New generations of nuclear submarines are at long last coming out of America's shipyards at a fast clip, rearming for the 1980s. Yet Navy leaders are still struggling unsuccessfully with another crucial problem of preparedness -- the men who man and operate the subs.
Is the Navy getting to where it's easier to build submarines than to man them? "We're approaching that point," Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, chief of naval operations concedes.
At present, the submarine force is so short of officers that the experienced men are being kept on sea duty for years on end, instead of getting their regular turns ashore where they can be home for dinner and watch their children grow up.
The lack of regular rotation is more than a drag on morale. It is also producing an alarming attrition rate among experienced officers who, having learned the intricacies of nuclear power and submarine-borne missiles, resign and hed for lucrative jobs in private industry -- jobs that don't perpetually separate them from their families.
This is the Navy version of a human problem that cuts across all of the military services -- the changed values which discourage many in the officer corps in an era when new billios are being devoted to expanded weaponry.
"Most of our nuclear-trained submarine officers can look forward to only one two-year shore tour in their career through commanding officer, about 18 years of commissioned service," said Vice Adm. John G. Williams Jr., director of submarine warfare.
A Navy briefing paper warns: "An alarming trend is the increasing percentage of nuclear-trained officers who are leaving the Navy between the seventh and 12th years of service. Presently only 51 percent of the officers on duty at the beginning of the seventh year start the 13th year of service."
An officer facig that kind of decision is Lt. Steven Von Dollen who, at 27, has completed his five-year obligation and is prepared to resign. "I've seen what this kind of life has to offer," he said, "and I want to try missile submarine. "I don't hold any animosity toward the Navy," he explained. "I enjoyed the intellectual challenge. The Navy has taught me I can achieve everything I strive for. My decision to leave would have been harder if there had been less family separation."
Because it takes so long to train an officer in the intricacies of the nuclear plant that powers today's missile and attack submarines, it may be at least five years before the Navy has enough officers to allow something less than a workaholic life for the men in the depths. Meanwhile, the Navy expects to increase its nuclear attack sub force by 20 percent in the next 10 years.
"We're five or six years away from where we can ease the load," Hayward acknowledged in an interview.
But as the exodus of experienced submarine officers testifies, many of them and their families are unwilling to devote that much time for leaders who have failed for years to match supply with demand in the submarine service.
"A corporation would do better," said Von Dollen's wife, Karen. "For all this insensitivity to be promulgated, there has to be mediocrity somewhere. Why not start at the top?"
The top today is Hawyward. But in fairness, the shortage of submariners, which Hayward termed one of the biggest problems in the officer corps, developed before he took over as head of naval operations on July 1, 1978.
The solution, he said, is to recruit more officers to make up for those who leave the submarine service -- something his predecessors have been unable to do despite throwing millions of dollars at the problem in the form of special bonuses.
"We just haven't had a program that went out and recruited correctly," Hayward said. "We haven't learned how to market that fantastic career" of running nuclear missile and attack submarines.
He said the Navy is stepping up its recruiting efforts, looking on campuses beyond the Naval Academy for graduates with the required technical and scientific backgrounds. In 1980, the Navy forced some Naval Academy graduates to accept submarine assignments in order to fill quotas, but the negative impact on morale was substantial and Hayward won't attempt the same solution. "That was a big mistake," the admiral said.
Recruiting more submariners is especially urgent today, he added, because the shipyard deliveries are making a reality out of the Navy's drive for a bigger attack submarine fleet.
But the Navy is competing with industry and the Air Force in looking for young people with the backgrounds to run this fleet, Hayward said.
The numbers show the Navy has a long way to go. In 1976, to allow the normal rotation between sea and shore assignments, the Navy needed 3,300 submarine officers -- from ensign through commander -- who were trained in nuclear propulsion. The service fell 1,500 officers short.
Today the desired total of nuclear officers for submarines is 3,550, but the Navy is 1,050 officers below that.
"We're gaining slowly," a Navy personnel officer said. But retention figures are not encouraging. Only 34 percent of the officers who are at their first stay-or-leave point opt for more submarine duty. The goal was 45 percent.
Despite this shortage, Navy leaders have no intention of keeping submarines tied up at the dock for want of full crews. Instead, they will keep sending the submariners back into the sea over and over again, making family reunions between patrols highly emotional affairs.
"There he is!" squealed one child after another as each spotted his father standing atop the James K. Polk as that missile submarine approached its dock at Charleston, S.C., recently after completing a patrol.
"I miss my daddy," said 11-year-old Katrena Beasley, as she waited anxiously on the dock to hug storekeeper Royce Beasley, who had been away on the Polk for 3 1/2 months.
The downside of being a submarine officer is being away at sea so much, often leading to divorce and shattered lives for the families left on shore. The upside, according to those submariners who stay in the boats, is knowing you are in charge of one of the most lethal and complicated weapons every deployed.
"The responsibility you get at a young age -- you're not going to find it anywhere else," said Wilhelm A. (Butch) Hansen, 28, the father of two children who has decided to stay with submarines.
"The responsibility for the reactor and its operations are incredible," he said, "but that's not the only job you do. You also stand watch when you're driving the submarine and have a lot of jobs on the personnel management side."
If he left the Navy, Hansen said, he could walk into a civilian job that pays a comparable salary, or maybe a little more. "But you'd be pure engineer," he said. "You wouldn't be diversified."
As for the problems inflicted on his family by his long tours at sea, Hansen said: "I have a high degree of confidence it can work out. My wife is very pro-Navy and very satisfied with the life style so far."
Hansen will make about $38,000 this year as a lieutenant, thanks in part to extra pay submariners receive. He intends to sign up for an additional four years soon, which will qualify him for the $28,000 bonus Congress has authorized for any submarine officer who will sign up for four years beyond his first tour of obligated service. The first $7,000 of that bonus is payable in advance. A submarine officer also can opt for being paid $6,000 a year extra for every additional year he remains beyond his obligation.
Van Dollen, on the other hand, found that submarine life can be depressing, despite its challenges. "Sense of doom isn't the right word. But when you're home you know you're going to turn around in a short time and do it again. My son is 4 now. If I were to go away again it would be hard for him to adjust."
The Navy's goal -- admittedly a distant one -- to make submarine life more tolerable for men like Von Dollen is to give officers two years ashore after their three years of sea duty; then rotate them between sea and shore at intervals until they advance to executive officer on a submarine, the second-highest job.
As an executive officer, the submariner would remain on sea duty for two years, then go home to a shore job for two years. If selected to be a submarine commander -- "the last monarch," a former commander called it -- the submariner would serve for three yeaers at sea. Then the rest of his career would be spent in staff jobs, mostly like ashore.
But, again because of the chronic shortage, top officers are being forced to stay in their seagoing jobs much longer than that. The skipper, for example, is being kept in command for 4.8 years on the average, a long time for such an intensive, demanding job.
When the government is putting up huge sums for military hardware, why should these men in the officer corps bear the personal burden of inadequate manpower?
"It's not easy to answer that question," Hayward said. "You reach down and try to inspire the individuals who are top talent and are leaving.
"You call upon the other things that have caused them to stay with you as long as they have, because obviously they are challenged by the intellectual side of it, the leadership side of it, by the understanding of the uniqueness of nuclear-powered submarines.
"You try to compensate with pay. You just keep saying, 'There's a job to do. Let's get it done.'"