Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Submariners vs. Skimmers and Aviators

Based on the comments from my "Fast Attack vs. Boomers" post below, I figured I should do another good-natured comparison of submariners with the other two major line communities in the Navy - Surface Sailors ("skimmers") and Naval Aviation. Do not expect me to compare submariners with the other major line community (SEALS) anytime soon, though -- I like my legs the way they are...
I did one 18 month tour, including 10 months at sea, on the Battle Group Staff embarked on USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74). Based on this one data point, I feel uniquely qualified to point out the differences I saw between the three communities. (The previous sentence was, in fact, sarcastic. I do recognize that if your sample size is 1, your correlation will always be 1.0. However, since this is the Internet, I figure I have more experience in the topic at hand than do most commenters.)
The conventional wisdom is that the difference between the three specialities can be summarized as follows: Submariners can only do what the book tells them they can, Aviators can do anything the book doesn't tell them they can't, and the skimmers say, "What book?"
When I was riding the carrier, the thing that I was least comfortable with was the gulf between the officers and enlisted. There were certain passageways onboard the ship where enlisted personnel simply weren't supposed to go; there were even officer's ladders, and lots of other areas designated by blue tile where the only enlisted people you normally saw were Mess Management Specialists (now "Culinary Specialists"). At least on attack boats, except for the wardroom during meals, there really isn't anywhere the crew doesn't go. Another thing that surprised me on the carrier is that I'd see O-4s doing work that I would normally expect to see an E-5 or E-6 doing on a sub. Granted, the smaller number of personnel on a submarine means that you can't afford to waste anyone's talent, but it still seems that the surface officers exhibited a lot less trust in their enlisted personnel. It also seemed that the surface officers loved to have meetings, and that they basically loved to hear themselves talk. We were supposed to meet the wardroom from one of the destroyers the first night in town for liberty one night, but they sent word over that they'd be delayed so they could have an officer's training seminar -- on the first night in-port?!? You try that on a sub, the XO would find his mattress in the freezer before he knew what was happening.
As far as the aviators go: well, I have to admit that watching flight operations on a carrier is the absolute coolest thing I've ever seen. Landing on a carrier at night is probably the scariest "routine" evolution I've ever seen. (I have two carrier catapult launches as a passenger in a C-2 Greyhound, and helo takeoffs and landings, but no "traps".) The people who were able to do that have my utmost respect. That being said, the supreme confidence that you need to be a good pilot tends to make one less likely to be able to accept any limitations in your equipment or skills. Actually, come to think of it, the same thing really applies to successful submariners. I guess I really don't have that much to say bad about pilots, except that the Battle Group Admiral never had to go personally apologize to the Dubai Police Chief to earn the release of any submarine officers when I was on deployment. (I listened in on the Admiral's Mast after that one -- I actually learned some new words.)
Each warfare specialty does some evolutions that are inherently difficult. Submariners come to periscope depth, Aviators do carrier landings, and Skimmers do underway replenishments; driving their ships side by side with only a few feet between each other, passing heavy items back and forth. It's pretty cool; submariners really don't like to do this.
So, we see that each group does pretty cool things; so which group is "the best of the best"? One way to look at it is deciding which group is more selective. Although they don't do this anymore, it used to be that if an officer failed out of their initial training pipeline, they would be switched over to another specialty. In my Nuke School class, we had a few guys who had failed out getting picked up for Aviator training, while most of them got picked up to be surface officers. We did have some people who were physically disqualified from flight training (usually because their upper leg was too short -- you have to be able to fit in an ejector seat) get picked up as a nuke, there wasn't anyone who had academically failed out of Flight or Skimmer training getting sent to Nuke school. Plus, submarines can easily sink any surface ship, including aircraft carriers, while outside of carefully scripted exercises where the sub has a lot of restrictions, I really don't see the opposite happening. Advantage -- Bubbleheads!
My surface and aviator brethern are cordially invited to respond.


Blogger ninme said...

Well, if this is any stick by which to measure, the one that I wouldn't want to do is submarining.

I need fresh air.

2/27/2005 7:11 PM

Blogger Eagle1 said...

Best? Depends on what you mission you need to accomplish. There are somethings surface ships are not good at. And some things submarines can't do. And, despite the Air Force propaganda, there are some things aircraft can't do. But when we work as a team...

I will confess, though, that after some years of following carriers around as a plane guard destoyer when I finally got to go aboard a carrier and spend a couple of weeks I was far more impressed with carrier ops than when I was chasing the carrier around the ocean trying to figure out which way it was going to turn next. Having my son earn his "wings of gold" opened my eyes about how hard they train and how little tolerance for error they have (with good reason). having worked with submariners, I have a great deal of respect for what they do and how they do it (and generally they are a great bunch of guys) again, there is little tolerance for error on a boat. The missions are so different, though, it is comparing apples and oranges (ah, the wisdom of age). Even in the surface navy there are so many different communities (amphibs, destroyers, service force, mine warfare) that it's hard to say which one of those is the "best."

In any command, so much depends on the skipper. A good skipper makes the whole ship work better, a bad skipper (with whom you will locked to for a 6 month deployment) makes the lower levels of hell look inviting.

I know that the flight deck ballet of launch and recovery with all the young sailors working their tails off was fascinating and the seamanship involved in replenishment at sea made it exciting to do (see my post on it here. Watching a pilot hit the three wire in the dark and a helo hover to bring mail to a destroyer on the line are stuck in my mind. Since we never really got to see submarines do the things they must do really well, it's hard to talk about them. But reading Blind Man's Bluff opened my mind to what subs could be up to. And the complexities of three dimensional chess in the dark boggle my little surface warfare mind.

I hate to sound wishy washy, and I love to tease "nasal radiators" and "sub-mariners" - but I actually have a lot of respect for all who wear or have worn the Navy blue. Even the Civil Engineering Corps.

2/27/2005 8:17 PM

Anonymous former Navet said...

I have two examples of Submarine officers being a bit different than their surface brethren and comparably closer to the enlisted crew.

One was when the boat I was on pulled into PCAN. A group of us on liberty went to Coco Beach to visit some strip bars. At the third bar of the night we walk in to find two of the senior officers from the boat dancing on stage with the girls. Shameless exhibition if I ever saw one, but that’s what those girls do.

Second was in Kings Bay when the CO off a fast boat offered a group of us enlisted a ride back to the tender pier from the enlisted club. It was late at night, foggy and as soon as we jumped into his car the windows fogged over. Undeterred, (after all what submarine officer needs visual navigation) we proceeded to do a hippity hop off the drive and across the lawn to the main road. Just before the main road we stop, the fast boat CO cleans the windshield and comments “where’s a sonarmen when you need one?”.

Nether story is of military courage, although in its own way a bit scary, but demonstrates how Submarine officers do have a lighter side and do some of the same stupid stuff the crew does. As always underway everyone was all business. What’s that saying “live hard, play hard”.

Former NavET

2/27/2005 9:05 PM

Blogger Eagle1 said...

NavET reminds me of one of my beter skippers, a submariner doing his deep draft tour on a big surface ship. We were driving around in heavy traffic and some nasty weather. After being summoned to the bridge, he took a calm look around and ordered: "Take her deep."

2/27/2005 9:35 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

Bubblehead (WY)

My favorite thing about being a Bubblehead was the comraderie. Most of my tour was as an E-5, but some of my really good friends were JO's. I rember being over at one of the LT's house for Christmas. I was 1 of 5 guys there and was the only enlisted. The XO even stopped by for a few rounds.

A really good friend of mine was an air-dale and spent his whole career on Carriers. When I told him that story he lost his mind. He has a brother who is an officer and he almost got disowned for "disrespecting" an officer at a family picnic.

Subs all the way.

2/27/2005 10:44 PM

Blogger Michael said...

Ahh, the differences in the Naval Services. This is now and will always be the question. Sub Surface warriors battle with physics and math. Surface Ships rely also on strategy but more on communication and leadership. Aviators relay on strategy and reaction time. So the main similarity between the three is strategy. How is one better than the others?

Skimmers are similar to the Army in size and complexity. This changes how they lead (command) and what is allowable. This and tradition requires some level of separation between the ranks. The rest of the worlds Navy’s have no chance against the USN so there is not much challenge anymore. They know that and surrender at the site of the skimmer Navy. That does not mean that they are not in harms way. They also command many smaller specialized missions that focus on the specialized missions.

The Submariners have missions that are fall into support and/or projection of power. They also accomplish this in isolation many times. Some of them just swim around and play hide and seek. Some sneak up on others for a kill. They do not have the luxury of separation of duties based on amount of work and available hands so they have a tougher/tighter relationship with the crews. Submariners live in tighter quarters so the leadership and tradition play a large part of the success of the crew.

The Aviators are a small select group (with huge egos) and the officers depend on the plane crews for his life each time he flies. Flight crews in the USN and USMC are closer because of this. Like Skimmers the focus is on supporting the tactical teams on the ground. Aviators take direction during the entire mission and the speed makes the big difference in the amount of challenge.

Each group does operations that the others just plane can not do. Each is also weaker all by them selves. The key (also the focus of the Marine Corps) is the joint operations. It is really in the leadership of each Command that impact success and amount of challenge. Based on impact, risk, terror level, physical demands: Aviators win

2/28/2005 2:59 AM

Blogger Michael said...

I want to adjust that.
Who is the best of the best, The real answer is Americans are the best. Not because others are lesser but because we set higher standards every day and all of us focus on meeting that standard. And our little rivalry raises the bar each time we compete. Within each specialty there is a move up or move out. It makes it tough to be successful but the successful are really very good at what they do. So in reality the advantage goes to America.
Semper Fi

2/28/2005 9:09 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

First let me point out that I have a tremendous amount of respect for all brances of the military. After spending 20+ years in, I have had the opportunity to work with several different specialties.
We got a Skimmer RMCS on the Chicago. He had never been to sea and now he had to go and he was looking for the Subpay. As the Battle Stations COW, he was assigned to me as a trainee. After tons of frustration about why he needed to know why one valve had three names, “VH-1, the Induction Valve and the Head Valve”, he commented “Why can’t I just be a Radioman”? Our COB stated that if he just wanted to be a Radioman, he should have stayed a Skimmer. The RMCS turned out pretty good after all was said and done.
My COB went on to be a Command Master Chief for a CAG. One time, over a beer, he made a comment that the whole setup was different on the Carrier. No body wanted to make a decision and that his worst Chief on the Submarine, Would be his best Chief in the CAG.
I worked, after retirement, at 32nd Street Naval Station, as a Project Manager for the Surface PMT. The work they had to do for the ships was largely due to the lack of knowledge of the sailors on the ships. 100% of the work were tasks I would have expected a MM3(SS) to be able to accomplish. The thing that aggravated the hell out of me was that when Liberty Call was passed, everybody disappeared.
As for the Airedale side of the house, I have no real input. We gave rides to P-3 pilots and air crew and they were amazed that we could hear them pass over. Of course there are two facts that can not be deigned. 1. There are more aircraft under water than there are submarines in the air. 2. Submarines will never fly, the wings are to small and the propeller is on the wrong end.

That Damn Good Looking Aganger From Iowa

2/28/2005 9:50 AM

Blogger submandave said...

Interesting topic. As luck would have it my two brothers and I got commissioned one after the other ('84, '85 and '86). The first went skimmer, the second was a fly-boy and I became a steeley-eyed killer of the deep. As for the surface Navy, as much as we nukes like to lay claim to eating our young we do so with only half the viciousness and fervor with which skimmers not only f* their buddies but themselves regularly, seemingly solely in pursuit of the ultimate hard-luck, tough-time story. Aviators, though, have worked hard at perfecting the art of perpetual adolescence, never passing up an opportunity to work on their boasting skills, shaming even the likes of Beowulf. And submariners, well, us nukes try terribly hard to live down our geek rep and over-developed sense of responsibility and self-importance by doing our level best at acting the fool on the beach, but somehow we just can't seem to completely shake off the inbred Maslovian need to succeed that marks the core of each real boat sailor.

Two conversations between the branches:

Aviator: "What goes up must come down, but what goes dowm just might stay there."
Submariner: "You know, that doesn't say anything about how fast that you might be coming down, just that you will."

Submariner: "All ships can be made to submerge, but only some are designed to come back up."
Skimmer: "I don't care. I've been port-and-starbord in the engineroom and being drill monitor for the off-watch for a week of OPE in Gitmo. Besides, the Captain just told Squadron we'd give up our two days in Rosy Roads to tow targets for gun certs, damned kiss ass!"

2/28/2005 3:01 PM

Blogger G-Man said...

This comment is for "former navet". I liked your commments. I have been to PCAN both as a surface sailor and submarinar ( I switched lifestyles). I would say you are right on. Sub officers are a bit different, but thats ok. You make it sound so bad. I was in Vallejo,CA in 1994 at the "Horse and Cow" bar. A civilian was picking up on my date and a Navy officer sitting next to me said, "So when you going to punch him? You should punch him!". USS BATON ROUGE was there decommising.

2/28/2005 3:06 PM

Blogger CDR Salamander said...

Well, I'll avoid the "who's is biggest" argument with a little story from my CVBG (Strike Group-whatever) Staff weenie days.

(a no-sh1tter) Well, we were in Norfolk for a Commanders Conf. and were at dinner at The Grate Steak with almost all the staff officers, CAG, DCAG, and a scattering of CO-XOs etc from the CVBG ships and squadrons.

As is our nature, with a could of exceptions the aviators were all at one table, the shoes at another, and the sub guys and the couple of surf nukes were more or less at their own little table as well. Towards the end when the waitress brought the one bill per table, our N31 a post-command S-3 type starts to laugh out loud and pointing.

In the middle of the aviator table was a bunch of $5s, $10s and $20s (no $1, they were being saved for later) in a crumpled bunch. More than over the total + tip, with everyone insisting to let the waitress have the balance.

At the shoe table, they were arguing among themselves on who owed more money because they were WAY short of the total.

At the sub/nuke table, the staff N6, a post-command SSN type was no kidding working a calculator he kept with his day planner to figure out the EXACT amount each person owed.

Stereotypes sometimes exist for a reason. Very important for the Midshipmen to know when community selection comes around. ;)

2/28/2005 9:12 PM

Blogger Skippy-san said...

Here's the bottom line for me:

As a proud aviator and tailhooker there was only one community for me to choose 26 years ago. Submariners do not get enough liberty! That's the first, and only measure in my book. Shoes get more than bubbleheads, but then the boneheads go and blow it by working all the time.

I did not join the Navy to "accelerate my life", "find my self", become a "Navy of one" or any other such bullshit. I joined the Navy to see the world, meet exotic women, and sleep with them. In that regard, a career in Naval Aviation lived up to its promise, exactly as advertised.

Getting shot off the pointy end and getting the crap scared out of you at night coming aboard was the price of admission to that adventure. And I never regretted it.

As midshipman (1978), I was forced to go on a nuclear power cruise. My Division officer (nuke) was one miserable dude, trying to study for his engineer exam and going through a divorce while on cruise. My roomates in the bunkroom who flew A-7's, had some hooch in the room ( this was the old Navy), smiled a lot and generally had a good time. When the time came to choose which way to was a no brainer.

3/13/2005 5:48 AM


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