[New information is constantly coming out on the USS San Francisco's (SSN 711) collision with a seamount while submerged, which may invalidate some of the specific conclusions the author draws, but his larger points are well worth noting. --webmaster]

Why We Almost Lost the Submarine

By Raymond Perry

DefenseWatch, 4-13-2005

Specific details of the investigation into the collision of the USS San Francisco with a seamount in the Pacific Ocean are beginning to emerge and they reveal the incident was far more serious than we originally were led to believe.

The New London Day newspaper published a synopsis of the investigation on April 9, 2005 ("Navy Faults Navigational Procedures In Crash Of Sub"), that paints a grim picture of what happened to the nuclear attack submarine on January 8, 2005.

First, the damage done by the collision was nearly fatal. The article by reporter Robert Hamilton revealed that the forward bulkhead of the San Francisco buckled upon impact with the submerged seamount. Some of the photos of the submarine in drydock show that the deck immediately aft of the damaged ballast tank area has "bubbled up", indicating significant bending of the hull itself. The buckling of the forward bulkhead noted by the investigation indicates that the ship was on the brink of catastrophic flooding.

The Navy investigation determined that the routine of laying out the navigation plan for the transit to Australia was seriously deficient. Charts in use were not updated to indicate a possible hazard just 6,000 yards from the collision location, and the ship chose to pass within 12 miles of charted pinnacles.

The probe also concluded that the organizational decision-making onboard the San Francisco was unacceptably "slack" by Pacific Submarine Force standards. Specific examples include:

  • With the ship’s fathometer showing that water was shoaling over a period of time, key crewmembers took no action to verify the safety of continuing on the planned track.

  • No attempt was made to verify and resolve the discrepancy in measured versus charted water depth, despite the fact that some key crewmen thought that the soundings taken were incorrect since they were taken at high speed.

  • The chart used for daily navigation was a large-scale map with less detail. This was convenient for a long and fast voyage but conveyed a false sense of security when the ship was in fact passing through broken waters.

  • It appears that the ship was not using a management tool, such as conducting daily briefs of the next 24 hours of operations, to ensure that all key crewmembers had considered and discussed future hazards.

An apparently mitigating circumstance was offered in that higher authority failed to send an operational order (called a "Subnote") to the submarine until the night before its departure from Guam. However, this does not tell the full story. It is rare that a ship is sent out to sea with a subnote "out of the blue." Were the San Francisco's captain and crew truly ignorant of this pending voyage?

In a normal sequence of events, the ship itself would initiate the voyage planning process by submitting a request with a proposed track. Higher authority would either approve it or propose changes. The submarine would have the opportunity to negotiate changes in most cases. In any event, such a Subnote only certifies that the proposed track enjoys freedom from interference with other submarines or submerged towed bodies.

It is unlikely that there was much mitigating basis in the late receipt of the final track. In fact, this point seems to have had little sway in affecting 7th Fleet Commander VADM Jonathan W. Greenert's decision on Feb. 12 to relieve San Francisco Commanding Officer CDR Kevin Mooney during Article 15 Admiral's Mast proceedings against him for the collision.

So why would a submarine with the fine reputation that this skipper had gained succumb to such unprofessional performance? The easy answer is to simply pass this off as "personnel error", but I feel there is more to the story.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Congress passed legislation requiring officers to be trained for "Joint Duty" assignments. Such training requires specific education and time spent in joint duty billets – that is, years spent away from an officer's chosen specialty. My own naval experience has confirmed that this significantly reduces an officer's available time for professional development in his critical specialty during the period from the 7th to 15th years of an officer's overall service.

After the joint duty policies went into effect, it was the initial position of the Submarine Force that such training would seriously reduce the performance of Nuclear Trained Submarine Officers. Submarine Force commanders sought an exemption from the new requirement on grounds that the professions of both submarining and nuclear engineering were so demanding that they would not be able to do them justice with the added burden of joint duty. In a previous article ("Why Are Navy COs getting the Ax?" DefenseWatch, March 2, 2004), I discussed the demands of joint training and its impact on the professional development of Commanding Officers in the Navy.

Senior Submarine Force leaders frequently remarked at that time that if they could not obtain such an exemption then submariners would withdraw from joint duty altogether. The long-term implications were clear: Ultimately, there would be few submarine qualified admirals since the law required flag officers to have been trained for and to have served in qualifying joint billets.

But Congress rebuffed the submariners' objections and directed "no exemption". After a recent spate of submarine mishaps in recent years, the question arises that the Submarine Force leaders might have erred in not standing their ground.

As a retired career submariner, I believe that the collision and near loss of the San Francisco is an example of why they should have stood their ground. To fully understand the impact of joint duty assignments on career submariners, one must consider CDR Mooney's career in particular and ask whether he had had sufficient "time on the pond" to have mastered the difficult craft of commanding a submarine. The conservatism and skepticism required for an otherwise good leader to stand back from the day-to-day stresses of running a nuclear submarine and make tough decisions takes a lot of time at sea – not just completion of a PCO course.

Only experience gained from years of on-the-job work provides an officer with the sufficient background, depth of experience and seasoned knowledge to recognize in advance professional errors that seem small at the time but ultimately can have a major effect on the ship's safety.

In command of a submarine, an officer faces a unique experience: for the first time in his career there is no one to ask if he has a question. The phone lines just aren't long enough. The CO must solve problems himself – alone. No joint duty assignment can prepare an officer for this.

There is a second potential contributing element to the San Francisco collision. The Navy several years ago merged the Quartermaster rating with the Electronics Technician rating as a means of saving money during a period of personnel cutbacks. What did the Submarine Force lose in eliminating this professional set of sailors, and was it worth it?

Another key element of the San Francisco investigation appears to be that five key Notices to Mariners were not applied to the specific chart which the submarine was using to ensure safe passage at the time of the collision.

Updating charts to ensure all applicable Notices to Mariners have been entered is a mundane and never ending but truly vital task. To a Quartermaster, it is a key element of his professional performance. To an Electronics Technician, it might be, at best, another administrative task.

The chart makers have come in for their round of criticism for not updating the particular chart used by the submarine. In the world of cartography, there is never enough money to map the world and recent combat posed many critical and immediate demands on that community of specialists.

This chart had been updated five times in recent years, but the Navy probe found that Mooney's subordinates did not ensure these updates made it onto the chart, and thus to the navigation team.

A third factor revealed in the probe is the common and expected practice of employing dead-reckoning to show if a ship is standing into danger. The practice is to lay out the ship's present course and speed for the next few position fix intervals or four hours in the open ocean (See Chapter 7 of The American Practical Navigator). This practice presents a visual display of potential danger immediately available to those navigating the ship, if its course and speed are not changed.

Quartermasters do this in their sleep as second nature and a core element of their profession. To an Electronics Technician this too would be another administrative task among many.

Quartermasters know charts and the potential inaccuracies inherent in a chart based on information predating satellite mapping of the world (see "The Navigator's Paradox," DefenseWatch, Feb. 1, 2005). When a Quartermaster sees a series of soundings indicating a shoaling bottom not shown on the chart, it should, and does, set off loud warning bells.

Electronics Technicians are professionals too. They work hard in their chosen field. But each professional field within the Navy operates to different sets of priorities. When the Submarine Force did away with its Quartermaster rating and rolled its responsibilities into another rating, some things that were done instinctively disappeared.

I believe that the performance of key people in the chain of command within the San Francisco was deficient. Each of these individuals on board has paid a price for his performance.

But the Submarine Force leadership must also recognize and take responsibility for larger issues. When the core ethos of a professional organization is challenged as in the case of the joint duty requirement, leaders must not only recognize the proposal for what it really does to the organization, but also stand their ground.

Congress' goal of creating a more perfect officer corps has its down sides. The most well-trained Joint Qualified Officer is of no value if he cannot get his ship to the fight, ready to fight on arrival.

Neither does a budget process that is incapable of recognizing when it has become pennywise and pound-foolish. Whatever savings were taken in doing away with the Submarine Quartermaster rate have been overrun many times by the cost of this accident.

The emerging full picture of the San Francisco accident is even more disturbing than we initially knew: Reduced "time on the pond" for a commanding officer and the loss of a set of core skills came together to set the stage for the near-loss of a submarine and its crew.

In fact, the underwater collision on January 8 will probably result in the premature retirement of the submarine due to the high estimated costs of repairing it. As a forward deployed submarine, USS San Francisco was truly valuable in being permanently stationed within the vast Western Pacific operating area.

USS San Francisco's loss to the Submarine Force, the Navy and the nation will be felt for years.

Lt. Raymond Perry USN (Ret.) is a DefenseWatch Contributing Editor. He can be reached at cos1stlt@yahoo.com.

This article originally appeared online as "Why We Almost Lost the Submarine," DefenseWatch, April 14, 2005, and was reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

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