And then there were two...

...and the impact on the fleet and the Navy in light of today's realities.

In these days of tight budgets and ever increasing demands on the fleet- the Navy has had to make some tough decisions. One of those decisions was to reduce the tender fleet to two ships Navy wide -- that's ALL tenders - not just submarine tenders - though as it happens the only two tenders left are indeed submarine tenders. While it's easy to be arm-chair admirals and criticize the Navy - that's not our intention - "our" being those of us both in uniform and out who love the service. Rather - we would like to start a discussion- based not on emotions, etc. - but rather a careful consideration of recent events - taken in view with a healthy respect for history - as history can teach us much about our successes and failures.

While the following is strictly opinion - it's shared by many - and hopefully can set the tone for this discussion. Let's set something straight right off - the Navy didn't make it's decision with a careless disregard for circumstances and the realities of the times. Any such notion is nonsense and counter productive. What has happened - like all things in life - is that the Navy - like the rest of us - does not have the benefit of a crystal ball - and like so many times throughout history - some of the best laid plans were shredded by politics and others who did and do not share the Navy's view of the future.

Case in point: in reducing the submarine tender fleet to just two ships - the Navy has now found themselves with a mess on their hands at the New London Submarine base. It must be noted that the Navy knew that base was in trouble - and they had planned very carefully a solution to that problem. In the Navy's 2005 BRAC proposal - the Navy wanted to close that base - relocating the various commands and facilities to bases that had room to grow to meet the future needs of the Submarine Force. Unfortunately - the BRAC commissioners didn't agree - and retained the base - leaving the Navy with a genuine mess (you can read more about this on New London's Deployments page).

In our opinion - a viable solution exists in the two tenders held at St. Julian's Creek Annex in the care of the Inactive Ship's facility. Two tenders are laid-up there which could be put back in service quickly and at not too great of an expense- either (or both) could the be deployed to New London - off-load much of the workload while the base received a much needed overhaul of it's own.

Those tenders could then be returned to service in the fleet - as there is a need for them there as well. The following article is now several years old - and expresses the opinion of Adm. Al Konetzni, the (then) Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet
Thanks to Don Chapman, Ken Berry and the rest of the fine folks at Hawaii's RFD Publications - publisher's of MidWeek and MIDWEEK OnLine for permission to reprint this article here.

26 May 2000
Running Silent No More
by Don Chapman
Out of sight, out of mind has always worked for the men who run silent, run deep. At least it did until now. For the first time since the United States Navy launched its first submarine 100 years ago, the silent service is making noise. Led by a respected Pearl Harbor admiral, submariners have taken on a new target: the keepers of the federal purse strings who in recent years have inflicted more damage on the U.S. submarine force than the Soviet Union's Cold Warriors ever dreamed about. 

Yet even as America fiscally torpedoes its own fast-attack nuclear submarines ­ from a fleet high of 100 when the Berlin Wall came down to about 50 today ­ other nations are heading deeper and further into the world's oceans.

"That's what's amazing to me," Adm. Al Konetzni, Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, told MidWeek during an interview at his Pearl Harbor office. "While the United States is reducing its submarine force level, the rest of the world is growing [their below-surface warfare capability]."

"Here are a couple of numbers for you: I've got 25 fast-attack submarines plus eight ballistic missile subs. And there are 268 submarines other than mine in the Pacific theater. More importantly, (by Konetzni's count) 193 of them are not necessarily our friends. Within five years, most of these nations will have very good long-range and high-endurance coastal type submarines. And with the advent of some of the new systems that are coming out now, that will allow these folks to stay down and not have to snorkel (for air, allowing the sonar of American subs to locate them). It's going to cause problems for us."

"What a submarine does for a competitor, at least in their own mind, it makes them a world power. It would be one hell of a wakeup call if some competitor or rogue nation thought they could get away with popping off a torpedo at one of our major ships." 

In a major break from the silent service's usual style, Konetzni has recently been "speaking out, speaking up" to strengthen the U.S. submarine force. He even appeared on Larry King Live to bring his message to American taxpayers. And The Wall Street Journal recently called about a story. 

It helps his cause that Konetzni ­ technically, two-star Rear Admiral Konetzni ­ is one of the most popular leaders in the Navy. 

"They call him 'Big Al the Sailor's Pal,'" says Commander Bill Stacia, skipper of the USS Cheyenne (the boat that is the star of Tom Clancy's latest novel, SSN). 

That monicker largely explains why retention of sailors and officers under Konetzni is double the overall Navy average. And while Konetzni, 56, can be quite emotional in discussing the contributions of the "wonderful young men" who serve in his command, "this wonderful democracy we live in," and the sacrifices that his "wonderful wife" Missy has made over the years, he offers only reason and mathematics in the debate over force levels.

"If you have a good intellectual argument, you have an obligation to speak up ­ as long as it's an intellectual argument," says Konetzni in a resonant baritone. 

"What we've done is say here are the statistics and facts that show that we may be heading in the wrong direction. And we've tried to back that up with the intellectual argument about the number of mission days, what we need for war fighting, what our operating tempo is for the ships and so forth." 

The bottom line is this, says Konetzni: 

"In simple arithmetic, we have halved our force in the Pacific and doubled our responsibility of what I call 'finding the pieces of the puzzle.' The numbers don't add up. 

"There's a war plan, I can't go into details because it gets into classified things, but it says that I need to have a certain number of ships in Asia ready to go at the communication of a threat. Last year, over one-third of the year, I could not meet that commitment. I did not have those ships.

"I am really stretched thin."

The strain is felt by sailors and their families. During the USS Buffalo's recent six-month deployment, they were submerged more than 80 percent of the time. That's not bad. Some deployments keep the crew down 90 percent of the time. During the six months they are in homeport, submariners may be at sea for up to a month for training. And because their missions are classified, submariners can't share with family members exactly what they're doing or where they're going. 

"In peacetime," he says, "half of our time in a six-month deployment is spent doing surveillance operations in water that is not much deeper than 150 to 180 feet ­ in a ship that is 360 feet long, so there's very little margin for error ­ for 30 to 40 days without a break, in areas that are very well populated by merchant ships and fishing junks and ferries and the like, so there's a lot of noise to filter through and traffic to avoid. The service our young sailors are performing for the nation is incredible. And remember, I don't come up with these surveillance missions. They come from the highest command authority. We're bringing back information that is vital to national security."

Perhaps even more disturbing than the reduction in the submarine force level is the number of submarine tenders. The Navy now has just two ships that can resupply everything from food to weapons while a sub is deployed. Konetzni's only sub tender in the Pacific is homeported on Guam.

And the Pacific is anything but pacific these days. There's a hot spot in every corner of the world's largest ocean. North Korea and South Korea. China and Taiwan. China and Tibet. Russia and its former satellites. India and Pakistan. Sri Lanka. Malaysia. Indonesia. Myanmar. The Philippines. 

But even given the tinder box nature of the region, for most Americans who learned everything they know about submarines from the movies ­which have little to do with day-to-day life during six-month deployments at sea ­ Konetzni's intellectual argument raises several questions: 

Why submarines? What is their role in national security? Why should we care? 

"That's a question that we, myself included, could have done a better job of explaining to the American people in the past decade ­ that wait a minute, we are not Cold War relics," Konetzni says. 

"All naval ships do three things: First, we provide presence. The fact of the matter is that, especially in Asia, the sight of the American fleet brings stability. We're lucky in the submarine force because we can bring that presence either overtly ­ with port calls in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, Australia ­ or we can do it covertly. We have a wonderful ability to dwell."

During a change of command aboard the USS Buffalo two days earlier, outgoing Commander Robert Hennegan had described how a South Korean admiral credited the Buffalo's presence for helping to defuse a confrontation last year between North and South that included boats getting rammed and shots being fired.

"Second," Konetzni continues, "we engage (train with) our allies. Naval engagement is so important, not only for friendship and understanding, but even more important in war-fighting. We need war-fighting partners. And if we do not exercise, if we do not plan and we don't have the ability to train with them, our war-fighting ability is a disaster. It can result in blue on blue, friendly to friendly casualties, which is the last thing we want. But from 1995 to now, our friendly nation engagement has decreased by half.

"Third, we react to contingencies. In 1996 when they had the election in Taiwan, a lot of people don't realize it, we had four submarines off China (listening, just in case China followed through on threats). They were the first to arrive and the last to leave."

Were American submarines again posted off China for the recent Taiwan elections? While the admiral can't say ­ classified information ­ it's a good guess that several U.S. subs were lurking in the vicinity. 

More to the point in discussing contingencies, during the air war on Kosovo last year 25 percent of the missiles targeted at sites in Kosovo were launched from American submarines. 

Fast-attack subs also have the capacity, without surfacing, to drop a team of Navy SEALS close to land or to deploy them in a mini-submarine attached to the larger vessel. 

"Our submarines today, half of their time deployed is doing intelligence collection, surveillance and reconnaissance," says Konetzni. "And it begs the question: If you only have half of what you really need, what don't you want to know? Are you ready to kiss off any knowledge of Russia, a country that has had some problems, a country that is showing some strange patterns in its deployments? What about Korea? Most Americans don't realize that the North Koreans really believe that they're the true patriots and they look upon the South as the collaborators. And you have 40,000 Americans living there, plus 44 million South Koreans. And the need to surveil, to understand, to do indicational warning is critical. That Army four-star, the U.N. commander there, he knows that. And if you don't have enough submarines, you're not there. And that's the case. 

"What about China? Is China a threat? I don't view any nation as a threat today, because I don't like that term. But I certainly use competitor. And what concerns me is that you need to know as many pieces as possible about those competitors. 

"What about India? What about Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, Malaysia? 

"When you ask what submarines do, well, they keep your competitors guessing and they come back with information that quite frankly is of critical importance to the United States that only a submarine can get, regarding many things ­ his weapons of mass destruction, his defenses and capabilities, and more important how rapidly is he advancing. The proliferation of weapons in Asia is phenomenal. Those things are a great concern. I really worry ­ because competitors can count too ­ that this lack of assets we have in the submarine force will allow someone to miscalculate and we will get punched in the nose. And that's the nice way of saying it. But we will lose American lives, our sailors, our soldiers, and we'll lose prestige. The bill on America will be in blood, but every year that we delay in having an adequate submarine force is going to cost us more money too.

"The other day, a very senior officer who understands this theater very well, said something that expressed my thinking exactly. He said that when he thinks of competitors, he feels like Indiana Jones felt about snakes."

Konetzni's eight SSBNs ­ nuclear-powered subs loaded with long-range Tomahawk missiles ­ are based at Bremerton, Wash. The admiral says of their role, "They go out and disappear. They're somewhere out there acting as deterrence." 

Of those 193 not-necessarily-friendly submarines operating in the Pacific, how many do you suppose are actively keeping their ears open for our roving undersea deterrence? 

It's a stretch to call Konetzni "the accidental admiral," but you sure wouldn't have predicted that he'd last this long or reach this high. "I didn't plan it, that's for sure," he says with a laugh. 

Konetzni ­ the name is German and originally was Konetzny ­ grew up in the Queens section of New York City, one of four children. "I loved New York City's great ethnic neighborhoods. I learned to be pretty tough," he says with just a hint of Noo Yawk accent. 

His father, Al Sr., was a commercial artist who worked for a department store, later worked for Personna razor blades and then "got a job with Disney in the '50s and moved into their character merchandising division. This was when the Mouseketeers were popular and Disney was selling a lot of records. He designed the Disney lunch pail and the Disney phone. In fact, he just became a Disney Legend and received an award from Michael Eisner at a big ceremony in Los Angeles." 

Konetzni attended a Catholic elementary school, then an all-boys Catholic high school. 

"I didn't know what I wanted to do and then one day my father asked me, 'Did you ever think about the Naval Academy?' Well, yeah, I used to watch that TV show, Men of Annapolis. He said, 'You like to swim. Like to fish.' So I went to the Naval Academy. I picked out that school in the most immature way in the world. 

"The first day, they shaved my head and put me in a white suit, and I said, 'What have I done?' 

"On day No. 3, I got this nickname, Zero, for being dumber than a box of rocks, because I filled out an administrative form incorrectly. I was ridiculed, put on a stage in the mess hall, a hot June day at Annapolis, very humid, and it broke my heart. The nickname lasted that whole first year, and in some ways all four years. But it made me think very honestly that I will never treat people improperly if I can. Those thoughts have stayed with me, and it's only recently that I've told my Zero story. It's because I hate hazing from the bottom of my heart. I was hazed as a midshipman and I still have evil feelings about those days. 

"When graduation came along (1966), I didn't know what I wanted to do. Submarines were the only thing I hadn't seen, so ... another dumb way of doing business. I didn't want to go into the Marine Corps. The surface Navy did not please me. I wasn't ready for aviation, so I picked submarines. And then I despised the nuclear training, but I figured it was time to get smart and get on with my life. When I got to Pearl Harbor for my first assignment, the USS Mariano G. Vallejo, my first two commanding officers were marvelous men, Jack Nunley and Arnie Johnson. They treated me like an adult, and I said, if they're making me feel this good, and I hadn't felt good in four years at the Naval Academy, then there must be something to it. I've stayed ever since."

Along the way, Konetzni fell in love and got married. He and his wife Missy are parents of six adult children. 

Konetzni's career includes serving as executive officer of the ballistic submarine USS Kamehameha from June 1976 to December 1978. He served as commander of the fast-attack sub USS Grayling from August 1981 to May 1984. At that point, the guy they once called Zero returned to Annapolis as deputy commandant. He later worked in strategy planning and served as chief of staff for the commander of the Atlantic submarine fleet. He also did a tour as director of the Pentagon's Attack Submarine Division. He assumed his current duties in May 1998. 

But it's only been in recent months that he has started to speak up. "Adm. Dennis Blair (CINCPAC) in his Integrated Priority Listing said he needed 35 fast-attack submarines in the Pacific today. And here we're down to 25," Konetzni says. "I have stated before that I think it is a national security disaster, and I would say that again and again.

"Thank goodness the latest Joint Chiefs study review, which is dated November '99 but passed to Congress this year, says we need 68 submarines to meet the minimum critical force level ­ and critical is defined as critically important to national security ­ anything less than 68 would impose more risk. But somehow in the executive summary in this report, it says anything less than 55 would be detrimental to national security. It doesn't swag with the number 68. Those sorts of tradeoffs in a real intellectual argument ­ that says 68 and then somewhere out of the sky picks a peacetime number of 55 ­ doesn't work."

Konetzni also questions procedures that recently cost the Navy 10 fast-attack submarines. 

"Dr. John Hanley, Deputy Secretary of Defense, signed a tasking memo to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in March of '97. It was to be done by September '98. But that report didn't come out until February 2000. In that interval of 18 months, we lost 10 nuclear attack submarines (via decommissioning, six in the Pacific). That is unsatisfactory. We cannot run national defense that way. And that's why I have spoken out and spoken up. 

"I will say, though, we have made great progress, particularly in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, in making them see our needs. And they have been wonderful. But even the congressmen and senators I know asked, how did we let that many fast-attack nuclear subs get away? How did we let that happen? But we're coming back."

While Konetzni is making headway in Congress and at the Pentagon, he has ruffled some feathers. "I want to keep the focus on the message, not the messenger, but when I wake up in the morning I feel good about our approach," he says. "Some people have responded with angst or frustration or even downright anger, but nobody has ever said intellectually that we were wrong. It makes me feel good that we're seeing more senior officers speak up for the overall need for the appropriate number of aircraft and surface ships and submarines. If our intellectual argument has helped that to occur, it's good."

Konetzni's willingness to speak up has had another effect on his command. Officers are speaking up on issues regarding their crews and boats without fear. 

"As an officer, I feel like I have a voice for my ship," says Commander Mark Patton, skipper of the USS Topeka. "Because Adm. Konetzni is willing to stand up for his people, I feel I can too. It's been one of the real positive aspects of my command. I can call him up any time and say I need some help, and he'll get it for me." 

Perhaps the greatest testament to Konetzni's leadership is that even as submariners are subjected to more demanding missions and less time between them, he has raised retention of sailors to a record high. 

"Our submarine retention rate in the Pacific in the past six months is 60 percent, more than double the rest of the Navy," Konetzni says. "Keeping your people is truly the essence of leadership. In any company, people will stay if they are well led and the atmosphere is right for them, if they feel their contribution is important. 

"How did we do it? We stopped using bumper sticker phrases and said that when it comes to the people portion of the equation, it really is important. It's No. 1 and we're going to grade you on your legacy, and we made that very clear."

In other words, officers who don't keep their people around shouldn't plan on being promoted. 

"This is my third tour at Pearl Harbor, and I've never seen the positive kind of spirit we now have," says Commander Dennis Murphy, skipper of the USS Tucson

"The deck plate sailors know he cares about their interests," adds Commander Stacia of the Cheyenne. "The other day he came by, and there was a group of senior officers over here, a group of enlisted men over there. And he went over to the junior guys first and started talking with them. He makes them each feel that they are as important to the Navy as the most senior officer. I'll tell you, he inspires me." 

"He is not a desk admiral. Nearly every day you see him out on the waterfront, talking to people," says Bill Cramer, USS Greenville captain of the boat and a former member of Konetzni's staff. "He'll smoke a cigar with the sailors. Before, a lot of guys didn't even know who the submarine force admiral was." 

Following the Buffalo's change of command ceremony, Big Al the Sailor's Pal walked along the waterfront, slapping the backs of his people. "You men are doing a fantastic job!" he called to a group of sailors. He stopped and put a big arm around the shoulders of Brian Samuel, a young sailor from the Buffalo, and lightly punched his arm. "I've heard good things about you, sailor." As Konetzni continued down the waterfront, Samuel, who grew up in Baltimore's inner city, beamed. "I never had an admiral do that before," he said.

But there's more to Konetzni's style than knowing how to work a crowd. "He's improved life for the sailors," says Andy Mayerchuk, an electronic tech who was named the Buffalo's sailor of the year. "He changed what we call our sections. It used to be that when we're in homeport, we had to sleep on the boat every three days. Now it's every six days. That means a lot, especially for people with families." 

When asked about the Big Al the Sailor's Pal nickname, the admiral smiles and says: "I'm proud of it. My supporters, and I have a lot of them, think that's a term of endearment. It does not mean we have lowered any standards. I'm the toughest guy in the world when it comes to work ethic. The detractors, I suppose, find it very easy to say he has too much energy, he's lowering standards. But I blow that off because we have proven what good leadership can do." 

At the same time, he continues to speak out for increasing the submarine force level. There's another saying that is a favorite with submariners: "By the time you hear us, it's already too late." 

Konetzni is hoping that he didn't wait too long to be heard and that it's not too late for what's left of America's submarine force.

Copyright RFD Publications, Hawaii 2001
Reprinted here with written permission.

The Admiral is quite pasionate about the level of assets available - and how that impacted his ability to be able to meet the requirements of missions assigned to his command. It's also clear that part of the solution is more assets in the theater- as he noted - the opposition is only going to increase both in numbers - and their abilites.

Recent stories about the workload on Emory S. Land show that the current load in the Atlantic is increasing as well. Operation Iraqi Freedom placed huge strains on Land and her crews. She performed excellently (as evidenced by the number of awards and accolades she has just received), but how long can that one ship keep at it? What ship will take her place so she can receive needed yard work? Once the problem at New London is addressed using the tenders as suggested - there is ample work for them in the Pacific and Atlantic.

Perhaps it's time the Navy considered bringing them back on line.

Return to TenderTale Main Page

Copyright © 2001 - 2006 Common Cents Computers