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Submarine Force Command Master Chief Dean Irwin addresses chief petty officers and junior officers in the crew’s mess aboard fast-attack submarine USS Springfield(SSN-761). Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Ira Elinson

Force Master Chief (FORCM) Dean Irwin was born in Suffern, New York and began his Navy career in 1984. He completed Basic Training and then attended Basic Submarine School and Sonar Technician “A” and “C” schools. After completing this training, FORCM Irwin reported for his first tour onboard USS Memphis (SSN-691), with later tours aboard USS Hammerhead (SSN-663), USS Finback (SSN-670), and USS Pittsburgh (SSN-720). He then served as chief of the boat (COB) aboard USS Seawolf (SSN-21), where he completed the ship’s inaugural deployment in direct support of the Global War on Terrorism.

After returning to shore duty, FORCM Irwin served as a pre-deployment sonar instructor at Naval Submarine School in Groton, Conn. and as the command career counselor on the staff of Commander, Submarine Group TWO. In December 2002, he completed the Senior Enlisted Academy and then reported to Commander, Submarine Squadron TWENTY TWO. FORCM Irwin served there until he was selected for the post of Force Master Chief for Commander, Submarine Force in August 2004.

Over the course of this career, FORCM Irwin has been personally awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (one gold star), Navy Commendation Medal (three gold stars), Navy Achievement Medal (four gold stars), and various service and campaign awards.

He recently sat down with UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine to discuss the ever-present challenge of equipping enlisted sailors to be exceptional members of the Submarine Force.


What impresses you most about the Sailors in the Submarine Force today?

There are many things that impress me. I recently returned from an all hands call at Kings Bay, Ga. The first thing that impressed me about that group of Sailors was the pride and professionalism they had and the commitment to service, the commitment each of them had to their individual submarines. Each Sailor that I had an opportunity to speak with displayed immense pride in being a crewmember of his assigned submarine. I have never seen the level of pride and professionalism so high within the force. These young Sailors grew up in a different generation, so there are certainly going to be challenges for the submarine deckplate leadership. There will be challenges in learning how these young Sailors think, what their thought process is. This generation of Sailor is accustomed to moving at a rapid pace. Sometimes there is a mindset of “What are you doing for me today?”. One of my challenges is to make sure the CPOs [chief petty officers] of the Force understand this mindset so they can mentor these young Sailors into the CPOs of tomorrow.

Another area that impresses me is that the young Sailor today has an ability to advance and to pursue off-duty education more so than ever before. They are intelligent, sharp, young men and women. There are more Sailors developing themselves professionally and personally than ever before.

What does the Submarine Force need to do to maintain and improve upon the high standards for Sailors on the boat and on shore duty?

That’s a good question. I call it transitioning from the schoolhouse to the quarterdeck. You have a new Sailor who lives in a very structured environment for six or eight months while at the schoolhouse. Room inspections, uniform inspections, an active physical readiness program, and a rigorous daily technical training program are the daily norm. He now reports to his submarine. We need to maintain the same high standards with checks and balances at his sea going command. If we are not ready to receive that Sailor, if the same checks and balances are not in place, we will lose that Sailor. The deckplate leadership has to maintain the same day to day care of this individual.

Some Sailors are better than others. Some Sailors need more attention. We recognize that some Sailors are at a higher risk than others. One of the programs we have recently initiated is a “submarine school report card” that transitions with the Sailor from the schoolhouse to the quarterdeck. It provides a data point for the deckplate leadership on how a particular Sailor performed in school and identifies that Sailor who may require some extra attention. The saying used to be that ten percent of the Sailors took up 90 percent of the time. The percentage of those Sailors is now probably five percent and they require less time. We are getting great Sailors to the force and it’s reflected in the numbers. We can always improve, yet there has been a 12 percent reduction in the number of DUIs [driving under the influence] from FY06 [fiscal year 2006] to FY07. Positive urinalysis numbers are down 13 percent during the same period. The number of alcohol related incidents is down 60 percent. Our sailors who were eligible for discharge for failing the physical readiness requirements has dropped from 475 in the fall of last year to 166 in the spring of this year. We’ve had zero recreational off-duty deaths this year and zero private motor vehicular deaths this year. Last year we had six motor vehicle and two recreational deaths. This is not to say we can relax, but the Sailors are getting the message and the standards are higher than they have ever been.

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Petty Officer 1st Class Jay Miller, left, and Chief Petty Officer Erick Encarnacion work on an assembly piece for the stern plane angle indicator aboard theLos Angeles-class fast attack submarine USSAnnapolis(SSN-760). Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Teeples
A midshipman attempts to stop flooding during a damage control simulation at Submarine Training Center Pacific. Photo by Seaman James Seward

After the recent operational stand down, has training gone “back to basics” with regards to basic marine skills, watchstanding skills, etc.?

Vice Adm. Donnelly’s top three priorities are operational excellence, professional development of our Force and Sailors and modernizing our submarines. By focusing on these top three priorities, it will naturally reinforce our “back to basics.” Every day we will cross two or three of these priorities. I think the CPOs play a key role in all three. I think the chief of the boat needs to be involved in all aspects of the ship. He’s not just a watchbill coordinator. He needs to sit down at the table with the commanding officer and the department heads and be involved with everything associated with that submarine. What’s the impact on the crew if we go to carry out that mission? What’s the impact on the crew and the families in conducting that maintenance after being at sea for a lengthy period? How do I juggle the school and leave requirements?

That’s one piece of the puzzle. Another piece is ensuring the CPOs set the example with supervisory qualifications. Once we have qualified on our senior supervisory qualifications, then we can hold our Sailors accountable. We need to be the best diving officer of the watch, the best engineering duty petty officer. That’s kind of a long answer, but there is not a set way to “get back to the basics.” The Submarine Force has always been a checklist driven force. We rely on these checklists so we don’t have to rely on memory for the safety related functions we perform every day. There’s a good thing about that and there’s a bad thing. If your checklist driven your not asking questions about why the procedure is the way it is. We need to also have a questioning mindset. We need to get back to that. There is no “easy button” in the operation of submarines. We need to challenge assumptions. We need to have an active operational risk management mindset in everything we do. There needs to be questioning, forceful backup at every level of the chain of command. The junior lookout on the bridge needs to have a questioning attitude as much as the seasoned officer standing next to him. Operational risk management also needs to extend off the ship, and that’s a real challenge. The young men and women who man the submarine force are 18-19 years old and they think they are invincible. They are going to go out and live life’s experiences. If we can get some of them, all of them, to apply some level of operational risk management, I think we will continue to see the progress we have made to date.

There is no “easy button” in the operation of submarines. We need to challenge assumptions. We need to have an active operational risk management mindset in everything we do...
The junior lookout on the bridge needs to have
a questioning attitude as much as the seasoned officer standing next to him.

Submariners perform damage control and firefighting training at the Naval Submarine Training Center Pacific.
Petty Officer 1st Class James E. Foehl

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Over your career, how have you seen Sailors evolve at the deckplate level?
What skills, traits, attributes are they bringing to the Navy that they weren’t when you enlisted?

They are inquisitive; they want to know. They can be impatient; they want it now. They are smarter and know how to use the resources that are available to them. They have tools available to them on the Internet where they can look up data. So, if you are a chief today, you better have the answer right, because the Sailor and their family are going to have the right answer if you do not. And that gets back to our credibility. It becomes an issue of credibility between the Sailor and his supervisors and it’s vital that we maintain that credibility.

From my perspective, from when Seaman Recruit Irwin walked in the Navy, I think we have become more focused on the professional development of our Sailors than we have ever been before and more focused on family readiness than ever before. Those two things are going to ensure we retain our best sailors as we move forward. Before, if a young Sailor asked his chief for some time off and indicated it was to assist his wife with some item, the response was frequently “Your wife wasn’t issued with your seabag.” If a chief said that to a Sailor today, shame on that chief. That is an unacceptable answer today and I would be very surprised to hear it from any CPO.

In my two and a half years here [as FORCM], I have seen the chief’s mess evolve, and it continues to evolve. Vice Adm. Donnelly has made it very clear that now is the time to get back to the basics and to focus on the top three priorities. Combine that with the MCPON’s [Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy] guidance to the chief’s mess and our expectations are set for the future—how we are going to march off and how we are going to take care of business. We have great people out there doing great things.

Don Miller is a retired submariner who—among his many assignments—served as Commanding Officer of USS Buffalo (SSN-715) and as commodore of Submarine Squadron ONE.