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A native of Groton, Conn., Vice Adm. John J. Donnelly attended the U.S. Naval Academy and began his naval career after graduation in 1975. His first tour assignment was as a division officer and weapons officer aboard USS Tautog (SSN-639). Later tours included engineering officer aboard USS Memphis (SSN-691), physics instructor at the Naval Academy, executive officer aboard USS Simon Bolivar (SSBN-641), and Assistant for Undersea Warfare and Strategic Issues for the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel staff (OP-00K).

Vice Adm. Donnelly’s first assignment as commanding officer was aboard USS Hyman G. Rickover
(SSN-709). After completing two shore duty tours, he commanded the submarine tender USS McKee
(AS-41). Vice Adm. Donnelly then completed a tour in Japan before returning to the U.S. as a flag officer. His first tour as a flag officer was as Director of Combat Plans (J5A). Later in his career, Vice Adm. Donnelly served as Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff, U.S. Pacific Fleet before being assigned as Commander, Submarine Force.

Upon assuming the role of Commander, Submarine Force, Vice Adm. Donnelly took some time to share his thoughts on the Force’s future, the future of the Sailors and officers, and his personal goals in his new role.

Submarine Force Commander,
Vice Adm. John J. Donnelly, Shares Some Insights

by Petty Officer First Class Christina M. Shaw

image caption follows
Capt. David Solms (left) salutes Commander, Submarine Force, Vice Adm. John Donnelly,
signifying he is “reporting for duty” and is in command of USS
Photo by Chief Petty Officer Shawn Eklund

What are your top objectives for the Submarine Force?
How do you plan on meeting these objectives during your tour as its commander?

When I came on as Commander, Submarine Force, I set three priorities, and have categorized all staff activities into one of those priorities.

The first is operational excellence. What I mean by that is we need to focus on what I call the main thing—the safe and effective operation of our ships. We have had a string of mishaps in the recent past, and I am trying to reverse that trend through a number of initiatives. Thus far, in my first six months as the Submarine Force commander, we have not had a major incident in the Submarine Force. I hope to continue that record through efforts on several fronts to help the commanding officers and the crews focus on that main thing.

The middle priority – I do not call it my second priority because it is just as important as the first – is the professional development of our Submarine Force personnel. There are a number of initiatives there. We are trying to provide the right level of training and improve our training programs to be more effective in the way we develop our people, so they have the skills necessary to succeed.

Finally, I am trying to improve the way we perform submarine maintenance, modernization and the recapitalization of our force. I have several partners I work with, specifically NAVSEA, Strategic Systems Programs, OPNAV N87, and several others in the Undersea Enterprise that all have a stake in our success. I am starting to see some encouraging results. We’re coming together and teaming to make improvements in those areas so we can get our ships out of the shipyards on time, on budget, and back to sea where we need them.

What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of this job?
What do you think will be the most rewarding

I will start with the second part of the question. Clearly, the most rewarding is the opportunity to work with the Submarine Force personnel. I have been out of the Submarine Force for awhile in my previous assignment (Deputy Commander, Pacific Fleet), and it is a joy to come back and work with such professional, talented people on the single focus area of providing Submarine Force capability to the fleet. That really is a lot of fun.

I think the most challenging for me personally has been time management. That’s my personal problem to cope with. There’s so much work to be done, so many people that I want to meet, and so many places to visit that in my initial six months in this tour, its been a scheduling challenge to fit it all into my calendar. I am trying to make it all work and I think I am getting better at that.

As a force, I think the most challenging thing I am looking at is trying to change our emphasis away from a focus on process, to a focus on the output of the process and the effects of what we are doing.

Let me give you an example. We spend a lot of time training in the Submarine Force. Training is absolutely vital and necessary to constantly refresh our skills, especially as we bring new people in to various teams, wardrooms and ships. Training is an essential fact of life, but I think we’ve gotten into a habit now where we are more interested in the process of training—documenting training, grading exams and developing multiple three ring binders, which will prove we did the training—when the real focus should be how much do the people know as a result of that training. I am trying to get the administration of the training program reduced to a more manageable level, and really focus on the quality and the effectiveness of the training as opposed to the quantity and volume of the training records. That is a challenge because we have to overcome a lot of inertia.

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Crew members conduct mooring operations as USSScranton(SSN-756) arrives for a routine port visit in Greece.
Photo by Mr. Paul Farley.

How important is diversity in the Submarine Force?
What is being done to meet the CNO’s diversity goals?

Diversity is vital in the Submarine Force. We should be representative of the diversity of the nation that we are defending. The diversity in our ranks adds richness, it brings different perspectives, different points of view and we are much better as a result of that rich diversity. I think we must improve in this area. We have hired a diversity officer for SUBFOR and that person will work full time to help improve our Submarine Force diversity. The key to success in this area is to increase the diversity of the people we bring into the Force. Once we bring diverse members into our force, they retain and promote at the same rate as our other members, so we must attract high quality, highly motivated young people into our force and effectively mentor those folks to keep them within our ranks.

I think it is very, very important that we continue to focus on this effort. It is a CNO priority area and it is an area that I take very seriously. I hope to see some big gains, particularly in the officer community.

How are submarines contributing to the GWOT and the war in Iraq?
Where else are submarines being used today?

On any given day we have about 10 submarines forward deployed. We are using the unique attributes of these submarines to support the combatant commanders in every region. By unique attributes, I mean their stealth, their endurance, their agility, their persistence, their intelligence gathering capabilities, and when necessary we have used, as you saw in Iraq, our combat power to add to the striking capabilities of the joint force. We will continue to use those attributes in the future. The global war on terror is all about intelligence, and the submarine is a unique intelligence-gathering platform. We are out there gathering intelligence when the potential adversary does not know he is being observed. That intelligence is used by combatant commanders in their effort to fight terrorism. I can’t go into a lot of details because of classification issues, but you should know that our submarines are out there on the front lines. The products they generate for combatant commanders are being used and it is important in the ongoing efforts.

We just tested the Tactical TOMAHAWK missile using one of our submarines, and that weapon is going to add to our combat power. We have the ability to put a TOMAHAWK missile in the air and while it is in flight command it to a target for a very rapid strike. This new, flexible strike capability will be a great asset to the joint force.

How will submarines be used in support of the CNO’s maritime strategy of the future?
How will the roles and missions of submarines evolve near and long term?

As you look at the history of the Submarine Force, our roles and missions have continuously evolved. The key characteristics of a submarine will always be important to our maritime strategy. Our stealth, endurance, mobility, and persistence will make us vital members of the joint team. One aspect of the CNO’s maritime strategy is strategic deterrence, where our SSBN’s will always be at the forefront. The mission they perform is just as important today as it has ever been. They perform their mission with great professionalism and they are a key cornerstone of the CNO’s maritime strategy.

The ability of our SSNs to gather intelligence in a covert nature for long periods of time will serve us well in the maritime strategy of the future. SSGN will make its first deployment later this year and brings incredible firepower to the fleet, with its arsenal of Tomahawk missiles and special operations forces in addition to its other submarine unique capabilities.

We will see the Submarine Force mission continue to evolve. We will use off-ship sensors, such as unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles, to extend the envelope of our sensors. Submarines will continue to be vital members of the strike group and the fleet as they gather intelligence and provide maritime domain awareness.

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Cmdr. Brian N. Humm, commanding officer of USSBuffalo(SSN-715), addresses the crew during an
all-hands call on the pier. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Paul Honnick.

Please share your thoughts on the state of today’s submarine training (both officer and enlisted).
How do you see this training evolving in the future?

I mentioned that one of my priorities is the professional development of our people, and this really goes right to the core of your question. I think the training we do can be enhanced by using all available technology. You are seeing this new technology if you go to the submarine learning centers. I have toured several of them and what is being done is truly impressive. We are bringing in the latest technology for trainers such as the Submarine Multi-Mission Team Trainer 3 (SMTT-3), a full weapons employment system that simulates on board equipment and response with a very high degree of fidelity and allows our crews to train in the shore-based trainer for the fight of tomorrow.

SMTT-3 is a tactical team trainer that replicates the actual sonar and fire control equipment that you find on a submarine and enables our crews to do training in port that you might not be able to do at sea. For example, one of the things that our boats in the Western Pacific often encounter is very high surface contact density due to the large number of fishing vessels. We can’t send a submarine out to practice operations anywhere in the local operating area with that level of complexity. SMTT-3 gives them all the skills so they can hone those processes and the teamwork and the rhythm needed to handle complex situations. This remarkable technology is vastly improving the quality and effectiveness of our training.

The other initiative we are undertaking is training key enlisted members of the crew as they execute their permanent change of station orders enroute to a job with higher responsibilities. We have always done that with the officers before each sea tour. We are expanding the practice and we will soon teach a course to our engineering department enlisted advisors. This weeklong course will provide them the necessary knowledge and the skills so they are better positioned for success. We are also working together with the Naval Aviation community to start a course for all our nuclear-trained leading petty officers as they go to their first assignment as a leading petty officer on carriers and submarines. This course will be taught either in Norfolk or in San Diego, and will give them the basic background and administrative skills to allow them to focus on leadership and learning new administrative functions when they first report. I think that’s how we’re going to evolve training as we develop our people for success in their assignments.

Please describe the ‘submarine culture’.  How important has this been to the success of the force?

One of the best things about the Submarine Force is its culture.  We have our own unique culture as do the various platforms in our Navy and our military.  I think our culture is largely our war fighting culture, established in World War II by brave WWII submarine veterans, and they still come to all of our submarine ceremonies.  Later in our history Adm Rickover came along and with the advent of nuclear propulsion, all the things that Adm Rickover instilled in the force developed a great tradition of integrity, attention to detail, fact-based decisions and drawing out the most from each person having them operate as close as possible to the maximum potential.  So now we have this wonderful tradition of professionalism, excellence and war-fighting expertise, which I think is a tremendous strength of the submarine force, one that I am very proud of and we need to continue. 

How important is Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) in today’s environment? 
What key areas require focus to be able to maintain/improve the submarine’s ASW capability?

ASW is vital.  It is the number one war-fighting priority in the Pacific. The Chief of Naval Operations is putting a tremendous amount of emphasis on ASW.  It is really the enabler for all other war-fighting areas.  In order for our joint force and our Navy to engage, they need to have a dominance of the water space.  ASW is the key to that.

Many, many nations are investing a great deal in acquiring and enlarging their submarine force.  We have to be able to deal with that threat effectively.  The submarine force has always understood that, and we are making a lot of investments to continue to improve our ASW capability. One of the ways we are doing that is through the modernization period I talked about.
We have an Acoustic Rapid Commercial Off the Shelf Insertion Technology we call ARCI and with that, we have changed the whole direction that the submarine force has gone by using our commercial processing equipment and refreshing that equipment very frequently.  We found we could do that for far less cost than the old approach, which was to get legacy equipment designed by a vender, and then try to maintain that for 20 years.  It is much better to leverage the commercial sector.  Therefore, we are using the ever-increasing processing power that is available commercially to run more and more complex signal processing algorithms so that we can enhance our detection capability for enemy submarines. 

We are investing in new arrays and new sensors improving our torpedo performance with the introduction of the MK 48 ADCAP MOD 6 or Common Broadband Advanced Sonar System (CBASS) torpedo.  We are putting a lot of emphasis across the board in ASW and will continue to do so.  It really is the most important war fighting area that we have. 

What new capabilities and technologies is the Submarine Force working on to ensure submarines are ready to meet the needs of the future?

We are working very hard at the modernization of our submarines, and it’s amazing.  If you look at USS Los Angeles, the first 688-class submarine that we built, and compare her to USS Cheyenne, which was the 62nd submarine we built, in many ways Los Angeles will be more advanced.  We have made the investment over the life of all of our ships to continuously modernize and improve them.  We will continue to do that. 

Our submarines today are deploying with wonderful capabilities that did not even exist when I had command of a submarine. Things like the Patriot Radar, which is a periscope-mounted radar that provides excellent surface contact management capabilities, Night Owl in a periscope, which gives us some very enhanced infrared capability that turns night into day, and the automatic identification system, which is a commercial system but is now installed on all our ships, allows them to monitor the movements of the large surface ships in and around them.

The Virginia-class is now entering the force and they have magnificent new technologies that have been brought to the fleet, including improved special operating force capabilities, handling characteristics in shallow water and a photonics mast.  We are aggressively putting new technologies into our submarines so that they can pace the threat and maintain our undersea dominance.

What thoughts could you share about recent submarine force problems and the management of risk in day-to-day operations?

We have had a string of mishaps in the Submarine Force, which have exceeded the norms over the past year.  When I came in as Commander, Submarine Force, I made my top priority to look at what was causing it and to try to change that trend.

I think there is no single cause.  We need to do operational risk management better than we have been.  Just about everything you do on a submarine has some element of risk.  My concern is that at times we become blind to that risk and do not put into place the necessary steps that reduce the risk to the manageable level.  As part of that priority, I really want the commanding officers and their leadership teams to focus on the main thing, the safe and effective operation of their ship.  I think it is important to take a moment to think about that as you are planning an evolution and establish trip wires to make sure all the right people understand what the risks are.  For them to see what the assumption going into the evolution is, and when those assumptions change or when risks don’t present themselves in the way that you thought, then it’s necessary to respond effectively so that we can continue to do the evolutions that we need to do in a safe and effective manner.  So there’s room for improvement there. 

Our message is penetrating the Chiefs Mess and the LPO’s are taking the time to look their sailors in the eye and make sure they understand what risk management means off duty as well as on duty.  I think we are really starting to see some positive results in those efforts.

Petty Officer 1st Class Christina Shaw is a Mass Communication Specialist with the Submarine Force Public Affairs Office.