USS Wahoo (SS 238) Commanding Officer Lt. Cmdr. Dudley W. “Mush” Morton
This resulted in Commanders like the legendary Eugene Fluckey and Dick O’Kane who were not afraid to take risky chances or push the edge of the envelope. Free from shore based micromanagement they created tactics from their own experience and imagination. They took calculated risk after calculated risk and they pushed the envelope with one goal in mind–bringing the fight to the enemy and destroying him wherever he was to be found. They helped create the finest hour of the U.S. Submarine Force.
The implication here is clear. The World War II Submarine Force turned itself around with actions closely aligned to Adm. King’s message. The modern Submarine Force can, and should, absolutely do the same thing. The groundwork for this has already been laid. The initial purpose statement of the Design for Undersea Warfare immediately aligns itself with the concepts for success outlined by Adm. King by saying that it is meant to be “specific enough to clearly define the objective, while being flexible enough to encourage initiative and boldness throughout the Force–at all levels–in the attainment of these goals.”4 It also encourages “increased emphasis on creativity and innovation, sparked by initiative and a heightened sense of authority, responsibility, and accountability at the lowest capable level–even to the individual.”5
The Design for Undersea Warfare is an excellent beginning to the changes that must be made to the way we operate and our culture to reshape the modern Submarine Force to continue its undersea dominance. The only directive phrase it contains sums this up perfectly saying, “The Design for Undersea Warfare is a framework for action. Read it, think about it, discuss it, and act on it.”6 Adm. King would most certainly approve of this document since it provides guidance on what must be done, then utterly relies on individual commanders to successfully implement it.
Released in November 2012, Update One to the Design for Undersea Warfare continues to emphasize the importance of developing and training the individuals of the Submarine Force to ensure success. It quickly defines the Foundation of the Strength of the Submarine Force as being built on individuals with expertise, discipline, and initiative as well as leaders who are motivating, capable, and decisive.7 Additionally, the first two focus areas delineated for 2013 talk about enhancing CO initiative, and training watchstanders and teams to develop the necessary skills to confront uncertainty, complexity, and urgency.8 Finally, and most importantly, in the “Commander’s Guidance to Submarine Commanding Officers” section, the document acknowledges and specifies that it is only there to provide general guidance. Authority, and responsibility, to implement the Commander’s Intent is entirely handed over to each commanding officer to tailor to his or her specific situation and command. Similar guidance is promulgated to those who support the forces afloat. They are directed, above all else, to respect and defend the authority and responsibility of ship’s commanding officers and to use their own initiative to accomplish this.
The Design for Undersea Warfare and its recently released update are only a framework and the ultimate success and reshaping of the Submarine Force depends on command–and individual–level implementation. These documents can become a license to wildly innovate until our Submarine Force looks like we want it to. They are both a license and tool to change the status quo for the better.
For the individual members of the Submarine Force it is important to not be afraid to challenge the current system with new and innovative ideas. The commonly heard phrases “that’s how we’ve always done it,” “living with a problem,” or “I could do it way better than this procedure tells me to” must become a call to action instead of only a gripe. Our legendary wit, problem solving skills, and refusal to be beaten are tools without equal. Apply them to fixing the issues we all despise the most. Deck plate solutions work on a daily basis and they will work even better when adapted and formalized for Force wide use. We can always do something better.
For the leaders it is absolutely crucial to support and encourage those who work for us to do just that: challenge the system. We are constantly told that we have the best Sailors in the world so we must use them. Commanders who take pride in furthering and implementing the innovative ideas of their subordinates, while applying their own experience and ideas to innovate themselves, are the Fluckeys and O’Kanes of the future. Leaders who are afraid to challenge the current system, or who are too complacent to wonder how something could be done better, must become the forgotten and replaced commanders of Vice Adm. Lockwood’s era.
Furthermore, leaders must not only teach every member of the Submarine Force the importance of innovation, but to mentor them as they develop the necessary skills. The qualification process, training plan, and inspection metrics must be revised for an increased emphasis on creativity by every watch stander. An environment that is tolerant of honest mistakes and failure must also be created. Failing is not something to be feared as long as the effort was honest, well thought out, and properly implemented. The long line of successful U.S. military operations has its own list of failures–and would not exist without those failures. The best and longest remembered lessons come from the ashes of failure. We must not let fear of failure, or criticism from that failure, prevent us from trying–and learning.
To be clear, this is not a diatribe against procedural compliance, nor is it meant to diminish the great importance of technical mastery. Both of those doctrines make up a large portion of the bedrock of the Submarine Force and are now, and have always been, irreplaceable. It is not an easy problem to train sailors for the most technical job in the military while still asking them to be innovative and creative under pressure, but then again the leaders of the Force must remember that very few of us joined up because submarining was the easy path. So, the problem we face is not one of “either/or” but one of “both/and.”
The Submarine Force of the Second World War was transformed by the necessity of war as well as the guidance of an amazing group of Sailors willing to change the status quo to achieve the results required. Our current Force is not at war, but is engaged in many missions vital to national security and as such must rely on us to supply the change necessary. The Design for Undersea Warfare, with its emphasis on individual authority, creativity, and responsibility is an excellent framework to begin this very necessary shaping of the attitude of the Submarine Force towards one of boldness and calculated risk taking. But, just as it was in World War II, it will be the individual Submariners who make this change, not reliance on the governing documents themselves. We all must implement and personally embody the tenets of Adm. King’s message and the Design for Undersea Warfare to ensure our continued dominance in the undersea domain. Our Next Finest Hour may be coming sooner than anyone thinks.
1 Graham, Euan. (2006). Japan’s Sea Lane Security, 1940-2004: A matter of life and death? ISBN 978-0-415-35640-4
2 King, Ernest J. (January 1941). Exercise of Command–Excess of Detail in Orders and Instructions. Cinclant Serial 053
4 Commander, Submarine Forces. (July 2011).
Design for Undersea Warfare: p. 2 5 Commander, Submarine Forces. (July 2011).
Design for Undersea Warfare: p. 2-3 6 Commander, Submarine Forces. (July 2011).
Design for Undersea Warfare: p. 3
7 Commander, Submarine Forces. (November 2012). Design for Undersea Warfare-Update One: p. 11
8 Commander, Submarine Forces, (November 2012).Design for Undersea Warfare-Update One: p. 7
Lt. Weiss is a Mechanical Engineering Student in the Undersea Warfare Curriculum at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Ca.)