The author is a former NROTC scholarship officer, qualified in submarines and nuclear power. He served in the 1960’s, qualifying on USS BONEFISH (SS-582) and then in nuclear power on USS NATHANAEL GREENE (SSBN-636) Blue in 1967. Duties on NATHANAEL GREENE included M Division Officer, Ship’s Submarine Qualification Officer, Engineering Officer of the Watch, and Officer of the Deck. He is a lifetime member of the Naval Submarine League.
As a former cold war submarine officer, I have for several years read with interest the articles in THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. Occasionally there are articles addressing officer training, qualification, and retention, but each has skirted or not addressed aspects that I believe may be crucial. Admittedly, my experiences and evaluation are anecdotal and possibly out of date, but I submit them as constructive criticism in the interest of improving the officer corps. The two factors I have not seen adequately addressed very well are retention rate, and required areas of training and qualification. These are not independent but interrelated.
Retention rate during my submarine days was very poor on the nuclear boats. Having been TDY for six months on a diesel before attending sub school and Nuclear Power Training (NPT), and going to another diesel for my first regular tour, I found a group that worked hard and played hard. Demands were heavy, but there was also time to socialize and to relax. For example, during my interview with the Squadron Commander to complete my qualification in submarines, he suggested I relax and enjoy myself for a few months. Also, after pinning on my dolphins and being thrown off the pier by the crew immediately after morning quarters, the Captain said I looked like I needed a day off, and sent me home. I cannot imagine such conversations or comradery in
Shortly before my resignation became effective, the Navy was offering a bonus of one year’s salary for nuclear officers to extend active duty obligation for four years. I did not even consider this for more than a few seconds. A junior officer shipmate, who was an USNA graduate, accepted, and later confided in a hushed tone that he thought he had made a mistake. NATHANAEL GREENE’S wardroom in my 2 ½ years aboard never had more than three or four officers who intended to make a career in nuclear subs; even one of the Navigators resigned.
The principal reasons, as I evaluate the situation for low retention rate, can be abbreviated into (1) a brutal workload that pushed one to or past endurance, (2) an atmosphere of fear, for lack of a better word, engendered by Naval Reactors (NR), (3) essentially no hope of shore duty or Postgraduate School, and (4) being asked, really demanded, to master the engineering plant and also the operations and weapons systems and tactics in the forward part of the ship.
It is my considered evaluation that, even during the late 1960’s, it was not possible to achieve the level of proficiency demanded in both engineering and operations/weapons, and still perform all the collateral and administrative duties required. Today, with the introduction of weapons and missions that I can only imagine (as most of the information is classified), I can envision officers who are hopelessly swamped. I feel sure the level of complexity of all equipment and operations, including the reactor plant with a lifetime core, is such that we really do need to have engineering specialists who are not unrestricted line officers.
I do not remember whether it was a written or unwritten rule on GREENE, but all qualification checkoff interviews were not done on watch. Because of the high officer turnover, the engineering Officers of the Watch (EOOW) were almost always on port-and-starboard watches (six hours on and six hours off) for at least one month into patrol, allowing essentially no time for checkoffs for Engineering or Submarine qualification or requalification. Even after progressing to one-in-three watches, an Engineering officer standing watches forward as Officer of the
Deck (OOD) underway had great difficulty just keeping up with departmental, (re)qualification, and collateral duties. It was seldom possible to get even three or four hours uninterrupted sleep a day, usually less. Many times I was in a kind of controlled mental fog, albeit well trained, during which time I was able to perform adequately only by forcing alertness, or, thankfully, occasionally being prompted or corrected by my fellow watch standers. My fellow Engineering officers shared this experience. In my civilian career twenty-five years later, I developed a close friend who had served on a nuclear submarine and a nuclear aircraft carrier in Engineering, and he had the same experience. Addressing the idea that Naval Reactors (NR) engendered an atmosphere of fear is, I am sure, heresy to most of our readers.
Although the word itself may be a little strong, the atmosphere of intimidation and negative leadership, the feeling that whatever you did was not enough, was forced down from the top to the junior officers and the enlisted men. For example, when being grilled by NR during Operational Reactor Safeguards Examinations (ORSE), when did an examiner ever say “good answer” or even “that’s correct”? We were always questioned to the level of detail when you had to say “I don’t know.” To some this is called motivation, but it also causes, intentionally, I think, humiliation … which can lead to an opposite effect: demotivation. What is needed is positive leadership, not negative leadership and harassment. My experience admittedly is forty-five years or so ago, but the Navy and NR change slowly. A more recent book1 in 2003, Dark Waters by Lee Vyborny and Don Davis, says:
“One of Rickover’s major failings was that he helped drive away a large number of such talented officers, costing the navy several generations of leaders.” This was written about forty years after I served, but it indicates my criticism may still be valid.
Another book, by Woodman and Conley2 in 2014, discusses in part the long-term negative impact of Admiral Rickover by the following partial quote from Command of the Seas3 by Secretary of the Navy Lehman, published in 1988: “Rickover’s legendary achievements were in the past.
His present viselike grip on much of the Navy was doing it much harm. I had sought the job [SecNav] because I believed the Navy had deteriorated to the point where its weakness seriously threatened our future security. The Navy’s grave afflictions included loss of a strategic vision; loss of self-confidence, and morale; a prolonged starvation of resources, leaving vast shortfalls in capability to do the job…all resulting in cynicism, exhaustion, and an undercurrent of defeatism.…”
When I completed submarine school, a detailer from Washington, D.C., talked to our class. As I recall, there were about 1000 nuclear trained officers and 997 sea billets, and he then named the few individual officers then on shore duty, including one in postgraduate school in Monterey. Not much had changed five years later upon completion of my obligated service, when a detailer, who was calling me to convince me to commit to four more years and the monetary bonus, confessed I had another ten years of continuous sea duty if I stayed on active duty. It was also emphasized that I needed to promptly complete qualification for Engineer.
As stated in Item (4) at the beginning of this article, I really think it is not possible to achieve and maintain the required level of proficiency in the Engineering Department, and also achieve and maintain a comparable level as a forward watchstander (with aspirations for command). Woodman and Conley4 discuss the separation of the engineering billets from the executive branch (command, navigation, and sonar in U.K. submarines) billets, but are very diplomatic in not saying the U. S. Navy should do the same. In my opinion, they do, however, indirectly endorse it in part by quoting Secretary Lehman as above.
The U. S. Navy should have nuclear engineering specialists that do not have the additional demands of forward watchstanding, and are not unrestricted line officers (whose career path includes forward watchstanding and eventual command at sea). We should also have training for forward watchstanders in weapons, navigation, communication, reconnaissance, tactics, etc., on a level comparable to that in nuclear power. This is a bitter pill to swallow and digest, but I submit we will be a lot better off if we give it serious consideration.