by Lt. Joshusa Weiss
Undersea Warfare (USW) is a wide-ranging topic that covers many subjects that are vital to the Nation’s maritime and defense strategies. The major parts of the overarching USW framework are Submarine Warfare, Antisubmarine Warfare, Subsea Warfare, and Mine Warfare. All areas are very technical and complex in nature requiring those who serve in them to be technically proficient as well as innovative and adaptive to meet ever-changing requirements. Technical competency and procedural compliance are the bedrock of the Submarine Warfare aspect of USW, especially nuclear submarining. Submarines today are vastly complex warships containing very advanced and dangerous technology that if not operated and maintained properly would present a danger to the crew and public. From day one of Nuclear Power School and the Basic Enlisted Submarine School every Submariner, nuclear-trained or otherwise, is drilled and re-drilled on the importance of procedural compliance. This has allowed the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines and surface ships to operate with a perfect safety record for over 60 years, an incredible achievement. However, today’s Submarine Force puts the majority of its emphasis on to-the-letter-procedural compliance. In doing so we have drifted away from the equally important other half of the equation–creativity and increased personal responsibility–that created the independent, innovative, war-winning Force that almost single handedly crippled the Imperial Japanese Navy’s merchant fleet. In order to retain our dominance in the Submarine Warfare arena as the rest of the world catches up in technology, and in order to ensure the Submarine Force is ready when it is called on for its Next Finest Hour, the Submarine Force must put a greater emphasis on boldness and innovation at all levels while maintaining its spotless engineering safety record.
Arguably, the most successful the United States Navy’s Submarine Force has ever been was during its Second World War operations against the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). The relatively small Submarine Force accounted for 55 percent of all Japan’s merchant losses,1 effectively strangling the island nation and playing a major role in the end of the war. This war-ending success against the IJN merchant fleet did not come quickly or without cost. The beginning of the war in the Pacific saw a peacetime Navy struggling to quickly and effectively come to a wartime footing. Many older commanders of submarines were overly cautious, nervous, and unwilling to take the calculated risks that would lead to success. For example, operating constantly submerged provided the submarines a way to remain safe and undetected, but made it impossible to catch up to the faster moving surface ships.
This problem of timid commanders and senior officers who were more concerned with their own advancement and appearance than success of their forces was not exclusive to the Submarine Force. In fact, in January 1941 then Vice Adm. King, Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet, issued Cinclant Serial 053 with the subject line: Exercise of Command–Excess of Detail in Orders and Instructions. In this message Vice Adm. King lays out his growing concern of the practice of senior officers providing too much “how” in their orders to subordinates and of senior officers failing to allow their subordinates to gain the extremely vital experience that only comes from trying–and failing.2 He lays the blame for this culture of fear and micromanagement on not only the desire of senior commanders to have their commands entirely beyond reproach, but also overly exuberant staffs which encroach on the reason for being of the ships and divisions they are meant to support. Two other key contributors were anxiety at all levels regarding exercising initiative for fear that it may influence promotion, and the creation of a coddled group of commanders who were too used to being told how to do something that they lost the ability to think for themselves.
It is prudent to examine our current Force using the lens provided by Adm. King’s message to see where we stack up. The Design for Undersea Warfare is a good place to begin. Published by Commander, Submarine Forces in July 2011, it took a hard look at how the Submarine Force operates and identified four areas that need to be improved:
1) The current approach to assessments and inspections rewards cyclic and temporary-narrow—excellence, vice sustained and broad excellence.
2) TYCOM and ISIC efforts tend to limit a commanding officer’s freedom and flexibility by sharing responsibility and accountability. Excessive administrative distractions are burdensome, also.
3) Insufficient emphasis is given to developing creativity and initiative.
4) Solutions to problems tend towards bureaucratic, process-dominated approaches.
Comparing these with the causes listed by Adm. King shows that the current Submarine Force more closely resembles its pre-World War II version, than the highly successful Force developed during the war years. Ship’s attitudes and priorities are focused on the short-term success of doing well on an external inspection since those scores play a major role in fitness reports, rankings, and promotions. The well-meaning interventions of TYCOM and ISIC staffs have resulted in the dilution of the authority of the commanding officer. Adding to the areas identified by the Design for Undersea Warfare, the procedural compliance (and sometimes reliance!) mentality brought about by the Submarine Force’s strong nuclear engineering background has created an incredibly administratively burdensome process that only adds to the issues identified in the second part of 2) and 4). Well-meaning ideas have been applied blindly and without the filter of independent, creative thought creating the present situation.
Finally, the problem with the potential to cause the most damage to the Submarine Force’s goal of maintaining its dominance of the undersea environment is the lack of emphasis on developing individual initiative and creativity. Procedural compliance is an incredibly important part of submarining and its importance and continued relevance to the Submarine Force must not be diminished. Technical mastery is a necessary condition to enable operators to safely fight an incredibly complicated warship, but it alone is not sufficient to maximize the war fighting potential of the Force. As such, it must not be emphasized at the cost of developing officers and sailors who can adapt, improvise, and overcome any situation with which they are confronted. Adm. King sums this up perfectly saying if the members of the Submarine Force “are not habituated to think, to judge, to decide, and to act for themselves in their several echelons of command–we shall be in sorry case when the time of ‘active operations’ arrives.”3
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