Editor’s Note: Admiral Oliver is the author of the re- cently published Against the Tide, subtitled Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy.
Often senior military personnel speak about respect for authority as if it were one of the essential building blocks of an organization. But is that necessarily true? Certainly Admiral H. G. Rickover didn’t think so. In fact, authority was one of his red headed step-children. The Admiral’s words were as unambiguous last century when he was initially building our nuclear Submarine Force as they are today: “Free discussion requires an atmosphere unembarrassed by any suggestion of authority….”
How in the world could that ever work? Why did Rickover feel so strongly? How is it possible to even have such a conversation in a military organization?
I will give you some examples of past discussions with authority. One involves technical authority, one operational authority and the last has to do with cultural authority. As always, as there is in life, there were consequences for participants.
As you undoubtedly realize, Admiral Rickover’s office had control over only a very small portion of each nuclear submarine. Ninety percent of the responsibility of the ship actually was the responsibility of and reported to the traditional Navy system. That meant that the technical decisions and support for nearly all of each submarine was the responsibility of organizations that in the early days proved slow to adapt to the extraordinary new challenges and dangers the new high speeds and deep depths presented. Sometimes mistakes were made.
A very public and tragic one occurred in April 1963 when USS THRESHER (SSN 593) was lost with all hands off the coast of Maine. For those who have forgotten, most believe the cause was the failure of a sil-brazed weld that separated, permitting sea water from two parting sections of pipe to inundate an electrical panel, causing a reactor scram and loss of power. THRESHER began gaining weight from the ingress of seawater. When the crew experienced a subsequent failure of the high-pressure ballast blow system (freezing of the in-line filters preventing air from expelling the water), the boat sank and perished.
While the official investigation refused to affix specific blame on any individual(s), it nevertheless identified multiple serious problems in nuclear submarine construction at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which was “using the specifications as goals rather than requirements in certain cases.”
Even more telling to those of us who were having our own problems making good sil-braze welds, Portsmouth had received direction from BuShips (Ed. Note: Now Naval Sea Systems Command, NAVSEA) the previous year that as soon as THRESHER returned to the shipyard after her shakedown cruise, the shipyard was “to employ a minimum of one ultrasonic test team throughout the entire assigned post shakedown availability to examine, insofar as possible the maximum number of sil-braze joints.”
Portsmouth disregarded this direction from Washington. In fact, when inspecting the sil-braze joints aboard THRESHER became difficult partway through the process; the shipyard simply stopped testing. 4 So no inspections happened during the final four long months before the fatal dive!
According to the investigation after the tragedy, the THRESHER Commanding Officer received a copy of the Shipyard’s ill-fated decision not to follow instructions.
Until Rickover got the nuclear culture firmly established, submarine Commanding Officers frequently needed to rise up and refuse to accept decisions being forced upon them by the technical authorities working on their ships. Each time he did so the Commanding Officer was made to feel threatened or vulnerable. He was personally aligned against a group of more senior officers who had more technical training and experience; it was pointed out that he was delaying the ship’s schedule; it was he who was holding up the Shipyard, Tender or Maintenance Activity; he who was costing the Navy hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in delays.
But no matter how difficult or uncomfortable the process, not accepting incorrect technical authority was never wrong. It was not poor manners, unmilitary or a waste of scarce resources. On the contrary, it was a matter of life and death for the hundred men that would later go deep under the water for their country. Many stalwart submariners saved thousands of lives. Being right about a technical issue is still never wrong today.
Of course authority can be deadly about more than just technical issues. Once a submarine is built, its entire purpose revolves around operations at sea. In the Submarine Force, this means that the same egos and personalities are involved, but frequently without the Naval Reactors’ office serving as a brake or safety valve.
For a vignette let me shift from the coast of Maine to the other major ocean which laps on our shores. It is nearly twenty years after the tragic loss of THRESHER (that is, like today, everyone in the Submarine Force thought they have learned everything about safe submarine operations) and ASW aircraft have faint contact on a Soviet ballistic missile submarine steaming somewhere between the West Coast and Hawaii. The President himself wants that ship tracked all the way back to Russia. The seas are building and the ASW aircraft are uncertain how long they could maintain contact.
It is late Friday afternoon. While there are sixty submarines in the Pacific, only one ship can be loaded for a three-month mission and get to the mission area in time. That crew does not need to be trained as the submarine has recently returned from a similar year- long mission—a ready made answer to a real-world need. The powers that be need USS PLUNGER away from its San Diego pier licking-split and into the hunt.
But PLUNGER has several material deficiencies which cannot be repaired at sea. The Commanding Officer had previously informed his boss (the Squadron Commander) his submarine needed one specific deficiency corrected (that would take about forty hours of work) before they could get underway.
The White House pressure, perceived or real, has a significant effect on the chain of command. In San Diego, the Squadron Commander informs the Commanding Officer that the former does not consider the PLUNGER material deficiency to be key and orders the latter to immediately take the ship to sea.
After considering the options for a couple of hours, the PLUNGER Commanding Officer informed the Squadron Commander that the latter would have to find a different commander if his boss wanted PLUNGER underway before the material deficiency was corrected.
Two days later, PLUNGER nosed out of the fog near buoy SD-1 and turns her black bow west. The same Commanding Officer will stand in the White House Situation Room seven months hence and brief the results of the successful mission. He and his former Squadron Commander never do become close friends, but both serve as Flag Officers.
This brings us to a final example on challenging authority, again a sad one in which people die. While Rickover was working to introduce a culture change in technical standards, it was up to the operational side of the Submarine Force to fret over whether or not any of the safety practices we had imported from diesel submarines were dangerous for nuclear submarines.
I am sure there were several. I recognized one when it nearly killed me. As you may know, diesel boats like TRUMPETFISH (SS 425), my first ship, had multiple internal compartments (any one of which might be completely flooded and still permit the submarine to survive); operated in relatively shallow water (where it might be possible to salvage a damaged submarine); transited in busy shipping lanes and went up and down in the acoustically- difficult near-surface zone many times each day. Consequently, the diesel force had adopted several standard practices to improve their survivability in this difficult environment. One was to “Set Condition Baker” before coming to periscope depth. When this word was passed on the 1MC, every qualified submariner was trained to immediately shut each watertight door and ventilation flapper fore and aft in his compartment, quickly establishing the maximum watertight control. This practice followed the diesel submariners into the new nuclear fleet. Everyone observed this safety procedure. As we will discuss, USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571) was commissioned in 1955; fourteen years later she was still setting Condition Baker when I reported aboard for duty as Engineer Officer.
Unfortunately, we did not realize that for a nuclear submarine, Condition Baker increased the risk of dying. In diesel submarines, the battery was the lifeblood of the ship. Everyone aboard recognized that fact and was trained on battery care. A battery charge might turn deadly now and then (in port at night when the caretaker watch was inattentive or careless). Certainly there was more than sufficient power in a battery to destroy a submarine, for seven submarines (E-2, O-5, K-4, S-49, USS COCHINO (SS-365), USS BASS (SS-464) and USS POMONDON (SS-486) had demonstrated that by blowing themselves to Kingdom Come. 6 At about eight percent hydrogen, the mix with oxygen was explosively unstable!
Given the inherent danger of the battery (the enormous out- gassing of pure hydrogen produced during the latter part of the charge), I have always attributed the relatively small number of battery incidents to the direct relationship of the diesel engines and the battery. To do a charge aboard a diesel boat required the diesel engines to be operating. Those engines sucked so much cleansing air through the battery well that any hydrogen ions generated were swept harmlessly away to be burned in the engine cylinders. The air flow through the battery wells was not the minor breeze pumped by air fans like it is aboard nuclear ships. The draft from the engines was so strong aboard TRUMPETFISH that personnel in the engine rooms during battery charges searched for foul weather jackets.
If the engines stopped, the cleansing air flow stopped, so did the charge to the battery, and given the differences in electricity and thermodynamics, the electrons stopped going in the battery before the air ceased moving by the tops of the cells. A pretty good symbiotic relationship. Because the battery was used so often, a charge was required sometimes twice a day, at a minimum three times a week. You could truly say it was second nature to the crew.
On a nuclear submarine at the time the battery was only used in an emergency and for drills. Often a battery charge was performed only once a month. In a nuclear submarine at sea there was only an artificial relationship between what drove the electrical ions into the battery (one of the motor generators powered from the reactor), what provided the air flow through the battery wells (fans that circulate the air through the ship powered from the same motor generators) and what disposed of the hydrogen (a separate machine designed to burn the hydrogen and convert it harmlessly to water). So, an infrequently performed process, no symbiotic relationship, and not nearly the margin for error.
One night years ago at sea aboard the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER (SSBN 656) (Gold), we were in the last quarter-hour of a battery charge. I was on watch in the engineering spaces, monitoring the team responsible for the reactor plant and other engineering evolutions. The hydrogen percentage in the two battery wells was hovering as expected at about a percent and a half, both black needles still well inside the solid green (safe) area painted on the face of the vertical gauge located on the left side of the electrical panel.
Suddenly a command from Officer of the Deck rang out over the 1MC, “Set Condition Baker throughout the Ship,” and the ship pitched up, apparently preparatory to proceeding to periscope depth. I could hear heavy steel watertight doors slamming shut throughout the ship.
“Stop the charge!” I ordered the electrician sitting in the chair in front of me. With the watertight doors shut, no longer was cleansing air scavenging the bubbling hydrogen rapidly being manufactured in every cell in our huge battery. I snatched up the 1MC and informed the Officer of the Deck. “We have a battery charge in progress.”
By the time I had placed the microphone back in its cradle, the hydrogen needles had leaped to the red area of the gauge. They were now indicating 3 1/2 and 4%. One gauge, two needles, one indicative of the conditions in the forward part of the battery well, the second reading hydrogen concentration in the after sector. No one in Maneuvering said anything for the next minute except “The charge is off, sir.”
Every eye was focused on the climbing hydrogen needles. Everyone was silently willing them to stop. Both quivering indicators had passed six percent and their thin points were creeping ever upward toward the next number. If they reached eight, we would all be dead.
When we built CARVER, I had helped install the sensors that fed those needles. An electrician and I had tried to optimally position them in the well but it really had been just a guess. What if I had been wrong by just a few inches – a few tenths of a percent? The announcement of “Baker” had set in process an evolution which completely isolated the battery well from any cleansing air flow. We were not going to restore the diluting flow until we reached the surface … were the gauges stabilizing around seven and a half percent or was I engaging in wishful thinking?
Some hours later, having lived, I wrote a succinct letter via the chain-of-command to the head of the Submarine Force summarizing why the concept of “Condition Baker” was dangerous for nuclear ships and needed to be promptly eliminated. 7 Sadly, on June 5, 1968, two years after our scare aboard USS CARVER, everyone aboard USS SCORPION (SSN 598) died when that nuclear submarine sank in deep water off the Azores. After a long investigation, the official investigation failed to identify a cause. The inquiry did determine that SCORPION appeared to be in the process of coming to periscope depth when an undetermined fatal explosion occurred.
But, the facts were always lying on the bottom mud and recorded on seismographs, and, after years of speculation, Bruce Rule’s book on the physics of the recorded explosions from Scorpion 8 as well as a 2008 review by the CNO’s Advisory Group report on the condition of the battery cell components 9 are finally clear. SCORPION blew herself up while conducting a battery charge on the way home from patrol. The Engineering Officer of the Watch aboard Scorpion had simply been a quarter of a percent more unlucky than I.
When we submitted our letter on Condition Baker I had assumed the first submariner in the chain of command with any force-wide authority would immediately cancel the procedure. We had deep-sixed the use of “Baker” aboard CARVER before I even sat down to my after-watch sandwich. Three years later, when I initially stepped aboard NAUTILUS, I was taken aback to find her still using this dangerous process. I immediately fixed the problem there but became immersed in NAUTILUS problems and didn’t think of the larger Baker issue.
Authority—I can think only of technical, operational and cultural reasons to challenge this bastion. At the same time, one needs to be realistic about the career dangers. Nearly everyone perceives challenges to his perceived authority as personal challenges to him (Rickover did not, but he was a one-of-a-kind and he is dead). One has to choose their battles carefully. Nevertheless, if the game is worth the candle, carefully consider Admiral Rickover’s words.
“Free discussion requires an atmosphere unembarrassed by any suggestion of authority….”