Personal Experience With the “Production Skill” in the Spooky and Secret World of Nuclear Submarines

This is a personal story about an experience I had many, many years ago when I was in the US Naval Nuclear Submarine Force.  For over 40 years I have rarely if ever talked about it.

The intent of this rather lengthily example is to show the various stages of the production process from the idea stage to reality in an environment not conducive to rapid change as well as real career risks one must often make when initiating change under watchful eyes.

As a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, I entered Admiral Rickover’s nuclear navy and after almost two years of training following graduation, I was assigned to the pre-commissioning crew of the USS Ray (SSN653) – a nuclear attack submarine (SSN) under construction in Newport News, VA. During the year long construction and fitting out period, I managed two engineering divisions and was the Electrical and Reactor Control Division Officer responsible for the testing and accepting of the electrical and reactor control systems for the boat.

Following the commissioning of the boat in early 1967 and after the rigorous sea trials, we embarked on several top secret missions as the first operating 637 class (or “Sturgeon Class”) submarines. A typical mission involved leaving our home port, submerging about sixty miles out at sea, conducting the mission, and surfacing in the same location approximately 60-70 days later. We were completely submerged all the time.

One can speculate what we did on these missions, but one can read stories from several published books such as the “Hunt for Red October,” “Blind Man’s Bluff,” and “Stalking the Red Bear.” The missions were top secret, dangerous, and vital to the national security of the United States. It is no secret that the nuclear attack submarine force (SSNs) did a lot of “heavy lifting” for the Navy during the cold war, and all of our efforts were focused exclusively on the Soviet Union. You are free to use your imagination.

After my tour of duty on the submarine, I was assigned to the US Naval Submarine School in Groton, CT as part of the Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) training program. This program consisted of several months of training for naval officers who had been designated as commanding officers of nuclear submarines. My job was to teach submarine tactics and Soviet naval ship recognition.

After about two months on the job, it became very clear to me that we were teaching tactics that might have been more appropriate during World War II than the present. And the other officers, including the Commanding Officer, had only Polaris submarine (the missile submarines) and/or the old diesel submarine experience. They did not have any SSN experience nor were they aware of the kinds of missions these submarines were currently undertaking.

The idea that was brewing in my mind at the time was to take advantage of the resources at the Naval Submarine School and provide training for SSNs that were preparing to deploy on the super secret missions. This just made sense to me. After each mission, detailed patrol reports were written and provided as a resource for briefing the crews of these submarines, but there was no way to actually practice and discuss various tactics that could be used as a matter both of conducting the mission and for the sake of safety. It seemed logical and prudent to me that SSNs should be offered at least a week of predeployment training with the latest and most relevant information available.

Such missions are highly classified and, because of its sensitivity, a very special top secret clearance is required to have access to such information. Generally, when one is transferred from an SSN and has the clearance, that clearance is withdrawn after the transfer. I went to the office of the Submarine Force Atlantic (SUBLANT) on the naval base and confirmed that I still had the clearance. I checked to see who at the Naval Submarine School also had the clearance, and with the exception of the PCO Commanding Officer, none of the other officers had the required security clearance necessary to discuss such missions. I noted that the Commanding Officer of the Naval Submarine School, Captain William Yates – a former SSN commanding officer, also had the clearance. I was the only officer in the PCO group who had recent and relevant experience in what these sophisticated submarines were doing and the risks and dangers they faced in conducting their missions.

I presented this idea to the PCO Commanding Officer who dismissed me out of hand most likely because he knew little about what I was suggesting and, furthermore, good ideas just didn’t come from junior officers. That was disappointing to say the least.

I knew it was a good idea; I knew it would improve the quality of missions; I knew it would enhance safety; I knew that the submarine school had the simulators and resources to accomplish the training; I knew that it would be much less expensive and better for crew morale for an SSN to be in port for a week rather than waste three weeks of training at sea.

I knew that in order to bring the concept to reality I had to do something. The questions were, what should I do and how should I do it? Moving forward would involve taking substantial risk, but as pointed out earlier, risk is something one needs to take when initiating change within a traditional organization. The risk to me in this situation was that I had to “go around” the PCO Commanding Officer to get the idea up the chain of command.

At this point in my Naval Service, I had submitted my resignation to leave the service at the end of my commitment. Accordingly, there was no risk to my Naval career in the form of any retribution as a result of bypassing the chain of command, so I decided to take the matter directly to the Commanding Officer of the Naval Submarine School, Captain Yates.

On a Sunday morning shortly thereafter, I called Captain Yates at his home in Mystic Seaport and told him that I had a matter to discuss with him personally and that it involved a matter involving special security clearances. Captain Yates suggested that I come to Mystic Seaport and visit with him at home.

Early that afternoon, I knocked on Captain Yate’s door and he brought me into his living room. He was a very gracious man and made a strong effort to make me feel comfortable. His wife was in the room, however, so I asked him if we could go out in the back yard to discuss the matter.

In the backyard away from any unauthorized ears, I told the Captain about my idea – that the Naval Submarine School had the attack center simulators consistent with the Sturgeon class SSN design, and that we could conduct a two day classroom tactical training program for the officers followed by a three day session in the simulators. Since all of the officers on deploying SSNs have the required clearance, we would take the wraps off the tactical problems and challenge them with exactly what they would encounter during the mission. During the same time, we would make the resources of the specialized schools available for the crew.

My argument was that it would be the best training they could possibly get before deploying, it would be less costly because the submarine would be tied up in port and not at sea, and the crew would be in port and with their families instead of being at sea for two to three weeks.

Captain Yates said that he thought the concept was excellent. He then gave me a challenge and said, “Go down to the river [Thames] and talk to one or more of the SSN commanding officers. If one is willing to give it a try, you can do it.” He then told me that our conversation was strictly confidential, and that in all matters relating to this idea, I would report directly to him. That was a relief to me because I didn’t have to go back and relate our conversation to the PCO Commanding Officer.

There were two SSNs in port, and it didn’t take much thought about who to visit. Commander Steve White was commanding officer of the USS Pargo (SSN650) and I had met him during the time the RAY was under construction in Newport News. Steve had a reputation for being very, very smart as well as tough as nails. I knew that if I could get him to do it and he found it useful, than ANYONE would find it useful. I also knew that Steve had been the junior officer aboard the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) the first nuclear powered submarine; the commanding officer of the Nautilus was Eugene Wilkinson who was the current Commander Submarine Forces Atlantic (COMSUBLANT). I felt that if Steve thought it was a good idea, then Vice Admiral Wilkinson would know that fact in short order. So I went down to the Pargo to see Commander White.

The appearance of a Sturgeon class SSN sitting alongside a pier has always impressed me. On the surface, the boat (and they ARE called “boats”) was about 90% submerge, and it looked like a hi tech black steel killer with the number “651” painted in white on the sail. After getting permission to come aboard, I went down below and to Captain White’s stateroom. (Commanding officers of US Navy ships are always referred to as “Captain” aboard ship. So I referred to Commander White as “Captain White.”)

As always, Steve was friendly but all business. “Bill Yates told me you have a proposal for me,” said Steve. I swallowed hard and gave my pitch about SSN predeployment training as a pilot for the Pargo and the concept for such training in general for all deploying SSNs.

Steve listened intently, asked a few questions, and then asked bluntly, “Can you deliver?”

I told Steve that if I didn’t deliver he could “take my ass.” This is a Naval Academy expression meaning that if someone is going to “take your ass” as a result of a bet or something of the sort, you had to bend over and he would whack your ass hard with an atlas. While Steve was not a Naval Academy graduate (Southern California), he understood what I meant and said, “You’re on! Let’s do it!”

I was in business! I left the Pargo and went back to my office at Sub School and called Captain Yates. When I told him about my visit with Steve White, he told me that Steve had already called him enthusiastically. “You’ve got a challenge on your hands now!” said Captain Yates.

I sat down and began the scheduling process – reserving the attack center simulator for three solid days, securing the classrooms, scheduling appropriate mini-schools for the Pargo crew, and tried to avoid the PCO Commanding Officer. He had apparently heard from Captain Yates that I was going to be doing a special project for him involving specific training for the Pargo. I told him that was correct and said little else.

The Pargo was on a tight schedule so we had to schedule the training for the following week. For the first two days of wardroom officers, I covered the traditional tactics taught in the PCO school as well as a thorough review of Soviet naval ship recognition. During the afternoon of the last day, I taught them some tactics that had been used during recent SSN operations involving close in tracking of other submarines as well as techniques to approach ships on the surface for close in observation without being detected. While this was the first time I taught this material to anyone, Steve White commented afterwards that it seemed completely in line with what he had experienced. We were then ready for three days in the attack center simulators.

During the simulations, we focused on close in tracking of submerged submarines with minimal information. You might remember “Jonesy” in “Hunt For Red October.” In that movie and in Clancy’s book, very little was divulged about current sonar capabilities and, in fact, most of what was shown in the movie was current knowledge during World War II. What the officers and plotting crew practiced during the simulations was years ahead of what was known back then. Jonesy would have been impressed.

During the third day, Captain Yates made an appearance along with Lieutenant Commander Bruce DeMars who had recently come to the Sub School as an instructor after serving as Executive Officer of the USS Sturgeon (SSN637). They watched the simulation for awhile and chatted with Steve White. All seemed pleased with what had been done, and I had high hopes that at least Steve wouldn’t “take my ass.”

What followed during the next few days was amazing. A meeting was held in Norfolk, VA and following that meeting, Vice Admiral Wilkinson (COMSUBLANT) ordered all Atlantic SSNs who were to be deployed on SSN special operations to attend this training program. Lieutenant Commander DeMars joined me in the “SSN Predeployment Training Unit” (most likely to look over my shoulder at first and then assume training responsibilities himself). We were really in business. Apparently Steve White immediately contacted his old mentor, Vice Admiral Wilkinson, and completely endorsed the program.

Over the course of the next year we conducted SSN Predeployment Training for every Atlantic-based SSN that was embarking on special operations missions. When an SSN would come back from a mission, we would debrief the Commanding Officer and watch officers, and incorporate what they learned into the attack center simulators to prepare the next submarine for their operation. We traveled to Pearl Harbor, HI, and set up the same program for the Pacific based submarines.

Since we were spending so much time in the attack center simulators and polishing the tactics of a SSN in covertly tracking other submarines, I had the perfect laboratory to create new plotting techniques to assist in this process. I created the “Geographic Plot” (later known as the “Geo Plot”) to enable submarines to track maneuvering submarines passively when conducting close-in surveillance. The primary purpose of this plot was to server as a safety device to enable the SSN Commanding Officer to avoid a collision; the secondary purpose of the plot was to enable the SSN Commanding Officer to obtain a bird’s eye view of what the other submarine was doing during a maneuver and, thus, capture the big picture of what was going on at the time.

This is an example of success in using the “production skill” to make something happen in a rather change-resistant organization. In the aftermath, I was not rewarded with stock options or large bonuses – quite the opposite. Yes, it’s true that I receive a rather vanilla worded commendation from the Commander of the Submarine Force in the Atlantic, but the tight security clamp put on to what I had created prohibited me from saying anything specific about what I had done after I became a civilian. In fact, during the first few years after getting out of the Navy, I rarely said anything about my naval experience other than I had been in the service.

I remember sitting in classes at the Harvard Business School listening to others droll on about their own experience prior to coming to the school. I didn’t have the luxury of discussing my own experience or relating what I had done to what was being discussed, so I just kept silent.

The tight security clamps also had an effect on my job interviews. I had to be very careful about what I wrote on my resume and what I said during personal interviews. I remember there were many occasions when the recruiter would ask me about what I did in the Naval service and all I could tell him/her was, “I served in the nuclear submarine force and we operated independently.” I could never discuss anything we actually did and, when I was occasionally pressed to be specific about what I had done, I would have to bite my lip and decline to answer. When I was pressed again on a couple of occasions, I simply asked the individual why he/she wanted to know. That sort of response certainly did not help my chances of getting a job with those organizations.

What were the lessons I learned about the production skill in this example? There are three:
• One CAN take an idea from the concept stage to reality in a change-resistant organization.
• If one wants to exercise the production skill in such an organization, one must have significant passion and a willingness to take risks;
• In such a situation it is important to obtain organizational support and “buy in” from key individuals.

 

2 thoughts on “Personal Experience With the “Production Skill” in the Spooky and Secret World of Nuclear Submarines

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