The necessary character traits of a navy submarine commander

I’m writing military fiction and would like some advice:
Every military commander needs to be trustworthy, loyal, reliable, confident, etc. But it seems that a submarine requires leaders of unique traits. The following traits are my own guesses (I’ve never served in the military, never been aboard a navy submarine) - can someone tell me if I’m guessing right or not?

  1. A submarine commander needs to be especially trustworthy, since his submarine can or will disappear for weeks or months with little or no communication, once it slips below the waves - who knows whether orders will be disobeyed? A Hunt-for-Red-October situation won’t happen, but the commander still needs to be someone who will obey all orders 100%, absolutely 100%, to the letter, even more so than other military folks. His superiors must have full and absolute trust in him.
  2. A submarine commander needs to be very autonomous, decisive and self-reliant, since - again - his boat can or will disappear for weeks or months with little or no communication. He needs to be someone who can and will decide things and think for himself very well - and he must be able to make decisions instantly.
  3. A submarine commander needs to be especially precise, since submarines are, by their very nature, in an unforgiving situation - being underwater is dangerous and mistakes can be far more lethal to an undersea crew than to the crew of a surface frigate or cruiser, etc.

Last question: With all that, is it more difficult to rise to the command of a submarine than to rise to the command of just about anything else in the military?

US Submarine Accidents

The Perisher submarine command course.

I am not a naval officer but I’ve a fair bit of knowledge of naval history.

I think you have to distinguish between different periods and different types of submarine. You don’t say when your fiction is set but there will be big differences between the ideal submarine commander in World War 1 or 2 and a ballistic missile boat commander in 1985 or 2016. The commander of a modern hunter-killer submarine may be a bit closer to his WW2 counterparts but, at least in the Royal and US Navies, he will be driving a nuclear boat which means a different degree of technical knowledge and training. For an SSBN commander, in charge of a weapons system capable of destroying half a country, the last thing you want is an aggressive young gun eager to attack and make as many kills as possible, desirable traits in someone charged with destroying enemy vessels before they can be a threat to your own people.

I suspect the one thing the all have in common is an incredibly high - even by naval standards - sense of situational awareness. It is absolutely vital they can keep track of multiple threats and targets around the submarine based on the often incomplete and intermittent information the they receive from the various sensors. Hence the format of the Perisher course referred to in **Quartz’s **post.

Unless there is damage to the comm system, I don’t believe U.S. subs ever were out of contact with higher authority for “weeks or months”. Even in wartime.

For that kind of isolation, you need to go back to the pre-Steam, pre-telegraph era.

Three books I’d like to recommend.

Big Red, nonfiction about life and command aboard a Trident ballistic missile submarine:

The Last Ship, a novel (much different from the TV show it inspired) about a U.S. Navy destroyer after World War III, as told by its C.O. Farfetched at times, but with some interesting insights into the burdens of command:

It’s Your Ship, an interesting management guide by a highly-decorated destroyer skipper about how to be a good leader afloat or ashore:’s+your+ship

Since the OP is looking for advice, let’s move this to IMHO.

General Questions Moderator

I can’t say anything about the reality, but the 3 points in the OP would work very well in a story about a submarine commander.

I’m a former submarine officer and served under three different Commanding Officers, we’ll call them Captain O, Captain B, and Captain J. Captain O was fired after a collision; Captain B was an experienced submarine commander who became the temporary replacement for a few months; and Captain J was the long-term full-tour replacement. Looking back, I say confidently that Captain O was not a very good submarine commander, and Captain B and Captain J were very good commanding officers.

Captain O was technically extremely smart and precise. He really knew submarine engineering and capabilities. But he was not very good with people. He didn’t understand the motivations of the crew, and his main response to the crew was based on fear. Wisely, he knew that the success of his career, like all submarine commanders, was partially in the hands of his crew – an unhappy crew can and will sink the career of their commander if things get bad enough; enough failed inspections and crew examinations will sink even the smartest CO. All his interactions with the crew seemed filtered through his fear of them, and he didn’t properly reward the right kind of behavior, or even properly sanction the wrong kind of behavior. It was like the inner workings of people were a total mystery to him. In the end, it wasn’t even the crew that failed him (except in a roundabout way) – for the night before pulling into port in the Middle East, when we were already on the surface, one of his senior officers warned him about having two particularly weak watch officers on watch at the same time (a department head on the bridge who wasn’t that good at ship driving from the bridge, and a junior, inexperienced officer in charge of contact coordination in the control room), but the CO didn’t heed this warning. The two officers totally screwed up, the Captain was taking a rare sleep break (which is obviously necessary some of the time), and the Executive Officer was in the control room, but they all failed to see how close a 50,000 ton merchant was until it was too late, and we collided. No one was hurt, moderate damage which lead to a month of repairs, and he was fired.

Further analysis on the other two COs, who were much better, to follow when I have the time.

I believe all people who command US nuclear submarines are nuclear engineers, in the same way that the commanders of aircraft carriers are always pilots.

Just saying, that can bring its own baggage of traits.

I’d say not being claustrophic is a gimme.


Next CO: Captain B was big and loud and boisterous and friends with everyone. It was hard to get a read on his technical knowledge and skill, but I saw nothing to indicate any deficiency (and the training pipeline should weed out anyone without strong technical ability). He understood and knew how to motivate the crew, and was a great proponent of “management by walking around”. He was easy to like and made work onboard about as much fun as it was possible. He was only onboard for a few months, and we never went through anything particularly difficult with him, so I probably don’t have a full picture of his abilities.

Final CO: Captain J was almost the opposite, in terms of personality, of Captain B – reserved and quiet, in general. But he understood people, and had no problem asking questions, which is what I remember the most – he would ask and ask and ask, and it was okay if you didn’t know the answer, but you better find out and get back to him before too long! He was technically skilled and knowledgeable, and very forthright and honest. An all-around low-key, great guy.

To tack on to what iiandyiiii said: Strong leadership is critical, particularly on board a boat that stays at sea for extended periods, with a crew that is in very tight quarters, and which doesn’t put in to port very often. Discipline and morale can be a serious problem in any command, let alone one where you have forced interaction at close quarters. Having the smarts to listen to the boat Chief and other senior NCOs is paramount to smooth operations.

I hate to treat this as anything but serious but I feel the need to mention that lacking claustrophobia and hydrophobia are probably important.

More seriously, I would imagine that someone successful would be able to analyze his or her situation and deduce points of friction or obstacles. For example, earning the trust and respect of your crew is a good way to maintain loyalty and responsibility among your crew, and so a good commander would do so. The commander adapts to situations quickly and effectively, without forcing one ideology or methodology throughout their career. They care little for the methods they use, only the results, both in the present and in the future. Their strategies are both effective and sustainable (ie they do not do anything that could result in disobedience from their crew or interference from authorities. Such problems could arise from cruelty or criminal actions. Perhaps whipping shipmates makes them work harder, but in the end this will damage your ability to achieve success).

The commander maximizes their ability to succeed and minimizes risk of failure.

I would note, as an aside, that the three attributes the OP mentions (especially trustworthy,very autonomous, decisive and self-reliant, and especially precise) could also be applied to most explorers and Naval Commanders of the 17-18th (and well into the 19th) centuries, who had to navigate both waters unknown and politics and people unknown, sometimes with negotiation, sometimes with war, sometimes with both, and do it with no direction from home save via journeys of weeks, if not months.

And aside noted, back to the OP conversation.

Must speak Russian with a Scottish accent, natch.

As a side question I never got the whole submarine “collided with X” stories. Submarines are billion dollar machines with state of the art sonar, radar etc. and yet you seem to indicate the sub is essentially being steered visually by two not too smart guys sitting on the top rail? What?

Have you ever tried to drive a car using radar only?

It always relies on people – this equipment has to be utilized properly; it doesn’t make decisions on its own.

This was in the middle of the night (and I was asleep at the time) in a crowded shipping lane, and we were on the surface. Submarines are hard to see on the surface since they don’t have tall masts or superstructures like other ships, especially at night. On the surface, radar is secondary to one’s eyes, and though we had two radar systems, one of them is occasionally malfunctioning (and the backup radar system is somewhat archaic).

In addition to the officer (and lookout) on the bridge (top of a submarine’s sail), there is a contact coordination and navigation team in the control room, consisting of an officer and some crew using the periscope, radar, and sonar systems to augment the Officer of the Deck and lookout’s eyes. We were way ahead of schedule, so we were proceeding very slowly. The primary radar may have been down (I don’t remember exactly) and the secondary radar was manned by a very junior and probably unqualified sailor.

The XO was also intermittently in the control room since the CO was sleeping. Someone reported the contact (a freighter) to the bridge, and reported that it was not of concern. At some point a junior sailor, through the periscope, reported that he thought it was “constant bearing decreasing range”, meaning on a collision course, but the XO looked through the periscope and said it had a 30 degree angle on the bow (meaning it’s heading left or right in relation to the ship). Minutes later, someone else notices that it’s still heading for us, and at some point (whether he notices himself or is informed) the Officer of the Deck on the bridge learns this. The OOD asks for a recommendation, and the Contact Coordinator (a junior, not fully qualified officer) isn’t sure what to do. I don’t know what the XO was doing at this point. The OOD gives an order to change course eventually, but it’s way too late, and the freighter drives right over the back of our hull (and it’s a minor miracle we didn’t sink).

Basically, the OOD could have done almost anything (sped up, slowed down, turned), as long as he had taken action as soon as he learned of the situation, and he would have avoided this collision. The freighter ran us over from behind, so it’s more their fault then ours, but collisions at sea are almost always the fault of both parties.

When ships are driving around crowded parts of the ocean for hundreds of thousands of hours, there are going to be occasional collisions, but they are nearly always due to human error, and nearly always avoidable with good maritime practices.