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Narcosubs: Technological Innovation in the War on Drugs

By Javier Guerrero C.

Last year, the Colombian Navy detected and captured the first electric narco-submarine.1 Demonstrating the innovative capacities of Colombian drug traffickers, narco-submarines, drug subs, narco-semisubmersibles, self-propelled semisubmersibles, or simply narcosubs, are maritime custom-made vessels used principally by Colombian drug traffickers with the purpose of smuggling illicit drugs to consumers or transshipment countries. This year only one of such vessels have been captured, and given their technical characteristics seems a step back in the ‘evolution’ of narcosub technology. Such is the paradox of security and maritime interdiction in the War on Drugs. The very process of thwarting a particular method or route creates the conditions to propel technological innovation on the drug traffickers’ side. The narcosubs are one of many of these innovations.

The term “narcosub” encompasses a diversity of watercraft that includes semisubmersible and fully submersible vessels. Several entries on CIMSEC (here, here, and here) have already delved into the characteristics of the narcosubs and their potential capacities to threaten regional security. In addition, several studies in the security field, such as by Ramirez and Bunker,2 as well as academic articles, have also attempted to provide technical evidence and policy advice. To summarize, narcosubs are characterized by the use of maritime diesel engines, a rudimentary system of refrigeration, no facilities, fiberglass hulls, and a valve which can be activated in case of being captured that allows water to fill the hull and sink the vessel. Narcosubs are not made to last, as smugglers mostly discard such vessels after ending their one-way journey. Smugglers have been using narcosubs from at least as early as 1993, but the majority of captures have been made since 2005. Narcosubs are described by the Navy as vessels that are highly difficult to detect and/or track, due to their lack of emissions, small wake, and low heat signature, preventing visibility all around. 

Despite the centrality of innovation in the War on Drugs, there have been few attempts to understand the process. Given that 90 percent of the cocaine from Andean countries is transported using maritime routes,3 it is necessary to analyze the development of drug trafficker and state agency technologies in the maritime environment. That is to say, the study of the game of cat and mouse between interdiction and evasion.

This binary can be understood as the symbiotic relationship that creates the conditions for innovation, generating a constant arms race between drug traffickers and state agencies. Different versions of the genesis of the narcosubs mill around, from Pablo Escobar’s mastermind idea, boosted by the semi-mythical image of the drug baron with the economic means and savvy to contract specialized naval engineering. According to this
version, Pablo Escobar supposedly conceived the idea of a submarine after watching a James Bond movie. In this story a Russian and an English engineer were hired to design the submarines while Pablo’s brother took took care of the electric circuits.4 A common narrative in describing narcosub building is to assume some form of hierarchical organization, both in terms of decision making and knowledge. That is, the participation of a ‘cartel’ with capabilities to hire ‘expert knowledge’ such as naval engineers who then recruit builders. The diffusion of the technology is also assumed to be the result of transnational organized crime networks. Others suggest that narcosubs are the transfer of military innovation by the guerrilla groups FARC or ELN to their drug trafficking enterprises.5

Innovation in the design and building of these vessels is so commonplace that the adjective ‘first’ is often repeated. The truth about narcosub design and building may be more prosaic. The variety of watercraft labeled under the banner of narcosubs summarizes some of the key features of the innovation and counter-innovation competition in the War on Drugs.

The Evolution of Narcosubs

The narcosubs demonstrate a variable combination of materials, designs, and building. Even narcosubs found in the same shipyard vary in several features. In this sense, each narcosub is a unique way to solve the problem of transporting large amounts of illicit drugs, producing a complex timeline that is problematic to define using traditional innovation concepts, such as incremental or radical innovation, but also to define as the result of pull/push factors. The process of innovation in the War on Drugs can be better described using the concept of dispersed peer innovation,6 in which the design and construction of these vessels, not being bound by standardized procedures, profits from the possibilities of creating their own designs with high degrees of flexibility. In this sense, it is possible to say that what smugglers produced with the narcosubs are different versions of a ‘techno-meme’ that gets combined with the local knowledge of maritime routes and boat building. Those involved in the process of outlaw innovation are able to mix locally available knowledge of traditional boat building with off-the-shelf technologies.

One key issue when studying the evolution of narcosubs and other forms of drug traffickers innovations is how entwined they are with other forms of maritime drug transport. The process of incremental innovation does not necessarily produce a particular method that replaces older strategies. For example, a technical analysis of improvements of the go-fast boats or fishing boats demonstrates that there are few steps between semisubmersible methods and submersible ones. These few steps are provided by the availability of the knowledge to build such vessels within the relatively small areas where narcosubs can operate.

What it Takes to Build a Narcosub

Little is known about the day-to-day decisions on design and modification of such vessels. Official documents say little about the narcosub builders, but a set of documents allows us to take a glimpse at the organization of a narcosub enterprise. These include the Supreme Court of Justice ruling on the extradition of Colombian nationals to the United States in order to be judged by courts in the U.S. for criminal offenses, including narcotics violation, and reports from the law enforcement agencies and military.

Several facts can be derived from the analysis of such documents. Narcosub builders are often independent of the owners of the cocaine. Several opportunistic relationships are undertaken, with drug traffickers either contacting the builders or the builders contacting the drug traffickers. As part of a plea bargain, a narco-submarine builder narrates how as a part of his organization he carried out and presented blueprints of ‘his’ narcosubs, and descriptions of the areas where the vessels could be built and launched. As part of his negotiation with prospective buyers, he shared his past experience of success in the building and operation of these boats.

Figure 1: Narcosub Building Team

Figure 1 reconstructs the main links in a narcosub builder organization and shows the multiple forms of knowledge and relationships that can be found in such an organization. While some aspects of the design are carried out by specialists such as electrical and mechanical engineers, others are left to people with local knowledge, such as knowledge about fiberglass handling and coating. In this organization, another individual, the provider of the fiberglass, also plays the role of quality assurance guaranteeing that, in fact, the vessel is correctly waterproofed. Other individuals are in charge of the logistics, such as the purchase and transport of materials and personnel to shipyards. Finally, some individuals are hired as crewmen. They test the vessel and provided feedback to builders.

The organization described in the legal files is interesting because it has two different construction sites; one in Colombia’s South Pacific and one on the Ecuadorian coast. The organization boss was not actually involved in the construction of the narcosubs, but he was the main source of finance. The main builder of the narcosubs is considered a “chief” within the organization. Besides providers of drugs, every shipyard has an administrator accompanied by a chief of security. The description provided does not delve into the process of designing and building narcosubs specifically, but shows the participation of people with formalized knowledge and others in possession of craftwork knowledge, such as the people involved in the woodworking and the fiberglass construction, some of whom worked in both shipyards. The fiberglass work was supervised by another specialist, who provided expert knowledge and supervision at both sites. This person was not part of the organization, but was the provider of the fiberglass. In the same organization, a mechanical engineer was identified, who was in charge of the design and building of the hatches, steering mechanisms, and galvanization of the narcosubs.

The innovation in narcosub technologies is then carried out by a multitude of different groups with little incentive to collaborate among themselves. This gives rise to a wide variation of submersible and semisubmersible designs. Such technical decisions are taken by builders and drug traffickers in a context in which the actions of other groups and their enemy (law enforcement and military) are not always known.7 Narcosub builders are able to configure a complex design using a mix and match approach. Blending off-the-shelf solutions, local traditional knowledge, and technical-formal knowledge produces hybrids such as low-profile narcosubs using truck diesel engines.

Drug smugglers do not just compete with the state, they also compete with other drug rings and other narcosub builders. This complex pattern of competition plays a role that promotes further local innovations. Through trial and error they master the building principles of the narcosub and introduce minor variations into their models. The variation and innovation in narcosub technologies, as well as the interpretation that actors, smugglers, and enforcement agencies make of such innovations, creates changes in a co-evolutionary fashion. In this way, the choices of the illicit actors, competing among themselves and against the state, continuously destabilizes and changes the landscape in which they act, triggering a situation in which multiple players attempt alterations, which create new adaptations.


It has been argued that smugglers often have the capacity to change their strategies and designs after they been detected by law enforcement and the military. Nevertheless, a more complex understanding of the pattern of innovation in the War on Drugs, in which explanations are not given in terms of push/pull between state agencies and drug smugglers, but take into account multiple layers of competition and sources of knowledge, will provide better tools to control the illegal flows. One main consequence of this would be to escape the fallacy of flexibility, in which the explanations of the process innovation in the War on Drugs is given solely based on drug traffickers’ actions.

Javier Guerrero C. is a Lecturer at the Instituto Tecnológico Metropolitano (Medellín, Colombia). In addition, he is a Post-Doctoral researcher at Centro de Estudios de Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, D.C, Colombia). Javier is currently researching the intersections between technology, security and the War on Drugs and the history of technology in the War on Drugs. He may be reached at the following addresses:;





[4]  Escobar, R., & Fisher, D. (2009). The Accountant’s Story Inside the Violent World of Medellin Cartel. New York: Hachette Book Group.

[5] Jacome Jaramillo, Michelle. “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Development of Narco-Submarines.” Journal of Strategic Security 9, no. 1 (2016): : 49-69.
Available at:

[6] Hyysalo, S., & Usenyuk, S. (2015). The user dominated technology era: Dynamics of dispersed peer-innovation. Research Policy, 44(3), 560–576. 


Featured Image: A makeshift submarine is lifted out of the water at Bahía Malaga on the Pacific coast, in 2007. (Colombian Navy/Reuters)

Lost In The Fog: Putting Warfighting Proficiency First in SWO Culture

By Themistocles

Current commentators consider the combination of collisions, groundings, and senior reviews of 2017 to be a watershed event for the Surface Warfare community. Rather than a wakeup call for the community, 2017 should be viewed as a culminating point for the Surface Warfare community overall and the Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) culture in particular. Just as Napoleon’s policy objectives failed to bring Europe under his rule, despite brilliant military victories,1 many post-Cold War policy decisions for the Surface Warfare community, as admitted by past and current leadership, were misinformed. In some cases, they appear to have done more harm than good to the Surface Warfare community. More importantly, those changes in policy drove changes in the SWO culture. And, while many people debate the merits of some of those earlier policy decisions, the debate is lost in the fog and the SWO community is missing the real opportunity to reclaim its warfighting excellence by recreating the culture which led to victories within the last century in the same waters in which sailors died in 2017.

By identifying the warfighting traits the community believes necessary to lead, fight, and win at sea, by developing a modern approach to promotions and assignment processes, and by leveraging readily available techniques and solutions in use by leading industrial sectors,2 the SWO community can return to a culture built on warfighting competence and professional proficiency – excellence – that it once exemplified as it stood as the premier community in the Navy. This is no small task. But it is readily doable and doable in short order.

Leveraging Modern Techniques And Solutions To Restore SWO Warfighting Excellence

The national and global competition for talent in business, industry, and academia has driven the development of a variety of techniques and solutions to help organizations win the competition. Current techniques and solutions include compliance with federal and state job application laws, tailored machine reading, and the ability to develop specific questions or processes in an effort to find the right talent. Applicants build their profile and post or submit their resume. Depending on the traits the customer is looking for, applicants are screened. If their profile and resume are assessed to not meet the desired factors, applicants are notified by email that they are no longer needed to participate in the screening process. Or, if they score high enough, applicants may be required to participate in another level of screening in the form of a battery of questions or other online exercises – all before a single human has reviewed their submission. Of course, articles abound about how inhuman and unfair the process has become. However, more and more talent is migrating to these online processes to find employment and more and more organizations are paying for these services in order to win the competition for talent. These existing techniques and solutions could be applied to improve and align warfighting skill sets and proficiency for the SWO community.

Developing the Warfighting Trait Model

For starters, past naval heroes were not rated by the same processes used today. However, unstructured data in the form of biographies, articles, battle reports, and other sources can be processed using current cognitive processing methods to glean or extract a set of character traits common to those past naval heroes deemed to have exhibited warfighting excellence. In parallel, a cadre of junior officers, with very few select retired flag officers as advisors, can separately develop a set of warfighting traits.3 It is essential that the ideal of warfighting excellence is captured by this group. Once both sets of warfighting traits are generated, they are then synthesized into a single warfighting trait model that would exemplify an individual with premier warfighting excellence. With the ideal trait model in hand, the Surface Warfare community can then embark on “scoring” individual warfighting proficiency reflective of its officers’ performance.

Scoring Individual Warfighting Capability

Returning to warfighting excellence to reinvigorate and restore the SWO culture may necessitate a reconsideration of not only the factors by which warfighting excellence is determined but also an expansion of the data set from which those factors are pulled. The existing performance evaluation system and its fitness reports, and how they are used, do not meet the need and do not drive warfighting excellence. Fitness reports serve a purpose and can continue to serve as one source of data for an officer’s performance. However, there are a myriad of unique and high performing skills demonstrated daily in the fleet. Yet, the proficiency with which those skills are performed is not assessed or recorded. Reportedly, every landing onboard an aircraft carrier is an opportunity to rigorously and objectively score the pilot’s performance, and provide critical feedback in the performance of this critical warfighting skill. The Surface Warfare community should immediately adopt an approach similar to that used by Naval Aviation.

For example, the shiphandling skills necessary to get a ship underway may be observed or scored during the Basic Phase or periodically in a simulator, but there are dozens more special details which are not required to be scored. Similarly, ships routinely go alongside for underway replenishment, but this opportunity is lost for assessing shiphandling proficiency.

In a healthy command, the plan-brief-execute-debrief (PBED) process is alive and well, but scoring against community-wide professional standards does not exist. Establishing such standards and scoring an officer’s performance to those standards would contribute to establishing officer’s warfighting capability and proficiency scores. Table 1 lists some of the means to establish an officer’s warfighting scores.

Some aspects of the warfighting scores would necessarily have a temporal component as proficiency degrades over time, especially time spent away from the waterfront. For example, an Executive Officer (XO) who last took a ship alongside for replenishment at sea four years ago would (and should) have their warfighting capability score appropriately degraded. All things being equal, the XO who went alongside yesterday is likely to be much more proficient at that skill than the XO who went alongside four years ago.

Consider other Navy communities such as Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), Divers, and Aviators. They all have skills that have an “expiration date.” In order to maintain proficiency and prevent triggering a requalification requirement, the skill must be demonstrated at some objectively established periodicity. While the periodicity can be lengthened such that the importance of the qualification is diminished, it must be a consistent standard to restore the warfighting excellence of the SWO community. If maintaining proficiency in basic shiphandling evolutions really is important to the SWO profession and culture, then SWOs will necessarily spend some of their shore duty in shiphandling simulators for their periodic assessments and community leadership will resource the requirement. Going to the Joint Staff for a 22-month tour will not be an excuse for not maintaining proficiency in warfighting skills.

Also listed in Table 1 are those methods that are available to and fully within the purview of a ship’s Commanding Officer (CO). This should help alleviate any concern the community might have on eroding the CO’s ability to lead or develop their wardrooms. While most of the methods are self-explanatory, it should be noted that the scores achieved during the Basic Phase are absent. Fundamentally, the Basic Phase is a training event. As such, introducing those scores into an officer’s warfighting capability score could diminish the training opportunity. In other words, activities that are primarily for training must be treated as such allowing mistakes to be made and learning to occur without concern about an officer’s warfighting capability score. Additionally, a CO’s assessment averages, just as with fitness reports, would need to be tracked as a forcing function to prevent inflating scores.

As an officer approaches a career milestone, such as a selection board or a slate, their warfighting capability score firms up and is then compared to the warfighting trait model. It is this comparison that determines their ranking within their respective cohort. For a selection board, this rank determines whether or not they are selected. Gone are the days where careers are determined by a system which is “as fair and unfair to everyone equally.” A bad briefer will not send the community’s best to “the crunch.” The Board members will know the warfighting trait model and they will be able to see the officer’s score against that model. They will see the score trends over a specific assignment and throughout the officer’s career. This way, warfighting competence and professional proficiency become the primary determinants for selection and assignment.

While most of the discussion has been focused on the determination of an individual’s warfighting capability score and proficiency, similar approaches can be used to assess shipboard teams and the ship as a whole fighting unit.

Slating For Unit Warfighting Excellence

Another benefit of knowing an individual’s warfighting capability score is developing slates which better support the fleet’s warfighting readiness needs by ensuring a ship’s overall warfighting capability score remains above a minimum level through slating officers to that ship using their warfighting capability scores.4 Consider that when a group of individuals come into their slating window, their warfighting capability score is again determined. The group is then ranked and divided into top, middle, and bottom thirds (or quarters). For example, a prospective Department Head who ranks in the top quarter will get slated to a ship where the current Wardroom’s overall warfighting capability score indicates they could use some talent. Of course, there is risk that an officers’ duty preferences will not align with the fleet’s needs, but that issue exists today and will continue to require the same quality engagement by community leaders. Detailers will still need to understand factors listed in Table 2. While Table 2’s factors are important to an officer’s quality of service, they are not factors for determining warfighting excellence. By grouping a slate by quarters or thirds, flexibility is created which allows accommodating factors in Table 2. But, the entering argument for the entire officer slating process is warfighting capability and professional proficiency.

The existence of a strong, objective warfighting excellence scoring system would allow the Surface Warfare community to manage warfighting capability within individual ships and across the fleet. It will provide a means by which the performance of individual ships and the fleet can be improved.

Things to Guard Against

The process of driving the SWO culture back to warfighting excellence and professional proficiency will be challenging and there are those who will fight the change tooth-and-nail. Senior officers will see this as an attack on “their Navy.” Detailers will see this as a challenge to their primary activities. Senior mentors and advocates will see this as an affront to their mentoring and their confederation of mentees. Some will see this approach as a challenge to various support organizations external to DON, such as the Surface Navy Association. Many will immediately start looking for ways to game or manipulate the system, eroding its effectiveness. These things must be anticipated and guarded against as a new process that attempts to change culture will have to face friction posed by existing culture.


If SWO warfighting excellence is the reason that the Surface Warfare Community exists, and if warfighting competence and professional proficiency is the critical need for the current and future maritime warfighting environment, the SWOs must rise to the challenge. By leveraging modern techniques and solutions to develop an objective and rigorous system of assessing warfighting capability for SWOs throughout their career, and by using the warfighting capability scores to make warfighting competence and professional proficiency the centerpiece of promotion and assignment, the SWO community will realize its greatest potential and return to a level of professionalism not seen since the end of World War II.

Themistocles is a pseudonym whose choice is intentional in order to focus on the subject of the article rather than the author. There is also the parallel in the choice of Themistocles that, while some of the ideas presented may not be popular with the establishment, the discussion and discourse prompted by these ideas may again assist in establishing the preeminence of the naval power of the world’s greatest democracy. Statements and opinions expressed in this article represent personal views and not that of the DoD or DoN.


Weldman, Thomas. War, Clausewitz and the Trinity. New York:  Routledge, 2013.

[1] Weldman, War, Clausewitz and the Trinity, 79.

[2] While there is a vibrant debate about what is and what is not ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘machine learning’, and other relatively new terms, this paper focuses on the fact that there are modern techniques and solutions available rather than attempting to define terms which are new, changing and not yet agreed upon by the wealth of experts debating them.

[3] The involvement of and control by current flag and senior naval officers in articulating this set of warfighting traits must be purposefully limited so that an independently developed set of traits can be achieved. The concern is that traits which may have contributed to the current culture will be captured inadvertently. Additionally, the flag officer advisors’ role is to guide the junior officers and constructively challenge their ideas to strengthen their product. The flag officer advisors to have no veto over or approval authority regarding the junior officers’ results.

[4] A unit’s overall warfighting excellence score has further implications in how and when they are employed by operational commanders. However, those possibilities are not discussed here in order to keep the discussion focused on improving the SWO culture.

Featured Image: Pacific Ocean (April 21, 2018) USS Stockdale (DDG 106) fires its Mark 45 Mod 4 5-inch gun during a live fire exercise as part of a Cruiser-Destroyer (CRUDES) Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda A. Hayes/released)

Why Peacetime Naval Buildups are Difficult

By Steven Wills


There has been much gnashing of teeth and complaint in response to the U.S. Navy’s slow build toward a goal of 355 ships. Peacetime naval buildups by free societies have never been simple undertakings. Such governments usually retire large numbers of warships in search of “peace dividends,” from which recovery is often a challenge. If ill-timed, they can result in large numbers of warships that are out of date before they complete even a decade of service, or need to be retired before the end of the service lives to cut costs. Getting to the right numbers of ships, especially in a period of tight finance may mean holding onto old ships well past their expected service life. Past examples of peacetime buildups by the British Royal Navy and U.S. Navy suggest that while getting to larger numbers of ships is possible, the costs can be prohibitive; especially in an environment of rapid, technological advancement.

British Royal Navy Buildups

Representative governments have always been quick to reduce expensive naval armaments in peacetime. The British Royal Navy (RN) reduced its force structure in only modest terms in the wake of the victorious French and Indian War. End strength of the RN dropped from 365 commissioned warships of all types in 1763 at the conclusion of those hostilities to 270 vessels at the start of the American Revolution in 1775.1 While still formidable, British lawmakers questioned whether this force that still boasted over 130 “ships of the line” of 50 guns and greater was capable of dealing with the American rebellion. A debate in the House of Commons from 13 February 1775 featured one speaker who stated “Our present naval force was by no means adequate to our professed intentions; for the squadron that we designed for America would answer no purpose of stopping their commerce; or if we did send a sufficient one, our own coasts, comparatively speaking, must be left totally defenseless.”2 The speaker went on to state that Britain’s perpetual enemy France might dispatch 75 or more ships of the line to menace English seacoast communities if the bulk of the available RN went to the Americas to reduce colonial commerce.

The British increased their fleet to 478 warships by 1783, but at great cost with some estimates suggesting an increase from a low of £1,526,357 in 1765 to £8,063,206 in 1782, and where public net debt rose to over 150 percent of GDP. Peacetime naval buildups are not new, and are almost costly affairs. Britain was perhaps lucky in that the increase in the size and capability of the RN in response to the American Revolution served to also prepare it for a renewed period of war with France. The creation of a state bank (The Bank of England) in 1694, and growing public confidence in the solvency of the British Crown allowed Parliament to “Raise immense sums on short notice and at relatively low rates of interest.”3 Unlike its Continental rivals the British also did not have to spend large sums on ground forces to defend vulnerable land borders. This combination of factors allowed for a fairly quick transition from “rusty trident” in the early 1770s to the sharp instrument that soundly defeated the navies of Denmark, Spain, and France during the Napoleonic wars.

A lack of such an immediate conflict can serve to create whole generations of warships that are out of date before they ever fire a shot in anger. The Royal Navy again reached such a low point in the late 1880s as it struggled to deal with a resurgent France and a rising Russian naval threat that imperiled both the British isles and multiple, overseas British possessions such as the imperial “crown jewel” of India. The Industrial Revolution was also in full swing with new grades of steel armor and improved steam engines entering service as often as new smart devices and software builds do today. British warship construction in the previous two decades had been slow to keep up with technical advances and many newspapers suggested the Navy was in poor condition to take on France and Russia. A series of articles in September 1884 in the Pall Mall Gazette by the muckraking journalist W.T. Steed described the Royal Navy as unready for war against Russia and France based on shrinking budgets, a lack of protection for Britain’s global naval logistics hubs, and an antiquated fleet of small craft for the defense of the British Isles.4

The British response to these conditions was the Naval Defence Act of 1889; a £21,500,000, 5-year program designed to produce 10 battleships, 42 cruisers, and 18 torpedo gunboats.5 According to naval historian Jon Tetsuro Sumida, the program was a resounding success in terms of finance and construction in that most of the program was completed on schedule with little cost overrun. The 1889 program also marked the beginning of an official “two power standard,” where Britain officially declared that its sum of first class fighting vessels (namely battleships) would be superior to the combined fleets of the next two naval powers (France and Russia). While a firm declaration of the importance of British seapower, it was at best a political measure rather than an accurate estimation of British naval strength. Naval historian Nicholas Lambert asserts that many uniformed senior Royal Navy officers believed the two-power standard was not enough and that it best represented a minimum level of strength.6 Britain’s primary political parties in the late 19th century (Conservative and Liberal parties,) however accepted the two power standard as a benchmark.

This decision would have significant consequences in the following decade as Britain’s burgeoning economic growth slowed and with it the funding for a larger fleet. Political scientist Aaron Friedberg asserted that British naval spending in the 1890s was made by possible by three factors. A general increase in national prosperity and with it consumer spending, especially on tea, tobacco, and beer, provided additional tax revenue. The British income and estate (death) taxes also provided generous sources of spending for both defense and for a rising tide of British social spending.7 Unfortunately, British economic growth slowed dramatically over the last quarter of the 19th century as the economic output of Germany and the United States dramatically increased.8 This process of British relative decline served to offset its naval superiority as the cost of replacement battleships dramatically increased over the same period. The pioneering battleship (then known as an ironclad) HMS Devastation cost £360,000 in 1869, but by 1898 the battleship HMS Implacable was £1,100,000.9 These increasing costs would make replacement of the existing foundation of British naval supremacy a significant challenge.

To this financial setback was added the rising costs of new technology; first in the form of new armor, weapons, and steam-powered equipment, but later by the introduction of asymmetric warfare systems such as the side armored cruiser. This ship, with long range, medium-sized weapons and armor sufficient to withstand the shells of the British cruisers traditionally assigned to defend imperial trade routes, represented a direct threat to British finance from trade and key sea lines of communication to overseas possessions like India.10 The French Navy also financed submarine and torpedo development as additional countermeasures to traditional British maritime superiority.11 The very expensive ships of the Naval Defence Act of 1889 were, by contrast, too slow and short-ranged to overtake and destroy armored cruisers, despite being better armed. They were also poorly protected against the torpedo as employed by the submarine and the surface torpedo boat. Improvements in armor manufacture, especially the Krupp steel process that resulted in much lighter yet stronger protective plates, enabled much more armor to be used over a wider area of even cruiser-sized ships. This gave the armored cruiser class its edge over earlier ships that could not support side armor. The new armor was less expensive than past versions, but that improvement was lost in the rush of other expensive steam propulsion and gun systems that combined to double the cost of a modern battleship over the period from 1895 to 1905.12 In fact, technological advancements ensured that the ships from the Naval Defence Act of 1889, notably the eight Royal Sovereign class battleships that were state of the art in 18991, had at best 15 year effective service lives before being out of date.13

HMS Royal Sovereign in 1913. (Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, the international situation and unexpected war in South Africa added to the financial problems of relative decline and rapid technological advancement. The Second Anglo Boer War of 1899 to 1902 put further strain on British finance and with it plans to renew naval supremacy. While early estimates by the British government suggested that costs for the South African conflict might be maintained below £21 million, army-related spending rose quickly in the first two years of the conflict from £21 million to £44.1 million and, and overall British government spending finally grew to a figure of £205 million during the last two years of the war.14 The British national debt also rose from £14 million in 1899-1900, and later to £53 million in 1901 and 1902.15 It was inevitable that these figures would affect Royal Navy expenditures. Over roughly this same period (1897 to 1904,) the Royal Navy expended £29.6 million on new battleships and £26.9 million pounds for the new armored cruisers. Such expenditures could not be sustained without a major increase in taxes which neither British political party would countenance. By 1902 it was clear to the British political establishment that some economy was desperately required and the new Prime Minister Arthur Balfour created the Committee of Imperial Defence to seek joint (Army/Navy) solutions to Britain’s global defense posture. The First Lord of the Admiralty (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy,) Lord Selborne advised his flag officers to “Cease to say ‘this is the ideal plan and how do we get enough money to carry it out,’ to ‘Here is a sovereign (UK coin,) how much can we squeeze out of it that will really count for victory in a naval war?’”16

Ultimately, despite significant expenditure, the Naval Defence Act of 1889 failed to deter continued naval expansion of France and Russia, and also later Germany, Japan, and the United States.17 Rapid technological advancement quickly made the fleet of the 1890s obsolete in the next decade. Britain’s own relative decline and the expenditures for the Boer War further weakened the Royal Navy’s efforts to keep pace with advancing technology and the rising fleets of other nations. The end result was the ascent of the eponymous Admiral Sir John Fisher and his radical program of what today would be called “transformation” where the battlecruiser would replace the battleship and the armored cruiser for high seas combat, and littoral combatants such as destroyers and submarines would be responsible for the United Kingdom’s homeland defense. The Fisher regime, while innovative and fiscally responsible, is seen by some as the beginning of the end of British naval supremacy as Fisher’s program required major reductions in presence forces scattered around the empire in favor of the combat-capable force to defeat rising European competitors. This reduction in direct imperial influence and dependence on other powers, notably the United States and Japan to secure British interests in North America and the Western Pacific, was seen as perhaps the beginning of the end of the British Empire and with it the need for an expanded Royal Navy in its defense.18 This decline might be traced back to the Naval Defence Act of 1889 and a desire to build a significant peacetime fleet in specific numbers over those of opponents.

U.S. Naval Buildup Challenges

The final example of difficult peacetime buildup also deals with the political calculus of fleet size. The U.S. Navy’s 600 ship fleet goal of the 1980s had its origins, like that of the Royal Navy of the 1880s and 1890s, in an enemy’s (Soviet) increased fleet size, rising welfare state expenditures, and a distant land conflict (Vietnam) sapping of funds that might have been used for modernization. The United States Navy of 1970 was a Vietnam War-focused fleet in dire need of recapitalization and modernization. The incoming Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. set out to begin those processes, but at the cost of the retirement of significant numbers of ships; most of World War II vintage and diminished capability. The fleet had already undergone significant reductions during the tenure of Admiral Thomas Moorer as CNO, with the overall number of ships dropping from 932 to 731.19 Zumwalt had to impose further reductions in order to gather enough resources and potential crews for new construction. He later said:

“We were, on the average, technologically obsolescent. Our fleet was over 20 years of age, on the average. One of the things that impressed both Secretary Chafee and Secretary Laird in my preliminary meetings with them when, as it turns out, they were looking for who should be the next CNO, was that I said that given the budget limitations, we simply had to reduce the numbers of ships in order to begin the process of building new ships. We needed to reduce the expenditures for men and ships and start building ships.”20

Like Fisher in 1904, Zumwalt also needed to cut obsolescent ships before building new ones. While such processes delay growth and in fact result in reductions, they are necessary for subsequent fleet growth. Zumwalt worked hard to ensure existing, authorized classes like the Spruance-class destroyers were built and pushed to get what became the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates added to the fleet, but mass retirements of old ships further reduced the fleet size.21 Overall numbers of ships decreased to 530 by 1980.22

PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 17, 2011) The decommissioned Spruance-class destroyer ex-Paul F. Foster (EDD 964) conducts a successful demonstration of shipboard alternative fuel use while underway in the Pacific Ocean on a 50-50 blend of an algae-derived, hydro-processed algal oil and petroleum F-76. Paul F. Foster has been reconfigured as the Self-Defense Test Ship to provide the Navy an at-sea, remotely controlled, engineering test and evaluation platform without the risk to personnel or operational assets. (U.S. Navy photo by Charlie Houser/Released)

The Presidency of Jimmy Carter was an especially dark period for the Navy with the former naval officer president content with an objective force of only 400 ships.23 Carter and his land warfare-focused subordinates such as Defense Secretary Harold Brown and Deputy Secretary of Defense for Policy Bob Komer sought significant reductions in naval expenditures through most of his administration.24

Studies for rebuilding U.S. Navy force structure began during the Ford Presidency and gained maturation during the Carter administration thanks to the efforts of Carter’s own Navy Secretary Graham Claytor, a World War II naval officer who opposed the Defense Department’s naval reductions. Claytor sponsored a study known as SeaPlan 2000 that recommended a 585 ship fleet that could be purchased and maintained with regular, four percent growth in the Navy’s budget; a figure then within accepted spending limits of the Navy.25 Like the British “Two Power Standard,” this figure was also a political measurement in that multiple studies on 400, 600, 900 and 1200 ship fleets had been undertaken with the 600 ship version seen as most economical and that it represented a minimum rather than an ideal force structure to meet the global Soviet naval threat.26 

Jimmy Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the new administration both adopted and altered elements of SeaPlan 2000. Led by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr, a new 600-ship Navy (an easy round-up from 585) figure was introduced as the benchmark for U.S. Fleet strength. An aggressive building program was introduced to meet the 600 ship figure by the close of a hypothetical 2-term Reagan presidency. The 600 ship Navy was paired with a new Maritime Strategy that justified and detailed the fleet’s use in combat with the Soviet Navy as well as routine presence and other operations. Navy Secretary Lehman also stated that 600 ships was the minimum fleet size to support the 15 carrier battle groups needed to provide the geographic, peacetime naval presence.27 The whole package of fleet size, strategy, and employment was offered at the same four percent rate of growth.

The weak point of the 600-ship navy buildup, however, was its retention of older, steam-powered surface warships in significant numbers in order to bridge the gap between existing and future force structure while maintaining the 600 ship number goal. The navy of the period had ships propelled by steam, diesel, nuclear, and most recently gas turbine engines. Of these types, nuclear power supported a growing portion of the Navy’s carrier strength and a dozen guided missile cruisers built as carrier escorts. Diesel engines were auxiliaries on many ships and propelled a growing number of mid-sized amphibious warfare ships. Gas turbine engines had become the new choice of propulsion for combatant ships including the Spruance-class destroyers, Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. Steam power, however, still served the bulk of the existing surface combatant fleet, some of the aircraft carriers, and large number of auxiliary ships. Many of these ships were older units and they were not aging well; a condition that made their retention as part of the growing 600-ship force a challenge.

In terms of one warship category, guided missile destroyers (DDG,) the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated in 1985 that only five of 67 such ships in 1989 would be classed as “modern,” which the CBO defined as constructed after 1970.28 The most numerous frigate/guided missile frigate (FF and FFG) category was better, but still saw 65 of a possible 111 ships as pre-1970 construction in 1989.29 The vast bulk of these older units were steam-powered units, whose manpower and maintenance-intensive 1200 psi, 950 degree steam plants became more challenging to maintain as they aged. Numerous oil leaks and fires plagued these aging units over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s. While the steam cruisers received significant combat systems upgrades in the form of the New Threat Upgrade (NTU) system, only a few of the steam destroyers received such improvements and the steam-powered frigate classes remained largely unaltered with the exception of the addition of the close in weapon system (CIWS) for some.

The modernization and retention of the steam-powered surface combatant force, and many other steam powered navy warships became a moot point at the end of the Cold War in 1991. As early as 1989 when it became evident that the Soviet Union was in a period of decline, 16 frigates of the Garcia and Brooke class frigates and guided missile frigates were decommissioned as a cost-savings measure.30 The manpower cuts determined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell in the creation of the post-Cold War “Base Force” further accelerated the retirement of the personnel-heavy steam warship fleet. The 34 units of the Adams and Farragut-class destroyers followed into retirement in 1990 and 1991, and the upgraded steam cruisers of the Leahy and Belknap followed in the early 1990s.31 The numerous Knox-class frigates were also decommissioned by the mid 1990s, with an abortive attempt to retain some as reserve frigates ended in 1994.

In all, 114 steam-powered cruisers, destroyers, frigates were retired in the period 1989-1995. It is open to debate how long these ships could have been retained had the Cold War continued, but given their age and maximum thirty year service life, it is improbable that enough could have remained in commissioned long enough to be steadily replaced by newly constructed Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in the 1990s and 2000s.32


Peacetime naval buildups are difficult and face uncertain sustainability if the force structures they create are not soon called to active combat. Like the British in 1889 and the U.S. in the 1980s, the U.S. Navy is attempting a significant peacetime naval buildup without an immediate conflict on the horizon (unlike the U.S. “Two Ocean Navy” buildup of 1938 to 1940 when World War 2 was already underway.) Like the Royal Navy of the middle and late 18th century, it now finds that even modest reductions can inhibit low-end presence and limited war operations. The U.S. Navy may also discover that rapid technological advances in data processing, artificial intelligence, hypersonic and directed energy weapons can render much of any fleet additions obsolete less than 10-15 years into a 30-40 year life span. Open architecture systems and the modular weight, space, and connectivity of the unfairly maligned littoral combat ship (LCS) might allow that ship type to deploy capabilities yet unplanned or conceived when they were constructed. Such ships can also be constructed in larger numbers than their larger, much more technically complex cousins. It may still be difficult to maintain a fleet of any relevant size given these challenges.

The U.S. Navy has however taken some positive steps to increase fleet size and simplify the process of maintaining that fleet longer and at best cost. The Cold War-era classification of surface warships (cruiser, destroyer, frigate, patrol,) is giving way to one of large and small surface combatant (LSC and SSC.)33 Historically, a reduction in the number of individual classes by merger has been a good way to reduce costs. The British Royal Navy combined the predreadnought battleship and fast armored cruiser into first the battle cruiser and then the fast battleship. The introduction of open architecture combat systems and vertical launch capability for weapons has made the process of updating much easier than in the past. The Navy has requested that the new FFG(X) class have as much commonality with current ships as possible.34 More reductions in the acquisition and test and evaluation bureaucracy can help this process as well. The LCS, for example, must undergo another round of operational testing every time one of its mission modules gets a new piece of equipment. This sort of endless testing only delays programs and results in cost increases as do the additional layers of “oversight” added to an already over-burdened Navy.

Peacetime naval buildups in periods when war is not imminent are historically difficult, and no one should expect immediate results in the absence of large budget deficits. As history shows, sometimes a reduction in overall numbers of ships is required in order to build new construction necessary to grow the fleet. Solutions for managing such efforts include not reducing the fleet to a point where even a modest increase is difficult; avoiding the pitfalls of rapidly advancing technology that can make today’s force structure rapidly out of date, combining classes of ships into fewer types of ships with more commonality, and avoiding politically-driven fleet sizes that cannot be retained without herculean efforts. The U.S. Navy can increase in size and capability, but it won’t happen overnight in what remains a peacetime environment.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. These views are his own.


1. Jack Coggins, Ships and Seaman of the American Revolution, Harrisburg, PA, Promontory Press, 1969, p. 22.

2. Ibid, p. 19.

N.A.M Rodger, Command of the Sea, A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1845, New York, Norton, 2004, p. 644.

3. Jon Tetsuro Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, Finance, Technology, and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914, Annpolis, Md; The Naval Institute Press, 1993, p. 5.

4. W.T. Steed, “The Responsibility for the Navy,” The Pall Mall Gazette, 30 September, 1884, electronic resource,, last accessed, 01 March 2018.

5. Sumida, p. 13.

6. Nicholas Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution, Columbia, SC, The University of South Carolina Press, 1999, pp. 20, 21.

7. Aaron Friedberg, The Weary Titan, Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905, Princeton , NJ, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 98.

8. Ibid, p. 81.

9. David K. Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought, Warship Design and Development 1860-1905, Barnsley, UK; Seaforth Publishing, 2010, p. 203.

10. Lambert, p. 25.

11. Ibid, p. 27.

12. Sumida, pp. 19, 20.

13. Lambert, p. 105.

14. Friedberg, p. 106.

15. Ibid.

16. Lambert, p. 36.

17. Friedberg, p. 153.

18. Ibid, pp. 201-205.

19. “U.S. Ship Force Levels; 1886-Present,” Washington D.C.: The U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command, electronic resource,, last accessed 10 April 2018.

20. Alfred Goldberg and Maurice Matloff, “Oral History Interview with Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr,” Washington D.C,; The Defense Department Historical Office, 22 October, 1991, pp 11, 12.

21. Ibid, p. 16.

22. John Hattendorf, U.S. Navy Strategy in the 1970’s, Selected Documents, Newport, RI, The United States Naval War College Press, 2007, p. xiii.

23. John Hattendorf, The Evolution of the Maritime Strategy, 1977-1986,Newport, R.I.; The U.S. Naval War College Press, 2003, p. 9.

24. Edward C. Keefer, Harold Brown, Offsetting the Soviet Military Challenge 1977-1981, Washington D.C.; The Office of the Secretary of Defense Historical Office, 2017, pp. 233-239, 425.

25. John Hattendorf, U.S. Navy Strategy in the 1970’s, Selected Documents, Newport, RI, The United States Naval War College Press, 200, p. 121.

26. John Hattendorf, The Evolution of the Maritime Strategy, 1977-1986,Newport, R.I.; The U.S. Naval War College Press, 2003, pp. 10-13.

27. Ibid, p. 50.

28. “Future Budget Requirements for the 600 Ship Navy,” Washington DC, The Congressional Budget Office (CBO,) September 1985, p. 15.

29. Ibid, p. 16.

30. “Navy to Place 6 Frigates Based in S.D. in Mothballs,” The Los Angeles Times, 24 June 1988.

31. Kit and Carolyn Bonner, Warship Boneyards, Osceola, WI; MBI Publishing, 2001, pp. 115, 116.

32. “Future Budget Requirements for the 600 Ship Navy,” p. 56.

33. Ron O’Rourke, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans; Background and issues for Congress, Washington D.C.; The Congressional Research Service (CRS,) 08 December 2017, p. 3.

34. Ron O’Rouke, “Navy Frigate (FFG[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,“ Washington D.C.; The Congressional Research Service (CRS,) 08 December 2017, p. 4.

Featured Image: CVN 76 under construction (Wikimedia Commons)

A Deckplate Review: How the Submarine Force can Reach its Warfighting Potential, Pt. 2

By LT Jeff Vandenengel, USN

This two-part article focuses on how the submarine force can more effectively prepare for safe deployments in peace and combat-effective operations in war. Part One focused on time constraints affecting the submarine fleet’s ability to focus on training. Part Two focuses on other problems that arise once submariners find time to train, both in their homeports and while deployed. Those problems include limited trainer (simulator) availability and extensive administrative burdens placed on deployed submarines. 

Factor 2: Limited Training Resources

“My expectation is that commanders will give high priority to training and developing their junior leaders and teams. No commander can do very wrong if you are training and empowering your junior leaders.”1  – ADM John M. Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations Message on Navy-Wide Operational Pause

As discussed in Part One, time constraints are the first factor limiting submariners’ ability to effectively train for at-sea operations. However, when they fight through that obstacle and allocate time to dedicated in-port practice, scarce trainer resources prove to be another hurdle.

The Navy’s various nuclear, ship-handling, navigation, and tactical trainers are extremely important for submarine training. During long in-port periods, they are the best way to keep officers’ and sailors’ operational skills sharp and to prepare junior personnel for new roles. Trainers also allow submariners to practice evolutions and drills—such as large nuclear casualties, complex wartime engagements, or dangerous ship-handling maneuvers—that cannot be completed at sea, either due to the inability to effectively simulate the scenario or safety concerns. These trainers are also the best way to safely let officers and sailors fail and learn from their mistakes, seldom an option at sea.

Build More Shore-Based Trainers

Submarine force trainers are constantly in high demand. After all the required sessions are scheduled, such as tactical evaluations, courses for boats, schools for sailors and officers, re-examinations, and midshipmen and VIP tours, there are rarely slots available that coincide with a boat’s free time. Busy homeports such as Pearl Harbor, where there are twenty-one submarines sharing very limited trainer time, face an even greater challenge.2 As a result, some Pearl Harbor and Bangor submarines sail to San Diego to use their trainers for tactical evaluations, forcing them to expend some of their hull and reactor life and lose more time with their families simply because there are not enough trainers available in their homeport.

In his Comprehensive Review of recent surface fleet collisions and mishaps, Admiral Philip Davidson cited multiple deficiencies in shore-based team training.3 The submarine fleet should minimize the risk of similar mishaps by building more trainers. These trainers, covering scenarios such as surfaced ship driving, nuclear operations, and submerged warfighting, will cost money. They will cost significantly less than the estimated $600 million required to repair USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain after their collisions.4

Hire More Submarine Greybeards

Even if the submarine fleet does not build any additional shore-based trainers, it should hire more “Tactical Advisors,” or “Greybeards,” to staff them. Greybeards are retired submarine COs attached to submarine homeport training centers. They use their knowledge and experience to provide outstanding senior-level feedback, training, and evaluation to boats with a focus on tactics and contact management.

The problem is that the Greybeards are strapped for time and rarely available. Most submarine homeports have just one Greybeard who must cover all submarine evaluations. As a result, they are generally not available to assist a boat with preparations for these evaluations or for deployment. Even in San Diego, which has just a few boats, the Greybeard is often unavailable because he is travelling to other busier homeports to support their evaluations.

To better use these excellent resources, the submarine fleet should achieve a five-to-one ratio of submarines to Greybeards. This would make them more available for submarine training sessions, courses, and schools. Greybeards would also be available to come down to the waterfront and give requested training, drawing on their vast experience and available time to produce a quality product. Every year, highly successful submarine captains are leaving command, and many of them will go on to retirement or jobs where the Navy is unable to take advantage of their tactical expertise. Hiring a small fraction of these officers as additional Greybeards would produce a markedly safer and tactically proficient force.

Many college courses are taught by very capable graduate teaching assistants (TAs). Although they do a good job at educating their students, TAs are rarely as capable as a full professor due to their relative lack of experience and knowledge. Similarly, most submarine trainer feedback comes from JOs and sailors on their shore duty, dedicated men and women who—through no fault of their own—are not as effective at training as Greybeards. The Navy should hire more Greybeards—professors with a focus in at-sea operations and combat.

Factor 3: Administrative Burdens While Deployed

“We need to get back to owning our jobs, concentrating on the operational excellence piece of what our Navy is about, and reducing these administrative distractions that pull us away from that.”5 – ADM John M. Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations Online All Hands Call

Despite the challenges of Factor 1 (limited training time) and Factor 2 (limited training resources), submarines are fighting through these limitations to safely depart for deployment. While deployed, most off-watch time should be spent studying tactics and preparing for upcoming operations. Instead, as shown in Figure 2, officers are spending approximately 2.5 hours each day—27 percent of their awake, off-watch hours—writing and editing a massive report detailing the ship’s operations.

Figure 2: Officer Off-Watch, Awake Time Allocation While Deployed

While deployed, submarines typically employ four officers in control: an OOD, Junior OOD (JOOD), Contact Manager (CM), and Junior Officer the Watch (JOOW). While the OOD, JOOD, and CM fight to keep the ship safe and execute the mission, the JOOW’s sole responsibility is to record everything that the ship is doing. Even though virtually all the required data is already automatically recorded on numerous other systems, the JOOW is required to manually type everything into Microsoft Word. After eight hours of this on watch, the OOD, JOOD, CM, and JOOW all spend several hours refining the document. Some of this time is spent clarifying the ship’s operations and providing important commentary for the report’s end users, but most of the time is spent transcribing data from other systems, fixing grammar, and adjusting formatting. Once complete, the XO and then CO carefully review the consolidated product, often sending it back to the OOD for clarification or corrections and to fix incorrectly transcribed data.

The opportunity cost of the mission report is a degree of submarine safety and warfighting readiness. A typical wardroom, while off-watch, will devote roughly 4,000 officer-hours to the mission report throughout a deployment.6 While they are working on writing, formatting, and editing the report, these officers are not studying tactical references, analyzing external information as it comes in, or preparing the boat for the next operation, forcing them to often sacrifice sleep to complete this task. Deployed submarine officers are generally in a perpetual state of near-exhaustion, and the mission report is the primary reason for that lack of rest. In the surface fleet’s Comprehensive Review, Admiral Davidson cited lack of sleep as a contributing factor to both the USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain collisions.7 The mission report’s massive requirements and lack of automation make it the epitome of an “Administrative Distraction” keeping submariners from focusing on the safe, tactical employment of their warship.8

Consider the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) response to a hypothetical commercial airline using a similar process. In this airline, the pilot, co-pilot, and navigator focus on safely flying to the destination while a fourth flight officer records every change in course, speed, and altitude, every other plane flying by, and countless other details despite the Black Box recording the same data simultaneously. When the plane lands after a long eight-hour flight, the pilot, co-pilot, and navigator then spend several hours reading and editing the document before getting five or six hours of sleep and doing it all over again the next day. The FAA would likely deem that a terrible and unsafe use of time and demand an automated alternative.

The mission report also has important implications for submarine force manning. Submarines do not have enough officers to support a three-section watch-bill with the JOOW. As a result, when detailers send additional officers to boats entering shipyard availabilities, many of those officers get dispatched to deploying units to fill the role of JOOW. Serving as JOOW, essentially acting as a secretary for ship’s operations, negatively affects their ability to complete required nuclear and tactical qualifications, meaning that each wardroom is less knowledgeable and that the submarine fleet needs to recruit and train more officers, a constant struggle.

Despite the substantial effort that its officers are devoting to the mission report, the submarine fleet gains little benefit from the final product. Other boats’ reports could be valuable tools for wardrooms preparing for an upcoming mission, but instead the reports’ size, quantity, and tediousness makes it very difficult to pull out useful information or lessons, limiting the reports’ utility.

Fortunately, the mission report problem could be easily solved. Most of the data the JOOW writes is already recorded by other systems, so the submarine fleet simply needs to devote resources to develop and approve an automated program to combine these sources. Not only would this help the officers, but it would yield a better final product; there would be fewer formatting and transcription errors and the wardroom would have more time to add meaningful commentary. Alternatively, all that data could be left on those separate systems and only be pulled and consolidated if needed, such as during an event of interest. Factor 1 (massive time obligations) discussed how many of the submarine force’s tasks are important to complete, but could be better done by a supporting command. This same approach could be used to solve the mission report dilemma; the submarine fleet could leave all that data on those separate systems and have shore-based end users pull and analyze what they desire. This would allow them to complete this time-consuming administration with staff officers or civilians in a safe office environment instead of demanding unrestricted line officers complete this work at sea while also attempting to keep their ship safe and combat ready.

On August 2, 1945, Commander Eugene Fluckey completed USS Barb’s twelfth war patrol. During this patrol, Commander Fluckey sank 11,000 tons of shipping, conducted the first-ever submarine-launched rocket attack, and destroyed a train, yet submitted a War Patrol Report of just 66 pages.9 Today, our submarines can complete a mission of the same duration without ever encountering a single foreign warship or submarine and still be expected to type and submit a report exceeding 1,000 pages. Just because Commander Fluckey could not use automation and had to manually type his report does not mean today’s submarine force needs to do the same.

Putting Warfighting First

Today’s Navy is faced with serious yet surmountable challenges. The deadly incidents involving Fitzgerald and McCain revealed a hard-pressed fleet fighting to safely operate at sea at the same time that foreign navies rapidly improve their technologies and capabilities. In response, the Navy’s leadership is rightfully charging the fleet with ensuring that warfighting comes first. Yet many submariners, swamped with watch, administration, and collateral duties, are responding with, “Hooyah, but how?”

Consolidated Recommendations

The Navy has devoted incredible time and energy to designing, building, maintaining, and manning its submarine fleet. To maximize that return on investment and ensure those submarines are ready for war, the Navy should address three key factors using the following solutions:

  1. Reduce time obligations on the officers and crew
    1. Allow non-ship’s force officers or CPOs to augment EDO watch-bills
    2. Allow non-ship’s force officers or CPOs to augment SDO watch-bills
    3. Allow non-ship’s force sailors to augment topside security watches
    4. Outsource maintenance procedure development and approval
    5. Shift some QAO responsibilities to regional QA offices
    6. Remove the requirement for SSNs to man Scuba Diving Divisions
    7. Shift security clearance investigation responsibilities to squadron SSOs
    8. Shift in-port Radiation Health Responsibilities to squadrons
    9. Minimize submarines’ Cryptologic Security Management responsibilities
    10. Outsource some duties such as manual page updates and gage calibration
    11. Conduct a holistic review and reduction in submariners’ time commitments
  2. Improve shore-based training resources
    1. Build more shore-based team trainers
    2. Hire more submarine Greybeards
  3. Reduce deployment administrative burdens
    1. Reduce the data required in the mission report
    2. Automate the mission report as much as possible
    3. Shift some mission report responsibilities to civilians or restricted line officers
    4. Reduce the number of required reports and naval messages while deployed

If the Navy can adopt these recommendations, it will result in a significantly safer and more combat-effective force. Officers and sailors with significantly higher levels of knowledge will form experienced teams aided by deep benches. Those teams will form the backbone of a truly professional naval force, yielding a fleet made stronger through personnel and administrative changes alone.

As with any profession, there is an abundance of material to study in the submarine force. Mastering topics such as nuclear systems, Nautical Rules of the Road, advanced weapon systems, coordinated fleet tactics, ship maneuvering characteristics, and submerged navigation requires a great deal of time and study. A refocused submarine fleet will have more bandwidth to attack these topics. They could even expand their study into topics such as naval history or geopolitics, which are currently not required but would better the officers and crew. A fleet protected from countless administrative burdens will be able to better study the numerous intelligence products, tactical manuals, lessons learned, and order-of-battle analyses that are currently only being skimmed or skipped altogether due to lack of time.10

Those more knowledgeable officers and sailors would also have more time to train together as a team. Instead of rushing to train watch-sections for the next upcoming inspection, submarines would have the time and resources to maintain a constant strain on learning and practicing. That constant strain would allow teams to try new tactics and approaches—and potentially fail—and still be better prepared for the next challenge.

A submarine force with a higher level of knowledge and better-tested teams will be comprised of true naval professionals instead of jacks of all trades. Doctors, baseball players, engineers, and lawyers all require incredible amounts of time focused on learning and practicing their trade; why do we think the naval professional is any different?  

Five decades ago, poor maintenance practices likely led to the loss of USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. The submarine force attacked the problem, greatly improving its boats’ physical conditions through processes such as the SUBSAFE Program.11 In contrast, personnel and training failures were the primary cause of more recent mishaps, including those of USS Hartford, USS Montpelier, USS Jacksonville, USS Fitzgerald, and USS McCain. Our weakness appears to have shifted from equipment to training.

Today’s submarine operations are succeeding not because of robust training programs but rather due to the extremely high-quality people onboard and just-in-time training. That is not a resilient model, and it will invariably lead to failure. Fortunately, there are options to solve the problem before it leads to more fatal mishaps, the loss of an entire boat, or subpar performance in conflict. Those solutions would produce a force ready to safely take their ships to sea in peace, and ready to expertly wield them in time of war.

The Navy’s leaders have directed the fleet to make combat preparations its primary concern. The officers and sailors on the deckplates are wholly committed to that goal. Reduced time demands, increased training resources, and fewer deployed administrative requirements would make that warfighting focus a reality.

LT Vandenengel is the Weapons Officer on USS Alexandria (SSN 757). He developed this paper with a working group of submarine officers. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense. You can reach him at


[1] Admiral John M. Richardson, USN. “CNO Richardson Message on Navy Operational Pause,” USNI News, October 6, 2017,

[2] “SUBPAC Commands,” Submarine Force Pacific, accessed November 11, 2017,

[3] Admiral Philip S. Davidson, USN. “Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents.” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Fleet Forces Command, October 26, 2017), 63.

[4] Sam LaGrone “USS Fitzgerald Repair Will Take More Than a Year; USS John M. McCain Fix Could be Shorter,” USNI News, September 20, 2017,

[5] Admiral John M. Richardson, USN and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Steven Giordano, USN. “Facebook Live All Hands Call: ‘Administrative Distractions.’” August 30, 2017. YouTube video, 1:33. Posted September 4, 2017.

[6] Estimating each section’s four officers spending 2.5 hours on the mission report each day that it is being recorded, with the CO and XO working on it one hour and two hours per day, respectively. This time is in addition to the roughly 3,000 officer-hours that JOOWs will spend writing the mission report while on watch.

[7] Admiral Philip S. Davidson, USN. “Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents.” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Fleet Forces Command, October 26, 2017), 38.

[8] Rear Admiral Herman Shelanksi, USN. “Taking Action-Reducing Administrative Distractions Implementing Change in Phase III,” Navy Live, September 25, 2013,

[9] Commander Eugene Fluckey, USN. “USS Barb (SS 220), Report of Twelfth War Patrol.” (Midway Island, August 2, 1945), 97-163,

[10] Surface ships can be subjected to as many as 238 separate inspections, certifications, and assist visits per 36-month period, all requiring officer time investment, and the submarine fleet is likely subject to a comparable number. Admiral Philip S. Davidson, USN. “Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents.” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Fleet Forces Command, October 26, 2017), 78.

[11] Sam LaGrone “After Thresher: How the Navy Made Subs Safer,” USNI News, April 4, 2013,

Featured Image: ARABIAN SEA (April 22, 2012) The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Pittsburgh (SSN 720) transits the Arabian Sea. Pittsburgh is deployed to the 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tim D. Godbee/Released)