PCO Training: 
Making the Best

  Better       By CAPT Arnold Lotring, USN & CAPT Jeff Fowler, USN     

 

During the next two weeks, your ship will be engaged in simulated at-sea combat against front-line surface ships, SSNs, helicopters, and MPA. Your crew will make attacks around the clock, shoot some 30 ADCAP exercise torpedoes, and participate in two large strike engagements. You will conduct surveillance operations against an SSBN and an SSN, plant a minefield, and work with Special Operations Forces (SOF).

This must be a pre-deployment certification culminating months of work-up training, right?

No, this is Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) Training. Sounds like a blast. Are you ready?

The Prospective Commanding Officer Course remains the jewel of the Submarine Force's training pipeline. Taking the best of our future leadership, we expose these men to an intensive nine-week curriculum that focuses totally on submarine warfare, with one goal at the top of the list:

To prepare each Prospective Commanding Officer to be ready to fight and win his first combat engagement.

The Course and the Students
The PCO course is taught four times a year with the venue alternating between the Atlantic and Pacific. Since 1984, there has been a combined school with Atlantic and Pacific PCOs training together. Two former submarine COs serve as the teachers. The tactical portion of the training course is nine weeks long and uses training facilities at Naval Training Facility Pacific (Pearl Harbor) during January and July, and Naval Submarine School Groton and Submarine Training Facility Norfolk during October and April. A three-week underway training period is included in each class at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii or the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility in Puerto Rico. SSN and SSBN PCOs train together in a common, type commander-approved curriculum. The students are post-Executive Officers either on their way to command or assigned as a Squadron Deputy. The Commanding Officer of USS Dolphin (AGSS-555) and the Officer in Charge of Submarine NR-1 must also complete PCO school.

The Shore Curriculum
The shore portion of the course consists of three weeks of training briefs and attack center practice to bring the PCOs rapidly up to full speed on the latest in tactics, equipment, and operations. Training facility staff Lieutenants assist the PCO instructors in this part of the training. Attack center sessions cover traditional approach and attack scenarios, as well as current focus areas, such as strike, shallow water undersea warfare (USW), and Very Low Frequency Acoustic {VLF(A)} tracking. Front-line SSN crews support the trainers with sonar and fire control teams, while the PCOs man the primary positions during strike and torpedo engagements. By the time this part of the training is complete, the PCOs are more than ready for sea, where they will be given ample oppor- tunity to put what they've learned into practice.

PCOs take part in all aspects of ship operations PCOs brief upcoming operations aboard
PCOs take part in all aspects of ship operations,
including coming in and out of port.
PCOs brief upcoming operations aboard
USS Wyoming (SSBN-742)

At Sea Training
Underway training allows each PCO to participate in every facet of submarine warfighting. PCOs conn the ship in and out of port and direct all operations as the Command Duty Officer. Three distinct phases make up the underway period:

• Mini-Wars or "Hollywood Operations." During this phase, six eight-hour engagement scenarios are created for one SSN - usually with five PCOs and the instructor embarked - against up to three USW-capable surface ships with towed arrays, towed countermeasures, and exercise torpedoes. The surface ships are allowed to employ their own helicopters and are usually assisted by maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). The focus is on free play, which means that we try to eliminate artificial rules that might provide one side or the other an uneven advantage. During the mini-wars, the SSNs will shoot ADCAP torpedoes, while the surface ships and helicopters may counter with Mark 46 or Mark 50 exercise torpedoes. Each PCO is given the opportunity to fire two ADCAPs as Approach Officer while participating in three mini-wars, both during daylight and darkness. This phase of training concludes with a complex Tomahawk cruise missile strike, with the assigned Destroyer Squadron Commander serving as the Launch Area Coordinator.

• SSBN versus SSN Operations. PCOs assigned to TRIDENT commands embark from Roosevelt Roads or Pearl Harbor to conduct two additional days of operations, which include a port egress opposed by an SSN, the transit of a simulated minefield, a command and control exercise, and the firing of exercise torpedoes against an SSN

• SSN versus SSN Operations. This phase of operations includes both shallow-water and deep-water tracking and firing events. Torpedo firings in shallow water (25-50 fathoms) employ ADCAPs against both submarines and shallow-draft surface vessels. In deep water, the majority of torpedo firings take place in free play, where each SSN is equally capable acoustically and allowed to fire at will and employ full evasion. Each PCO gets the opportunity to fire three ADCAP torpedoes while employing the latest in torpedo software, hardware, and tactics. These free-play scenarios, called "ALPHA RUNS," are probably the most exciting for all involved, sometimes lasting no more than four minutes, but occasionally ending up with both ships evading at flank speed and full rudder.

PCO training also includes several other types of submarine operations, including photo reconnaissance, tracking, collaboration with MPA, SOF insertion and recovery, and working with Maritime Action Groups (MAGs). The PCOs are tasked with researching, briefing, and directing each of these, but it still takes the crews' expertise to complete them successfully. After the underway training, the PCOs spend an additional week reviewing the results of their at-sea engagements and debriefing them at a "hot wash-up" usually attended by many of the participants. From these sessions come the insight that forms the basis of PCO "lessons-learned" messages sent back to the Fleet for their consideration and use.

The Future
Since its beginnings in 1941, the U.S. Submarine Force PCO Course has developed into the premier at-sea command training conducted today. No other Navy puts more resources into preparing their skippers to assume command at sea, and our extraordinary success in real-world submarine operations is a clear reflection of this investment of time and effort. Our allies have recognized this also, and there may be foreign participation at some time in the future. We look forward to an early opportunity to have each of your ships assigned as one of our "PCO boats," but in the interim, we will continue to evolve the course to serve the changing needs of the submarine community in the new century.

USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723) supports PCO operations

USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723) supports PCO operations.


History of Submarine PCO School

LT Pete Eisenhauer, USN and LT Brett Noyes, USN, SUBTRAFAC Norfolk

"Tenacity, Dick! Stay with the bastard until he's on the bottom..."

This was the advice given by World War II submarine hero Dudley W. "Mush Morton to his Executive Officer, R.F. "Dick" O'Kane, during their historic partnership on USS Wahoo (SS-238) during the Pacific campaign. It was good gouge. O'Kane went on to win the Medal of Honor, and in 1951, as the Submarine Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) instructor, he was giving that same advice to dozens of students at PCO School. The Chief of Naval Operations directed that a short, advanced course on attack techniques for prospective submarine COs be incorporated into the curriculum of the Submarine School at New London in October 1940, and the first one-month class was run the following spring with four students under the tutelage of LCDRs G.C. Crawford and K.G. Hensel. Eventually, during World War II, 63 classes totaling 434 members graduated, with four to ten members per class. On 1 July 1946, the Command Course was created from the PCO curriculum and expanded to six weeks. Many famous submariners passed through the halls of PCO School as students, instructors, and even staff. For example, LT J.J. Ekelund, originator of the "Ekelund Range," was attached to the school in 1958, and over a half dozen officers who later achieved flag rank served as PCO Instructors. The original course covered approach and attack methods and tactics, the torpedo data computer, weapons, radar and sonar, and recognition training - and it included 18 days of underway time. The curriculum was continually changed to reflect changing missions and equipment, and an "SSBN Command Course" was added in July 1963 in response to the need for advanced training for SSBN PCOs. The Atlantic and Pacific Submarine forces had separate courses from 1944 until late 1984, but now joint PAC/LANT PCO classes are held alternately between Pacific and Atlantic facilities.

 

PCO Operations: A JO's Perspective


By LTJG Rob Vroman, USN, USS
Dallas (SSN-700)

Caught up in a stack of Reactor Plant Manuals, Controlled Work Procedures, and ORSE checklists, it is often easy for a submarine junior officer to lose focus on why we go to sea, and the heritage of Fluckey, Ramage, and Morton can be lost in a haze of Xenon, steam, and lube oil. Some junior officers get to put their tactical training to use in real regional conflicts such as Kosovo, Iraq, and Korea, but for most of us, our only submarine tactical experience is acquired aboard "USS Attack Center," and the results are almost always the same - a clean sweep of the electronically generated seas. On the other hand, some boats are selected to support PCO Training and tangle with their peers in an environment akin to a mini-war. Going up against another submarine of equal tactical proficiency and sound-quieting can be a valuable experience for a confident fast-attack crew.

Ten PCO's and their instructor came aboard USS Dallas in two groups of five during a two week period to put our eighteen-year-old boat through its paces. Each of these commanders brought a different leadership and tactical style to their role as Approach Officer. Some of the approaches were masterfully-orchestrated textbook examples of what every young junior officer learns in Submarine School. Some ended in uncontrolled death spirals and torpedo melees at extremely close ranges. Most approaches, however, fell somewhere in between and highlighted the fact that few real-world encounters with new-generation submarines will follow the textbook or Naval Warfare Publication solution.

The grueling pace of PCO operations was a surprise to most members of the crew. Most of us, including all of the junior officers, had not been at sustained battle stations for any longer than a couple of hours. In USS Attack Center, all of the approaches take approximately an hour and are almost always followed by a head and coffee break. During PCO operations, the ghost of a DIMUS trace on the towed array does not allow anyone time to grab a cup of coffee or visit the head until someone gets a hit. As the Primary MATE Operator, the sporadic sonar data that I received in time frames of less than a couple of minutes would often become the firing solution, so alertness meant the difference between winning or losing each encounter. In the end, when the solution "stacked" on fire control, the weapon found its target, and we successfully avoided counterfire with high-speed evasion tactics and countermeasures, everybody agreed that the coffee could wait. Additionally, PCO operations gave us the opportunity to conduct every type of mission we could ever expect to be handed, including strike warfare, mining, and special operations. As a key member of the Battle Stations party, I got first-hand experience in each of these missions and the satisfaction that my job was critical to the success of the Fire Control Party.

PCO Operations afforded each member of the crew the opportunity to experience actual tactical encounters and take a crash course in fighting the boat at sea in real world conditions. When it was finally over, most of the crew viewed the ORSE workup as an R&R period. And the junior officers? We again found our solace in a stack of Reactor Plant Manuals and ORSE checklists.

 

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