Being stationed on a submarine in the shipyard is not a glamorous mission. It is not a job that typically inspires excitement, motivation, or pride. Any sailor who has spent time in a shipyard knows that while extended periods in port offer some stability and predictability not available to operational platforms, the day-to-day life can be challenging. Shipyard life can breed a dangerous combination of dissatisfaction with the mundane nature of the mission and the arduous routine of demanding duty, fast food, and interrupted sleep. Extended periods in the shipyard are terrible for readiness, tough on proficiency and qualifications, and tax the health of the crew.
For junior officers such as myself—who reported at the start of a shipyard availability, which would end up being an entire tour—the experience can present a set of unanticipated leadership challenges particular to a shipyard environment. In early 2017, the USS Ohio (SSGN-726) entered the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) for what was planned to be a nine-month maintenance availability. In late 2019, after nearly 30 months at PSNS, the Ohio departed on sea trials. The oldest operating submarine in the fleet returned to sea after a complete turnover of personnel, experience, and leadership and an equipment overhaul.
Several decisions, made early in the availability, created a storm of events that challenged every member of both crews over the subsequent two and half years. When the Ohio pulled into PSNS after several years of forward-deployed operational time in the Pacific, the planned schedule was nine months of work in an extended refit period. Because of the relatively nonintrusive repairs and the short duration, three important decisions were made:
1. The crews would receive commuted rations as opposed to three meals provided by the ship’s culinary specialists.
2. The crews would retain operational proficiency to ensure a smooth return to sea.
3. Ship’s force would retain responsibility for executing all retest requirements for maintenance performed by both ship’s force and shipyard.
These three administrative decisions, combined with significant material issues that ballooned over the course of the availability, had unanticipated consequences for the Ohio’s return to sea. They also created leadership challenges for young division officers that tested my ability to motivate my sailors, my peers, and myself.
Shipyard Taxes Crew Health
One of the first major decisions was how the command would handle feeding the crew in port. When attached to a submarine, sailors are provided three meals per day from the galley. If messing facilities are not available, sailors receive commuted rations—extra money in their pockets to cover the cost of meals that usually would be eaten on board. The Ohio needed work done to the trim system and a galley overhaul, and therefore we knew we would have no toilets, no running water, and no food on board for most of the shipyard period. Instead, there would be a barge nearby where the duty section could sleep, use the bathroom, and have access to a small galley space.
As the Ohio readied for her planned availability, the command team needed to make a decision: Should it house the galley in this temporary barge a five-minute walk from the submarine, or should it authorize commuted rations? The nearly unanimous recommendation was to shut down the galley, and the command team concurred.
While sailors were pleased to see extra money every pay period, as early as my first duty day I started to see the unintended consequences of having no galley. For the duty section, no messing meant either prepping and bringing five meals each duty day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast, lunch), or buying every meal as part of coordinated food deliveries from off-base establishments. In Bremerton, Washington, this meant choosing from one of a few fast-food places that would accept orders from 20 people at once. Duty section favorites included Arby’s, Taco Bell, Domino’s, and Happy Teriyaki.
The novelty of a fast food treat on a long duty day wore off quickly. The crew stood a consistent five-section rotation for the majority of the availability, equating to at least two fast food meals per week, not including lunches and breakfasts. This encouraged sailors to skip meals, particularly when they were off-going from duty, and affected both productivity and morale. Moreover, without access to running water or coffee, many turned to energy drinks, caffeinated sodas, and chewing tobacco, creating a maelstrom of negative effects.
In addition to health issues associated with eating fast food, there were other, more nuanced effects on crew performance. With the barge a five-minute walk from the boat—in the opposite direction from the base exit—and the boat’s galley torn apart, there was no obvious common area in which sailors could share meals. Some duty sections congregated in the barge galley to play cards, and some divisions regularly left base together to get lunch, but the lack of a common messing space took a toll on crew camaraderie.
With Proficiency Comes Experience
The second major decision the Ohio command team needed to make was how to handle the shared responsibility of the two crews. The Ohio is an SSGN with two full crews, Blue Crew and Gold Crew. When the submarine is forward deployed, one crew is the “off-crew,” at home preparing for the next deployment, while the other crew owns the boat and execution of all maintenance and operations. During major overhauls, the two crews typically combine to form a “Green Crew” to support a longer duty section rotation and provide maximum ship’s force support to complete the availability workload. In minor continuous maintenance availabilities conducted while forward deployed, one crew is responsible for all the work, while the other crew is at home preparing for their next deployment.
The planned nine-month schedule for Ohio was short enough that the commanding officers (COs) and commodore chose a combination of the above options. They created a Green Crew duty section of E-6 and below while keeping E-7 and above fully separate. While the Blue Crew CO owned the boat, the Gold Crew CO would continue to supply duty section personnel to sustain a five-section duty rotation, but the members of his crew not on duty would report to the off-crew building. This decision was based on the perceived need to maintain a high level of operational proficiency—a task that could be met only by adhering to a rigorous schedule of training scenarios meant to simulate at-sea operations.
In practice, over the nearly 30 months of the Ohio’s availability at PSNS, this led to a yo-yo–like effect for the crew. Whatever crew was off-crew and focused on operational proficiency would spend five months feverishly preparing for imminent deployment, training watchstanders and watch teams, going to simulators until late in the evening, and completing other predeployment training and planning requirements. Inevitably, the expected return to sea would be pushed back. Sailors would finish the off-crew period ready to go to sea, but instead they would return to the shipyard to take over the availability coordination for a submarine not ready for sea. We would relieve our counterparts, who would conduct their own feverish preparations, only to repeat the same performance five months later.
The push to retain operational proficiency meant not only long and busy days, but also that we failed to take advantage of time we could have used to send junior sailors to ride other submarines for qualifications and experience, because they were needed to fill critical roles on the Ohio’s “at-sea watchbill rotation” in proficiency trainers. This culminated in a crisis when, finally ready to return to sea, we found ourselves without the required number of qualified quartermasters of the watch.
We started the availability with seasoned and experienced watchstanders who had been attached to the Ohio for years. As the availability stretched, those sailors transferred and were replaced with junior sailors until, by the end of the availability, more than 90 percent of the crew had changed out since the previous deployment, including every member of the wardroom.
Arduous Crew Retests Underpin Repairs
In planning the Ohio’s shipyard period, the required repairs and replacements were analyzed, and responsibility for all work was assigned either to ship’s force or to the shipyard. Because of the mostly routine nature of the work, the ship’s crew retained responsibility for all retest requirements. After several major delays and the inclusion of significant additional work required to get the Ohio back to sea, the availability was converted to a Chief of Naval Operations major maintenance period (MMP). Typically, when a vessel undergoes an MMP, retesting requirements for work performed on ship’s systems is done by those who performed the work: If the work is complicated enough that shipyard workers are required to perform it, then shipyard workers are required to retest it.
The Ohio’s availability was converted to an MMP after six months at PSNS, but the responsibility to conduct retesting was not transferred from the crew to the shipyard. As the scope and complexity of required work grew, so did that of the retest requirements. To a junior officer like me, these high-level decisions meant little until I found myself and my division faced with more than 100 complex tests to perform, each of which required a controlled work package to execute. I was the special operations forces officer without a divisional chief petty officer and with a division of out-of-rate sailors, many of whom were unfamiliar with the details of the systems we would have to retest. The retest requirements for our equipment were mired in quality assurance pitfalls such that even the most senior enlisted leaders had little experience with them. We forged ahead to the end of our time in shipyard, determined to avoid causing more delays, and immediately had three consecutive critiques because of improper execution of retests.
In the wardroom, after the third critique, our leading petty officer held his head in his hands, and I realized we were on a course to fail when failure was not an option. Our division needed me to be a technical expert in maintenance and testing, so my shipdriving and warfighting development would have to take a backseat. As the person with the best overall understanding of the program and the complex set of players involved, I threw myself into the technical requirements, adjusted my leadership style to one of “intrusive leadership,” and developed a strong relationship with the shipyard and squadron-level subject-matter experts to whom I could turn for help.
Shipyard Availabilities Are Mission Critical
As leaders in a shipyard, junior officers faced the difficult task of convincing our sailors that their daily grind symbolized something larger. The eventual return of our ship to sea was an event in which we all played a crucial role, even if our tours would mean our transfer before mission accomplishment. We searched for creative solutions to solve the challenges of a shipyard availability gone unexpectedly long. Unfortunately, these problems had no quick fixes. Instead, we learned that to succeed we needed the grit and determination to persistently face down circumstances that at times felt hopeless. The unglamorous stories of shipyard leadership happen next to the pier with bored sailors, junior sailors, impressionable sailors, and a very old submarine in need of a dedicated crew to return her to sea.
We learned that the most effective tools to combat the daily drudgery of the shipyard were a positive attitude, a clear understanding of the long-term goal, and a drive to eliminate barriers that prevented our sailors from accomplishing their daily missions. This meant having difficult conversations with the command team about the relative importance of getting the boat to sea and making sure our crew was ready to deploy. It also meant having difficult conversations with my division about why they had to sacrifice opportunities to qualify at senior watch stations and time with their families to support the closeout of the availability.
For more than two years of duty days in the shipyard, we closed out our turnover briefs to my duty section with the words “ownership, accountability, and forceful backup.” This phrase—lovingly dubbed “a few of my favorite things”—was a daily reminder to those on the front lines of shipyard life. Accomplishing the Navy’s mission requires deployments and operations, but it also requires the grit to see unglamorous repairs to completion and the grind to ensure the ship and submarine are ready to return to sea.