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Exclusive: Sub boss on op tempo, plans to integrate women

Apr. 10, 2013 - 09:45AM   |  
Vice Adm. Michael Connor said he hopes the sub fleet can maintain standard six-month deployments to maintain "the longevity of the force."
Vice Adm. Michael Connor said he hopes the sub fleet can maintain standard six-month deployments to maintain "the longevity of the force." (MC1 Todd A. Schaffer / Navy)
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It’s an exciting time to be a bubblehead.

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It’s an exciting time to be a bubblehead.

More opportunities are opening up for women, and submarines continue to play a crucial role in America’s defense — stealthily going places and collecting information no one else can get.

The commander of Submarine Forces, Vice Adm. Michael Connor, spoke to Navy Times on March 26 about the future of the sub fleet.

Connor, who took over in September, talked about operational tempo, preventing collisions and introducing enlisted women to the silent service.

Interview excerpts, edited for clarity and space.

Q. The attack submarine Jefferson City’s deployment to U.S. Southern Command was recently canceled. How many other sub deployments are on the chopping block?

A. That’s the only one so far, and that was a case where the Department of Defense took a look at global priorities and decided that that particular part of the world, Southern Command, was not as high a priority as the Pacific and Central command areas. The areas that the submarine force is most focused on are the ones that are the highest priorities for the country. While Jefferson City’s deployment to SOUTHCOM got canceled, she’ll still deploy somewhere.

Q. What is the op tempo for the sub fleet like?

A. It’s slightly higher than our recent norm, not very much. We occasionally extend a deployment, and it’s usually for an operational reason: there’s a terrorist attack somewhere or someone wants us to check something out, if it’s that sort of thing. We plan for six-month deployments; sometimes they run to seven, but not very often. Our long-term goal is to hold it at right about six because we’re interested in maintaining the longevity of the force and the ability to deliver over time.

Q. What’s retention like right now for the sub fleet?

A. It’s pretty good. Our ships are manned pretty well. Typically we deploy with 95 to 100 percent of the requirements on board, and those small numbers usually have mostly to do with a family situation or something like that, and a sailor will catch up. We’ve tried to invest to ensure that our ships are steadily manned because we have a constant readiness philosophy, and we try to back that up with how we invest in our people.

Q. When do you plan to select enlisted women for subs and what platforms will they go to?

A. We’re still working our plan. We’re working through some physical constraints that we have. We’ve made this work for officer women, and they’re doing just a fantastic job. Our next step is to work out a detailed plan for the enlisted women in the same way we did for the officer women. That plan is still being worked out, but we expect to make the defense secretary’s deadlines. I don’t have the details of what ships or what rates yet because we’re still working those.

Q. When you talk about “physical constraints,” do you mean things like berthing areas?

A. It’s updating the berthing, but it’s not just on the ship. It’s how you establish a training program; it’s preparing the crews. We firmly believe that the best crews to have the enlisted women on when they come will be crews that already have officer women, so there’s a leadership cadre that’s already there. They sort of blazed the trail a little bit, and they’re mentors that they can look to when they have issues, and we just think that’ll make us more successful.

Q. Can you talk at all about qualities you’re looking for in someone who may want to transfer over as an enlisted woman?

A. We’re looking for the same qualities we look for in our men. We’re looking for highly motivated people. They have to have the types of skills, since we’re a pretty technical organization with nuclear propulsion, lots of electronics rates and fairly sophisticated weapons. So we’re looking for the same type of above-average performers and resilient people who can operate in a fairly austere environment successfully.

Q. The sub fleet suffered two collisions. The attack submarine Montpelier collided with the cruiser San Jacinto on Oct. 13, and the attack sub Jacksonville hit a civilian vessel Jan. 10. Are there any plans to prevent this in the future?

A. We have ongoing programs that look at our operations. The vast majority of those operations go very well, but they don’t all go well, and when they don’t, we have a feedback process that works that into our training and our certification. Some of those factors from recent events are certainly being incorporated into that cycle, and we’re taking that pretty seriously.

Q. Do you think there’s a way to get crews recognition while still maintaining operational security?

A. When something happens somewhere as a result of something a submarine did, we’re focusing on the sailors. We want to make sure they know what great work they did. Then we look for opportunities to share in general with their families, but it’s very difficult to do that because to reveal what we gain would end up revealing how we gain it, and we’re not ready to go there. We trust our sailors who have always lived in the silent service to have an inward sense of pride because they know what they did, even if others do not.

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