Monday Accident & Lessons Learned: Nuclear Navy Leadership Failure?
I take pride in my time served in the Nuclear Navy and the two ships I served aboard (USS ARKANSAS and USS LONG BEACH). It’s difficult to write about failings in leadership in the Nuclear Navy. But I wrote about it before (blog article 1, 2, 3) and predicted the outcome. By looking at the failings that occurred aboard USS HAMPTON, we may be able to understand how hard achieving operational excellence is in the demanding world of submarine operations and how people can fall short of demanding expectations.
It started out just fine. Commander Mike Portland (right) takes command of the USS HAMPTON, SSN-767.
His command ended in scandal as a ORSE Board discovered that reactor chemistry logs had been gun-decked (faked). This led to a Judge Advocate’s General Manual investigation and a Commodore’s Mast that uncovered many minor and some major “integrity violations.”
The Navy Times reported on the failures in various articles, including the most recent article:
And a report summary:
To my eye, the trail of “evidence” reminds me of a witch hunt where one of the accused is caught in a minor indiscretion and then must offer up others who they think may be more or equally guilty. Some of the most guilty are likely to name many others to provide the appearance that “everybody was doing it.” Even in the Nuclear Navy, anyone may have a slight indiscretion. A chief may have heard a rumor he didn’t report. An officer may backdate a form that was completed, but that he forgot to sign at the time. An Officer may use an old exam to prepare for an upcoming exam, and then, when he’s not sure if this practice (studying from old exams) is allowed, lie about it when he sees everyone getting disciplined (end of career) for a variety of “integrity violations.”
Let those who have never sinned throw the first stone.
But the indiscretions aboard the USS HAMPTON were more than petty indiscretions. Reactor chemistry logs were faked for an extended period of time. And the disciplinary report – that claimed that reactor safety was never compromised – didn’t seem to explain the root causes of this failure.
Rear Adm. Joseph Walsh, Pacific Submarine Force Commander, wrote in his endorsement of the report. “The specific deficiencies identified during this investigation resulted in no unsafe operations or maintenance of reactor or propulsion plant systems and no loss of radioactive material.”
First, if reactor samples were never taken … this IS unsafe reactor operations. One of the Safeguards to maintain reactor safety – sampling – was compromised. The later samples verified was that the reactor was not damaged. These later samples did not restore the “safety” that was compromised by the previous lack of samples.
If anyone thinks differently, then let’s QUIT taking samples while operating at sea (since not taking samples does not compromise reactor safety) and just take a sample when the ship gets back to port. This would save a lot of work.
Reactor safety can only be assured by following the rules and taking the samples that are designed to catch failures BEFORE major damage can occur. If you don’t take the samples, reactor safety is unknown – this is a compromise. Taking later samples doesn’t restore the integrity of those who falsified the records or restore reactor safety. It just confirms the fact that other, redundant safety factors worked even though the samples were skipped.
The Nuclear Navy’s uncompromising enforcement of the rules is one of the things that sets it apart from other organizations that accept shortcuts. Word games in statements for the press meant to reassure the public do little. These types of statements seem like a cover-up for performance that is clearly substandard.
Now for the corrective actions. Much is “redacted” from the report (names are crossed out). But this much we do know:
The Commanding Officer, Mike Portland, was “detached for cause” (fired).
Why? The endorsement by Rear Adm. Joseph Walsh says:
“Commander Portland set unachievable standards for his crew, was intolerant of failure, and publicly berated personnel.”
For those who have served in the Nuclear Navy, leaders with these attributes are not rare. It sounds like my first CO. Or maybe Admiral Rickover. I’d guess (from my limited experience) that about 50% of senior Nuclear Navy leaders use this style. However, it also says:
“He failed to exercise oversight of personnel and processes … “
Oversight is a keystone of the Nuclear Navy. Was he really absent from “back aft?” Was he isolated from the crew? Is this a “Cain Mutiny” situation on a nuclear submarine?
It continues to say:
“… failed to train his leadership team to effectively manage issues under their cognizance.”
That is especially worrisome. Shouldn’t the crew be trained to manage issues BEFORE they join the ship? Shouldn’t his XO and Department Heads coach the Junior Officers and train them? Does the CO need to train everyone or should he make sure that everything is working and make adjustments as needed?
However, the CO wasn’t the only one punished.
The Engineering Officer was fired.
Two officers were “de-nuked” (the end of their career – but let’s make them serve out their time in some obscure job in a bad place).
Two sailors were stripped of their naval enlisted classification codes (de-nuked).
Several junior sailors, including ELTs, were “masted” (disciplined) or referred for additional review by their current commands (because they had already left the ship).
Note that at least two officers chose to “take the 5th” when it was their turn to participate in the witch hunt.
Let’s take one more look at the CO’s job.
What if everything wasn’t working when he took over in the shipyard? With a demanding shipyard schedule followed by pre-deployemnt work-ups and deployment operational commitments, when was the CO and crew suppose to get the time to train in leadership and managing things under their cognizance if they didn’t already have those skills when they reported to the ship? Then add in a surprise deployment.
Could a good CO turn around a poor crew without much help in a demanding environment? Maybe.
What about an average CO? Maybe not.
What about a screemer who was doing all he could just to keep his head above water (oops – not required on a sub)? Very unlikely.
So the report seems to imply that:
1. The CO didn’t do his job.
2. The Officers didn’t do their job.
3. The Chiefs didn’t do their job.
4. The sailors didn’t do their job.
According to the Navy statement, THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE REST OF THE SUBMARINE FORCE.
It was just one bad boat.
It doesn’t indicate a reactor safety issue.
The failures of the crew aboard USS HAMPTON are isolated incidents.
The punishment of the CO and crew addressed the root causes of these leadership failures by getting rid of a few bad apples.
But the Navy Times article goes on to say:
The Submarine Forces commander, Vice Adm. Jay Donnelly, questioned whether the integrity violations had gone beyond Hampton, and last fall ordered “Deep Dive” teams to the fleet to look more closely at morale and retention woes.
Experienced submariners say they believe the investigations revealed a broader practice of questionable reports and shady practices across the force. One called the Hampton situation “a failure of the worst kind.”
So is this just an isolated incident? Has the submarine force been pushed beyond their limits? Have the strong traditions that Admiral Rickover established been broken? Can trying to do too much with too little for too long eventually result in a cultural meltdown? Will the Nuclear Navy follow the pattern at BP and eventually have their own “Texas City” style incident?
Perhaps the “Deep Dive” teams know. Without more information, we could only guess.
Is there a lesson that can be learned here? I think so.