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.)

Monday, April 11, 2005

Crystal Ball

The news article I discussed in this post has set me to thinking, and here's what I've come up with. For various reasons, the Navy has decided to make "scapegoats" of the navigation team on the San Francisco for their recent grounding. This, as I thought about it, was actually to be expected. The Navy submarine force has to operate within a public perception that they don't do anything wrong. With respect to the nuclear power part of the equation, they're pretty much right. However, we nukes have an old saying: "The reactor's not safe unless the ship is safe." As a result, the Navy can't make it seem that their subs are running around in an unsafe condition, so they have to make it seem that the navigation "errors" on the San Francisco were an anomaly.
In the next few weeks, you can expect the Navy to follow up their "leaking" of summaries of the report to selected reporters (those whose articles are normally printed in the Early Bird) with a public release of sanitized portions of the report; specifically, those parts that make the San Francisco grounding sound like a problem of human error on the part of the crew. I guess I really can't blame them too much for choosing this route; they really don't want the scrutiny from those who don't know what's going on. I'm convinced that the Navy is making the institutional changes that are necessary to prevent similar accidents from happening; at least for as long as Sailors currently in the service are still onboard the boats. Should the careers of seven men be too much to ask?
I, probably naïvely, think that it is. As much as I'd like to think that the submarine force is an important issue to a lot of people, in the big scheme of things, it really isn't. The Navy could have just as easily announced that the grouding was basically due to bad luck, but they were changing their procedures to make luck less on an issue, and most Congresspersons would have bought it. I'm afraid that by making this an issue of "human error" vice incredibly bad luck, the Navy will be teaching future submariners that they shouldn't ever take risks. To be honest, in peacetime that's not a bad idea. The problem is that submarines should be able to go from peace to war with no notice, as they had to do in December 1941. Back then, the Sub Force had skippers that were brought up in the risk-averse era of the 1930, and as a result basically none of the peacetime COs became successful wartime COs. God willing, we won't ever again have a war where risk-taking submarine COs are necessary, but if we do...
I'm really not sure who I'm writing this to. I guess I'm hoping that the crew of the San Fran might see it, and understand a little more why their shipmates are being thrown under the train. I also hope that some active duty people might read this, and decide that when they are running the Sub Force, they'll change our ways of doing business such that you don't have to scapegoat innocent men who were doing their job in the way they were trained. In other discussion boards, I've seen submariners say words to the effect of, "If you didn't think people were going to get punished you don't know how the Sub Force operates". I agree, given the Force's current philosophy, that this has to happen. My question is: Just because we've always done something a certain way, does that mean that it's the best way?

Going deep...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once submarine performance expectations were clear to WWII admirals they were clarified to WWII submarine COs. Some made comebacks, others died in boats before that was possible and nonperformers were reassigned (nothing new). I challenge anyone to find a court of Naval Inquiry for circumstances similar to San Francisco's with a different outcome! If the crew's decisions appear to have been easily incorrect, remember that better decisions were always available and ultimately in their control.

4/11/2005 8:32 AM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

Yes, with 20/20 hindsight, things were found that they could have done differently. My point is that I'm not sure that the San Fran crew didn't do anything different than most fast boat crews would have done. Do you honestly think there are boats out there who would have requested a slower SOA or new water based on a couple of bad soundings before January 2005?

4/11/2005 8:35 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Army rates combat readiness on a scale of one to four. One means we're leaning forward and ready for just about anything. Four means we need just about everything and we're a year away from being fit to deploy.
For years, nearly all units were rated C1; ready to go, even when they were not. Not even remotely. It was an assumed career killer to speak the truth.
Ten years ago a tank officer took over a "C-1" formation. He quickly noted it was really a "C-4". And said "No more."
The CYA brigades hid their eyes and held their breaths, expecting the blade to drop on this gallant officer's neck. Instead, his unit received what they needed. No blade descended and the entire rating system shook itself awake and became "reality-based". The result was a far better Army.
Now, how does this bear on the San Francisco? It seems to this observer that "all fast attack boats do it" is not an acceptable excuse nor explanation. So what if the navigation package shows up late? So what if your sounder shows depths that seem out of line? So what if squadron orders a high speed run through poorly-charted water? Until some CDR puts his foot (bravely) down and says, "No," the weight of what happened to the 711 rests on his shoulders and the men who knew better, or should have, and said nothing.

4/11/2005 9:13 AM

Anonymous bullnav said...

There is an interesting article in Proceedings this month entitled, "What Makes a Good CO." It was written by a bunch of submarine PCO instructors from around the world. In it they discuss the qualities that make a good and bad CO, which I believe can be generally applied to most command situations. My point in this is that the "checklist," mentality that the article refers to as a "bad CO," quality is exactly what the Submarine force leadership falls back on every time you have an accident like the mighty San Fran. I believe it is even more evident now as our mostly politically motivated admirals are trying to protect their jobs. They don't account for any mitigating factors, and I would be willing to bet (having been a fast boat Navigator) that no one intentionally did anything wrong. Unfortunately, some times the stars align and you don't get to say, "whew, that was a close one." Risk averse we are, and that is not the way we are going to win this war.

I also want to comment on the Army version of SORTS. We had kind of the same deal happen a few years ago (1998) but it was during a hurricane sortie. Sure everyone was reporting C1/M1, but when it came time to get the ships underway for the approaching storm, they found that if the boat is in drydock with major equipment removed, it was not going to sea. At that point the 3-star said fix this reporting system, and we made it realistic. Having been a reservist for the last 5 years, I don't know if it has changed...
Good point about upon whose shoulders blame rests. When I was a young Ensign a million years ago, my first CO told us (i.e., the whole crew) that, "...every one of you, at some point, is going to get the chance to raise your hand and tell me I am all f****d up. IF YOU DON'T, THEN YOU HAVE NOT DONE YOUR JOB AND YOU HAVE FAILED YOUR FELLOW SHIPMATES."

4/11/2005 9:32 AM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

With respect to the brave company commander who "risked his career" to save the broken system, obviously he did what he needed to; there's a similar story of a ship CO refusing to get underway in the late 70s. Obviously the military wasn't going to punish him for reporting a problem, but I'd be interested in knowing how the rest of his career went; did he get the right assignments needed for eventual promotion to flag rank, or was he "shunted aside" as a "troublemaker" in such a way that no one could really accuse anyone of wrongdoing? With the case of unit reporting (and to answer Bullnav's question, the system really does seem to be accurate and honest now, based on my CARGRU and SUBGRU jobs in the last 5 years) that's a case where everyone "knew" that the system was broken -- the people who submitted the numbers knew they were pulling them out of their ass. In the case of the San Fran, I don't think we had people on the boats going "Yeah, we're going to collide with an uncharted seamount someday". Yes, everyone knew that you frequently got bad soundings when running at a flank bell, and someone probably should have made a bigger deal out of it. And while the Sub Force wouldn't have "punished" the CO who asked for a slower SOA because of two bad soundings, do you honestly think he would have gotten a squadron command as a reward?

4/11/2005 11:30 AM

Blogger ninme said...

Can I interject a layman's opinion?

I don't get why 7 careers are worth preventing scrutiny. Scrutiny from whom? Congress is far too busy dealing with Bolton and DeLay, and it's been a couple months now of relatively slow news (SocSec, wooh), and neither them nor the press has jumped all over this sticking mics in admiral's faces demanding someone be held accountable. I doubt most Americans even know anything happened, never mind what happened, and certainly haven't given a thought as to why it happened.

It all seems like a lot of overkill, to me.

4/11/2005 3:22 PM

Blogger Eagle1 said...

I guess the Navy didn't always demand complete perfection:
Near the end of World War II the cruiser Indianapolis was sunk in the Pacific by a Japanese submarine at a great loss of American lives. The commanding officer survived and was court-martialed.

Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, in discussing the affair with then Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, questioned the ramifications of the court-martial. "What will a court martial do to the captain's career?  Has there ever been a ship's captain who was court-martialed and later promoted to admiral?" asked Forrestal.

"You're looking at one," Nimitz replied. He went on to relate how as a young officer he had commanded the USS Decatur, an old destroyer. He grounded his ship in the Philippines, was court-martialed and convicted of "hazarding a ship of the United States Navy."

I wonder who would have been "Nimitz" if Nimitz had been dead-ended?

4/11/2005 9:01 PM

Anonymous rainman said...

... the point when an officer decides to weigh sound judgement against his military career doesn't come up often during peacetime.
More often than not those kind of decisions happen against the back drop of a shooting war.

Like it was mentioned before that during WWII, all of the sub skippers finding themselves heading out on the first patrols weren't willing to stick their necks out very far because of the pre-war doctrine that they'd been following.

-If you valued your career, you would play along with the surface fleet and make a good practice target when the time comes.-

A peacetime military is no place for an O-4 with a healthy dose of common sense and reason to open his/her mouth to far. That is unless they want to be an O-5 or O-6.

Go along to get along.

Add to this mindset the often ignorant scrutiny of politicians and self-serving media and the pressure is even greater against someone willing to exercise common sense.

If the general atmosphere within the military is set with safety and budget-trimming, then the careers of it's officers and NCO's will follow that trend and pace. Especially if they realize that their actions will be judged outside of the military system by an ignorant, self-serving media.

4/12/2005 6:45 AM


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