U.S. Navy Submarine Service: Requirements to Serve on a Submarine

Here's what it takes to serve aboard a U.S. Navy submarine

Annapolis, Maryland, October 25, 2009 - Sonar Technician stands sentry aboard the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Annapolis.
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So you want to know what it's like to be a submariner in the Navy? It will demand a lot out of you no matter what type of submarine you're on, as all of them are powered by a nuclear power plant and require highly educated and qualified personnel to operate these mutli-billion-dollar weapon systems.

There are three types of submarines in the U.S. Navy:

Fast attack submarines (SSN) are typically smaller and faster than the other subs and have more of a tactical mission of ship and submarine attacks, intelligence gathering, and even launching cruise missiles.

Ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) carry Trident missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. The Navy's 14 SSBNs act as the nation's sea-based strategic deterrence, providing the United States with an ever-present threat of nuclear destruction should any country think of attacking. The Navy is in the process of replacing the current Ohio-class SSBNs with the Columbia-class program, which will include 12 ships with construction starting in the late 2020s.

Cruise or guided missile submarines (SSGN) are former SSBNs that were converted into subs that can carry conventional weapons. The four SSGNs in the Navy's inventory carry a lot more firepower than a fast attack submarine and have the most advanced technology capable of launching cruise missiles, mini-submarines, and special operations personnel.

But what's it like to serve on these vessels? Let's take a look at U.S. Navy submarine service and what life is like aboard one of these massive vessels.

Requirements to Serve on a Submarine

To become a submariner, you must start with the most basic step: join the U.S. Navy and go through the basic training process. Approach your local Navy recruiter and tell them you want to become a submariner, and they will advise you on the best path forward.

The good news is you can volunteer for a role on submarines. You can let your commanding officer know your preference during academy training. You'll need to pass some tests and assessments, but hopefully, your superiors will see you as a good fit for that role.

Specifically, commanders want to know you can handle the special environment of a submarine. You're stuck in an enclosed environment with no sunlight and close quarters. If you're even slightly claustrophobic, this isn't for you. And with little access to the sun, it's hard to detect the passage of time, which may disrupt sleep patterns.

Additionally, being a submariner is demanding from a technical standpoint, so you'll need to be skilled. Submarines feature sailors who have expertise in nuclear power, sonar operation, weaponry, and electricity, to name a few specialties. You'll continue to receive training throughout your career on a submarine, and you'll be expected to handle just about every role on a sub, from electrician to galley cook.

Life Aboard a Submarine

So what's it like to serve aboard a submarine? Meet the 154 teammates who all are stationed in King’s Bay, Ga., one of the Navy's submarine bases. These submariners call a 560-foot-long steel boat with no windows "home."

Every submariner is familiar with the dangers involved with living and traveling the world's seas underwater can bring. But they go to sea anyway, cruising below the ocean’s stealth and concealment. Most people, many Sailors included, think they’re crazy. But like any family, when nobody else understands them, they understand each other.

“To be a submariner you have to be different,” said one submariner. “It takes a unique mindset to handle being isolated from people, the sun, and fresh air as long as we are. Most people just can’t handle the thought of being underwater, but submariners never really think about it. We try to tell people that being submerged at 400 feet is just like sitting on your couch in the living room, but I guess they just can’t get past having that much water above their heads.”

Earning Your Dolphins

Those words go a long way in understanding why the submarine warfare qualification process has always been mandatory.

“Earning your Dolphins [the Submarine Warfare insignia] is what signifies to the rest of the crew that you can and will be trusted with our lives,” said Electronics Technician 2nd Class (SS) Joseph Brugeman. “I know everyone aboard personally, and that level of familiarity allows me to trust them in a casualty situation. I couldn’t imagine trusting my life and the life of the boat with anyone I didn’t know personally. If you’re on my boat and you’re wearing Dolphins, then I trust you, period. I don’t care if you’re a yeoman, cook, missile technician, or mechanic—I know you’ve got my back. It doesn’t get any more intimate than that.”

When a new Sailor reports aboard any submarine and gets his boat’s submarine warfare qualification card, he’ll find blocks for pneumatics, hydraulics, sonar, and even the weapons systems. What he won’t find any signatures for is the very thing that wearing Dolphins is all about—trust. But once you’re wearing them, trust is assumed.

“Wearing Dolphins means much more than knowing how to draw all of the boat’s hydraulic, steam, electronic, and air systems,” said Culinary Specialist 3rd Class (SS) Jeff Smith, the Blue Crew’s night baker. “It means more than being able to explain how a drop of seawater outside the boat makes it into your cup in the galley. No, wearing Dolphins means that the crew trusts you to know how to save the boat regardless of the casualty, and regardless of your rating or rank. Earning that trust makes you much more than a professional sailor, it makes you a member of the submarine family.”

“On my boat,” added CDR Robert Palisin, Maine’s Blue Crew commanding officer, “everyone is expected to know how to save the boat. We don’t discriminate based on what your rating or even your rank is. My cooks should and do know how to fight a fire in the engine room, just like my nuclear-trained mechanics are expected to know how to isolate a power supply if smoke comes from the sonar shack. Everyone on a submarine is the damage control party—everyone.”

Having Each Other's Backs

Palisin was careful to explain that damage control is much more than just knowing what to do if something bad happens. It’s being confident enough in your knowledge of the boat’s systems to speak up if someone else on the crew is about to make a mistake that affects a ship’s safety.

“In the submarine force, we put an emphasis on being right more than what a Sailor’s rank might be because everyone aboard a submarine is expected to be a backup to his shipmate,” said Palisin. “Even I, as the captain of this boat, would expect the most junior sailor to jump up and down screaming his head off if I made a mistake that endangered the ship. Our lives depend on knowing that we can count on each other to watch our backs, to make sure the safety of the ship is placed well ahead of rank or rate.”

Palisin, like all boat captains, makes sure his crew knows how to fight any casualty by constantly running casualty drills throughout the boat’s deployment. After all, practice makes perfect, and when you have only yourselves to count on, being perfect is the only standard good enough to keep you alive.

“We practice responding to casualties so much that we do it instinctively,” said MM2(SS) Jim Crowson. “Our training has to be instinctive. Otherwise, we might get scared first instead of responding if the real thing ever goes down. At 400 feet, there’s no time to be scared. I’m not trying to sound macho–it’s just the reality of how to survive when all you may have are seconds before the boat sinks below crush depth.”

Despite going to sea on a boat with no windows, no fantail, no helipad, and not even a hatch to allow in some tension-breaking fresh salt air, submariners are still sailors at heart. These brothers volunteer for submarine duty and their commitment is no different than the sailors on aircraft carriers, cruisers or even tugboats.

They love their country, uphold the Navy’s core values of honor, courage, and commitment, and want to make it back safely from every deployment. As the silent service, though, they’d just rather you didn’t talk about it.