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Day By Day© by Chris Muir.


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

a cupful of gasoline on the glowing embers

the idaho bubblehead (damn, that cracks me up) has a couple of running posts about the difference between ____________ (fill in the blank). so far, he's explored the fast attack/boomer comparison, and the submarine/skimmer/airdale comparison.
i'll go one better.
i qualified onboard the seawolf (ssn-575) in the mid-70's. i was a nuclear qualified machinist mate, and received extra training as an engineering laboratory technician. in the real world, that would be a health physics tech, except i got to get grease under my nails, and swing wrenches with the big boys.

after i finished my 8 1/2 year enlistment, i went to work for mare island naval shipyard, as a nuclear shift test engineer. for the non-nukes out there, i did a year of on the job training, attended school for about 4 months, did 4 months of self study, took the shipyards STE exam, passed it, took the navy's Nuclear Engineer exam, passed it, and then took an oral board to finally achieve my qualification status as a nuclear shift test engineer. i qualified for each reactor plant type we worked on at the yard, so i was qualified on all of the nuclear submarines commissioned up to and including all of the versions of the 688 fast attack boats. i didn't qualify the trident (ohio class) plant, since we didn't get any of them at mare island. i worked with the nuclear personnel throughout the overhaul, refit, or repair availability, establishing plant conditions for work, recovery, and testing. i was assigned as the senior nuclear rep for several remote site jobs, including 5 boats in 6 months in pearl. i've worked boats from the 575 up thru 688I boats. and i had an observation i made in 96 that i still believe to be true. this was bandied about amongst the STE's i worked with, and with senior enlisted types that had 15 to 20+ years in the nuclear field. here it is:
the navy lowered it's standards in the early 80's to permit full manning of the new construction nukes. we saw it on the boats. and i saw a definite difference in crew abilities and knowledge degrade the higher the boat's hull number was. i think that was due to more than just the change in the navy's acceptance policies for personnel entering the submarine pipeline.
the older boats were put in the water brand new with crews that either sailed diesel boats during WWII, or were trained by those old salts. there was a different feel on the boats that carried those traditions forward. as time passed, there was a definite generational thing we could see on the boats.
i'm not saying the crews were incompetent, far from it. but you could see on the newer boats, where the most experienced guy was was trained by 4th or 5th generation boat sailors. that demand for excellence in all things was diluted. and the technical skills were pretty patchy too. i think the skill set wasn't very well developed because the boats were pretty new, and the crews hadn't had to fix all that many pieces of gear, just to get home like the older boats did. when i found someone on the 688's with his act totally together, even if he was relatively junior, he usually cross decked from a 594 or 637 fast attack. i could go on for hours about glaring deficiencies i had to contend with when working the newest boats, but i won't bore you .

i will say that overall, i'd go to sea on any one of our submarines. i have faith that the crews and their ships are more than capable of performing their assigned tasks. i just don't think that the 688 and later boats could hold the wrench bag for an old 594 tough crew without some explaining what that pointy ended thingie was.

how's that for a cup of gasoline?
rigged for depth charges


Blogger CDR Salamander said...

Speaking as someone who has spent a fair portion of his career hunting your breed for a living, I can't disagree with you more.

I'm not going to get in the middle of "who is the biggest geek" or "who is the most detailed engineer" argument with you. You may be right being that math and science education in this country over the last 30 years has been p155 poor.

Where it counts though, the ability to kill and get away to kill again, you cannot even compare old vs new. Go ahead and have a fleet full of USS Gato 637 type SSNs (I think she was the last of her breed on active duty-played with her a lot) and put away the post USS Charlotte 688I boats....... and I will kill you every time.

You can be the best engineer focused guy in the world, but if you are in a noisy boat and tactically inept, you might as well surface and surrender.

Now, speaking of tactics..... put the best Dutch or Japanese SS Skipper out there; you better Duct Tape your jockstrap down, because they will hand it to you.

Just my $.02, but I am one of those that believe that a great engineer does not always make the best warfighter, and the other way around.

There. I'll flick a match at your cup. ;)

3/2/05, 6:46 AM  
Anonymous xft1ss said...

I have to agree with your statement, "the navy lowered it's standards in the early 80's to permit full manning of the new construction nukes," based on my experience as an Enlisted SUB school Instuctor in the mid-late 1980's. During my tour we were ordered to decrease the normal 30% attrition rate to less than 10% and wer instructed that no attrition should be for academic reasons. We found ourselves setting trainees back sometimes 2 twice. This was unheard of even when I went through the pipeline in the late 70s. If you couldnt make it academically you were dropped.

Additionally, the combining of the forward rates (NAVET/IC/RM/QM) (TM/AUXMM)I feel has also contributed to a loss of Expertise.

Great post

3/2/05, 7:17 AM  
Blogger bothenook said...

cdr salamander, i completely agree that with the modern technology built into our newest boats, and the tactics developed to exploit those advances, the newest boats out there are shit hot when it comes to submarine warfare capabilities. but when it comes to operating the plant, and figuring out what is wrong/could be wrong/might be wrong (we used to call nuking it out) and then fixing the problem...the newer crews just didn't have the skill set. my old boat was a piece of crap. it was tired, worn out, noisy, and had constant problems with the equipment. but we still did some of the most dangerous and highly profitable spook operations ever performed by an american submarine. we did this while setting underwater endurance records that i don't think have been passed yet, but i might be wrong, since it's been almost 30 years (oh. my. god.) if we didn't have the dilligence drilled into us by the old timers that survived things like depth charges and other ignobilities, i know we would have had to scrub at least two of our ops. it wasn't that the "geek factor" or "best engineer" was an issue, it was an attention to what was going on around you. when you know that the very next thing you do could kill you and the whole crew, it gave an entirely different feel to the evolution. the kids on the newer boats just didn't have it.
i still stand by my statement that i would go to sea on any of them though. SSN-711 proved that. of course, it helped that they had an exceptional skipper, and exceptional training.

3/2/05, 8:02 AM  
Anonymous Chris Van Dis said...

I can't say for sure if the old nukes was better that us newer ones, but maybe the newer guys just never had the opportunity to grow into their potential. Your time on the Seawolf was when she was old and tired, but now those older 688's are in the same league, upkeep wise. I was on the USS Phoenix for the last few years before she was decommed, and that old tub certainly showed us how to repair things, and how to take care of things going wrong at bad times in bad places.

I spent a couple years as and instrucor at NPTU Ballston Spa, and there was actual fluctuation in the quality of people depending on time of year and "needs of the Navy", and I was able to notice this in just two years. So I wouldn't doubt that over a couple decades there would be a decline in corporate knowlege and skill.

3/2/05, 9:37 AM  
Blogger bothenook said...

thanks for the reminder, chris. yes, as the boats aged, the crew either developed the skills needed to keep her running, or they sat along side the pier waiting on IMA or yard workers to come fix the problems. even so, i think that the fundamental differences were that the dudes us "geezers" learned from pounded the "it can happen at any time" paradyme. i also think that part of the problems regarding skill sets relates to two items:
1...almost everyone in M-Div on seawolf had built a motorcycle engine, car engine, or tractor engine before he lost his cherry. that was because most of the machines weren't of the "service technician only" variety. hard to mess up a 67 dodge 318 V-8, but it taught you troubleshooting and wrenching skills.
2... most of the gear on the new boats is modularized, and the crews aren't really expected to work on it.
i think i'll post another entry on this stuff.

3/2/05, 10:25 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

I served on ssn-590 and ssn-711, no comparison. 711 wins technologically in all aspects. But i do agree that the level of knowledge of the personnel on older boats is probably better, being on a really old boat that didn't have a computer to develop the firing solution forces you to *really* learn TMA. The skills will atrophe as you learn to trust and leverage the automation around you when you move on to newer boats.

For example, the 590 had the mk 101 FC system, it was syncros and servos, if you had more than a couple of contacts you were tracking them in your head or on the plots using TMA that you studied and trained for constantly. My first CO, CDR. Demlein, was the best i ever saw in being able to do so much in his head and be right so often. *grin*

3/2/05, 9:52 PM  
Blogger submandave said...

Bo & xft1ss, apply a little historical relevency to your observations and you realize this "lowered ... standards in the early 80's to permit full manning of the new construction nukes" corresponds exactly to the run-up to the "600-ship Navy." We were building boats faster than the pipeline could pump out students. Previously the schools could apply harder standards and still meet fleet demands, but in the '80s the rules changed.

I also agree with those who have noted that sailors who have to do a lot of fixin' learn to fix pretty damn well. While the Trident program can't be argued with as far as keeping the boat on the water, I've always had a bit of old-school discomfort with the deemphasis on crew maintenance. When the MFP goes tits-up underway TRF just isn't much help.

3/3/05, 11:40 AM  

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