The Bunker: One Incredibly Lucky Submarine

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This week in The Bunker: an investigation on the crash of a Navy submarine into the Pacific Ocean floor highlights just how bad things are under the waves; a recommended roster of new names for Army bases now honoring traitors; and more.


Yet another wayward Navy vessel

The U.S. Navy recalls, with great humiliation, how 10 of its sailors and their two $2.8 million boats were captured by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2016. They had “misnavigated” into Iranian territorial waters and were held for nearly 16 hours before Iran released them. A low-ranking young Navy lieutenant and an enlisted petty officer were in command. Six months later, the Navy’s official investigation concluded that lax standards and poor operational discipline, on the boats as well as up the chain of command, led to the embarrassing seizure. “This incident did not live up to our expectations of our Navy,” Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said.

Well, the same thing has happened again, according to a blistering Navy probe(PDF) released May 23. But this time the vessel, costing nearly 1,000 times as much as one of those riverine command boats, was led by a crew of the Navy’s finest officers. They had been trained, and then tapped, to command one of the U.S. military’s most deadly and costly war machines. Yet on October 2, 2021, the inquiry found, the USS Connecticut, a $2.4 billion nuclear-powered submarine misnavigated itself into an underwater mountain in the Pacific Ocean. Luckily, only 11 sailors were injured. “A grounding at this speed and depth had the potential,” the investigation concluded, “for more serious injuries, fatalities, and even loss of the ship.”

The accident is the latest in a string of Navy fiascos highlighting poorlytrained and overworked crews. The Connecticut is one of only three in the fast-attack Seawolf class. Longer than a football field and displacing 9,000 tons, its 116-member crew was assigned to prowl the oceans ready to destroy enemy vessels or lob cruise missiles at targets ashore. It is yet another overly complex platform — like the three-ship class of Zumwalt destroyers — built to fight a Soviet mirage (e.g., Ukraine) that evaporated as the Cold War wound down.

The 76-page report into the accident is amazingly damning, especially considering that huge swaths of it are blacked out. But what seeps out nonetheless is a tale of an undersea nightmare of sloppy sailoring and lackadaisical leadership. How bad was it? A total of six crew members — including the skipper and his deputy — were canned from the Connecticut in its wake. This wasn’t a case of one bad apple— there was a bushel of rotten fruit aboard. While “fully qualified” for their assignments, they made “a particularly weak team,” the inquiry found. That team was hand picked by the Navy brass.

The Bunker dug through the report and news stories and tried to find a hero aboard the sub who was fighting to do what regulations required and common sense dictated. None, um, surfaced. There has yet been any evidence of the “questioning attitude” championed by the late Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “father of the nuclear Navy.” He insisted his crews never simply accept the status quo if they felt something was amiss. That speaks volumes about morale beneath the waves, at least on that boat (yes, the Navy calls its submarines “boats”).

But while there were no apparent heroes before the crash (and plenty of them immediately following it, when sailors saved the sub), there were plenty of red lights flashing for more than a year before it. In July 2020, 15 months before the accident, the Navy wrote up the Connecticut’s commanding officer (CO) for “inadequate supervisory oversight, ineffective accountability practices, and superficial self-assessment.” Nine months before running aground, in February 2021, his superiors ordered him to “address the [submarine] command's overall performance, lack of improvement, and reluctance to accept feedback.” Those are serious punishments. “Any one of these would be a career-ender for a CO,” retired submariner Bryan Clark told Navy Times.

But not in today’s Navy. In fact, two months later — in April 2021, seven months before the crash — the Connecticut “allided” with a pier while mooring in San Diego. In nautical terms, an allision happens when a moving vessel hits a stationary object, which can include another (non-moving) ship, a pier, or even the bottom of the Pacific. A collision requires two moving vessels.

The Navy officer who investigated the allision said in his May 18, 2021, report that it “could have been prevented with early, decisive action,” and recommended that five crew members — including the skipper and his deputy — be cited for dereliction of duty.

The next day, the investigator’s boss — the one who held Connecticut’s face in his hands — discussed the submarine’s readiness for deployment with two senior admirals. The following day, May 20, he conceded problems on board the Connecticut, and then brushed them away. “While this investigation revealed degraded standards in navigation, planning, poor seamanship, and ineffective command and control, it represented an anomalous performance and not systematic failure,” he said. “I observed a safe landing from the bridge of USS Connecticut on 13 May 2021, indicating appropriate reflection and training of the crew.”

Hardly. The investigation into last October’s accident revealed that Connecticut only met Navy standards when outsiders were aboard to grade their skills. “In the absence of external oversight or evaluation,” it concluded, the Connecticut’s commanders “failed to maintain day-to-day standards.”

The report should raise eyebrows, even among land-lubbers. The released text details dozens of missed signals, mixed signals, and dropped balls. The skipper and his navigators “failed to identify and properly mark at least ten charted hazards to navigation in the vicinity of the grounding.” A navigator ordered a subordinate “to remove the red `stay out’ area” from a computerized map, a command the junior sailor followed (apparently, the navigator merely wanted it moved to another “layer” on the map).

The bubbleheads, as submarines call themselves, felt the strain. “During the [six-day surface] transit [from the location of the accident in the South China Sea] to Guam, Connecticut identified seven Sailors who would benefit from mental health treatment,” the investigation said. But the sub’s medical corpsman “stated that number grew to approximately 50 Sailors.” That’s no surprise, given the shock associated with running into “an uncharted bathymetric feature while operating submerged in a poorly surveyed area in international waters” at about 20 knots, as the probe put it.

The public report sheds little light on damage done to the sub. The protective shield over its sonar dome went MIA on the return to Guam, divers found rocks in two of the submarine’s main ballast tanks. After initial repairs at Guam, it limped to its home base in Washington state in December, where further repair work is being done. The service has released no estimated cost to fix the boat, nor when (or if) it might be made shipshape and returned to service.

The Navy has tried to put the best spin on this disaster. “The grounding resulted from an accumulation of unit-level errors and omissions that fell far below U.S. Navy standards,” the service said as it released the investigation. “Unit level” is the first key phrase here. It refers to those aboard the Connecticut itself. That doesn’t include the brass afloat elsewhere, and ashore, who put such poorly-trained officers and over-worked sailors in charge of one of the world’s most destructive weapons (the sub spent 67% of the 26 months before the accident away from home, “well above the norm,” retired submariner Clark told Navy Times). The second key phrase is that the conduct of the Connecticut crew “fell far below U.S. Navy standards.”

Unfortunately, that’s up for debate. Six years ago, 10 U.S. sailors stumbled into Iranian captivity. In 2017, 17 died when two U.S. Navy ships ran into civilian vessels. In each case, it was the Navy ship’s fault. Now we learn that in 2021, the Connecticut and its crew barely dodged death. The Connecticut’s crash was “preventable,” the Navy concluded. So were those earlier calamities. The common thread among them all is that the Navy’s leadership and training — starting at the very top — “fell far below U.S. Navy standards,” too.


Scrubbing some shameful U.S. Army history

One of the definitions of “base,” according to the dictionary, is something “lacking or indicating the lack of higher qualities of mind or spirit.” That’s why it’s gratifying to see that a congressional panel has recommended nine new names for Army bases currently named for Confederate traitors lacking in those “higher qualities.” This has been a long-time Bunkerbugaboo, so the announcement was welcome just before — perhaps appropriately — Memorial Day.

Among other choices, the Naming Commission urges that Georgia’s Fort Gordon — named for John B. Gordon, a rebel general and Klansman — be redubbed Fort Eisenhower, to honor Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, the 34th president and Army general who led the U.S. invasion on D-Day. For the first time, Army posts would acknowledge Black, female, Latino, and Native American heroes (along with too-often unheralded military spouses). Congress ordered the commission following the national outrage generated by the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody in 2020. The Pentagon will have until 2024(PDF) to formally rename the bases, although precisely how that will happen remains murky.

While the panel recommends naming eight posts for people, it took a different tack (The Bunker apparently can’t get the Navy off its mind following that earlier item) with Fort Bragg. The North Carolina post is named for West Point grad and Confederate general Braxton Bragg. The commission wants the U.S. Army’s largest base “to be renamed in commemoration of the American value of Liberty.” Frankly, The Bunker could do without a Fort Liberty. It has nothing against Liberty, mind you, but it and its cousins, Freedom and Patriot, have been hijacked in recent years, and redefined by too many in ways that taint their brand. But make no mistake about it: Fort Liberty trumps Fort Bragg any day of the week. And if the Statue of Liberty can take it, so can The Bunker.


Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Speaking of bases…

When the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Frederico Bartels argues that it’s time to close surplus military bases, as he did in this May 24 column in the conservative Washington Times, you know money’s a-wasting.

And speaking of Heritage…

Catie Edmondson explained in the May 27 New York Times why the organization opposes U.S. aid to Ukraine, signaling a shift in how a growing number of conservatives see America’s role in the world.

The nuclear MAD chatter

Long-time atomic-arms watcher Walter Pincus, at the Cipher Brief website May 24, says the West should respond to Vladimir Putin’s loose talk about using nuclear weapons in Ukraine by declaring it “would be free to use similar weapons, directing them toward military targets in Russia” if Moscow uses them first.

Family feud

It can’t be good news for U.S. national security when the nation’s last independent builder of solid-rocket motor engines is at war within itself. Valerie Insinna detailed the internecine fight now underway at Aerojet Rocketdyne, over at Breaking Defense, May 25.

Hardly a hero

In the May 27 Washington Post, Hope Hedges Seck writes about the Navy lieutenant buried at Arlington National Cemetery after he was executed for the abduction, rape, and murder of a female sailor who’d reported him for stalking and harassment.

Protecting military mutts

The Pentagon wants portable shelters to protect military working dogs from biological and chemical weapons, Michael Peck reported May 25 on the Sandboxx website (they’d probably have more luck finding them, too).

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