Individuals and institutions are basically wary of change, even though they understand intuitively that it is inevitable. This wariness is generally not a bad thing; it provides a degree of inertia that moderates the rate of change. It also serves to make it a carefully considered process. Most often this caution is not resistance to the new but rather a healthy questioning process on how change is applied (as well as how fast it is to happen). History is full of examples of transformations made in haste that led to unfavorable outcomes. Thoughtless newness is not always better than a working status quo.
It should be recognized that cultural change in the military almost always results from technological change. New machines and devices facilitate better ways of doing things. People need to be trained how to operate and maintain new things. Then military planners have employ them to find out how warfare doctrines must be changed. Because this is all people-intensive, their existing culture must change along with the technologies
But cultural changes in military organizations come hard. These inevitable transformations are as old as the history of arms. Warfighting institutions often resist the new and more efficient, preferring to remain comfortable with the existing way of doing things. Armies resisted replacing the horse with motorized machines. Much later, the U.S. Navy had these problems as naval aviation displaced the “battleship navy” as the primary striking element. Looking back, it is hard to understand how the generals and the admirals could have not have eagerly embraced the greater efficiency and lethality of the new technologies.
With respect to the U.S. Navy’s submarine service, it was a half-century old when the first nuclear submarine joined it. But it took just two decades to replace the diesel submarines with nuclear ones. Not even the most dedicated diesel boat sailor could argue against the advantage of that “infinite battery” that lets you remain submerged “until it’s time to reenlist the crew.” But many of the “smokeboat sailors” were uncomfortable with the velocity and substance of the change process. Those not chosen for, or who did not want to join, this new submarine navy were left behind.
From the time the USS Holland (SS-1), the Navy’s first submarine, went into service in 1900 until World War II, change in the submarine service happened at a relatively slow pace. In those years submarine service was not a fully recognized career path for naval officers. After a few early years there they would “surface” and join the fleet. Furthermore, the senior leadership of the Navy did not have a clear or realistic doctrine for how to employ submarines in wartime scenarios.
During World War II, both the air and submarine navies came into their own. The effectiveness of the fast carrier task forces and their striking power settled the “airplane vs. battleship” issue for good. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy’s submarine actions in the Pacific quickly showed the immense impact these small ships had on the enemy. It was a costly campaign for both sides. The Navy’s small all-volunteer submarine service had the largest casualty rate, 23 percent, of any U.S. armed force. But they sunk nearly 55 percent of Japan’s ships. For a nation that was absolutely dependent on shipping, this was an unmitigated disaster.
After World War II, the importance of naval aviation and submarines no longer was a matter of speculation by a few forward-thinking strategists, as had been the case in the 1920s and ’30s. In the postwar fleet, these branches of naval warfare were recognized career paths that could lead an officer to the top jobs in the Navy. Both institutions had developed a rich warrior reputation and tradition during the war years.
From the mid-’40s to the mid-’60s the submarine service experimented with many new technologies and operational techniques. A major direction was the Greater Underwater Propulsion Program (“Guppy”) that used captured German technology and U.S. Navy innovations to create a faster, quieter diesel submarine. Two new classes of attack submarines were put into service. In addition, several submarines either were converted or constructed for a variety of missions. Some examples were the nuclear-warhead Regulus missile subs, the radar pickets, antisubmarine “killer” boats, troop carriers (for underwater demolition teams, etc.), and even a seaplane tanker. In addition, there were experimental subs for study of high-speed hull shapes, acoustics experimentation, oceanographic research, and deep diving investigations.
However, because all these innovations involved the basic diesel submarine, there was no significant cultural impact. Of course, no good officer or sailor wanted to stay on a specialized boat too long. Back then it was the Guppies and fast attack boats that were the “front line.” These were the subs doing the really interesting Cold War missions. But the point here is that technological change has been a continuing part of the submarine force since the end of World War II. Submariners not only lived with it, they thrived on it. Better tools meant a better job done.
Operationally, the submarine service was learning how to do new things, including highly classified special missions during the Cold War. Compared to the surface force and naval aviation, submarine operations were governed by few tactical publications and written doctrines. Training of young submarine warriors was an apprenticeship largely loaded with a tradition-based oral history. Submarine captains had a great deal of latitude to use their boats as effectively as possible in any given situation. “Rudder orders” from higher authority were very rare. Self-reliance was a prized attribute and a desirable reward for those selected for command.
Beginning in the late 1940s, it became apparent that nuclear energy could be applied to submarines. Building on previous work in the Navy Department, and in a remarkable show of will and carefully assembled personal power, Captain-to-Admiral Hyman G. Rickover forced a cultural change on the U.S. Navy that has no historical equal. Here was a technological change that also forced a profound cultural change. It was the most profound change of this sort in the history of the Navy’s submarine service, an organization that was no stranger to innovation.
The cost in human terms was high in many cases. For officers, some careers were distorted and destroyed while others soared. It was a somewhat brutal filtering-out process. Admiral Rickover’s personal interviews with candidates created a legendary body of stories from those fortunate enough to be selected as well as from those who were not. He wanted nothing but the best . . . as he defined “best.”
For enlisted men, there was more opportunity to “move across the pier” to the nuclear navy. Not all the jobs on nuclear boats required nuclear-power training. However, many were unwilling to give up the diesel boat life and eventually left the submarine navy as the number of those boats decreased.
In defense of “Rickover’s Navy,” the conversion of the submarine service to nuclear power was a remarkable and relatively swift evolution. In the late 1940s the idea of nuclear power for anything on land or sea was seemingly futuristic. And to propose that the first major application anywhere would be inside relatively small submerging warships was nothing less than revolutionary. Yet a submarine was the one application where a “perpetual power plant” would pay huge operational dividends.
In 1955 Rickover’s persistence paid off when the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) got under way on nuclear power. She was the first nuclear-powered submarine in the world—and a triumph of will and technology.
I was fortunate to serve as an officer in the submarine service during those transition years, 1956–1970. When I went through submarine school at New London, Connecticut, in mid-1956, there was a small group of officers there being trained for the Nautilus and the newly completed Seawolf (SSN-575), the only operational nuclear subs in the Navy. All were already qualified in submarines, having served for several years in diesel boats. Rickover was staffing his navy with veterans. And all of the early nuclear submarine commanding officers already had been captains of diesel boats. A very experienced cadre was launching a revolution in submarine warfare. These were Rickover’s “best.”
For those officer volunteers who did not get Rickover interviews or who had failed them, there was another path for diesel officers. This was on board the Fleet Ballistics Missile submarines. The FBMs had diesel-trained submariners as missile officers and navigators. Here there was a change-of-career opportunity through onboard self-study programs that could prepare a lucky few to finally get an interview and be selected for nuclear power training.
Regrettably, though I was an early volunteer, I never got an interview. I suspect poor academic performance at the Naval Academy shut that door for good. So, I happily remained in the diesel boat navy watching while it withered away in favor of nuclear submarines. Fourteen years after submarine school, I was fortunate to get command of one of the last diesel submarines, the Bashaw (AGSS-241). According to Jane’s Fighting Ships, she was probably the oldest operating submarine in the world. But she was a great boat, with a superb crew. Ultimately, I took her to her final “home port”—decommissioning at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
For the submarine service, the ’50s to the ’70s was a time of remarkable transition. I was fortunate to be part of it. The most impressive fact is how fast an entirely new submarine navy was built and manned. It took just two decades. Necessary technological development, industrial-base mobilization, and educational infrastructure were without equal in military history. Adding to all of this was the concurrent development of a completely new class of very complex submarines, the FBMs—backbone of the nation’s strategic deterrence. It is a true wonder that it all went so well.
Nota Bene: This article is adapted from a longer foreword I wrote for the book, Power Shift by Dan Gillcrist, former TM2(SS) who served in the USS Barbero (SSG-317). Published in 2016, it can still be found online at book dealers. It has many excellent interviews with submariners from admirals to enlisted representing those chosen and those who were not.