Talking About Defense: Sub saga reveals competitive culture

There is a one-word answer to the question of why the Navy took 16 civilians aboard the attack submarine USS Greeneville and allowed them to operate it: competition. In a very real sense, the Greeneville officers now undergoing the military equivalent of a grand jury investigation at Pearl Harbor are victims of the competitive culture instilled in everyone in uniform.

The Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps compete with one another for dollars, people, missions, approval, and glory. This competition is keen and constant. Everyone--from senior admirals and generals to junior sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines--participates in it.

The idea is to show people both inside and outside the military family that your service, your branch, your individual unit--whether a submarine, tank, plane, or rifle platoon--and you yourself--have not only the right stuff, but the best stuff.

In Washington, the admiral running the Navy, and the generals commanding the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, make their pitches directly or indirectly every day. The President, Secretary of Defense, senators, representatives, reporters, and everyday citizens are all targets of this military lobbying effort.

The service chiefs right now are lobbying both inside and outside the Pentagon for a bigger slice of the defense budget. Defense Secretaries, who referee these heated arguments, decided long ago that their safest way out--if not the wisest--was to keep dividing the pie the same old way, unless a war suddenly dictated a dramatically different apportionment of defense dollars.

In fiscal 1980, for example, the Army received 26 percent of the defense budget, the Navy (which includes the Marine Corps) 32 percent, the Air Force 28 percent, and defense-wide accounts the rest. Twenty years later, despite all the intervening changes, the division of the fiscal 2000 money pie was just about the same: Army 25 percent, Navy 31 percent, and Air Force 29 percent.

For military leaders, even nibbling at the edges of a rival's pie slice can be a major victory. If Navy leaders should manage to wrest 1 percent of a $300 billion defense budget away from the Air Force, for example, that's $3 billion--enough to buy three destroyers or one-and-a-half new attack submarines. This is a do-or-die struggle in which the military services are constantly trying to justify their existence, to improve on it, to survive the changes in foreign threats, and to keep from being declared obsolete.

The submarine service, in particular, feels a sense of urgency about proving its worth in this post-Cold War period. Its leaders are fighting to lift the cap of 50 attack submarines recommended in the 1997 major Pentagon internal review. The Navy contends that even though few Russian subs sail under the seas these days, a U.S. attack sub lying off unfriendly shores to eavesdrop on foreign government conversations and military signals is the stealthiest spy at the President's disposal. Since gentlemen are not supposed to read other gentlemen's mail, admirals do not feel comfortable coming right out and saying that their subs are spies. But they do seize almost every chance that comes along to show that attack subs have a vital role to play in this new century. And the Greeneville joyride for influential civilians is a case in point.

In the fleet or in the field, the military's lobbying takes many forms. A favorite service tactic is to demonstrate in a dramatic way what a weapon can do, and hope that the influential observer will become convinced that the weapon he saw in action is worth buying, despite its high cost or troubled past. A new attack submarine, for example, costs $2 billion. Sometimes, these lobbying demonstrations for what the military calls "distinguished visitors"--"DVs" for short-backfire. But seldom, if ever, do they end tragically, as was the case with the Greeneville.

One famous case of lobbying that blew up in the Navy's face, but without injuring anyone, occurred in the 1960s, when the Navy was trying to persuade President Kennedy to buy three new ship-based anti-aircraft missiles-the Terrier, Talos, and Tartar-nicknamed the "Terrible T's" because of their habit of blowing up prematurely or winging off course. Finally convinced the missiles had been fixed and were ready to buy, the Navy put on an at-sea demonstration for the President. Kennedy stood at the ship's rail and watched an airplane fly by, towing the target that the missiles were supposed to hit. The missiles blasted off the ship and immediately dove into the ocean. Yet the fly-by target then exploded, supposedly indicating a hit. Kennedy, a former Navy man, reportedly broke into laughter over this stacking of the deck.

The Navy will even invite its enemies to sea, hoping they'll see the light. Former Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., who in the 1970s questioned the need for building more aircraft carriers, said the Navy's answer to his criticisms was not to rebut them, but to send high-ranking officers to his office to invite him and his wife to sail aboard a carrier through the Panama Canal at Easter time.

This culture of competition, and pride, within the military is pervasive. One manifestation of it is giving disparaging nicknames to different members of the military family. Rivals in other services call Navy people "squids," Army soldiers "grunts" or "bug crushers," Air Force members "zoomies," and Marines (because of their haircuts) "jarheads." Within the Navy itself, members of competing branches call submariners "bubbleheads," after the helmeted divers who also go into the depths. Submariners, in turn, often term naval aviators "nasal radiators," and warship officers are called "black shoes," because that's what they wear.

Military brass from all the services encourage and support this competition. Civilians see the evidence in jackets, T-shirts, and ball caps emblazoned with the name of a submarine, ship, or outfit. Rivalries are egged on even within military communities. For example, the smaller, scrappier attack submarines are always in competition with the larger, more prominent ballistic missile submarines, colloquially known as "boomers." Given the encouragement from the top to be competitive, Cmdr. Connelly D. Stevenson, skipper of the attack submarine USS Finback in 1975, thought he was safe in pulling a caper to one-up a missile-carrying sub tied up near his own boat in Port Canaveral, Fla. As the Finback glided past the boomer on the way to sea, a go-go dancer named Cat Futch danced topless on the deck of the Finback in full display for the boomer's crew. The admirals did not laugh, however, when they read about it in my story on the front page of The Washington Post. They relieved Stevenson of command.

The accidental collision of the Greeneville with a Japanese fishing boat on Feb. 9, resulting in the deaths of nine Japanese civilians on board, was a case of standard, but somewhat overdone, military lobbying taking a sudden, tragic turn. It was not unconscionable for commanders to order the skipper of the Greeneville to take civilians who had been supportive of the Navy aboard the sub. Usually, however, visitors hitchhike on an already-scheduled training mission, and do not have one arranged just for them. One hopes that these leaders would not order the skipper of an aircraft carrier to conduct flight operations solely to show off his aviators' prowess to visiting civilians.

As one who has spent days and nights on attack submarines as a civilian observer, I can understand why officers on the Greeneville let the civilians aboard steer the sub, just as a pilot might well let an amateur try the controls when the plane is flying straight and level. Much of what submarine crews do is like watching clocks. Submarine officers know this and go all-out to make the undersea ride interesting for their visitors. Like civilians on the Greeneville, I have driven subs under way and put on a sonarman's earphones to listen to the sounds of the ocean depths: whales cavorting, shrimp clicking, and propellers of other ships churning. Each propeller, incidentally, has its own distinctive sound. Attack subs record each unique sound, called a "signature," and use it as a fingerprint. Computers in wartime can use these signatures to tell whether a ship is friend or foe.

So it was not surprising that civilians took turns running the Greeneville, only that the skipper let them stay in the helmsman seat and at a control panel during the emergency surfacing drill that led to the sinking of the Ehime Maru. Perhaps the naval court of inquiry now under way at Pearl Harbor will document that the closely supervised civilians did not affect the rapid ascent. It already seems clear, however, that superiors of Cmdr. Scott Waddle, skipper of the Greeneville, overburdened him by pushing 16 civilians plus a Navy escort officer onto his attack sub. Even though the Greeneville is longer than a football field, the control room resembles an apartment kitchen full of appliances. Also, the evidence to date suggests that the crew felt rushed.

Despite the tragic accident, the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps should continue to show civilians what they do and why. Fewer and fewer people in government and civilian life know and understand military men and women personally or appreciate what they do day in and day out. The end of the draft in 1973 has given America an out-of-sight, out-of-mind all-volunteer military. It's not healthy for a democracy to relegate the nation's defense to a small slice of the population, to a latter-day French Foreign Legion. The draft at least had the cleansing advantage of circulating people from civilian life to the military and back. If civilians better understand what their military leaders are doing and why, the nation has less chance of stumbling blindly into a war such as Vietnam.

If, in response to the Greeneville tragedy, Pentagon leaders post keep-out signs around the military, it will be the wrong response. Today's understanding gap between military and civilian societies needs to be narrowed, not widened.

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