Captain Patton is a retired submarine officer who is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
A mentor of mine once advised “to plan in pencil, but schedule in ink”-always have a plan, but remember that however good a plan might be, if it’s not flexible, it’s not a good plan. This is especially true in matters of warfare where, as von Molke the Elder noted, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”. The great value of having made a plan, however, is in the planning process itself, where as many variables as possible are identified and accounted for, and where operational assumptions are generated-a process which well prepares the planner rapidly to generate alternative courses of action when those variables change or the assumptions are proven false. We have all seen the situation in a basketball game, for instance, where the coach of a team that is one point behind, but with the ball and twenty seconds to play, takes a time out to orchestrate a very specific and complex plan that will both run out the clock and get a basket. However, it is implicit that if any of his five players sees a mistake by the opponents which creates an opening, he’s to immediately take the shot-maybe even a three-pointer.
Submarine warfare, and the independent operations it generally entails, provides an almost perfect environment for implementing the ad hoc changing of a properly derived plan because of changes in the tactical scenario. First, the submarine typically doesn’t have escorts, station-keeping ships in a battle group, wingmen or others in a multi-airframe strike to worry about closely coordinating with, and second, unlike the time constant of air-to-air warfare which might be in the order of several hundred milliseconds, the time constant of submarine warfare is fifteen minutes or so-long enough to wake the CO and get him a cup of coffee. Most mistakes on a submarine are caused by doing the wrong thing too quickly rather than the right thing too late. It’s because of this that those with absolutely no eye-hand coordination can still be great submariners as long as their mind-mouth coordination isn’t impaired.
Post-command jobs for submariners can be a real downer. In fact, the post-command menopause you hear referred to can almost be considered a special form of PTSD-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As post-command jobs go, the author’s was better than most-Director of Tactical Training at Submarine School-where, given a couple of good LCDRs to handle all the paperwork and administrative stuff, one could spend virtually all his time in the Attack Centers (A/Cs)-now having a hundred or so wardrooms to train instead of only one.
One of the first things that became apparent was how insignificant it was if an electronic torpedo actually hit an electronic target, and how inappropriate it was to judge the goodness of a team’s session by how precisely the target’s course, speed and range was determined as opposed to them recognizing when those were all known good enough to let the weapon solve the rest of the problem. It was also negative training to allow teams to practice their art against targets that never attempted to evade weapons and/or shoot back.
There are several ways to conduct bad A IC (or any other) training. One is to make the problem too easy-another is to make it too hard. The trick was to keep the team right at the extreme edge of their proficiency, where most is going right, but some mistakes are being made (the impact of mistakes made then pointed out having a much longer mental half-life than things done properly the first time). The metric for relative goodness of that team then became how hard instructors had to work to get the team to make these mistakes. It was still stressed that each run should start with a thoughtful plan on how it was intended to execute the assigned mission, but the insightful teams realized that, if they did well, there would be several events which would require a change to those plans on the fly, and that they must be ready to take the shot if the opportunity suddenly presented itself. It was certainly made clear that teams should arrive at the A/Cs knowing the current doctrine, but it was also understood they should be quick to recognize when following doctrine wasn’t appropriate and be prepared to explain why. In fact, signs hung in the A/Cs that stated:
“Doctrine is Guidance to be Followed in the Absence of Other Intelligence (including human)”
(i.e. nothing written in the Naval Warfare Pubs (NWPs) gives permission to do something stupid).
If the scenarios supporting the above concepts, rather than being canned, are highly dynamic in the sense that they are being manipulated by the instructors in real time as the situation and performance of the team warrant, then it follows that any evaluation of the team’s proficiency will be largely subjective rather than objective in nature. This should not be surprising, since the consummation of a submarine torpedo attack is a largely technique-associated skill, unlike shooting a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) which is largely a procedure-oriented skill. Procedure-oriented skills can be evaluated objectively-technique-associated skills cannot. In fact, any demand that torpedo-shooting evaluations be made more objective would drive the process back towards the previously identified as unsatisfactory situation where proficiency was measured by how accurately course, speed and range were determined. It also follows that if evaluations are to be largely subjective, than it is much more than just firm for a post-CO individual to be the chief instigator and evaluator-it is actually essential that it be so.
At the time in question when the author was having all this fun, digital fire control systems were being brought on line at Sub School, and a capability was achieved to tie a couple of A/ Cs together, so that they would be fighting one another rather than the instructors. The first time this was tried, it involved a hot-running and highly decorated Los Angeles class SSN against a Mark one, Mod zero off-crew SSBN-without either being aware of the arrangement. The results were breathtaking-not only did the SSBN shoot first in spite of detecting second, but it shot more often and more accurately. After two hours of the SSN being jerked around and made to be continually on the defensive and the SSBN’s weapons having to be repeatedly failed to keep the problem running, the session was stopped and the SSN CO was furious about what a terribly unrealistic scenario to which his team had been subjected-at which point the SSBN team from the other A/C was brought in and he was introduced to his real adversary.
This mismatch between the tactical skills of SSNs versus SSBNs proved not to be an isolated event, and the root cause was attributed to the fact that the typical off-crew SSBN was getting dozens of hours of shoot-em-up NC training each patrol cycle while the typical SSN was getting only a few hours a year, during which it was more likely to be practicing its peacetime mission of caution, remaining undetected and refining tactical pictures far beyond that required to attack. It led to the CO of SubSchool and the author visiting COMSUBLANT (a former shipmate of both) to describe the problem and propose a solution- then called PORT and STBD-Periodic Operational Refresher Training and Submarine Training Between Deployments, to provide SSNs a better opportunity to practice wartime skills without any distractions from pre-deployment training or upkeeps. It worked and was well received by the boats-wartime missions being much more fun to practice than peacetime ones.
Perhaps the most credible explanation for the superb reputation of the United States Submarine Force as a premier combat force is their continuing emphasis on operating in peacetime as (and whenever possible where) they would operate in war. An essential element of this philosophy is a thorough and challenging training regimen while in port, utilizing the best and most professionally operated simulators/simulator devices available, properly evaluated, and an emphasis to always “have a plan, but take the shot”. Nowhere is it better demonstrated that this philosophy is alive and well than in the fact that an SSGN crew can be relieved by its Blue or Gold counterpart essentially in the middle of very complex forward operations, with the new crew seamlessly picking up where the prior one left off, having planned and trained accordingly while in an extended off-crew status.