The Submarine Nuclear Scandal

A large number of nuclear submarine drivers never legitimately passed their qualification exams.

09.22.10 6:46 PM ET

In the U.S. Navy, thousands of competent sailors and officers drive nuclear submarines 24/7 with discipline, dedication, and skill. The problem is that a large percentage of these personnel never legitimately passed their nuclear qualification exams. And it’s not entirely the fault of the crews—the system is seriously broken from the very top.

Worse still, it is but one symptom of a fleet-wide culture of self-deception that stealthily hides the fact that the submarine force is irrelevant to the war on terror and the likely wars of the future.

I initially learned about this scandal in 2003, when I joined my first ship, the USS Hartford, a fast attack nuclear submarine.

Personnel aboard our nuclear submarines are first required to complete a standardized course of study that begins in Naval Nuclear Power School and continues through nuclear "prototype" training. But the final and most important step in the qualification process is not standardized; it takes place aboard actual submarines, where each nuclear-trained crew member must complete a lengthy qualification program before being permitted to operate or supervise the ship’s nuclear propulsion plant.

This lengthy formal training and the secrecy required for missions of "national security" have earned the Navy a great deal of leeway in managing their own affairs. Instead of reporting to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Navy reports to a special entity called Naval Reactors, a historically well-respected organization.

During my on-board training, while I studied more than 70 hours per week, my fellow officers regularly warned me, “Don’t let knowledge stand in the way of your qualifications.” They urged me not to, “learn too much… just check the box and get qualified.” But when my exam arrived, it seemed impossibly difficult. I failed miserably, despite having made a very serious five-month long effort to pass.

Unless Osama bin Laden commandeered a rubber raft with WMD, there was nothing of unique value that a submarine could provide.

My fellow officers were surprised by my failure, and wondered aloud why I hadn’t used the “study guide.” When my second exam arrived, so did the so-called study guide, which happened to be the answer key for the nuclear qualification exam I was taking. I was furious. Defiantly, I handed back the answer key to the proctor and proceeded to take the exam on my own. I failed again. My boss, the ship’s engineer officer, started to document my failures with formal counseling so that he could fire me.

The most competent junior officer on our ship ran to my rescue, confiding that none of the other officers had passed the exam legitimately; the exam was just an administrative check-off. “Swallow your pride,” he told me, and just get it done.

The ship’s engineer and executive officer didn’t believe me when I complained of the cheating, and swept my allegations under the rug. It took me five attempts before I finally passed the "basic" qualification exam. Unbeknownst to me, senior members of my crew even went so far as to falsify my exam scores in order to avoid unwanted attention from the headquarters. But strangely, the exam was anything but basic. The expectations on paper were astronomically high compared to the banal reality of how our ship actually worked.

The USS Hartford had many serious problems. Later that year, the ship ran itself aground off the coast of Italy, resulting in the firing of our captain and several senior officers. But sadly, the nuclear cheating scandal was not isolated to the Hartford. Two years later, when I began to teach at the Naval Submarine School in Connecticut, my colleagues whispered of cheating scandals aboard their own boats. Did it happen on the Scranton? What about the Seawolf? The results were not pretty. From our extensive whispered surveys, several other officers and I concluded that the vast majority of the fleet had some odious practice that resembled the cheating scandal I witnessed firsthand aboard the Hartford.

Thus far, the U.S. Navy has maintained a perfect nuclear safety record. But, having attained the senior supervisory certification of a ship’s nuclear engineer officer, I am deeply disturbed by what I consider to be a threat to the nuclear Navy’s integrity.

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One of my colleagues reported our findings to the captain of the submarine school, who dismissed the report as ludicrous; impossible… such a thing couldn’t happen on his watch. By that point, I had resigned my commission and was anxiously awaiting my honorable discharge. I had given up on trying to bring honesty to the nuclear submarine force, a force whose irrelevant top secret missions and unwritten modus operandi would be considered illegal, if they ever saw the light of day. It was incredibly disappointing to leave on such terms, but my departure was smooth compared to one of my colleagues who was court martialed in 2009 as a scapegoat for the scandal.

I was torn apart by the nagging question: Why did this happen? But the answer to this question took me years to understand. After the 9/11 attacks, the submarine force suddenly found itself without a mission. Unless Osama bin Laden commandeered a rubber raft with WMD, there was nothing of unique value that a submarine could provide. This didn’t stop the admirals, who fought tirelessly to justify the existence of the force that had become a white elephant in the swimming pool, a relic of the Cold War costing hundreds of billions of dollars. Washington's bureaucratic mêlée for defense dollars continued, new submarine missions were invented, new core competencies were contrived, and the submarine force stayed afloat.

This falsified value, reminiscent of the hollow financial markets before the crisis, was covered up by the admirals’ apparent maxim: When in doubt, obfuscate! Everything was stamped top secret, so only the insiders could read what was happening. Not even Congress knows the true extent of the submarine force and its inconspicuous irrelevance because only a handful of congressmen actually have access to the mountain of Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information that shows what is really happening. But ironically, nothing of note was really happening.

In fact, every classified document I ever read in the submarine force could replace the word SECRET with another six-letter word—BORING. The striking absence of a mission made it nearly impossible for the submarine force to declare "mission accomplished," but they did so anyway by gradually exaggerating their capabilities and performance on paper. Within the span of a few years, the expectations on paper no longer had any basis in reality, and corrupt practices like the nuclear cheating scandal took root. Crimson Tide had morphed into Office Space on a boat, full of cynicism, self-deception, and the bureaucratic politics of protecting your own job.

When I left the submarine force in 2006, I was angry that the Navy had squandered the talents and dedication of the men who served her by sending them to chase after Cold War ghosts. I was angry that good people were run through the wringer of a corrupt, unforgiving system. But more than anything else, I was let down by the fact that I had volunteered to serve my country, and that we had done nothing of importance to improve national security. I needed to do something useful in the name of the United States, so I pulled my resignation from the Navy and volunteered for duty in Iraq... but that's another story...

Christopher Brownfield is former nuclear submarine officer, an Iraq war veteran, and the author of My Nuclear Family.