In October 2020, the submarine force commander wrote:
“During the past five years, we have struggled to meet [junior officer] retention goals, reducing flexibility in department head manning and shrinking the pool of officers available for command.”1 Since then, the retention situation has not improved, despite changes to nuclear officer bonuses and other talent management initiatives that address individual motivations such as pay and graduate school.
The root cause of poor junior officer retention, however, is that the submarine force recruits officers to serve a relatively short service commitment. Fixing this systemic cause requires a systemic solution—extending the minimum service requirement for submarine officers. This change will require substantial modifications to the current career path and detailing process, but it also promises significant benefits of greater selectivity and prestige.
For many years, the submarine officer community relied heavily on prior-enlisted sailors for retention. Until year group 2008 (YG08), it was not unusual for almost 100 of approximately 400 submarine ensigns per year to be prior enlisted. Despite being the minority, 70 percent of prior-enlisted officers retained to department head, compared with roughly 30 percent of officers with no
The difference in retention percentage owed to proximity to retirement. Most prior-enlisted officers had at least four years of service before commissioning. After five years of commissioned service, therefore, most were about halfway to earning a 20-year retirement pension. Their non-prior-enlisted counterparts, on the other hand, were only a quarter of the way to retirement. Thus, non-prior-enlisted officers retained differently. However, even if only 20 percent of those approximately 300 such officers retained, the submarine force still met its overall requirements thanks to the retention of prior-enlisted officers.
Yet, officers with previous enlisted experience frequently retired following their department head or executive officer tours, leading some observers to derisively refer to the Seaman-to-Admiral (STA-21) program that allows enlisted personnel to attend college while remaining on active duty as the “Seaman to Lieutenant Commander” program. Based on the perceived lack of return on investment, from fiscal year (FY) 2005 through FY13, the Navy cut the number of STA-21 candidates from several hundred to only 50. This cut dropped submarine force prior-enlisted officer numbers starting with year YG08, and its effects became evident in late 2015 and early 2016 when it was time for YG08 candidates to attend the Submarine Officer Advanced Course (SOAC).3 The submarine force began struggling to meet retention goals, and the Navy raised the nuclear officer bonus from $30,000 per year to $35,000 per year in March 2017.4
In addition, in 2009, Congress decided that STA-21 candidates’ college years no longer counted toward retirement.5 This change first affected YG13, and its implications became evident in 2020 when it was time for YG13 to report to SOAC. It may not be a coincidence that the Navy raised the bonus from $35,000 per year to $40,000 per year in September 2020 for officers to retain to department head.6
Taken together, these were substantial changes to the prior-enlisted submarine officer community. Today, these officers comprise less than ten percent of the submarine officer corps, and most complete their mandatory service requirement after only six years, vice nine as previously. Consequently, the average is similar for officers with or without enlisted service. Even if prior-enlisted officers retain in slightly higher numbers, there are so few of them that they do not appreciably contribute to the overall number of submarine department heads.
The decisions to reduce the number of prior-enlisted officer candidates and eliminate the service value of their time in college likely contributed to the current retention shortfall, which is making it difficult for the submarine force to meet its desired number of department heads.
The alterations to the STA-21 program may be the proximate cause of the current retention shortfall, but not the root cause. In an attempt to identify root causes, the submarine warfare community regularly holds junior officer symposiums and surveys. These provide force leaders with junior officers’ legitimate concerns about talent management, warfighting, and the never-ending drumbeat on fixing leadership and mentorship.
Retention, however, is a systemic issue, not an individual one, and owes to two primary causes: The submarine officer recruitment strategy is based on short-term service; and who the submarine force screens for department head has a direct bearing on its claims of being an elite warfighting community.
Except for naval aviation, the Navy offers two-to-four years of paid college education in return for five years of service. This commitment is a far cry from “a career of naval service.”7 As a result, the Navy depends on individual warfighting communities to convince junior officers to stay for 20 years, but the idea appeals only to those with predominantly open minds and a predisposition toward a career of naval service.
Over the course of two years, I read every submarine junior officer resignation letter (at least 200 letters), and I saw the results of some of the junior officer surveys and symposiums. I am convinced that at least 70 percent of junior officers join with the intention of serving only their five-year service requirement and perhaps a little extra time on shore duty to set up their civilian careers.8 Although it is not impossible to convince a handful of these officers to change their minds, particularly when the economy sours, the submarine force faces an uphill battle to retain officers who enter the service with a predetermined exit strategy. Junior officers who retain are often the ones who joined the submarine force with the desire to make it a career; the ones who leave are often the ones who accepted the five-year commitment with no intention of making the Navy a career.
Because not enough junior officers retain to become department heads, the submarine force screens to department head most junior officers who choose to stay. This reduces selectivity.
But according to junior officer surveys and symposiums, selectivity matters. Junior officers can see there is selectivity to executive officer (only 50 percent of department heads screen for executive officer) and commanding officer (about 66 percent of executive officers), but this comes out of a self-selecting pool of approximately 100 people. In short, instead of perceiving that only 33 out of 400 ensigns become commanding officers, junior officers instead perceive that 33 out of 100 lieutenants become commanding officers. Therefore, some conclude that the submarine force is not an elite organization.
A Long-Term Solution
The submarine force cannot make careerists out of most people who agree to only a small initial commitment. In addition, assigning junior officers to just 32-month sea tours after paying for up to four years of college and more than a year of submarine and nuclear-power training is not economical. Instead, the submarine force should follow the lead of naval aviation by seeking congressional legislation to extend the minimum service requirement from five to ten years.
A ten-year service requirement would change the motivation of most ensigns who join the submarine force, allowing the community to recruit officers who intend to make the Navy a career. This undoubtedly would cause recruiting challenges, but naval aviation is able every year to recruit hundreds of ensigns who are committing ten years of their lives. Some of the recruitment challenges can be ameliorated by the additional benefits that would come from extending the minimum service requirement.
Selectivity and Prestige
The longer service requirement would allow the submarine force to add more selectivity and prestige to the community in three ways:
• Lengthen the junior officer tour to four years
• Use officers who did not screen for department head to serve in submarines in extended maintenance availabilities
• Halve the number of submarine officers selected for department head
The submarine force determines its officer accessions requirement (new ensigns) by calculating the more limiting of two numbers—the required number of ensigns to fully man every submarine or the required number of ensigns to meet department head requirements in seven years. Normally, the department head number is more limiting because of retention shortfalls. If one assumes 90 submarine crews in the future (this includes pre-commissioning units as well as two-crew ballistic-missile and guided-missile submarines), 25 percent retention to department head, 5 percent attrition during the department head tour, 5 percent attrition during SOAC, 5 percent attrition during the junior officer tour, 5 percent attrition during the initial training pipeline, and three-year junior officer and department head tours, the submarine force needs either 442 new ensigns (department head limited) or 332 new ensigns (junior officer limited) each year.9
By extending the minimum service requirement to ten years, the submarine force would no longer need to voluntarily retain officers to department head. The ensign accession goal could be based on the required number of junior officers, automatically cutting recruiting goals by a quarter. If the submarine force chose to extend the junior officer tour by a year, it would further drop the number of required ensigns and allow junior officers to become tactical specialists. Most submariners note that junior officers do not begin to seriously drive their ships and grow tactically until after passing their engineer’s exams, at about the two-year point in their tours. A four-year tour would allow these officers to focus on warfighting for two years and acquire more experience before they become department heads. It would also give the submarine force an additional year and metrics to judge whether a junior officer should screen for department head.
The submarine force could drop the number of required ensigns even more by using non–department head screened officers to serve in submarines conducting extended availabilities. This would ensure that junior officers serve only in operational submarines and give non–department head screened officers special incentive pay to use their experience/talents in continuing to serve as nuclear watch officers. Assuming five submarines per year are undergoing extended availabilities, the combination of all these changes could drop required accessions by almost 50 percent.10
Halving the number of required ensigns each year would help ease the recruiting challenge that would follow from raising the minimum service requirement to ten years and make the submarine force far more selective—and therefore elite. In 2021, the U.S. Naval Academy announced that 141 graduates would join the submarine force.11 Because the nuclear Navy divides submarine recruitment between Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, Officer Candidate School, and the Naval Academy by thirds, if the submarine force cut its number of required ensigns by half, the Naval Academy would commission just 70 to 75 submarine officers per year. This would be about one-third of the number of Academy graduates who join naval aviation and surface warfare and closer to elite communities, such as naval special warfare. Submarine officer selection would be more competitive, increasing the quality of ensigns and likely reducing attrition in the training pipeline and afterward.
Finally, with a ten-year minimum service requirement, the submarine force could be far more selective in screening junior officers for department head. Out of about 200 ensigns, only 100 or so would serve as department heads. After that, only 50 department heads would screen for executive officer, and only 33 executive officers would serve as commanding officers. Submarine junior officers would see that only the best among them would serve as department heads, and this is the pool from which executive officers and commanding officers would be selected.
There would be challenges with a new approach to the first ten years of a submarine officer’s career. The submarine force would have to develop career off-ramps for submarine officers who desire a 20-year career but do not screen for department head, which could include an expanded nuclear engineering duty officer community. Compared with the annual waste of recruiting 300 officers who do not retain, this seems an acceptable cost.
Extending the minimum service requirement would require congressional approval, and even were that approval to come, the benefits of the change would not be immediately apparent. In the meantime, the submarine force could take some steps to address retention and selectivity issues.
First, it could assign non–department head screened officers to submarines in extended shipyard availabilities. Right now, only about 50 submarine department heads go on to serve as executive officers. Many of the other department heads will promote to lieutenant commander because of their satisfactory service but will not serve at sea in a submarine again. Instead of discarding these officers’ talents and experiences, the submarine force could offer them an incentive bonus to serve as nuclear watch officers in submarines in shipyard availabilities. This has the benefits of freeing junior officers to serve in operational submarines, avoiding having to qualify officers with very little at-sea experience, and manning submarines in shipyard availabilities with post–department head watch officers who have experience in maintenance and nuclear testing. These officers could handle the lion’s share of an availability until the Navy assigns split-tour and nonqualified junior officers during the final six to nine months of the availability to restore normal operational manning.
Second, the submarine force could take advantage of recent changes to promotion boards to allow for more career flexibility. Previously, officers needed to report to a sea tour by a certain point in their careers so they would be serving in a particular assignment before their first in-zone look for the next rank. With the removal of zone stamps from promotion board records, officers have more career flexibility to allow for graduate school, family planning, or other desires. The submarine force could embrace this flexibility by eliminating “year groups” for purposes of department head, executive officer, and commanding officer selection boards, and instead assign officers to “cohorts” based on when they report to serve as junior officers, department heads, and executive officers. This would improve the perception of fairness because a first-year department head, who was delayed reporting to his or her department head tour for whatever reason, would no longer be competing with a third-year department head in the same year group. Embracing career flexibility would be the best way for the submarine force to show it values talent management and potentially retain more officers.
Finally, the submarine force can revamp its detailing system, which is perceived as being a product of the Cold War, when the submarine force was much larger (with 82 ballistic-missile submarine crews alone). Today’s submarine officer community would benefit from a proactive, individually focused detailing system that takes the time to understand their needs and desires. The submarine force should embrace 21st-century views about spouse employment, family member needs, and parental involvement. Such a system likely would incentivize more retention because junior officers would not see themselves as identical pegs to be inserted into similarly shaped holes.
Ultimately, systemic problems require systemic change. The submarine force should recognize that its technical expertise requirements and training are similar to those of naval aviation and should therefore require a ten-year minimum service requirement. Such a change would allow for more layers of selectivity than the submarine force currently possesses. Until Congress passes legislation to allow this, however, the force could take certain steps to improve selectivity and satisfaction throughout the entire submarine officer community, which could make the submarine force truly elite.
1. VADM Daryl Caudle, USN, “Sustaining the Submarine Force’s Competitive Edge,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 10 (October 2020).
2. This section owes much to my recollections of my service as an assistant nuclear officer community manager from 2014 to 2016. Figures may be inexact but are as accurate as I can recall.
3. U.S. Navy Personnel Command, NAVADMINs 261/01, 341/02, 279/03, 249/04, 282/05, 291/06, 256/07, 289/08, 329/09, 345/10, 316/11, and 318/12. For FY04, the Navy selected 400 STA-21 officer candidates, of whom 278 had either already selected the nuclear option or were eligible to screen for nuclear duty. For FY05, the Navy selected only 187 STA-21 officer candidates, of whom only 100 had either already selected the nuclear option or were eligible to screen for nuclear duty. Although the Navy selected higher numbers of officer candidates for FY06–FY10, the number of potential nuclear-trained officers dropped to less than 100 and never rose above double digits again. From FY11 to FY13, the Navy steadily decreased total STA-21 officer candidates to 50, of which 36, at most, had already selected nuclear duty or could interview for nuclear duty.
4. U.S. Navy Personnel Command, NAVADMIN 056/17.
5. 10 U.S. Code § 8328(c).
6. NAVADMIN 241/20.
7. U.S. Naval Academy, “The Mission of the U.S. Naval Academy.”
8. This is based on my service as an assistant nuclear officer community manager from 2014 to 2016. During this time, officers still submitted resignation letters instead of a computerized request in the Navy Standard Integrated Personnel System.
9. These numbers are all approximations and not meant to be precise statements of retention or attrition.
10. Assuming a ten-year minimum service requirement, 5 percent attrition during the junior officer tour, 5 percent attrition during the initial training pipeline, a four-year junior officer tour, and only recruiting junior officers to man 85 crews, the submarine force would only require 236 ensigns per year.
11. “Naval Academy Class of 2022 Obtain Career Assignments,” USNA News Center, 19 November 2021.