Focus on Warfighting

Lieutenant Travis F. Bean, U.S. Navy

Fast-attack submarines (SSNs) typically have fifteen officers in the wardroom. 1 This provides a too-thin margin for manning watch and duty sections, with nothing in reserve in the face of an unexpected loss or emergency leave. Often, junior officers stand duty every third day in port, bogged down the rest of the time in training, divisional, and qualification responsibilities. A tight duty rotation makes it difficult to maintain an adequate level of supervisory oversight. The rest of the crew (including the chiefs) likewise are constrained by three- or four-section duty.

There is significant risk when duty officers and crew stumble though the workweek in a sleepless fog. Far too often, as the fleet has drawn down, operational tempo has been maintained by working sailors longer. These strained schedules have brought about a lack of mission focus and a significant degradation in quality of life. I am always impressed by the grit demonstrated by even the most junior submariners, but this character attribute should not be exploited. Maintaining adequate manning is a difficult and multidimensional problem, but it deserves more attention to improve crew readiness and quality of life.

Submariners are spread too thin. To earn a submariner’s “Gold Fish,” an officer must qualify both for engineering and tactical watch stations, as well as qualify for their in-port equivalents and be a proficient administrator of in-port maintenance. The submarine force should employ a practice used in World War II: turning ships over to a relief crew during maintenance availabilities. Rear Admiral Richard O’Kane wrote, in his contribution to World War II submarine canon, Clear the Bridge , “[W]hat our troops really liked was the sight of their relief crew, who would stand all of their watches for the next two weeks.” 2 Adopting such an arrangement would allow the wardroom and sailors to conduct a more rigorous course of tactical training in port, freed from the time-consuming and draining work of standing duty. Instead of worrying about a major reactor plant evolution, for instance, a junior officer would be able to focus more on honing his or her craft and absorbing lessons learned from a tactical trainer.

The clarity that should result will improve the quality of the submarine force by emphasizing the task at hand: warfighting. Employing relief crews would require adjustments to manning and detailing, but there are creative ways this policy could be enacted. Managing the ship’s major maintenance does not make submariners more proficient warfighters; much of that activity should be turned over to an in-port relief when practical. Of particular note, the Comprehensive Review found that: “Ships immediately operating after an extended maintenance period are more vulnerable when it comes to proficiency and basic safe operations at sea.” 3 Using the maintenance relief-crew concept would help alleviate this common but dangerous pattern.

Collateral duties and training requirements do not go away for sailors on three-section duty. The submarine fleet must recognize that while a multipage standard list of collateral duties (called a "1301 notice") might be appropriate for a large shore command, it is not scaled fairly for the typical SSN. With inputs from the fleet, the type commanders should craft a template 1301 notice for submarines that significantly reduce the number of roles. Collateral duties vital to day-to-day waterfront operations should be managed by squadron administration departments to reduce the responsibilities of the submarines. Mandatory administrative PowerPoint and video training should be pared back. After all, if the sub cannot sink tonnage in the attack center, it does not matter how many trophies were won in the most recent version of information assurance training.

Submarine warfighting culture has been diluted by an overemphasis on things less important than warfighting. In one afternoon, a submarine sailor might be reminded not to refer to his shipmates by informal nicknames, and also be required to attend alcohol de-glamorization training. Contrast this with Rear Admiral Eugene “Lucky” Fluckey’s accounts in Thunder Below of the crew being on a first-name basis and “splicing the mainbrace” after sinking Japanese ships. The Navy’s rich history has provided us with patterns of success, and we should apply them.

In 2014, Commander Guy Snodgrass, a naval aviator, published a landmark officer retention study where he listed quality-of-life as a driver for retention. Should the submarine fleet keep the “main thing the main thing” through an emphasis on treating sailors as warfighters, commands will cultivate organizational clarity. When sailors leave work one day knowing what to expect the next, everybody’s life improves. Consequently, focusing on warfighting and tactics will lead to better quality of life, and also have the follow-on effect of increasing retention of the most qualified leaders. Taken individually, these issues might not seem significant. But therein lies the problem; the duties and responsibilities heaped on submariners lead to death by a thousand cuts.

1. U.S. Navy Fact Sheet Attack Submarines – SSN . United States Navy Fact File, 27 Apr. 2017, navy.mil/navydata/fact_print.asp?cid=4100&tid=100&ct=4&page=1.

2. ADM Richard H. O'Kane, Clear the Bridge! The War Patrols of the U.S.S. Tang . Presidio Press, 1989.

3. ADM Philip S. Davidson, U.S. Navy, Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents,  U.S. Navy, 26 Oct. 2017.


Lieutenant Bean is the navigator on a Pearl Harbor-based fast-attack submarine. He previously served as a Navy ROTC instructor, and a division officer on a Groton based fast-attack submarine. He holds a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of New Mexico.

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