Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Lt. Hilger is a recent graduate of the Navy PostGraduate School and is enroute to his Department Head tour
via SOAC.

In the span of eight short years, a little-known Navy Engineering Duty Officer would revolutionize submarine warfare, reshape a corner of the American military-industrial complex, and begin a fundamental transformation of the Submarine Force officer corps. Captain Hyman Rickover did not set out to build a veritable nuclear empire. He sought only to harness the atom in order to build a better weapon to help win the Cold War.1 But his clear vision of the future, grasp of technology, and dedication to people, despite his prickly nature, created a lasting legacy that expands beyond the hulls of the Submarine Force. The broader Navy, American industry, and the post-Navy employers of nuclear-trained officers have all felt the effects of his efforts. Rear Admiral Dave Oliver’s recent book, Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy, offers an opportunity to assess Admiral Rickover’s legacy in the modern Submarine Force from the perspective of an officer who had not yet been born when the Admiral retired in 1982.2 Now into the fourth decade from his retirement, Naval Reactors and the Submarine Force share many similarities with the Admiral Rickover’s founding principles: a driving emphasis on education and training to develop quality people, a strong commitment to operational excellence and reactor safety, and an organizational efficiency that continues to seep into other areas.

Quality is Key

The Submarine Force still attracts the best and brightest within the Navy and strives to ensure all officers maintain the highest standards. Admiral Rickover, once the NAUTILUS project proved that nuclear powered submarines were viable, changed the metrics by which he had hired civilian engineers in order to recruit the right kind of military officers. Instead of seeking officers with extensive engineering experience and intellectual talent, like NAUTILUS’ first Commanding Officer, then Captain Eugene Wilkinson, Admiral Rickover sought natural leaders to whom he could teach engineering.3 This action allowed him to balance the need for exceptional engineering of the submarine with the leadership required to take the submarine potentially into combat.

The officers he interviewed and brought into the program possessed a combination of intellectual and leadership capabilities that would prove quite effective in the world’s oceans as the United States took the Cold War to the Soviet Union. Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew’s Blind Man’s Bluff relates the competitiveness found in the wardrooms of American submarines, implicitly highlighting the strength of Rickover’s decision. Only a handful of officers interviewed by Admiral Rickover remain on active duty today. The interview process has changed somewhat from the initial interviews, but only insomuch as Naval Reactors has gained the ability to more effectively screen and train potential officers in nuclear power and leadership. Rickover berated Captain Dunford, one of his top officers at Naval Reactors, about the goal of his interview process: “And you people are supposed to have checked out their practical technical smarts. So what I’m trying to find out is how they will behave under pressure. Will they lie, or bluff, or panic, or wilt? Or will they continue to function with some modicum of competence and integrity? I can’t find that out with routine questions. I’ve only got a few minutes with each one, half an hour at most. I’ve got to shake ’em up. That’s the only way I’ll know.”4 Time, distance, and shielding from the initial volatility of the nuclear power program in the 1950s has allowed the accession and training process to become more formalized and standardized.
Officers still interview with the technical staff and the Director of Naval Reactors. However, the interview with the Director is no longer the storied affair that it was under Admiral Rickover, as the above quote alludes to. Those stories are now committed to the lore of the Submarine Force and some of its artifacts, such as the wooden chair with a few inches of the front legs sawed off, enshrined for successive generations.

The training pipeline, likewise, has become more formalized but is still in keeping with Admiral Rickover’s principle of providing the highest quality education possible. The Naval Postgraduate School now accredits Naval Nuclear Power School for 28.5 graduate credits. The two schools, Naval Nuclear Power School and the Nuclear Power Training Units, or prototypes, still cover the basic tenets that Admiral Rickover established so long ago: conservative engineering practices firmly grounded in theory. This theme carries into the operational boats through the continuing training program.

Operational Excellence

Admiral Rickover’s zealousness for operational and maintenance procedures and the commitment to procedural compliance as a means of ensuring reactor safety and proper operation reshaped American industry and brought a new paradigm of thinking into the Submarine Force. The concept of creeping nukism can be interpreted as either derogatory or as having a positive impact depending on the context. In this author’s experience, junior officers tend to see it as the punch line of a joke, but with some perspective, the management principles that the nuclear power program instills into its officers have served the Submarine Force, and American industry, very well. Officers are thoroughly conditioned to follow procedures, think through actions before taking them, and keep the bigger picture in mind, both in terms of reactor safety and operational capability. These qualities make nuclear-trained officers some of the most sought after candidates in the civilian job market.

The Submarine Force trains incessantly. With every officer onboard nuclear-trained, the above-mentioned traits and engineering practices have crept into the tactical picture. Officers now train for and expect the same procedural compliance and understanding of procedures from non-nuclear divisions and in tactical operations. Our procedures are written with the expectation of being followed verbatim. If they cannot be carried out, the officers will seek clarification, or if it is not available or practicable, are sufficiently trained to take the necessary, likely conservative, actions to keep the boat safe. After the fact they will pursue clarification and propose changes as necessary to the procedures. While the theoretical underpinnings of the non-nuclear aspects of submarining have yet to reach the graduate level, as Nuclear Power School does, most officers do bring the some of the same intellectual rigor to those areas.

Organizational Effectiveness

Naval Reactors has evolved significantly from the Naval Group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1946, but many of the founding principles remain unchanged. Most junior officers see Naval Reactors, somewhat jokingly, as a monolithic organization bent on conditioning them into something else. This author has slowly gleaned insights from superiors that the organization has, in fact, changed little. It is still very dedicated to providing direct support to the Submarine Force, through both the Naval Reactors Representative Offices (NRRO) and through an exceptionally flat hierarchical structure. The NRRO representatives, in this author’s experience, have proven very helpful and capable. Sure, they do come onboard to inspect the engine room for deficiencies, all of which must be acted on by the Commanding Officer and Engineer within twenty four hours, but once engaged, they are more than willing to provide insights into area best practices, how they inspect, and much more. Interacting with these representatives can yield a valuable educational experience for any junior officer. Maintenance and repair issues tend to dominate a junior officer’s exposure to Naval Reactors and, thus, Admiral Rickover’s legacy. For non-nuclear matters, the boat must work through its parent squadron to obtain the assistance needed for urgent repairs.
These efforts can take precious time if the squadron must work with other organizations to find an answer and report back. Naval Reactors provides a direct line to their corporate knowledge base. Another historical example shows that the desire to provide all necessary assistance to the Submarine Force. A boat in the Barents Sea reported a problem, the staff at Naval Reactors developed the response, and presented it to Admiral Rickover for approval.

“The admiral stood in the hall reading without comment and then invited me inside. He went over to the rolltop desk that was just off the living room, reached into one of the pukas, and took out a half-inch-thick package of yellowed envelopes encased by a rubber band. He fanned through the pile, slipped one out from the pack and handed it to me. “Tell them this,” he said.”6 The short, four-word answer was Admiral Rickover’s way of giving the boat expanded operating margins in the case of a particular casualty. Bill Wegner, Admiral Rickover’s deputy for submarines, recalls that the envelopes were given to Commander Anderson, Commanding Officer of the NAUTILUS, prior to his mission to the North Pole. Admiral Rickover did not approve of the mission but could not stop it since President Eisenhower was behind it. The envelopes had been sitting in that puka as emergency contingency plans since 1958.7 Today, all boats enjoy a direct line to Naval Reactors should they need it. Direct messages will be acted on promptly, bringing to bear all the technical knowledge of Naval Reactors to the problem. Removing the layers of bureaucracy and streamlining the solution path allowed the Submarine Force to more aggressively pursue repairs and actions to maximize operational availability and effectiveness.

It has been nearly three decades since Admiral Rickover laid his oar to rest. However, the organization he developed fundamentally transformed the Submarine Force and American industry for the better. His irascible demeanor may not be missed, but the deft hand with which he managed the evolution to nuclear powered warships and the persistent drumbeat to effectively educate and train officers has left an indelible mark on the Navy. Today’s officers would do well to reconsider this aspect of the Submarine Force’s history and how it has shaped our organizational culture.

His legacy deserves to be perpetuated and enhanced wherever possible. The Force can only get better from it.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League