Lieutenant Hong’s proposal to relegate the engineers to back aft and let the real sailors maneuver the ship is not new or without respectable precedents. The Royal Navy made that decision with the advent of steam propulsion and has followed that plan ever since. However in judging the merits of this division of labor the objections of the two great engineers who created the modern U.S. Navy deserve some attention. Both Isherwood in 1870 and Rickover in 1950 insisted that the operation of the ship required commanding officers to be in charge of every aspect of the ship’s operation. When this happens, the results over time are beneficial and can be seen in every facet of the ship’s operation and maintenance.
The general aversion among surface warfare officers to assignment as snipes has effects easily identified in the general degradation of the material condition of surface ships over time. At least twice in the last forty years, once in each generation, drastic measures had to be taken to restore the material condition of the surface warships and the competence of their officers to operate them. More recently, INSURV findings on AEGIS Weapons Systems generated a flag level panel (The Balisle Board) whose review of surface ship material conditions in general resulted in findings critical of maintenance, manning, training and management.
Among the findings of this panel, acceptance of degraded conditions and failure to pursue correction by officers in charge indicates the lack of substantive technical knowledge by individual officers. This situation is not the result of malfeasance or neglect but rather ignorance, the result of short duty tours, lack of education and delegation of responsibility for their material conditions outside of the chain of command.
The decision to require line officers to master the technology of ship’s propulsion-made over a hundred years ago-set the stage for a grasp of technical details in commanders. The proposal to relegate these details back to engineering duty specialists carries the second-order effect of removing technical competence from line officers just when the technologies of maritime warfare have become even more complex than those of ship’s propulsion. The knowledge demanded of submarine officers in the understanding of the physics of their propulsion plant also generated understanding of the physics of sound in the sea.
No commanding officer can know everything about how his ship runs but he can, if motivated, find out anything that any member of the wardroom or crew knows. But unless he has enough knowledge to determine that something might be wrong he is at the mercy of his subordinates. He cannot begin corrective measures or even set the tone for his department heads and chiefs quarters unless he has an appreciation of the nature of the equipment and the fundamentals of its operation. This knowledge and appreciation is not a product of the Prospective Commanding Officer course, it is the substance of several years as a division officer and then as department head and then attention to details throughout the ship as the executive officer. After this education, one arrives as commanding officer with a detailed understanding of how at least two divisions and one department work, as well as a general understanding of the rest.
Lieutenant Hong cites the essay of Admiral Stavridis and Captain Hagerott [see James Stavridis and Mark Hagerott, “The Heart of an Officer: Joint, Interagency, and International Operations and Navy Career Development,” in the Naval War College Review, Spring 2009 issue, pp. 27-41] in which they argue for a greater emphasis on general history, language and sociology at the expense of engineering and technology. Both officers, holding PhD’s in non-technical disciplines, consider their career paths as that most appropriate and useful. So it is-for them. But the thrust of their argument, based upon their own histories and experiences, is not congruent with the mission of the Navy. Officer selection, training, education, and experience are not, and should not be, intended to prepare officers to serve as joint combatant commanders. The Navy needs to produce only a handful of senior officers each year for these tasks. But several hundred officers are required as commanding officers of battle groups, amphibious ready groups, ships, aircraft squadrons, and the shore stations supporting them. To execute their responsibility, these officers need to know how their equipment works.
These commanding officers are those who execute the actual function of the Navy-to serve at sea or in direct support of those who do. The Navy’s job is at sea, there to perform effectively and efficiently over long periods. The individual components that perform the functions are highly technical in form and substance. While a grasp of history, political science, and sociology is useful and mastery of language is extremely beneficial, these are not areas that help officers to operate and maintain complex machinery. In their essay Admiral Stavridas and Captain Hagerott acknowledge that their suggestion should not apply to those involved in operating nuclear power plants, thereby acknowledging the vital nature of expertise as an inescapable element of the operation of the ship. However, conditions such as the Balisle Board has described in the surface warships point to the conclusion that technical competence and engineering management knowledge and skills are needed by all officers involved in operating and maintaining a complicated warship.
Previous episodes in which concerns with the machinery of the ships were relegated to the sidelines resulted in such a poor state of material conditions and upper-level supervision that Admiral Holloway, then Chief of Naval Operations, had to require special engineering training for all officers going to command at sea: the establishment of the Propulsion Plant Examining Boards and years of attention were needed to restore surface ships to reasonable standards of readiness.
Those mandates and corrective actions did not pertain to the Submarine Force. Understanding the nature of machinery, attention to detail and pursuit of corrective measures for degraded material conditions has been a hallmark of submarines-starting with commanding officers-since World War II. To relegate the major responsibility for a major segment of the ship to someone other than the commanding officer would be a step toward creating the conditions that the Balisle Board has identified in surface warships.
In dealing with the other side of this issue, can a good engineer be a sound tactician, a skillful ship handler and a respected leader? Evidence from the Cold War operations indicates that usually the better engineering managers are the better tacticians. Understanding the geometry of a bearings only solution, dealing with the settings for multi-sensor sonar systems, deciding the settings for a long range acoustic homing torpedo or maneuvering a submarine for a bottom survey of an uncooperative target are among the facets of submarine command not generated in philosophical discussion or found in a chapter of Mahan. Nor are they gained overnight or imparted by the laying on of hands. The skill sets for submarine officers are wide and diverse but the foundation lies in an appreciation that if the ship can’ t get underway she is a liability, not an asset.