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by Capt. Don Miller (Ret.)

I am flattered to have been asked to write a short article on commanding officer decision-making. At the same time, I feel a little intimidated. I admit up front that 2007 marks the 20th anniversary of my command on USS Buffalo (SSN-715), the only submarine I served on that is still in commission. However, my career also afforded me the opportunity to observe other commanding officers while serving as a senior member of the Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board and as a Submarine Squadron Commander. I acknowledge there were many successful commanding officers prior to me, there have been many successful commanding officers since, and there will be many successful commanding officers in the future. I also acknowledge that the world has changed significantly in the last two decades. I had command in the twilight of the Cold War. Our responsibilities were still centered more on anti-submarine warfare [ASW] with a smattering of “non-traditional” submarine roles. Our operating areas were the more “traditional” open oceans. Today’s commanding officers operate in areas of the world which were very uncommon for our operations. I will not even try to guess the number and complexity of dangerous operations today’s commanding officer must master. Keeping all these changes in mind, I offer one ex-commanding officer’s input on the process of accurately assessing situations, managing risk and making good decisions.

Know Your Boat

This may seems obvious, but I am referring to really knowing your ship —the propulsion plant, the ship handling characteristics, everything. A commanding officer demonstrates knowledge of the propulsion plant by successfully completing the course of instruction at Naval Reactors. However, as a senior member of the Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board, I did see, albeit infrequently, the occasional commanding officer who isolated himself from what was going on in the engineering spaces aft once he took command. That commanding officer was asking for trouble, no matter how competent his engineer was and no matter how much trust he had in the engineer.

Know how your ship handles, both on the surface and while submerged. Do you do angles and dangles each time underway, not just following an upkeep period? Not only do these maneuvers demonstrate that the ship is properly stowed for sea, but they also improve the skills of the ship’s diving party and help to build their confidence.

Could your wardroom and maneuvering watch get underway and make a landing without the aid of a tug and pilot? This is just one example of something I worked on during my command tour. Each of my junior officers became very proficient at making a landing without the use of tugs. When we entered port, we would tie the tug on for safety, but refrain from using the tug unless it was essential. Thanks to a great executive officer who trained the topside line handlers, we became very proficient at making a landing using lines, the capstan, and the secondary propulsion motor. For an underway, the tug was required while warming up the main engines, but again we would refrain from using it when lines where cast off unless it was absolutely necessary. This proficiency came in handy a couple of times when the ship was required to make an unassisted landing alongside the tender, or when getting underway in Korea when the cost of using Korean commercial tugs would have put a significant dent in the ship’s OPTAR (Financial Operating Target).

Knowing the ship obviously applies to more than just ship handling. My guess is that the opportunity to shoot weapons at sea is probably as limited today as it was in 1987, if not more so. Take advantage of the shore-based training facilities to maintain proficiency and to train the entire crew.

Learn From Mentors

As a junior officer, department head and executive officer, I had the opportunity to work with five different commanding officers. They were all different in their mannerisms. Some were easy to work with, some were demanding individuals. I tried very hard to adopt what I thought were the good traits of each of them. Similarly, I observed what I perceived were their bad traits and worked to avoid those in my own performance. I am sure I was not always successful, but hopefully once in a while I was. I remember the PCO (prospective commanding officer) instructor telling our class that we would be unable to change any of our personal characteristics because they were ingrained into our minds. I’m not sure I would agree with that assessment.

I was also very fortunate to work for two different squadron commanders. Although they each had different leadership styles, it was easy to work with each of them and I took their recommendations to heart.

Keep Your Superiors Informed

This seems easy enough, but I always wanted to operate as independently as possible. For the most part my squadron commanders gave me that freedom. I think they trusted that if I had an issue on the ship, I would make sure they heard about it first from me and not from their bosses. I learned that when I had a problem on the ship, it was important to not only inform my superiors, but, if at all possible, to have a solution in hand. I wanted to make sure I could report how I was going to correct the problem at the same time I reported the problem existed. If my superior had a better solution,
I found that they usually provided that solution in the form of a “recommendation.” I learned quickly that I had better have a really good reason not to follow those “recommendations.”

During my squadron commander tour, I worked with 16 different commanding officers for the 13 SSNs that were in the squadron over my two year tour. I tried to allow those commanding officers the freedom to make their own decisions without rudder orders from me. It generally worked with only the occasional need for a “recommendation” on my part.

Line handlers take in mooring lines as Los Angeles-class attack submarine USSJefferson City(SSN-759)
moors at Fleet Activities Yokosuka for a scheduled port visit. Photo by Seaman Bryan Reckard.

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