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Thresher Discussion

USS Thresher loss: Further discussion:

Bruce Rule is the author of the loss analysis. Below is a story about Thresher which had been published two months ago by Norman Polmar. The story was provided by Bruce Rule hoping all submariners would know the reality of the loss.


All:

The article below was published two months ago in the US Naval Institute magazine PROCEEDINGS. In response to my question about further dissemination, Polmar responded: (quote) Yes...send it throughout the known universe. (end quote). Discussion of THRESHER from Bruce Rule

Bruce Rule
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Needed: A Sub Change
By Norman Polmar

Who is in charge of the U.S. submarine force?

The newly established N97 staff in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations is the Navy’s “undersea warfare” sponsor; the office is headed by a rear admiral. The Commander, U.S. Submarine Forces/Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic in Norfolk is the submarine “operational” commander; he is a vice admiral. The Commander, Submarine Force Pacific in Pearl Harbor—who has operational control of more submarines than are in the Atlantic—is a rear admiral. Of course, senior to all of these is “NR”—for nuclear reactors—the Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Programs at the Navy Department in Washington, D.C.; he is a full admiral.

Despite this massive oversight structure, the Navy’s submarine community is in trouble. Several commanding officers and chiefs of the boat have been relieved of duty over the past few years. So far this year three submarine COs and four COBs have been fired; the commanding officers of two nuclear submarines were relieved because of the mishandling of classified material. There has been serious cheating on petty-officer examinations in the submarine force and, recently, the nuclear submarine Hampton (SSN-767) transited from the Atlantic to the Pacific with the crew falsifying records of reactor chemistry. And there have been several collisions with surface ships during the past few years.

The latest nuclear-submarine incident is the revelation of a series of catastrophic mistakes by officers and enlisted men of the USS Georgia (SSGN-729) who, upon hearing a strange noise in the propulsion shaft, kept it spinning for two days while trying to determine the problem. The result was more than $2 million in damage to the submarine and the Georgia being offline for three months. The cause? A bolt left in the gear housing during a routine inspection. (An officer and senior petty officer were relieved of duties, and six other enlisted men received lesser punishment.)

At the same time, the submarine community has been unable to develop an effective strategy to provide a follow-on strategic missile submarine, the SSBN(X) program.

Several submarine officers, active-duty and retired, with whom this columnist has spoken and emailed, have blamed these problems on leadership—or lack thereof. But who is “the leader” in this convoluted command structure? The current situation first came about in December 1973 when Hyman G. Rickover, then head of the Navy’s nuclear-propulsion program, was promoted to full admiral. Just over eight years later, when Rickover was “released” from that position, Congress, seeking to insure programmatic continuity, passed legislation stating that the head of the nuclear-propulsion program would be a full admiral with an eight-year appointment.

In 1973 the Navy had 110 nuclear-propelled ships and submarines with 128 nuclear reactors (plus land-based prototype reactors). The force-level goals at that time called for a nuclear fleet of some 140 ships and submarines. By the end of this year the Navy will have about 80 nuclear surface ships and submarines powered by 90 reactors. Further, in 1973 there was a large Cold War–era nuclear research-and-development program, with relatively little money being spent in that area today. (See the accompanying table.)

Thus, now there is about a 30 percent reduction in nuclear ships and reactors compared to 1981, while the number of nuclear-ship-related incidents has increased several-fold (even on a percentage basis) compared to 1981. Times, technologies, force levels, and—especially—funding for the Navy have changed dramatically since three decades ago and the Cold War era. The current submarine community—all nuclear-trained—has major problems. It appears to be time to bring the nuclear submarine community into the 21st century. For example, should the Commander, Submarine Forces (vice admiral) be exactly what his title implies—in charge of the submarine community? (This is true of the air and surface communities.)

Further, the head of the nuclear community—regardless of rank—must objectively discuss its problems and issues. This is extremely difficult for a four-star admiral. For example, on 19 October 2011 the Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, Admiral Kirkland H. Donald, discussed lessons from “unique and tragic events to remind all of us how our program’s fundamental principles keep us successful.”1

He then cited the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling-rig disaster, and the loss of the USS Thresher (SSN-593)—that occurred almost 50 years ago! In discussing the world’s first nuclear submarine loss in 1963, Admiral Donald stated:
 
"The most likely cause of the accident was the failure of a silver-braze joint in a seawater piping while operating at or near test depth which allowed high pressure seawater spray to short cut the electrical equipment and led to a reactor scram."2

Sorry, Admiral. The initial event that caused the loss of the Thresher was the reactor scram. This was established by:

• An analysis of the last series of messages from the Thresher, beginning with “experiencing minor difficulty”; a seawater-piping failure of any size at 1,200 feet would never have been so described.

• Admiral Rickover immediately after the loss convening a meeting of nuclear engineers and commanding officers to determine how to reduce time for submarine reactor restarts.

• Interviews on the probable cause of the disaster with Rear Admiral Dean L. Axene, the first commanding officer of the Thresher.3

• Detailed analysis of the Sound Surveillance System records of the Thresher’s loss by Bruce Rule, for many years the Navy’s senior acoustic analyst.

Thus, almost a half-century after the event, the Director, NR still is unable to provide an accurate and honest account of history’s deadliest submarine disaster when discussing “how our program’s fundamental principles keep us successful.”

In this environment, and with his obvious “political” limitations, the Director, NR should be exactly that (and double-hatted in the Department of Energy, as he is now). With the Department of Defense seeking to reduce the current (inflated) number of general and flag officers in the military services, the position should be reduced—to vice admiral or even rear admiral. At that time, within the Navy he should become subordinate to the Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command, as are all other “propulsion” program managers (diesel, electric drive, gas turbine).

The Commander, Submarine Forces, of course, is nuclear trained and thus capable of managing nuclear-safety matters. The people who believe that the safety issues can only be administrated by a four-star admiral in Washington should look at the 35-year history of nuclear weapons in the Fleet (other than submarine-launched ballistic missiles). During the Cold War the Fleet had thousands of nuclear missiles, rockets, and bombs on board attack submarines, aircraft, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and even frigates. Those were administered by fleet-level commanders (with supervision and sponsorship in Washington). But those thousands of weapons, aboard hundreds of ships with relatively few nuclear weapons–trained personnel, were not managed by a single four-star officer in Washington. The safety record was excellent despite a few “dents” in weapons when handling them.

The current Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, is scheduled to be relieved late this year. There still is time to reappraise the situation and to develop a logical and practical course of action that could improve the effectiveness of the “nuclear Navy” in the coming years.

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1. ADM Kirkland Donald, USN, “Vital Standards & Risk Reduction,” The Submarine Review (Fall 2011), 34–35.
2. Ibid.
3. The Axene interview material appears in N. Polmar, Death of the Thresher (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1964); revised printing The Death of the USS Thresher (Guilford, CN: Lyons Press, 2001).


Mr. Polmar, a columnist for Proceedings and Naval History magazines, has served as an adviser or consultant to three Secretaries of the Navy and to two Chiefs of Naval Operations, as well as to members of Congress. He has written or coauthored more than 50 books, including eight editions of the Naval Institute’s Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet.