a limited review that adds little value to the process. If each possibility is driven to its asymptotic limit, then it means that either too much time is spent in the aggregate reviewing the material or there is an inadequate review that has gone to the commanding officer for signature. Neither case is optimal: either time is wasted or the commanding officer carries the burden of this petty officer’s test review.
The Submarine Force has reached a tipping point. Too many tasks, not enough time. So what is happening now? We increase the amount of time in the day by reducing the amount of sleep individuals get. Captains, executive officers, engineer officers, navigators, everyone gets constantly woken up time and time again because the overall period in which these myriad tasks must be accomplished cannot change. We are increasing the likelihood of mistakes, and therefore increasing the amount of backup that we need. More requirements, less time- the cycle continues, and its momentum is unstoppable. It will only be a shock to the way we do business that we will break this cycle and return to maximizing our comparative advantages.
Corrective Actions as Strategic Imperatives for the Submarine Force
Fundamentally, the root cause of our troubles is that each individual officer has too much to do with not enough time in the day. Since we cannot change the amount of time in the day, we need to change the number of tasks. Given my earlier discussion, these recommendations need to align with the Submarine Force’s guiding principles and must continue to maximize our comparative advantages.
1. Split the engineering and tactical officer career tracks.
What better way to reduce the number of tasks on each officer’s plate than to split it in half by reducing the scope of his or her responsibilities? In general terms, we ought to create a track for those officers who want to focus on engineering, and separate the officers who want to be tacticians. Perhaps grossly oversimplified, the two tracks of officers, engineering duty (EDO) and warfare duty (WOO) track, should be divided as follows:
We should train our officer volunteers to their talents, whether technical or tactical. With this division of career tracks, we could develop leadership within these respective areas and build the cultures within each track that reinforces success. For instance, we want our engineers to be focused on safety, an inherently risk- averse orientation; conversely, we want our tacticians to be innovative and adaptive to new threats and challenges, which requires a more risk-loving orientation. Splitting these two tracks allows the Submarine Force to attract officers of varying technical and psychological predispositions and to Jet them flourish in their respective areas of talent.
As far as career progression is concerned, splitting these two tracks allows us to free ourselves of the various Wardroom CO/ XO/ Engineer interlocks that make personnel distribution that much more difficult. Engineering duty track personnel can follow a vital career path that includes Fleet maintenance as a core competency, which then allows them to serve as commanding officers of submarines in availability, drydocks, and shipyards and, when they reach flag rank, directors and commanders of acquisition- and engineering-related functions. Similarly, the warfare duty track personnel follow career paths for operational duty, building the skills they need to be operational commanding officers, task force commanders, and ultimately combatant commanders.
This recommendation obviously needs much more analytical review and analysis, but this idea certainly gets validation by the division of submarine officers into different career tracks by our allies in Great Britain and Australia. Along similar lines, Admiral James Stavridis, the current Commander of United States European Command, argues that “[a] reevaluation of the officer assignment, education, and promotion system- from midshipman to admiral- is in order” to deal with the “task saturation apparent in our officer career tracks today.” 1 Implemented correctly, this allows the Submarine Force to maximize our comparative advantages by training our officer volunteers to their strengths.
2. Focus where the Submarine Force requires its officers to spend time and energy.
Now with officers on designated career tracks in their respective areas of specialty, the Submarine Force should focus on two general efforts that will free up the limited time of their officers. This may help us as a force reduce the sleep deprivation or repetitive tasks and reviews that are the result of sub-optimized time usage:
- Standardization of common tasks across the Submarine Force Every submariner performs common tasks, like the development of training plans and examinations, and no individual should have to create any product for a common task from scratch. Common templates and computer programs can certainly help to standardize these common tasks across the Submarine Force; some al- ready exist and could easily be distributed. Where larger gains may potentially be made in standardization is in a thorough, open, and non-attribution review of standards of inspection on these common tasks and an assessment of the behaviors that are subsequently incentivized. For example, when an inspector from an Operational Reactor Safeguards Examination reviews a training program, do the inspection criteria review the administration (i.e., the formatting of the reports, the tabulation of test results, etc.) or incentivize the desired outcome of better day-to- day training? While I do not purport an answer here, I recommend that the Submarine Force conduct an open, non-attribution review of these standards to get the most accurate answers.
- Reductions in requirements or investments m assistive technologies for those requirements Every submariner spends time satisfying key requirements that are absolutely essential to our performance as a Submarine Force. There are certain requirements, however, that may be remnants of old standards or echoes of outdated procedures. Again, we ought to have a thorough, open, and non-attribution review of the various engineering and tactical requirements that we self- impose and consider whether those requirements con- tribute to the short- and long-term successes of the ship. For example, we might look at the mental gymnasium requirements that we place on our officers. I would personally argue that the calculations of safety sweeps and distance from track are absolutely essential to sub- marine operations, but I would also pose the question whether the officer on the scope needs to calculate this in his or her head. I do not offer an answer, but I think the Submarine Force would benefit from asking this question across the spectrum of engineering and tactical requirements. If something is required, then the force should ask whether we are investing in assistive technologies so that we minimize the amount of time our officers spend on these requirements so they can focus instead on their respective areas of engineering or tactical growth?
By striving to minimize the limited time of our officers on those tasks spent outside their areas of expertise, we are maximizing our comparative advantages by allowing our volunteers to utilize their limited time most heavily for the development of their areas of talent.
3. Enhance teamwork and identify weak leadership early through holistic evaluations.
The Submarine Force, with specialized engineering and war- fare duty officers whose time is focused less and less on requirements deemed unnecessary, should promote teamwork and identify weak leadership early through a holistic evaluation process. Commonly known as 360-degree evaluations, all of our Sailors, officers and enlisted both, should be evaluated by their seniors, subordinates, and peers. Part of the Submariner’s psyche derives from the Submarine Force’s sense of self-sufficiency, and holistic evaluations will validate whether he or she is optimizing his or her self-sufficiency. That is to say, peer reviews might reveal that he or she is not contributing to watch standing or maintenance without needing significant assistance, or a subordinate review might reveal that a leader is micromanaging or entrusting. Senior reviews already do what they should, which is to reward strong performers and to identify performers who need improvement. I do not wish to diminish the importance of senior reviews, as I still believe these evaluations should be the primary data used for selection boards; I want to enhance these senior reviews by informing that senior review process with subordinate and peer reviews. This will help the Submarine Force identify poor leadership early and to ensure that the Sailors in whom we invest so much time and money have an opportunity to adapt their leadership styles early. This will also help each individual within the Submarine Force hone his or her sense of self-identity through holistic reviews, which helps us to continue maximizing our comparative advantages.
A Legacy of Service and Talent
The Submarine Force is well respected, because we have a legacy of self-sufficient, covert, and low-vulnerability operations that collectively make the Silent Service. That legacy is supported by a cadre of extremely capable and talented volunteers who are the bedrock of our stealth and self-sufficiency. We as a force must do whatever we can to maximize the comparative advantages that will continue our legacy, and I believe that our guiding principles allows us to alter how we do business so those comparative advantages continue to work in our favor.
I appreciate the opportunity to voice my thoughts in this forum, and I will gladly be a part of any initiative or pilot on which the Submarine Force may endeavor to reinforce our legacy and those comparative advantages that have built and will continue to keep alive that legacy. From Haney to Haney, I send heartfelt gratitude for the opportunity to serve in the world’s finest Navy and Submarine Force.
Haney D. Hong
Lieutenant, United States Navy