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earlier burfling | later burfling

Too much radio, not enough chemistry

Back in September, the submarine USS Hampton pulled into her new homeport of San Diego, California, following a seven-month deployment. Two weeks ago, they had their keys taken away - "Right now, it's not leaving the pier, it's not getting underway" - due to officially unspecified "issues" with "conduct of procedures". My initial thought was that they'd managed to fail their Operational Reactor Safeguards Exam, an annual test of how well the crew runs their nuclear reactor, which is often inflicted on a crew on the way back from a long deployment.

However, as more information started to leak out, some of the other submarine-related blogs that I follow began speculating that the Engineering Laboratory Technicians had been "radioing" some or all of the required daily analyses of the primary coolant. "Radioing", like "gundecking", is a squidly term meaning "making up the results of doing something without actually doing the work involved". As the Navy Times reported later, that appears to be the case:
According to one source with knowledge of the investigation, the central problem involves how often sailors analyzed the chemical and radiological properties of the submarine's reactor, which is typically checked daily.

During preparations for the boat's Operational Reactor Safeguard Examination, which is typically conducted as a nuclear submarine ends its deployment, officials discovered that the sailors hadn't checked the water in at least a month, and their division officer, the chemistry/radiological controls assistant, knew it, the source said.

They also learned that the logs had been forged — or "radioed," in submarine parlance — later to cover up the lapse and make it look as though the sailors had been keeping up with required checks all along.
Unsurprisingly, the skipper of the Hampton, CDR Michael Portland, was fired last week; now the top Navy submariner, VADM Jay Donnelly, is looking at the rest of the Submarine Force:
The investigation into doctored reactor logs onboard the attack submarine Hampton continues with a sharp eye on the rest of the undersea fleet, according to Vice Adm. Jay Donnelly, submarine force commander.

"We're looking very, very carefully at the root causes of what happened on Hampton, and the investigation is ongoing, so it's a little early to draw conclusions, but I expect we'll wrap this up in the very near future," he told an annual gathering of the Naval Submarine League in McLean, Va., on Nov. 1. "We had a group of individuals — not a single individual, but a group — [that] was working together, and they compromised our integrity. I think they were pushing the 'easy button.' "

The Hampton investigation has led to administrative discipline for one officer and five enlisted crewmen who allegedly skipped regular chemical tests of reactor water and then falsified records to make it appear the work had been completed. Donnelly described it as several crewmen "working in collusion and falsifying some records."

On Oct. 25, Hampton's captain, Cmdr. Michael Portland, was relieved of command for loss of confidence. Another officer and two more enlisted crew members were also reassigned. A total of 10 Hampton personnel have been punished since the problems were discovered in September.

Donnelly said the discrepancies aboard Hampton were discovered by a chief petty officer from the squadron who came aboard for routine inspections, "noticed irregularities and began pulling the thread, and brought this whole incident to light, and that light is very bright."

In the aftermath, Donnelly said he plans to meet "eyeball to eyeball with all submarine commanders and command teams on the East Coast, and Rear Adm. Joe Walsh, commander of the Pacific submarine force, will do the same throughout his command.

"My question is, 'Is this a one-time isolated incident, or do we have this problem throughout the force?' I don't have indications now that I have a forcewide problem, certainly not on the magnitude that we had on Hampton," he said.
VADM Donnelly may not yet have any official indications that this is a force-wide problem, but he's certainly got one if some of the commentary on Bubblehead's The Stupid Shall Be Punished blog is to be believed.

Now, this mess is bad enough on its own. But CDR Portland is the fourth SSN skipper this year to be booted off his boat for cause. Back in January, the skipper of the Minneapolis-St. Paul was relieved after two of his sailors drowned trying to get underway in rough weather, and the skipper of the Newport News was relieved after colliding with a Japanese supertanker in the Persian Gulf. In May, the skipper of the Helena was relieved for "a pattern of performance over time that was consistently not meeting the standards" expected of submarine skippers in general (one of six skippers relieved in a six-week period).

Combine those Navy problems with the recent joyride taken by half a dozen Air Force nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and the Army's well-documented woes (just ask the Army Chief of Staff), and it's looking to me like the entire American military is overstretched beyond its breaking point. Not that our "Heckuva job!" President is likely to do anything to fix the problems ...