The late Brazilian statesman Roberto Campos often said sarcastically, "It is less important to find solutions than scapegoats." This spirit seems to have informed some recent submarine force decisions involving readiness, with accountability falling exclusively on wayward submarine captains and their people, as though they functioned in an operational vacuum absent other participants.
A case in point is the USS Greeneville (SSN-772). No, not that Greeneville incident—the collision off Hawaii in February that sank a Japanese trawler and killed nine, and could cost the Navy more than $100 million to rectify. That was just the backdrop for the next accident that followed, the one of interest here.
Last August, the Greeneville ran aground attempting to enter Saipan Harbor; she hit a coral reef twice, damaging her underbody. The subsequent investigation revealed serious flaws in the ship's navigation training and practices.1 The commanding officer, executive officer, navigator, and assistant navigator were found to have committed various offenses. They received punishment at mast and were transferred to new duty stations.2 The ship was sent to nearby Guam for repair. A senior officer from the Greeneville's overseas submarine command conducted a thorough navigation inspection and verified that the deficiencies found were corrected. The overseas commander's staff then trained the crew in navigation and conducted an at-sea evaluation before permitting the submarine to proceed to assigned duty.
A fair reading of the investigation shows no injustices to any of the crewmembers—they really did screw up. Because all the problems and failings had been seen and well documented many times before in other submarines, one cannot find lessons to be learned. Every element of this accident had appeared in the submarine force before: terrible chart and publication administration, poor plotting skills, failure to review harbor information in advance, refusal of piloting, misinterpreting the buoy system, taking a channel-edge buoy on the wrong side, using an outdated chart—and the grand folly of laying the track of a ship with 32-foot draft across a charted 29-foot shoal and then following that track.3
The submarine force has learned the hard way that the special navigation problems of modern submarines require special attention, and it has put the right training in place to eliminate ignorance as an excuse for submarine groundings. Three decades earlier, the same misuse of charts that brought the Greeneville to grief was the primary reason that the USS Theodore Roosevelt (SSBN-600) hammered Stantons Bank submerged at 18 knots.4 From this near-tragedy and similar incidents that followed, the submarine force established a mandatory submerged conning and navigation course for all officers assigned as navigators. This training—subsequently made part of every formal course for officers—covers every element of fault in the Greeneville incident.
What once was a well-honed system of evaluations and certification for submarines priorto overseas movement appears to have broken down. The home port submarine squadron is the other primary player in these sad dramas at sea. With a better approach to the squadron's role in training and testing deploying ships, the Navy can find the solutions that have been missed and end the carnage in wardrooms such as the Greeneville's.
Submarine home port squadrons are mother ships. Always the center of activity for readiness, they are key to forestalling the potential effects of poor training and bad crew performance in submarines under their charge. But as the Greeneville incident shows, there are problems. (There have been similar occurrences recently in other boats in other squadrons.) The most effective measure to prevent future training breakdowns would be to place direct and formal accountability on the commodores of home port squadrons for the performance of their submarines—with as much emphasis on combat systems and basic submarine skills as has become the norm in engineering.5
Some will say they are accountable now. Yes—but it is relatively risk free. Obviously, the "come-arounds" that commodores get invited to after a major incident are not fun events; however, we do not see the same stringent command accountability and disciplinary standards applied to squadron commanders that tradition and good practice impose on the commanding officers they support. If the home port commodore and his staff also were subject to formal investigations for their roles in a submarine incident and subject to mast or detachment for cause, the Navy would be on the path to better submarining and fewer nasty surprises.
And that is not reform enough. The squadron has become the submarine force's "fix-it" unit, with too many oversight tasks—and not enough focus on their unique role in crew readiness. It is time to get the home port squadrons out of the business of repairing submarines.
With the advent of centralized management technology, the repair oversight role exercised by home port squadrons duplicates the work of others. Squadrons are parasitic on the primary efforts of maintenance and logistics experts in the professional material chain; they add too little value for the high cost paid by detracting them from their primary role in making crews ready. Home port squadrons should be directed to abandon oversight of submarine repairs and logistics as a main mission.6 Putting the full weight of material readiness on the primary organizations that do the work gives squadrons a clean shot at restructuring themselves and focusing their efforts on doing what they alone can do: train submarine crews to ensure they meet the high standards demanded by the sea and modern submarines. Home port squadrons do it now; however, the facts show that the results are not good enough.
But, judged by themselves, squadrons are doing fine, which is another squadron-based problem—the fox is protecting the chicken coop. The home port squadron inspects its submarine crews; then, knowing its own leadership contribution to be splendid, declares them well trained, with no penalty for incorrect certification. For example, investigation of the grounding at Saipan revealed that the home port squadron knew the Greeneville's navigation party was barely competent and the chart records a mess. Nevertheless, it certified her as ready for deployment, setting the stage for a midnight grounding and career death for four good submariners.
When it comes to the wide range of skills that go into operating a submarine surfaced and submerged, self-certification by home port squadrons of the effectiveness of their own training and leadership violates the honored principle of independent verification familiar to anyone who has ever rigged for dive. It is a fundamental submarine concept that human error is too costly to permit single-point failure. Readiness to operate nuclear reactors, carry nuclear weapons, and employ combat systems is evaluated and certified in the submarine force by independent teams with the authority of the fleet. The concept works.
It needs to be applied to certification of fundamental submarine skills prior to deployment by shifting responsibility for certification of deployment readiness from home port squadron commanders to their receiving counterparts overseas. The mechanics of this change will require receiving commanders (or their senior staffs) to review inspection records and independently verify correction of deficiencies on board submarines. When satisfied they meet inspection standards, final checks should be conducted during in-depth certification at sea prior to deployment. While costly, it is much less so than a grounding and the time lost for a senior staff officer to conduct an investigation and serve as interim commanding officer of the boat under scrutiny.
Home port submarine squadrons are commanded by the best the submarine force can produce at the rank of captain, but they have become overwhelmed with minutia. They oversee the work of others in areas they do not control directly and are too busy to give adequate attention to the one vital task that only they can do: prepare their submarines for their missions. Therefore, the following steps should be taken as quickly as possible:
- Free home port squadrons of materiel oversight so they can concentrate on training.
- Enable their "customers" in the deployed zone to be the final judges of training results, thus providing the independent check that submariners require in all else that is important.
- Subject home port commodores to formal investigation for failure of their submarines.
These are solutions that would do much to eliminate the need for scapegoats and prove Roberto Campos wrong.
1. Commander Submarine Force Pacific has posted a press release at its web site. It contains a link to a redacted version of the grounding investigation. If you are a navigator, this is grim reading.
2. The commanding officer was new; the executive officer, navigator, and assistant navigator were on board during the deadly incident in February.
3. Postgrounding sampling of the ship's navigation holdings showed a 30% error rate on charts and 60% errors on navigation publications. The Greeneville's parent squadron examined her publication system prior to deployment. It found similar deficiencies but failed to ensure corrective actions or to reexamine her prior to deployment.
4. She nearly was lost. One report said there was gravel inside the torpedo room.
5. In Submarine Force Atlantic, the new commander is forcing his squadron commanders to pay far more attention to fundamental skills. Training and readiness evaluations (TREs) that examine operational skills receive as much emphasis as always has been given to the operation reactor safeguard exams. If a boat flunks its TRE, the type commander orders the home port commodore to the ship; he rides her back to home waters to train the crew for the re-exam. Reports say this has wonderfully concentrated the minds of squadron commanders.
6. The overseas submarine groups and squadrons are a different matter. At the bitter end of the materiel and logistics chain and supposedly dealing only with fully trained submarines, both materiel readiness and operational control of deployed units are—and should be—primary missions. But not at home, with the full might of the Navy's materiel establishment sitting at the end of the pier.