How the Navy's operational pause played out on a submarine

Cmdr. Burt Canfield, right, commanding officer of the nuclear powered fast attack submarine USS John Warner, and Lt. Cmdr. Josh Merdes are seen in the wardroom aboard the submarine on Sept. 8, 2017. The John Warner spent two days transiting from Norfolk, Va., to Groton for training in preparation for its first deployment in early 2018.  (Julia Bergman/The Day)
Cmdr. Burt Canfield, right, commanding officer of the nuclear powered fast attack submarine USS John Warner, and Lt. Cmdr. Josh Merdes are seen in the wardroom aboard the submarine on Sept. 8, 2017. The John Warner spent two days transiting from Norfolk, Va., to Groton for training in preparation for its first deployment in early 2018. (Julia Bergman/The Day)

Aboard the USS John Warner — By now, all crews of U.S. Navy ships have taken some time to think about how they go about their day-to-day business, after a so-called operational pause was instituted late last month by the head of the Navy.

On the USS John Warner, a nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine, the emphasis was on ensuring that junior sailors are thinking about worst-case scenarios now, so they will be ready to react if a dangerous situation arises, said Cmdr. Burt Canfield, the commanding officer.

"So what I want my junior guys to do, and what I talked to them about, was play it out in your head now," he said.

While there's been an emphasis on leadership to mentally play out worst-case scenarios, that same emphasis hasn't been extended to junior sailors, Canfield said.

"At least, we don't make a habit of it," he added.

Following four accidents involving Navy ships in the Pacific this year, and two deadly collisions involving Navy destroyers in the span of two months, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered the operational pause.

In August, the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker near Singapore, resulting in the deaths of 10 sailors, including a Connecticut sailor. Seven sailors died, including one from Connecticut, in June when the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship collided in waters off Japan.

While the accidents all involved surface ships, every type of Navy vessel, even submarines, were ordered to take a day to focus on the basics. Generally speaking, for submarines — each a nearly $3 billion asset with about 135 lives aboard — the stakes are higher because if something goes wrong, the boat is not guaranteed to float.

"We emphasize that heavily," Canfield said. A big part of sailors earning their dolphins, which means they're qualified in submarine warfare, is to understand damage control, flooding causalities and other risks, he added.

But most junior sailors, at least at first, are not mentally prepared to realize that an entire submarine really does depend on each crew member to do the right thing, Canfield said.

So the operational pause on the John Warner deliberately was focused on the junior sailors, asking not "how do I know or how does the chief know, but how do you know when you come on watch that you're ready, that the team is ready?" Canfield said.

"We tried to put it on them to see if there's a gap," he said. For example, if a sailor is going on watch one day and something doesn't feel right or it doesn't feel like the boat is safe, he wants the sailor to tell his superiors. 

"That would be a big deal to me. So that was one piece of it," Canfield said.

There's a multitude of things that can go wrong on a submarine and everyone plays a part in keeping the boat safe, he said. The ship can run aground, it can sink or be damaged in an irrecoverable way, or the crew could even get food poisoning.

"That is an uncomfortable feeling for a lot of people and they don't want to think about it but we try to force them back to thinking about that," he said.

Canfield pointed out that most bad accidents are the result of human error. When there've been accidents in the submarine force, the lookouts usually have seen it coming.

"In post facto analysis they said 'yeah, I was scared and I knew something,'" he said.

So he wants his junior sailors now to think about how, if that kind of situation arises, when will they alert their superior, and if their superior doesn't do what they think he should, how are they going to react, what action are they going to take?

"If they haven't thought about it ahead of time, they're not going to be ready to do that," Canfield said. "That's my take."

j.bergman@theday.com

Editor's Note: Defense reporter Julia Bergman spent 48 hours on the USS John Warner as it transited from Norfolk, Va., to Groton for training in preparation for its first deployment in early 2018. Be sure to check out theday.com next weekend or next Sunday’s edition of The Day to read about what daily life is like on a nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine.

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