Week of November 15, 2021

Latest Incidents Raise Questions About America’s Submarine Fleet

Does America’s navy need to revise its management style?


The last few weeks have once again raised questions about the quality of America’s navy and nuclear submarine fleet.  There was the incident of an American submarine hitting a sea mount (a mountain totally underwater) in the South China Sea.  It also came out that steel used in the construction of American submarines didn’t meet specification, which could have led to catastrophic failures.

Is this just bad luck? Or is there a fundamental problem with America’s naval management?

A few weeks ago, the nuclear submarine USS Connecticut ran into a sea mount in the South China Sea, causing injuries amongst the crew and forcing the submarine to remain on the surface while it sailed to the Guam for repair.  It is currently in Guam and is expected to sail to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

There are now questions if this multibillion-dollar submarine can even return to active duty.

Although the scope of damages is classified, reports say the forward section of the sub was damaged, including the ballast tanks, which would force it to remain surfaced while at sea.

Information about the collision has not been forthcoming.  The Navy says the collision was with an uncharted sea mount.  However, the decision by the 7thFleet to remove the top two ranking officers and the top enlisted person for, “loss of confidence…sound judgment, prudent decision making, and adherence to required procedures in navigation planning, watch team execution and risk management,” indicate there was more to this incident than hitting an uncharted sea mount.

From the Navy’s statement, it appears that the sub’s commander had an untrained watch team that was conning the sub when the accident occurred.  The statement about “navigation planning,” indicates that proper navigation would have prevented the collision – possibly because there was solid evidence that the sub was transiting dangerous, uncharted waters that could cause a collision.  The statement about “watch team management,” indicates that some of the officers and enlisted on watch weren’t fully qualified.

As we have mentioned before, to cut corners, the Navy has shortened officer training and now requires the ship’s captain to oversee the completion of the junior officer’s training onboard the ship.  Unfortunately, the shortage of officers who can stand watch forces commanders to qualify these junior officers before they are fully qualified to handle a ship at sea.

At the height of the Cold War, Naval Officer Candidate School was nearly six months long. Today, it is only three months long. Courses in navigation, ship handling, damage control, etc, have been nearly eliminated.  Surface line officers do receive additional training at Surface Warfare Officers School, but that is only two additional months – seven months less than the full year given to junior officers in the Cold War era.

Junior officers going to nuclear submarines do receive a little over one year training in nuclear propulsion and shipboard operations.  However, that is far less than training during the Cold War era.

Another problem is the vetting of potential nuclear submarine officers.  During the Cold War, every officer, who was to be sent to a nuclear submarine, was interviewed by Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.”  These interviews were legendary as Rickover tried to throw challenges at the officers to see how they would react.  In several cases, he would force the officer to sit in a chair that had uneven legs to see how he would react.  Other tactics would include forcing them to stand in a closet or verbally berating them.

These interviews, in addition to adding to the large number of Rickover antidotes, produced a submarine officer who could react to stress and unusual situations.  It also produced officers who would push themselves as well as others to demand absolute perfection.

Rickover’s accomplishments are legendary.  His team designed and built the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, in just three years.  Today, it takes over a decade to build nuclear submarines, even though the plans are already in place.

Rickover’s influence is also seen in the fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that span the oceans.

Although officers are still interviewed by the head of the nuclear power command, the demand for excellence in all things has declined. And, since there is less of a focus on mathematics and physics in many colleges, it is harder to find naval officers with the rigorous academic background for operating nuclear reactors.

Rickover was opposed to training that left officers unqualified.  He once said, “This system virtually ensures inexperience and nonaccountability.  By the time an officer has begun to learn a job, it is time for him to rotate.”

One of the officers who were able to pass Rickover’s stringent standards was former President Jimmy Carter.  Carter as president was later able to provide political protection to the irascible admiral.

Without Carter’s political protection, Rickover was forced to retire in 1982 and as his management style evaporated; so did standards – not only in officer training, but ship building.  This week, a metallurgist who once was responsible for testing the steel used in US Navy submarines pled guilty to falsely reporting the steel quality for more than three decades.

Ellen Thomas, the former Director of Metallurgy at Bradken, pled guilty of falsifying more than 240 tests during her career from 1985 to 2017.  The test verified the ability of the steel to not fail at -70C, which would guarantee its ability to withstand a collision or other catastrophic event like colliding with a sea mount.

Fortunately for the Navy, none of the submarine hulls manufactured under Thomas’s time at Bradken have failed.

Interestingly, Admiral Rickover retired in 1982 at the age of 82; before the falsifying of submarine steel began.

This is where the management style of Rickover’s probably would have ensured a double check of testing and its documentation.  In 1982, Rickover said in a speech on management, “A major flaw in our system of government, and even in industry, is the latitude allowed to do less than is necessary.  Too often officials are willing to accept and adapt to situations they know to be wrong.  The tendency is to downplay problems instead of actively trying to correct them.”

The case of the faulty steel is an example.  The steel test cards had been obviously altered, but no one discovered this (or cared to investigate the problem) until 2017.  Rickover responded to this lax attitude when he said, “All work should be checked through an independent and impartial review.”

Waiting to find the problem was an anathema to Rickover.  Rickover said, “Every manager has a personal responsibility not only to find problems, but to correct them.  This responsibility comes before all other obligations before personal ambition or comfort.”

The Navy has identified the submarines that have the substandard steel.  Although the Navy has been mum on what actions they have taken, it appears that sub commanders have been told not to push their submarine hulls to the maximum.

As the US Navy faces the problems of substandard steel hulls and undertrained naval officers, the Navy’s top officers must take a different course if they hope to rectify these problems.  In a speech made just before he retired, Rickover said, “It is a human inclination to hope things will work out, despite evidence or doubt to the contrary.  A successful manager must resist this temptation…Although it is not easy to admit what a person once thought correct now appears to be wrong, one must discipline himself to face the facts objectively and make the necessary changes – regardless of the consequences to himself…It is not a pleasant task, but one must be brutally objective in his work.”

One reason Rickover was forced to resign at the age of 82, was that his management style, although successful, was not welcome in many parts of the Navy.  Top officers prefer to avoid responsibility, while enjoying the perks of their position.

As one looks at the collisions at sea by naval vessels in the past few years, it is obvious that the maxims of management by Admiral Rickover have been excised from the Navy management style.

It is assumed that the Submarine incident was a result of spying mission went wrong in a sensitive location, China must be pleased with such outcome since similar spying mission may be halted until further notice.