A heavily redacted Command Investigation into the “apparent striking of a submerged object by USS Connecticut,” one of America’s three Seawolf Class submarines, paints a grim picture for the U.S. Navy. The investigation, completed 7 months ago and only released this week, portrays a Navy in real crisis.
It is unclear what—if anything—the Navy has done to date that fundamentally addresses what appears to be a disastrous breakdown in submariner standards, basic discipline, and operational competence. It portrays a Navy unready for conflict, rife with major, long-standing navigational oversights in key, contested operational areas.
Certainly, the Navy handled the ceremonial, unit-level discipline well. It fired the command trio of the submarine days after the investigation closed and instituted a rolling, force-wide “navigation stand down” two weeks later.
But that is not enough.
With the nation pinning America’s national security on undersea defenses, civilian leadership at the Department of Defense has an obligation to act. If the Chief of Naval Operations and Secretary of the Navy—himself a Navy veteran—are unable to provide a detailed map of their actions over the last six months that, in total, resolve the fundamental breakdown in submariner standards, basic discipline and operational competence detailed in the USS Connecticut’s Command Investigation, then they must be relieved.
Accountability must start somewhere. And, if accountability culture is not being driven from the top leaders in America’s maritime force, then the top leaders must go, and go now.
The report on the USS Connecticut grounding is a disgrace. It is, frankly, an insult to the legacy of Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, Admiral Hyman Rickover, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and many, many others who consistently drove the undersea community to do better.
The Navy Knew USS Connecticut Was A “Particularly Weak Team”
The U.S. Navy knew for some time that the USS Connecticut’s skipper, Cameron Aljilani, was a problem but failed to do anything about it.
On 10 July 2020, eleven months after taking command—and more than a year before the USS Connecticut ran aground in the Western Pacific, the USS Connecticut’s commander received a “Letter of Performance,” citing “inadequate supervisory oversight, ineffective accountability practices, and superficial self-assessment.”
Seven months later, after a high-profile ice exercise in the Arctic, Aljilani was issued a second reprimand, this time a formal “Letter of Instruction,” a permanent record of counseling and guidance given because of substandard performance. The letter directed Aljilani to “address the command’s overall performance, lack of improvement, and reluctance to accept feedback.”
Two months after the Letter of Instruction, USS Connecticut “allided with a pier while mooring at Naval Base Point Loma,” a stunning incident in any soon-to-deploy submarine. The officer charged with investigating the mishap was blunt, and “opined that the allision could have been prevented with early, decisive action and recommended the CO, XO, NAV, OOD,14 and ANAV receive administrative or disciplinary action for dereliction of duty.”
The investigating officer was, somehow, overruled by the Commander of Submarine Development Squadron-5, who, with the concurrence of the Commander of Submarine Group 7 and the Commander of Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, “certified the safe navigation of the ship through all phases of submarine operations.”
The very next day, on 21 May, the chief of the Squadron, Captain Lincoln Reifsteck, was on his way to his next command. The change-of-command ceremony was presided over by the relatively newly-assigned Rear Admiral Jeffrey Jablon, commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, who grated Reifsteck the Legion of Merit, gushing that, “You’ve taken care of the officers, Sailors, and civilians that work for you, and, as a result DEVRON 5 and the commands under you have been extremely successful in every mission that has been tasked.”
Aljilani, after receiving a third reprimand of “formal” counseling on 25 May, got out of Dodge, slipping the USS Connecticut away from port on 27 May and deploying “ahead of schedule” on what was going to be a far longer deployment than anybody had expected.
Time To Demand Answers From Beyond The Submarine Itself
The U.S. Navy was obviously driving the USS Connecticut pretty hard. Rather than to drill down into the operational minutia aboard the submarine at the time of the incident—which the Command Investigation does— the Department of Defense should, after taking whatever immediate accountability is needed at the top, direct the Navy to step back, look at the wider context, and take immediate corrective and disciplinary action.
The Navy wanted USS Connecticut underway. Under Aljilani’s command, the USS Connecticut had been away from homeport for 67% of the time. Known as something of a yard-bird and a parts-barn for other Seawolf Class subs, the USS Connecticut was in the unenviable position of being a middle-aged boat with a relatively fresh reactor. But the Navy picked the wrong leader and refused—despite multiple signs of trouble—to make any change.
The Department of Defense needs to understand why the Navy gave a flawed commander and command team so many chances to run their important asset into the hazard. The Navy may not have wanted to press Aljilani for accountability. He was an up-and-coming officer, an expert in the hot new field of unmanned undersea vehicles, and had chalked up a strong operational record.
The Department of Defense needs to see what information on the USS Connecticut’s poor performance was expressed to other Navy leaders. One interesting observation is that the negative aspects of the ship’s performance, while “briefed” up the chain, may not have been adequately expressed to senior commanders. It is common practice for young officers who are “on the move” to overemphasize the positive in their PowerPoint presentations. Despite sitting in on USS Connecticut-related briefings, the Commander of Submarine Group 7 related to the investigating officer that “he was not aware of the pier allision or the associated command investigation” before USS Connecticut entered the Seventh Fleet area of operations.
In the Investigation—as released—the Navy clearly wants to keep the focus on the ship itself, focused on “an accumulation of errors and omissions in navigation planning, watchteam execution, and risk management.” This aligns with the Navy’s unhealthy obsession with tactics over strategy. Of course, the redacted portions of the Command Investigation may tell a different story, but the public portion of the Investigation is suspiciously silent on how the Navy allowed a flawed Command Team to remain in charge of the multi-billion-dollar submarine despite an ugly record.
The Navy’s risk management failures clearly began when it tolerated a submarine commander’s emergent record of poor performance. No matter how well liked or influential they are, any Navy personnel associated with the affirmation and certification of the USS Connecticut’s deeply flawed command triad must face prompt disciplinary action.
Outside of the personnel issues, it is also inexplicable that the Navy and other agencies have, as yet, failed to fully map the sea floor in areas that, for more than a decade, have been identified as a likely area of emerging importance to undersea operators. Getting the maps right is a critical “shaping” job that somebody, somewhere, has failed to prioritize—and it suggests a strange complacency despite the Navy’s regular warnings of conflict.
The report does suggest that the submarine was in relatively good material condition—despite having a major refit pushed back—and that sensor failure and degradation of situational awareness aids were less of a contributor to the mishap than the substantial operational failures the report describes. It also suggests that the Navy needs to move faster in resolving post-mishap situations, as several of the crew needed psychological support after arriving at Guam.
But, overall, the report affirms a real cultural problem in the Navy—a wholesale lack of accountability and a reluctance to systematically address the consequences of an enterprise-wide distaste for accountability measures. As I wrote before, in the aftermath of the USS Connecticut’s mishap, “Accidents happen, but the constant and uninterrupted drumbeat of avoidable accidents throughout the Navy and Marine Corps suggest a growing tendency for personnel at every level to disregard longstanding Navy rules, regulations and practices, where Navy operators—for a variety of reasons—feel they—and they alone—are the best arbiters of what rules to follow. And that, frankly, is doing a far better job of sinking the Navy than any “pacing threat” yet.”