"You can't imagine how ugly it was. I put the class up against an easy, old, loud nuke sub and they screwed it up—got sunk. It was a fiasco. "
The listening lieutenant has struggled with this problem before himself and offers consolation.
"Well, you can't expect a bunch of ensigns who have never set foot on a boat to fight an attack center without modest amounts of chaos."
"These weren't ensigns! They were department-head students! They're going back to sea in two months!"
This scenario might seem extreme, but it actually took place, and it is a revealing and dark symptom of a submarine force that suffers a flaw in its junior officer (JO) tactical training. That flaw is tactical training under-emphasis.
Despite the high levels of motivation and talent they display, submarine JOs are subjected to a training pipeline that undermines their primary duty—fighting the ship. A source of this problem is the lack of allotted time. The first 12 months an ensign spends preparing for his first sea duty are pure engineering. The remaining three are spent at the Submarine Officer Basic Course (SOBC) learning basic submarining, navigation/operations, leadership, and tactics. JOs graduate from SOBC well prepared to run an engine room, but generally unskilled to handle combat.
The international submarine world is improving tactically—most countries quite slowly, but a few with alarming speed. This trend will not reverse itself. Our Navy has failed to respond by enhancing JO tactical training. Such inaction, combined with a mass exodus of disillusioned JOs from the submarine force, forecasts a possible degradation of future tactical readiness.
Meeting the plethora of emerging undersea warfare challenges has evolved into an art of specialization. Consequently, boats train against specific threats they expect to face on a deployment. The unseen loss, however, is that JOs, given the demands on their time, cannot develop a tactical-knowledge base of adequate breadth and depth. Furthermore, this base will need to grow as the threat increases. But time for JOs to enhance their tactical knowledge bases will only decrease as these officers focus on their increasingly specialized duties. A typical career path provides a good example:
Ensign Jones reports to SSN-798, a boat that frequently spies on Country X's surface patrol craft. He becomes an expert on surface contact correlation and knows how to deal with the occasional diesel submarine. After his first two years on board, SSN-798 gets the call to spy on Country Y's ballistic-missile submarines.
Jones recalls the basics of submarine warfare he learned during his three months at SOBC and has practiced them periodically with his crew. However, time required to develop tactical expertise was consumed by Jones' duties as a nuclear division officer and with the study of nuclear details to pass the required prospective nuclear engineer officer exam.
Jones spends personal time to review before the boat trains for its mission. Learning from the ship's tactical experts—department heads, the executive officer, and the commanding officer—he attains an adequate tactical proficiency for a first-tour JO.
After shore duty at Strategic Command in Nebraska, Lieutenant Jones reports to Submarine Officer Advanced Course (SOAC) at Submarine School, having forgotten most of his submarine tactics. Jones has five-and-a-half months to recall forgotten basics and learn advanced tactics. The first month is rough, but Jones is highly motivated and in time recaptures his lost knowledge. He studies tactics and practices in attack centers when he can take time from learning about navigation, operations, management, basic submarining, and other nontactical department-head necessities.
During an attack center, Jones leads his classmates in a hypothetical approach against a nuclear submarine. He falters in a scenario he's practiced very little. Fellow students involved in the approach try to help Jones along, but he has dug too deep a hole in the scenario to attain victory. The students argue about which desperate measures to take and some tempers begin to fly.
Jones reports to the SSBN-799 as its engineer, excited about his billet. Approximately 70% of those officers most recently screened for XO served as engineers. Only two had served exclusively as weapons officers, a more tactically-oriented department head billet. Jones is motivated about fighting the ship, but to help his career he asked for the engineer billet.
Jones spends a year in dry-dock with SSBN-799 then makes several deterrent patrols. During his tour, he selects for lieutenant commander and for XO, common rewards for good engineers. On board SSBN-799, Jones periodically practices tactics with the crew, but his monumental challenge of ensuring his department's thorough nuclear plant knowledge consumes most of his time. After finishing his tour on SSBN-799, Jones serves as officer-in-charge of a nuclear prototype for two years.
Jones reports to SSN-800 as executive officer. If he has acquired and refined the tactical knowledge to stand in combat as an XO, it is because of motivated, individual sacrifice and innate abilities—not his career's training emphasis. Fortunately, the submarine fleet is filled with exceptional men, and if Jones is one of them, he may succeed. On the other hand, he might be tactically inadequate for such an assignment.
In past decades of vastly superior U.S. combat hardware, submarine officers could provide adequate warfighting expertise despite a tactically disadvantaged career structure. They needed only to master the basics for their submarines to hold the edge over their adversaries. Today, however, escalating undersea warfare challenges raise the stakes worldwide. Without an increased emphasis on the tactical training pipeline, the need for individual heroics to attain success will reach impossible heights.
Lieutenants completing their first sea tours embody the talent required to meet the escalating future tactical challenges. Ironically, these officers frequently decide to discontinue their submarining careers.
Submarine JOs are switching to other naval communities, or, more commonly, taking $10,000 pay cuts to become civilians. To a degree, this is necessary since only three of eight first-tour JOs can return as department heads. But even with downsizing, the JO exodus has lengthened department head tours from three to four years, for lack of replacements. There appears to be no sign that future young lieutenants will be willing to cope with the numerous sacrifices inherent in sea duty to reverse this trend.
Proper motivation to cope with sacrifices as a career submarine officer cannot be achieved through disheartened views of submarine force tactical focus. Many JOs foresee that their success will hinge on individual efforts overcoming a misguided system. Their doubts about the fleet's tactical focus often influence their decisions to leave.
Furthermore, if JOs envision the submarine force with unjust pessimism because they cannot yet accurately see their big tactical career pictures, then that is a problem in itself. Assuming that future challenges will become increasingly complex, the submarine force must avoid disillusioning its young talent. A continued JO mass exodus will only hinder future tactical superiority.
One solution helps correct both poor tactical emphasis and, consequently, the exodus of talent: increased focus on tactical training. That means a combination of more time and more career emphasis. Career emphasis involves spreading the department head workload and, subsequently, XO selection from the engineer to the other two billets—navigator and weapons officer. It also involves more weight on tactical testing as rites of passage—at the expense of nuclear testing, if necessary.
Finding more time in an already tightly choreographed career path to devote to tactical training may be difficult. Adding months to SOBC or SOAC slows an already stagnated JO rotation rate, but it might work with proper planning. Another solution could be to increase the number of officers per ship to reduce non-tactical burdens—a remote possibility if total ship manning can be reduced by future automation technology. However, many JOs would agree that an ideal way to find time is to streamline nuclear training.
There may be other solutions. In any event, the submarine force soon must implement some sort of career tactical-emphasis correction to reduce the amount of discouraged JOs leaving the fleet. If it fails, the submarine force will face a possible future tactical-readiness crisis—with its well of talent to confront that crisis running dry.
Lieutenant Hindinger is a submarine warfare tactics instructor at the Naval Submarine School in New London, Connecticut. He is a 1991 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and has served as electrical officer and damage control assistant on the Kentucky (SSBN-737).