by Lt. Cmdr. Jonathan Ahlstrom, XO USS Asheville

 

When one hears the phrase dynamic leadership in the Submarine Force, it often inspires thoughts of great World War II leaders who remain immortalized in the tomes of history. One thinks of Vice Adm. Lawrence Ramage in command of USS Parche (SS 384) leading a pre-dawn attack on a Japanese convoy in July 1944 or Rear Adm. Eugene Fluckey in command of USS Barb (SS 220) who tracked a 30-ship enemy convoy and engaged them in Nankuan Chiang Harbor in January 1945, or Rear Adm. Richard O’Kane in command of USS Tang (SS 306), displaying one of the most incredible feats of gallantry, expending every torpedo aboard while engaging a Japanese convoy and then using the submarine as a battering ram. While these men were exemplary leaders, true leadership is not always conducted in such a high-profile manner. The truth is that leadership is a steadily applied pressure, a daily grind, and when done right, is the most satisfying part of the job for anyone given the opportunity to lead.

 

The story of USS Asheville (SSN 758) is not an uncommon one today. Appropriately named the “Ghost of the Coast,” the Los Angeles-class attack submarine was commissioned Sept. 28, 1991 and has been plying the ocean depths in support of national tasking for the past 25 years. Returning from a six-month Western Pacific deployment in July 2013, Asheville entered a new phase of operations, one that would prove to be a formidable challenge for her and her crew.

In February 2014, Asheville settled into drydock at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard for an extended engineered overhaul. Here she would undergo modernization of her combat control systems and a variety of upgrades to the nuclear propulsion plant. What was projected as a 22-month overhaul now sits at 40 months, with sea trials scheduled for the summer of 2017. A variety of factors contribute to this 18-month delay, from newly discovered material problems to a resource-strapped industry.

The part of this story less explored, and sometimes less appreciated, is what to do with a crew of roughly 170 Sailors who are assigned to a submarine that does not float, does not practice its primary mission, and is no longer eligible to compete against its peers for the coveted Battle Effectiveness Award. It is in this rare environment, under these conditions, that dynamic leadership comes to bear.

The work for Submariners in the shipyard is never easy. Where Sailors would normally stand watches related to their ratings, they are now involved in establishing work controls for systems being gutted in support of upgrades and repairs. Work conditions on the submarine are invariably hot and uncomfortable, and the work itself is often highly technical and complex. When these conditions repeat day in and day out for extended periods, and the measure of actual progress is not visible, motivation and job satisfaction become harder to attain.

Beyond the work itself, three additional aspects present leadership challenges to a submarine in overhaul. Foremost is a loss of the sense of mission accomplishment. When a submarine is operational, it finds itself at some point in the Fleet Response Training Plan cycle. This involves an intensive operational workup and certification of the crew followed by completing national tasking in oceans around the world. In this cycle, the mission is clear to the crew. This is not to say that the mission in the shipyard is any less important, but rather that the normal means of imbuing the crew with a sense of mission is different.

The second challenge is a general loss of ownership over the submarine. Seagoing Sailors spend significant parts of their careers maintaining and operating complex systems aboard the submarine. When the boat is submerged, the lives of their shipmates depend on that system functioning properly, and an incredible sense of ownership over every part of the boat develops. Sailors often cultivate a strong attachment to their systems and equipment. While in drydock, control of these systems is turned over to the shipyard. Over time, that personal connection usually fades. As the remaining Sailors who last operated the submarine in the water transfer to follow-on commands and new personnel report to take their places, the sense that the equipment is actually theirs or the same level of ownership is difficult to attain.

The last challenge to address is personnel management. It is easiest to explain this from the perspective that each Sailor on the submarine is an investment. This investment involves training the Sailors to do their jobs both at sea and in the shipyard, ensuring that they acquire the experience they need to be successful, and ensuring that they remain competitive among their peers for advancements and promotions. All this must be done while managing each Sailor’s Planned Rotation Date (PRD).

Every crewmember, enlisted or officer, reports to the submarine for a prescribed tour length projecting their rotation to a month and year in the future. The challenge is building a team of Sailors who are capable and experienced enough to bring the submarine through overhaul and to the next deployment. This process, better captured under the phrase crew stabilization, involves adjusting each crewmember’s PRD to ensure success in both the accomplishment of the mission and their competitiveness for follow-on jobs.

While not a daunting task at first glance, the fluid schedule of the overhaul dictates otherwise. As is the case with Asheville, the 18-month delay to the schedule did not happen overnight but two or three months at a time, with each delay resulting in a new round of crew stabilization. Each cycle of stabilizing crew manning proves to be a significant time commitment from the submarine’s leadership where the end product is a watch bill that has adequate depth and experience to bring the boat to sea.

These elements together present a dynamic leadership challenge for any leader. To lead effectively in any organization, one must find balance between people and the mission. Finding this balance while in the shipyard requires energy, creativity, and patience. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for a submarine to navigate through an extended overhaul, the following captures some of the successes seen on Asheville.

Sense of mission
With what can one compare hanging more than 2,000 tag-outs (physical tags hung on mechanical valves and circuit breakers to ensure that the system or component being worked on is properly isolated) and opening 1,000 new work items in a year with a boat executing missions vital to national security? From a high level, it is easy to see how modernizing submarines is a vital mission and necessary for the Navy to remain at the highest level of operational and technological readiness.

Translating this message to the Sailor spending hours reviewing shipyard-generated Task Group Instructions is another thing. Failure to imbue a sense of mission results in crew morale and cohesiveness suffering. As time progresses, retention statistics dip and Sailors choose to leave the Navy rather than sign up for a follow-on tour. This challenge must be met head-on by command leadership; they must apply a steady pressure to build a culture where the Sailor recognizes that, although the work is not glorious, it is of the utmost importance to the nation.


Asheville Schools Coordinator recognized by the commanding officer of Naval Submarine
Training Center Pacific for achieving 100% schools readiness. From left to right are
Lt. Cmdr. Jonathan Ahlstrom, LS2 Torey Walker, Capt. Michael Martin, Mrs. Myra Yamada,
Cmdr. Paul Pampuro.

Recognizing people

Using awards to recognize performance has been practiced throughout history. The psychology behind the effectiveness of awards is so universally accepted that it would be hard to find a sector of society where awards were not used in some form or another. The military is no exception. Probing further into the underlying psychology, one of the most substantial benefits is the resulting bond established between the recipient and the giver that builds a stronger sense of loyalty to the overall organization. The physical awards themselves might have changed, a ceremonial spear presented to a soldier in a Roman legion to a commendation medal for a member of today’s uniformed services; however, the psychology remains unchanged and effective.

Submariners today typically possess only a modest collection of ribbons and medals compared to other communities and services. When looked at by the experienced eye, they tell a simple story of the depth of experience, accomplishments, and seniority of the bearer. Receiving personal awards for either specific accomplishments or for determined periods of service are routine. Shipyard-bound boats are susceptible to inadequately awarding Sailors for the work they are doing. This can happen when the submarine does not find a pinnacle event to tie awards to. For example, an operational submarine will typically hold awards ceremonies following a deployment. In an extended overhaul, one might not find as defining a moment until it is too late.

Recognizing Sailors for the tough work they are doing in the shipyard is as important, if not more so, than on an operational submarine. This mentality starts from the command triad—Commanding Officer (CO), Executive Officer (XO), and Chief of the Boat (COB)—who must establish a culture where supervisors are encouraged and expected to recommend awards for deserving Sailors.

Adding spontaneity to the award process can go a long way. The submarine should have a flexible process that supports recognizing Sailors immediately following the event for which they are being rewarded. This not only has a positive effect on the Sailor being recognized but also sends an important message to the crew helping to solidify the overall theme that the work they are doing is important.

Recognizing Sailors is not just about personal awards. There are other ways to recognize them for their hard work. Since work in the shipyard can be long and inglorious, another form of reward is time. A simple special liberty pass can have a great impact. While having that Sailor away for 72 hours means less work is accomplished, the return on investment is seen when they come back recharged and motivated.

Sailors should not be considered ineligible for the recognition given by sea service awards. While a boat in drydock is not at sea, it is still an at-sea command, and the Sailors attached to the boat are serving their sea tour. There are numerous ways to recognize Sailors through various awards and competitions sponsored through military support organizations such as the Navy League and Naval Submarine League.

In 2015 the Commander Submarine Squadron 7 selected both the Sea Service Junior Sailor of the Year and Sea Service Sailor of the Year from Asheville, prevailing over candidates from 10 other submarines. That same year, an Asheville junior officer was selected by the Honolulu Navy League chapter as the Sea Service Officer of the Year. The list goes on, but in each of these cases, it was a matter of taking the time to write about the incredible work these Sailors do.

Staying relevant
An essential ingredient to success in the shipyard is staying current on submarine operations. There exist a variety of opportunities to accomplish this, including waterfront training and post-deployment debriefs. However, the heart of this initiative on Asheville is sending Sailors to deploy on operational submarines.

Running an aggressive ride program might sound simplistic, but in reality it requires significant effort to be put into motion. A balance must be struck between sending Sailors to sea and supporting required overhaul maintenance and watch standing. Submarines in overhaul can fall victim to thinking that there is no way they can function without a particular Sailor and limit rides as a result.

The long-term view reveals the necessity in deploying the Sailors and the skills they bring back to the team. On Asheville, an assigned ride coordinator in each department takes the lead on coordinating with the host submarine. This scheme applies to officers and enlisted alike. Newly reporting junior officers typically spend less than a few months aboard before they join a deploying submarine. Department heads and chiefs were also sent out to support submarines in need, for mission experience, and to refresh stagnant skills.

Create an environment that prizes learning
For an improved Los Angeles-class submarine, there are in excess of 500 required schools. Sailors attend these schools throughout their careers and carry the learned skills from submarine to submarine. While in extended overhaul, it is important to take advantage of the steady schedule and advance Sailors’ education. This builds expertise among the crew and adds important skill sets to Sailor’s portfolios. Few submarines ever achieve a 100% schools rating, but it is possible with foresight, planning, and of course an incredible Schools Coordinator.

There exist unique opportunities to expand the expertise of culinary specialists while in overhaul. In addition to traditional culinary schools, multiple Asheville Sailors completed internships at the Hale Koa Hotel in Honolulu. In this environment they worked under a variety of master chefs refining their trade. One Asheville Sailor had the distinct privilege of being the only Submariner selected to participate in the 41st Annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Event in Fort Lee, Va. He trained with 25 of the top culinary specialists in the Navy. Competing in three events, he was awarded two silver medals and one bronze medal and was selected as runner-up for Navy Chef of the Year.

Education clearly extends beyond Navy schools. If Sailors do not already have a degree, many often enlist with some college credits. Promoting a campus-like environment encourages the Sailors to enroll in the Navy College Program for Afloat College Education (NCPACE) where tuition-free college courses are provided.

Building the educational portfolio of each Sailor, whether through formal schools or college education, has an overall positive impact on both the Sailors’ morale and sense of self worth. Through formal schools, Sailors find that they are given more responsibility, which in turn improves job satisfaction. A better-educated crew is a better-performing crew.

Build a connection with the community
Operational submarines typically find their schedule taking them in and out of port on a regular basis. A submarine in the shipyard can take advantage of not having routine underway periods by capitalizing on involving the crew with the community. Community outreach is a two-way street with benefits to both the community and the Sailors. Events that involve team-building exercises build comradery and break the shipyard routine. Outreach helps build positive relations between the surrounding community and the Navy and inspires new generations to serve. On Asheville, Sailors established links with Job Corps America, supported local wildlife restoration projects, and adopted a highway.

 


Asheville Sailors volunteering to rebuild a rock wall surrounding a fish pond at He’eia
State Park in Kaneohe, HI.

Shipyard or graveyard for submarine department heads?

First-term enlisted Sailors will report to a submarine for typically a 60-month tour. While not preferred, spending half of that time in the shipyard does not mean they will never experience sea time. However, the submarine department head’s shorter tour presents a different challenge.

Each submarine has four department heads—an Engineer Officer (ENG), Combat Systems Officer (WEPS), Navigation/Operations Officer (NAV), and Supply Officer (SUPPO)—who report for an assigned 32-month tour. A department head is an officer who completed his first sea tour, typically spent two years on shore, passed five months at the Submarine Officer Advanced Course in Groton, Conn., and serves at the head of a department ranging from 30 to 60 personnel.

This is often a formidable, demanding tour that provides a large piece of one’s tactical and leadership base. So what changes when a prospective department head is assigned to a submarine that will spend the majority, if not entirety, of the tour in the shipyard?

To start, it is important to note that department heads have a few specific objectives to achieve during their tours. In addition to taking on increased responsibility and serving a larger group of Sailors, they will now be ranked against their peers in their parent squadrons. Being ranked favorably makes the department head more competitive for being screened to advance to a submarine XO. In addition, each department head, with the exception of the SUPPO, should qualify for command, which entails a comprehensive qualification card and numerous required demonstrations of capabilities to the CO, served COs, or major commanders.

For the ENG, while there is a loss in operational experience from a perspective of ship driving, they have a demanding job in the shipyard as they run the engineered overhaul. Correspondingly, their ability to screen for XO coming out of these jobs is on par with, if not better than, their peers. SUPPOs will typically do well as they do not remain in the submarine community following this sea tour. However, the NAV and WEPS have challenges.

The NAV, as this billet name suggests, does not do any navigating while the boat is in the shipyard. As for the operations side of this billet, there is little along the lines of operational planning to oversee. Correspondingly, a WEPS does not have any weapons loaded aboard, nor does a WEPS have the ability to execute operations in a theatre where his skill sets are most needed. So is this the end? Absolutely not.

The path to success might not be easy, but Asheville is proof that this is by no means the end for department heads who have what it takes to move on. The simplified model below ensures that the WEPS/NAV are not at a disadvantage when being compared with their peers at the XO selection board.

  • Peer Mentoring: Learn from submarine squadron counterparts. Remain visible by participating in routine training and updates. Stay involved in waterfront briefs and activities.
  • Collateral Duties: There are typical collateral duties that come with each department head position; expand beyond this into areas considered outside the norm.
  • Creative Trainer: Think outside the box as to how to train the department while in the shipyard. Use off-hull training facilities to execute the plan.
  • Short Rides: These are short underway periods allowing involvement in high-profile examinations (TREs/ORSEs) or other exercises of opportunity.
  • Dual Hatted DH: Take advantage of another department head being deployed or away to step in and run the department.
  • Acting XO: Take every opportunity to be the XO to run day-to-day operations on the boat and interact with squadron leadership.
  • Mission OOD Experience: Find a window to deploy, requalify OOD, and gain invaluable tactical and leadership experience.
  • Nuclear Proficiency Development: Get involved with the work in the engine room. Although the Engineer is running the infrequent maintenance; the planning, training, and execution of these complex evolutions is useful for all officers.
  • Command Qualifications: An aggressive approach to command qualifications can have the department head finishing in the minimum required time of two years.

Following this model, Asheville’s previous NAV spent 16 months in drydock and screened for XO before transferring. Asheville’s currently assigned WEPS has spent 24 months in drydock and screened for XO below zone. While the department head must demonstrate the aptitude to move on, a careful combination of the above elements will allow a shipyard-bound WEPS or NAV to be on par with or ahead of their peers.

As many factors make each shipyard period unique, modernization and repairs are necessary to maintain our technological edge over our adversaries. Each leadership team strives to arrive back at sea with a healthy team ready to execute national tasking in the nominal workup time. While there will always be a need to knock the rust off and re-establish baseline proficiency, the Submarine Force as a whole will see its best return on investment from people-first organizational approaches. The reality is that, at some point in our Sailors’ careers, they will probably serve on a submarine undergoing overhaul. Although there is no perfect road map for managing professional growth while landlocked during an extended overhaul, adopting a dynamic leadership method focused on fulfilling individual skills needed to be successful at sea will holistically improve the Submarine Force while boosting morale.