In memoriam
Ralph Chatham, Ph.D. Oct 15, 1948 - May 18, 2013

Naval Institute Proceedings
Leadership Forum


Abstract; Most personnel problems are really leadership problems. The retention of nuclear-trained officers and men is no exception. Changes in leadership techniques that may ease the situation are unfortunately contrary to the policy of those tasked with the maintenance of nuclear safety. Given the present political situation, both in and out of the Navy, there is a need to impress upon each submariner the urgency of achieving the best possible balance between nuclear safety and trust in the people they lead.

A Symptom: There is a serious personnel problem on board our nuclear submarines. Its existence is universally acknowledged by those who serve in them. Its most obvious manifestation is the poor retention of officers and men with nuclear power training. In part, the retention problem is serious because, like all other facets of nuclear power, it is expensive. The officer training pipeline includes more than a year of formal schooling before the trainee ever sees a submarine, and half of that time is taken operating land-based nuclear reactors which produce no usable power and are maintained primarily for training. After finally reaching a ship, the new officer spends a second year qualifying to operate the reactor and the submarine. Typically, the Navy gets two useful years of service from the junior officer, and then he resigns.

Although the retention rate for nuclear-trained officers differs little from that for the rest of the Navy, the situation is greatly aggravated by the long training pipeline and the increasing need for such officers. Unfortunately, the vast effort and expense applied to recruit, train, and retain these men have paid no dividends.

The seriousness of the problem can be seen in the statement of the Chief of Naval Personnel made to Congress in 1976. The admiral said that without congressional approval of a bonus for nuclear officers:

"I'll tell you now, that we will begin to see the further erosion of our ability to allow these officers to do anything but serve their entire 20 years at sea. And by 1980, if we were not to have it, we would have to start shutting down nuclear submarines." 1

Yet, despite very careful screening, despite personal interviews with each candidate by a four-star admiral (the Director of the Division of Naval Reactors [NR]*), despite bonuses between four and five thousand dollars a year, despite every other retention scheme that has been tried, for more than a decade almost two-thirds of the nuclear-trained junior officers leave the Navy at the first opportunity.

(*The initials NR are universally used to refer to either the Division of Naval Reactors or the admiral who heads it.)

Retention is only a symptom of a greater problem faced by the nuclear submarine force. The other symptoms are recognized individually by portions of the submarine community, but each is treated as a separate problem. The existence of a unifying cause has been partially obscured because the "silent service" has attempted to keep these problems "in house" and has, in consequence, succeeded in stifling healthy discussion of them. The personnel problems in the submarine force today desperately need discussion, open discussion, and at the root of these problems is the question of what nuclear propulsion has done to leadership in our submarines.

This essay addresses that question. It can only scratch the surface of the subject, and certainly many of the following statements are generalizations or over-simplifications. My hope is to promote discussion and thought about leadership in the submarine force. We need new ideas. The silent service approach is no longer appropriate in a community controlling 35% of the Navy's major combatant ships and an even larger percentage of its operating budget. The approach prevents the command structure of the Navy, and the junior officer as well, from fully recognizing submarine problems or potentials. To those who disagree with the analysis that follows, I admit that a lack of complete knowledge must certainly color my perceptions as well.

It is vital that every naval officer, nuclear trained or not, understand the leadership problems caused by the existence of nuclear propulsion plants. For better or worse, nuclear-powered ships are a major part of our naval force, and officers who learned leadership in such ships are filling more and more of the highest positions in our Navy. In addition, as we continue to become a technically oriented service, we must be aware of the mistakes that have been made in the administration of any technical branch of the Navy, not only to correct them within that branch, but to ensure that they are not repeated in other Navy programs.

This article will describe the parallel chain of command that has been imposed upon nuclear ships in the name of safety. It will then discuss the system of administration and leadership that has evolved in an attempt to coexist with this second chain of command. Short examples will show how this "nuclear way of doing things" can lead to a breakdown in the normal chain of command and an atmosphere of mistrust on the part of some nuclear-trained leaders. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive alternative to the nuclear way. Certainly there is no alternative that can be practiced by an individual officer which can have a great impact upon the situation. I can only conclude the essay with a few ideas that may help ease the problem and then hope that more ideas can come from an open discussion of leadership and nuclear power. Finally, I must apologize, in advance, to the many outstanding leaders in the submarine force for whom this essay does not apply.

A Second Chain of Command: Each nuclear submarine is commanded by two people: its captain and the Director, Division of Naval Reactors. The captain has full responsibility for the military operations of his ship as well as for power plant safety. He also has full authority over the military operations. NR has much of the authority over the power plant; its Director has been known to place a call to a submarine's engineering space telephone and then personally direct the commanding officer how to organize his watch bill.

This system, which allows parallel authority without also giving parallel responsibility, is a result of the broad power granted personally to the Director of NR to provide for nuclear safety. The vast extent of that power is partially due to his political skills, and partially due to public misconceptions about nuclear power.

The physical hazards to the general public of nuclear propulsion, while certainly deserving serious consideration, are overrated by that public. The mention of "atom" to most people immediately conjures up the frightening vision of a mushroom cloud and lingering radiation poisoning, but the error of this perception makes nuclear safety no less a real social issue. In fact, the assurance of complete power plant safety is not sufficient. It is equally important to maintain the appearance of absolute safety. This is a diplomatic as well as political concern. The entrance of a nuclear ship into a foreign port, for example, requires a major diplomatic transaction. A hint that our reactors are unsafe would bar most foreign ports to us.

Thus, a second, one-link chain of command has developed to ensure the appearance as well as the substance of safety. It is not exactly a "chain" of command for it is the antithesis of a chain. The Director of NR personally controls everything from power plant design to the selection of each officer to receive nuclear training, and even becomes involved in assigning engineers and commanding officers of nuclear-powered ships. This chain of command has the power to stop the operations of a ship without warning. An engineering problem perceived by this chain as improperly handled is the quickest way to a poor fitness report. The power plant therefore gets all the attention demanded.

NR's influence is not limited to safety. Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, former Chief Of Naval Operations, wrote:

"Clearly stringent inspection systems are mandatory in any facility involved in nuclear safety. But, going beyond safety considerations, Rickover used those teams [NR] to govern every aspect of a nuclear facility's activities and to bend every employee of such facilities to his will, which he was able to do by brandishing 'safety' whenever he met opposition."2

This observation is as valid for submarines as it is for shipyards. The story is told that, in order to prevent the power plants on board naval ships from being operated and controlled by civilians, NR's Director promised to take personal responsibility for the safety of all naval reactors. The Navy has not gained the independence that this suggests, for the situation has become curiously inverted. The requirement that submarine power plants be run by submariners has become a requirement that submarines must be run by power plant operators, officers subject to control by NR.

In summary, nuclear submarines are subject to two authorities: the regular naval chain of command with which resides all the responsibility, and an engineering duty admiral whose

". . division of Nuclear Propulsion was a totalitarian mini-state whose citizens—and that included not just his headquarters staff but anybody engaged in building, maintaining, or manning nuclear vessels—did what the Leader told them to, Navy Regulations not withstanding, or suffered condign punishment."3

The Nuclear Way: Reacting to this kind of divided authority, the submarine force has evolved a unique system of leadership. Most junior officers involved do not recognize this way of doing things as unique to nuclear-powered ships, for they have had no other experience with which to compare it. The following characteristics are, to varying extents, accepted as normal: obsessively keeping all problems "in house;" paying more attention to the reactor than it objectively deserves; a need to be told exactly what to do; a reluctance to give praise; and a leadership habit of mistrust.

Tunnel Vision: An obvious result of the concentration upon technical aspects of the engineering plant is the relative neglect of the other aspects of the ship and her mission. The junior officer finds that he cannot ration his time because the power plant gets all of it. The present advanced submarine school, taught after the second sea tour, strives to correct this neglect, but the fact that he has to wait about four years before he truly appreciates that his ship is a weapon system must certainly color the officer's perception of the importance of that part of his professional knowledge. This tunnel vision can result in such situations as the only operating diesel submarine in a squadron firing well over half the total number of exercise torpedoes launched by all the ships in the squadron. This record began with the emergence of the submarine from overhaul and continued for two successive quarters until the diesel boat finally left for the Western Pacific.

The following occurred during re-training at the end of the overhaul of a ballistic-missile submarine. Quoting from a letter by the ship's weapons officer:

"Having just witnessed the ship go through the Naval Reactors Crew Quiz, I am even more skeptical about the philosophy of navy nuclear power. Much of what goes on appears to be unnecessary. The pressures are almost indescribable. The nucs have been working 12 to 16 hours per clay, seven days a week for the past month conducting drills, seminars, class-room training and critiques. Everything the past week has been geared to this one inspection which lasts one day. All the nuclear-trained officers from the CO on down to the junior nuc were walking around like zombies by the time the inspection team arrived yesterday. This almost total devotion to nuclear power seems to be to the exclusion of anything else on board. We loaded our first missile today (an inert test vehicle); when I told the CO of our intentions on Wednesday all he wanted to know was what tube we were going to put it in. If it had been an engineering procedure, they would have had flow charts generated, several reams of paperwork to triple verify, and several days worth of meetings and briefings. One of the benefits is that we are quite independent since the command is so wrapped up in the care and feeding of the reactor. But some of the philosophy of operations has begun to cross over from the engineers to the rest of the ship."4

Is not weapons safety at least as important as power plant excellence? A leader must be able to order his command's priorities objectively. Unfortunately, as one observer put it, with nuclear power, "when the pressure is on, leadership goes out the window."

Rudder Orders: There are many power plant procedures that, for valid reasons, must be approved by higher authority and be strictly adhered to. It is unfortunate that the prevalence of these procedures obscures the fact that there are many more tasks that a leader must perform which cannot be done by following checklists. Naval personnel who handle nuclear weapons must also follow strictly controlled procedures, but since nuclear weapons safety is administered through the normal chain of command, the weapons personnel have the authority to match their responsibility. They are not constantly called upon to justify each action in detail as are those who work with nuclear propulsion. When any independent action may be seized upon by NR teams to justify a negative inspection report, initiative is not a well-rewarded trait. On the contrary, the most successful nuclear officer is one who can justify his every action with specific requirements of higher authority. A well-qualified nuclear submariner was recently told by his detailer that being assigned as a ship's engineer officer could not possibly help his career, but the job might easily ruin it.

Given responsibility, but not authority, the natural reaction is to ask to be told exactly what to do, to request rudder orders. An officer working in a nuclear billet can become a commanding officer if he simply makes no major mistakes. Leadership is not nearly so important a criterion of success. A leader who does what he is told and ensures that he is told everything that he must do does not make mistakes. This is an awful lesson for the highly intelligent nuclear-trained junior officer to learn. It has been my experience that too many of the 36% who stay with the Navy do learn it.

The need for rudder orders also leads to a bizarre situation in which form and ritual are more important than the safety they are intended to promote. The question that is asked is not "What is safe?" but "What will NR think?" Rote obedience and ritual are important for a force requiring instant response to orders. There is some question about its value when intelligent thinking responses are required in emergency situations. 5

"Nucs Don't Give 'Attaboys*'": One observer noted that, in nuclear power, if you can show somebody else is wrong, that is a mark for you. It appears to be a general policy of NR that no one should be permitted to know that he has done well: hubris causes mistakes. In consequence, everyone must be constantly criticized. This is clearly demonstrated at nuclear power school and is reinforced throughout the nuclear officer's career. The significance of not giving deserved praise is obvious, yet the policy persists. Its existence was neatly summed up when a nuclear-trained lieutenant commander stated, "But we all know that nucs don't give attaboys," and the other 11 submarine officers in the compartment nodded sagely in agreement.

(*Attaboy, as used here, means oral or written recognition of a specific task well done. Attaboy recognition does not encompass the awarding of medals.)

Mistrust: From the start of his technical education, it is made abundantly clear that perfection is expected from each nuclear-trained officer. To succeed, an officer must enforce perfection in the men who work for him, and thus he cannot allow his people any independence of action. It is a far too common sailor's lament that "I taught this officer everything he knows about________[fill in your own favorite] and now he is telling me how to fix it." Usually this is a result of inexperienced leadership; on board a nuclear submarine it is the result of an enforced management system. The junior officer is unlikely to discover that any other system exists.

Trust is a vital key to good leadership. Unfortunately, the nuclear way operates using the following logic:

- The most important criterion for success to both chains of command is that of never making a mistake.
- A leadership habit of trust inevitably leads to some mistakes, occasionally serious ones.
- Therefore, a leader on a nuclear submarine cannot afford to trust his people.

"A turbine generator will not resent a lack of trust; a machinist's mate will."

Discussion: At a recent navy leadership and management training course a number of highly intelligent submarine junior officers and I were able to discuss many of these problems with a former nuclear submarine commanding officer. For some time, he attempted to convince us that the problems were not universal, but he finally broke off, paused, and said, "What you are telling me is that there is a serious leadership problem in the lieutenant commander and above levels of the submarine force." For a few seconds, it was our turn to try and deny it, but we, too, paused and then affirmed his analysis. Yet, he did not go far enough; what we were telling him was that there was a leadership problem at all levels in the nuclear submarine force.

What can be done? We cannot eliminate nuclear propulsion from the Navy. Even though there are very sound reasons for construction of nonnuclear submarines6 it would be as irrational to eliminate the nuclear fleet as it is to eliminate the non-nuclear fleet.

It is important to stop assigning blame and to start searching for solutions that each officer can implement on his own. There are very few submariners who have not, at one time or another, blamed NR or the admiral who directs it for all their problems. Such a reaction is not only unproductive, it is incorrect. A part of the problem faced by the nuclear community is its own reaction to the nuclear chain of command. Every request for a rudder order, every time a junior officer is ordered to supervise a repair specifically to ensure there are holes in the center of each gasket installed, every letter of appreciation that is withdrawn, or not written, every lack of trust is another negative contribution to the nuclear power leadership tangle.

Every naval leader is a manager of material as well as people. He will inevitably find himself having to make trade-offs between material and personnel. The reactor and NR are unforgiving, but they also don't resent a lack of trust. Any subordinate will. We must never forget that people are as vital to the readiness of the Navy as power plants.

The answers to secrecy and the reluctance to praise are obvious. The problem of tunnel vision is being addressed by the advanced submarine course and an expansion of the officers' basic course. The requests for rudder orders were answered last year by a new Commander Submarine Force, Atlantic Fleet in his first address to the force:

". . . I would like all you men to remember that no competent subordinate sits around waiting for someone else to give impulse to movement if his senses tell him things need to be done. He either suggests a course to his superior or asks authority to execute it on his own, or, in some circumstances, gives orders on his own initiative. Any lesser theory of individual responsibility would leave every chain of command at the complete mercy of its weakest link and would choke the fountain of inspiration that springs upward from energy and ideas. Therefore, . . . [one] of my goals is to place responsibility and accountability at the lowest level in the chain of command where it can be properly exercised. You, at all levels, must be ready to accept that responsibility if my plan is to work." 7

It is unfortunate that the nuclear chain of command may not yield the authority to match that responsibility.

Finally, there is trust. One submarine petty officer wrote after attending a leadership and management training course:

"There are real problems on submarines. The chain of command only works when the senior members let it. . . . [It] works but only if there is trust. Trust is a very simple tool. Everyone is capable of it. Few people use it. Yet this one word either makes or breaks a crew. There are many broken crews. . . . Trust must start within each of us."

There is a serious personnel problem on board our nuclear submarines. Its root cause is a leadership failure: the institutionalized use of a personnel management system that finds it hard to distinguish between the needs of people and the needs of machines. Although this policy has been generated by the actions of higher authority,there may be something that the nuclear submariner can do to alleviate the situation. He must stop asking for rudder orders. He must worry about what is safe, rather than what NR will think. He must trust his people and himself to the maximum extent allowed by nuclear safety. Although the submariner can never forget the physical and political problems posed by nuclear propulsion, the extent to which he can return trust to his inventory of leadership techniques will determine whether he can return the zest to submarining that has slipped away from the nuclear navy.


Lieutenant Chatham received his commission in 1970 through the Regular NROTC program at the University of Kansas from which he graduated with highest distinction, majoring in engineering physics. He was selected for the Junior Line Officer Advanced Education (Burke Scholar) Program at that time. He made a 72-day first-class midshipman cruise on an SSBN Polaris Deterrent Patrol. After commissioning he attended the Officer Basic Submarine School from which he graduated second in his class. He was then ordered to the USS Barbel (SS-580) where he served as assistant engineer, supply officer, and then engineer. In the fall of 1973, he began graduate study in physics for the Burke Program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and was granted a PhD. After attending the Submarine Officers Advanced Course, and training in inertial navigation systems, he will be assigned to the USS George C. Marshall (SSBN-654 Blue) as navigator.


  1. James P. Watkins, "Navy Future Brightening, Watkins Says," quoted in the Navy Times, 5 April 1976, P.
  2. Elmo R. Zumwalt, On Watch (New York: Quadrangle, 1976). p. 113.
  3. Ibid p. 85.
  4. Letter reproduced with the permission of the author.
  5. C.L. Bekkedahl, "Discipline and the Profession of Naval Arms," United States Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1977 (Naval Review Issue), pp. 188-201.
  6. A. Van Saun, "Tactical ASW: Let's Fight Fire with Fire," Proceedings, December 1976, p. 99. See also V.D. Yakmlev, Soviet Naval Fleet (Moscow: DOSAAF, 1969), pp. 58-64.
  7. Kenneth M. Carr, Change of command speech for Commander Submarine Squadron Six, 22 July 1977.

Citation:
Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright (c) 1978 U.S. Naval Institute/www.usni.org.