Cmdr. Gregory Zettler said early reports regarding a 24-hour sub watchbill have been positive. (MC1 Todd A. Schaffer / Navy)
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ABOARD THE ATTACK SUBMARINE NORFOLK — For decades, submariners have lived in flux, shifting between 18-hour days on deployment and 24-hour days in port.
That may soon change because of guidance issued to the sub fleet that allows, but doesnít require, submariners to stand longer watches. Boats now can try an eight-hours-on, 16-hours-off watchbill that matches a 24-hour day.
One Los Angeles-class attack sub, the Scranton, has already done so with positive results. Another, the Norfolk, may give the new watchbill a shot on its next deployment, expected to begin late this year or early next.
Cmdr. Gregory Zettler, commanding officer of the Norfolk, sat down with Navy Times to talk about changing the watchbill on his sub, the integration of women across the sub fleet, the crewís favorite port visits and what theyíre doing to gear up for their next deployment.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. Watchbills that follow a circadian rhythm [based on a 24-hour day] have become popular in the Navy. What sort of watch rotation was this sub doing on the last deployment, and have you looked at adopting a circadian watchbill?
A. We were on a six-hour, three-section watch rotation, so essentially an 18-hour day. We just received guidance [in May] that allows us to explore the option of using eight-hour days. We, to be honest, have not quite sorted out what we plan to implement. Thereís a couple boats out there right now that are doing it and weíll probably collect their lessons learned and make some good decisions based on what theyíve seen and successes theyíve had. It sounds interesting, it sounds like itís working out pretty well for them.
Q. What other subs have tried the new watchbill?
A. [The sub] Scranton here in Norfolk was one of the test platforms for it; thatís the only one I know that has tried it. But with the message having been out, I just havenít had a chance to come full circle and talk to other subs, like the Boise, which just got back from an underway, to see if they tried it out. Itís something that you donít want to run into without having thought out. Iím sure there are implications, thereís meal planning, for instance, and other stuff like that that will require adjustments to make sure we do that well.
Q. Do you expect to make a decision on this so it might be in place for your next deployment?
A. For sure. Weíll definitely take a look at that between now and the next deployment and assess whether or not the crew likes it. As far as I know, the Scrantonís crew liked it. It requires a mindset shift from how I have done business my entire 19-year career. So itís just something weíll want to think carefully through before we go do it.
Q. As of right now, women are not planned to integrate on the Los Angeles class of submarine, but the Navy has said it will look at it in the future. Do you think putting women on this class of sub is possible and worthwhile?
A. Thatís a question that I probably canít answer, just because I have no understanding of what the real cost would be. What Iíll say is that itís been clear to me for a long time that women can easily do this job and have done this job very well. I think that itís an idea whose time has come. The Navy needs to do it in a way that makes sense.
All of the ships of this class are going to go away in relatively short order. That sounds ridiculous because itís actually 20 years or more down the road, but in terms of defense dollars, thatís not a very long time. Iím not sure that it would make a lot of sense, certainly not to refit first flight 688s or second flight 688s.
Maybe if the third flight 688s are going to be around for another 20 years and someone makes a decision to retrofit a couple of those, that might be fine. But it looks to me like theyíre making plans now to do the Virginia class and I see that as probably the smartest decision they could make.
Q. During your most recent deployment, the ship visited some unusual ports like Haifa, Israel, and Limassol, Cyprus. What were they like?
A. Israel was fantastic, and Cyprus was excellent as well. I think what really appealed to the crew about Israel was that we got to go to Jerusalem, the foundation of the three Abrahamic religions. They love Americans there, so we really had a great time.
Q. What do you think the benefit is of visiting different ports where many ships donít get to visit?
A. For us, itís an opportunity to relax and recharge our batteries, which is pretty important. When we go out and weíre operational in those kinds of deployed environments, it can be very stressful. If youíre doing an 18-hour day, itís a solid 12 hours of work in that day, if not more, so guys are just doing that over and over and over again.
When we do it right ó and Iím very proud of the crew because they did this in each case ó weíre really great ambassadors for America. It may be the only view of America that some of the people in those countries ever have. Israel, thatís probably less the case, but certainly in Cyprus, we may be the only view of America that people have.
When we go there, weíre respectful and we have a great visit, I think it represents America well.
Q. Youíve been back from deployment for more than half a year. Whatís the crew been up to since youíve been back, and what are the next big events looking forward?
A. Weíre already gearing up for our next deployment. Itís to be determined when our exact next deployment date will be, but weíre already in the cycle with the first major maintenance period to set us up for being ready to go back and conduct a [U.S. Central Command] deployment later this year or early next year.
What weíve been up to is really a major post-deployment availability and then weíve done some exercises and tactical readiness ó just standard stuff to work our way back into the pre-deployment routine.