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Credit: Huntington Ingalls Industries
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Interview of Kirkland Donald by David Zierler on August 17, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Admiral Kirkland Donald (Ret.), U.S. Navy, and former Director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion program. Donald recounts his upbringing in North Carolina, and he discusses the heritage of military service in his family. He explains his decision to pursue a career in the Navy, and he describes his time at the Naval Academy where he focused on ocean engineering. Donald talks about his long service working in submarines and he explains his decision to enter the Nuclear Power School. He explains the work of the Naval submarines as part of the overall U.S. national defense strategy before and after the Cold War, and he recounts the series of promotions leading to him becoming Director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. Donald reflects on the development of technology over the course of his career, and at the end of the interview he shares his views on the future prospects of U.S. global leadership.
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 17, 2020. I am so honored to be here with Admiral Kirkland H. Donald. Kirk, thank you so much for joining me today.
Oh, happy to be here.
Okay. So, to begin with, would you please tell me your most recent title and your current affiliations.
I retired January 1, 2013 after forty-one years in the Navy as an Admiral. Currently, I serve as a Director on the boards of Entergy Corporation, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Battelle. I am an advisor to the government of Australia for submarine matters and I do some non-profit work with the Naval Submarine League.
Now, with the pandemic, has your work changed or has it simply gone online? You’re just obviously doing less traveling and meeting in person these days.
No, the work has pretty much remained the same to the extent that it can be done online. The work as a board director is all done pretty much online. The work for the Australian government has been on hold because of travel restrictions.
Well Kirk, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your early childhood and let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they are from.
I grew up in a little town in North Carolina called Norlina; a railroad crossroads and tobacco farming town in north central North Carolina. My father was born and raised in Lexington, Virginia and my mother was from Battleboro, North Carolina, another small farming town not too far away. They met and were married just before World War II. My Dad was working for the railroad at the time and surprisingly enough, and to this day, I don’t know why he did this, he enlisted in the Army in September of 1941.
Maybe he read the writing on the wall.
I have no idea. He had graduated from Fort Union Military Academy in Virginia, worked for the railroad for a while and then joined the Army.
Did he come from a military family? Is there a tradition of service going back generations?
No, none that I’ve been able to figure out. When he joined the Army, they wanted him to go into tanks and armor. He was not a tall man, 5’5” on a good day. He begged and pleaded with them not to do that because he was claustrophobic. They said “Okay, we’ll put you in the Quartermaster Corps.” He thought about that a minute and thought, “That sounds pretty good. Deskwork, paperwork kind of thing, I can do that.”
He ended up on ammunition ships crossing the Atlantic in early 1940s and then ultimately served in northern Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He spent most of the war in Naples, Italy, driving trucks up and down the “boot” in Italy. As General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army moved north, My Dad and his buddies were taking the beans and the bullets to the frontlines and bringing the casualties back.
He returned home in 1944 and moved to Norlina, where he settled with my mother. He lived there until he passed away in 2007. I grew up there, I went to school there, and then left when I was 17 to go to United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Did he talk about his service when you were a kid growing up?
No. It seems that most of us who grew up with WWII veterans as parents found that they didn’t talk about it. In fact, being in a small town with less than a thousand people, most of the “town fathers,” as I call them, were World War II veterans, and none of them talked about it. Relatively late in his life, I finally started to ask questions and they started to talk more. There were some fascinating stories in that town. We had folks who landed in Normandy, were Okinawa veterans, you name it.
In fact, we even had a couple of individuals who in that day were known as our town drunks, right out of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. While it was evident even to us kids that these men were troubled souls, I didn’t find out until many years later that both of them saw serious combat in the war, one being wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. Today we would immediately recognize their conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder, and they would get help. Not so much in those days.
But no, they just didn’t talk about it. The first time it really came up was when I was an admiral by this time, a one-star. I had been selected for two stars, and I was going to a job at Naples, Italy, which I was really excited about. Diane and I were moving from Hawaii to Naples to take command of a submarine group.
I remember calling my father, all excited, and telling him that we were moving to Naples, Italy. And it was just dead silence on the line. And then he said something to the effect of, “Son, I thought you were doing so well, what happened?” Because his recollection of Naples, Italy, and what I was going to do were two totally different things. It took a little bit of explaining to bring him up to date as to what Naples today was all about and that my assignment really was a good one. He did have an interesting comment to say that his claim to fame in the Army was he made staff sergeant three times. He was apparently a scrappy little guy, hell of a poker player and all things like that I guess that got him through his days. But he also ran afoul of some of the rules and regulations from time to time. He would make staff sergeant, get in some trouble and get busted down a rank.
Now, growing up, was there an expectation of you to pursue a career in military service? Was that something that you wanted to do on your own?
No, I never really thought about it very much, and I think to say it was an expectation would probably be overstating it, but folks who chose to go into the military, it was generally considered to be a good thing. My older brother and several of his friends enlisted in the Navy in the mid-sixties. To my knowledge, there was no one from my hometown that had gone to the Naval Academy until I did, or any of the service academies for that matter. And even at the time I did it in 1971 with the Vietnam War still going on and pretty unpopular, it was thought of in terms of, “we may not like the war, but we like our young men serving the country.” So, it wasn’t an expectation, but it was met with approval.
So, when you graduated high school, what were your options? What were you thinking about doing at that point?
A couple of summers prior to that, my Dad and I had come to an agreement that I needed to go find some work in the summertime, and a friend of his had a tobacco farm. I went to work for my Dad’s friend, and it only took a couple of weeks of that dirty, grueling work for me to become convinced that I needed to get an education. God love ‘em, they were hard-working folks, but that was a tough way to make a living.
I had done reasonably well in school, and I think most of my peers planned to go to college. We didn’t have a whole lot of money, so if I was going to join them, I was going to have to figure out a way to pay for it. In the fall of my senior year in high school I got a flyer in the mail from West Point. My dad saw it and said, “You know, that’s not a bad idea. Might want to think about that.” I did a little research, and I think mostly because my brother had been in the Navy, plus I had some ideas of maybe flying jets off aircraft carriers, I settled on the Navy, and I applied. It was the only place I applied. I had no safety school. I applied relatively late. Working without a net I guess you could say. And for whatever reason, it all worked out.
Kirk, did you have- looking forward in terms of the talents that you developed in engineering, did you have a pretty strong capability in math and science in high school?
I did. I liked math and science and school in general. I guess the only exception would be I was not a real great fan of foreign language. I took Latin at my mother’s insistence. She recommended two things to me in my academic career that paid off well; one was Latin and the other was a typing class, which was a good thing considering how much time we spend on keyboards these days.
What was the course of study when you got to school? Did you have some leeway in terms of the kinds of things that you would work on or was the curriculum pretty set?
At the Naval Academy, the freshman year, Plebe Year as it is known, is pretty set for coursework. You don’t choose majors until about middle of the way through second semester, and they give you a pretty broad brush of courses to, frankly, establish an academic baseline to get you into the swing of college level studies. It also gives you an exposure to the various types of courses they offered. And they have a very wide offering of majors. I had more of an inclination toward math and science and also, quite frankly, if I became an engineering major, I didn’t have to take a foreign language. I selected ocean engineering as my major because I liked the idea of the mechanical engineering side of things, but the ocean piece of it was really intriguing to me as well.
Kirk, I’m curious you know at the time it would be hard to understand the bigger picture, but I’m curious looking back, being at the naval academy in those waning years of the Vietnam War, do you have a sense that the Naval Academy reacted to what was going on culturally or even counter-reacted where it was more interested in keeping things the way that they used to be more than ever. Do you have a sense of how that might have influenced your education during those years?
That’s a great question. I go back there frequently, at least I did before all this COVID 19 mess happened, and I stay involved there as much as I can. One of the striking things to me is the difference in the relationship between the Naval Academy and the community. When I was there during the height of the Vietnam War, it was not a particularly strong relationship. In fact, sometimes you’d probably consider it to be outright hostile because I think Annapolis was certainly a little further along the spectrum in opposition to the war than where I came from.
And we had a neighboring college, St. John’s, which was clearly more of a liberal campus with a strong anti-war sentiment. I wouldn’t say we felt unwelcome, but it was not like it is today where a strong, mutually beneficial relationship exits. As far as the Naval Academy itself, they were trying to maintain the standards and train us midshipmen to be ready for service in the fleet. However, at least to some degree the Brigade of Midshipmen was a reflection of society, and they had been exposed to the counterculture of the time. Even amongst Naval Academy midshipmen at the time, you could sense there was a streak of rebelliousness that got us into trouble from time to time.
I believe the statistic still holds, but my class, the Class of 1975, had the highest attrition of any in the history of the Naval Academy. We started out with just over 1300 men, and we graduated about 800. Part of that attrition you can attribute to the Naval Academy not doing as good a job then as they do now of giving people a sense of what the place is all about before they get there. For me, the first time I ever saw the Academy was the night before I was sworn in as a midshipman. I had some idea of what I was getting myself into, but not much. Many of my classmates found it wasn’t what they expected and chose to leave.
Part of the attrition was attributable to some folks being there for the wrong reasons. When the mandatory military draft ended in the spring of my second year, before we had any formal service obligation or requirement to reimburse the government if we quit, many more of my classmates chose to leave. I just remember coming back from summer cruise to start my third year and thinking, “Where’d everybody go?” For those who left, it was clear that military service was not for them at that time in their lives and attendance at a service academy was not the right place for them.
It was a different Brigade of Midshipmen than you would see today, and the Academy did their best to mold us into leaders for the fleet. I know I am grateful for the experience.
Did you have political ideas at the time? Was Vietnam a place that you would have been willing to serve if you were asked or did you think that you got into military service for other reasons?
No, I was ready to go wherever they wanted me to serve. In fact, I was excited about the idea—whether it was Vietnam or not. For most of my time at the Academy I was inclined to want to be a Naval aviator. Not passionate like some people are when they get there, but I thought that would be an interesting thing to do. However, when it came time to select my service community early in my senior year, aviation was off the table because I had flunked the eye exam due to slight nearsightedness. I couldn’t be a pilot, but again, it was not something that was totally demoralizing to me.
But at the time, the Submarine Force was growing, and the Cold War was raging. They were recruiting heavily to get people into the business, and it was well understood that if you had an engineering or a technical major and you had decent grades, they were looking for you.
Now, is ocean engineering a feeder program to a submarine-oriented career?
Not necessarily. I mean the fact it was a technical major, yes, it helps. I had a little bit of a head start when it came to the training that I got in the nuclear power program in the Navy.
I’m curious how much physics you learned in the ocean engineering curriculum.
We all took at least two semesters of calculus-based physics. Then for the technical majors there was extensive coursework that drew upon math and physics as you got deeper into your specialized field. By the end, all engineering majors were well versed in physics.
Was submarining an exciting prospect to you?
Eventually it was. I really hadn’t thought a whole lot about it until we did our summer cruises. Actually, it was that summer when everybody disappeared that we had the opportunity to spend time with the different communities, aviation and submarines and surface ships. We spent a couple of days on a submarine out of Groton, Connecticut, and I liked it.
I’ll never forget the commanding officer on that ship was Commander Jack Darby. He later went on to be a two-star admiral and commander of the Submarine Force of the Pacific Fleet. Just a really, really impressive fellow. There was a professionalism about that ship in the way it was run, but they also seemed to be having a good time. He was generally considered to be one of our inspirational leaders in our history, and he just made an impression on me. We spent some time with the junior officers on the ship, and they were similarly professional and fun to be around. So, when the time came and submarine service turned out to be my best option, I was excited. With 20/20 hindsight, it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Now, when you talk about options and you talk about your commitment to being in the submarine community, at that point, how much choice do you have in terms of what submarine you’re on, where you’re going to be deployed? Where does your choice and the service requirement begin?
After graduation from the Naval Academy, Nuclear Power School is your first stop. It is six months of graduate level nuclear engineering classwork. Next was six months of what we call Prototype Training on a land-based nuclear reactor just outside of Hartford in the middle of the tobacco fields. I’m sure most of the residents of Hartford had no idea there was an operating nuclear reactor located just outside the city limits. There we had hands-on training in operating the plant, and we learned how to qualify to stand watches, something that would be very important when we arrived in the Fleet. At the completion of that training you are directed to submit your preference for first ship assignment. Among the options are type of submarine, the smaller attack type that would hunt the Soviets or the larger ballistic missile submarines that carried the intercontinental ballistic missiles for strategic nuclear deterrence patrols.
Another option was choice of a homeport. After some consideration, my wife and I asked for an attack submarine homeported in Charleston, SC. We were both from the East coast, there was warm weather – what’s not to like? And we got what we wanted.
What were your first impressions when you did get that assignment?
I was assigned to USS BATFISH (SSN 681), a relatively new ship, having only been in service for three or four years. It had a good reputation as far as I could tell and a good crew, plus it was in Charleston. I was thrilled.
What room do you have in terms of taking initiative when you’re on the submarine in terms of the kinds of work you want to take on and where do you not have that room and you’re just simply told to do what you’re commanding officers tell you to do?
You know, one thing we should go back to is my selection for the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. If you wanted to be a submarine officer out of the Naval Academy, you had to agree to go through the nuclear power training program. But before you could do that, you had to be personally interviewed by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. So, the Rickover interviews, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of these things—
Yeah, they’re legendary. I remember I had been contacted by a navy lieutenant, a submarine officer in the Academy, and he asked me if I would be interested in being a submarine officer, and I said, “Yes.” He replied, “Well, then you have to be on the bus tomorrow morning at 6 o’clock to go to Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, to be interviewed by Admiral Rickover and his staff.”
I remember later, when I actually had Admiral Rickover’s job, midshipmen would ask me about how to get ready for interviews, and I would point out to them that the way I did it was not the way I would recommend (laughter). So anyway, I hopped on the bus the next morning, and, for the most part, the day was a blur. I remember being interviewed by members of his staff and there were technical questions, like deriving a formula for calculating the area of a circle and basic physic problems. Once that was done, they gathered our group of midshipmen together in a room to wait for our opportunity to be interviewed by Admiral Rickover.
When my time came, they marched me into his office. I had a picture in my mind of what a four-star admiral’s office would look like, big desk, immaculate, important-looking. What I actually saw was this relatively small space piled with books and papers and a cluttered desk. Frankly, it was a mess. I was instructed to sit in a chair in front of the Admiral’s desk. I almost didn’t see him behind his desk because he was a smallish, older gentleman (seventy-four years old to be exact) with gray, wispy hair. He wasn’t looking at me as he was busy. He was looking at some papers and kind of flipping them all over the place. The next thing I know, he turns around to me, and he is in my face expressing is displeasure with my grades. And he was pretty agitated. I was really nervous, so much so that I almost laughed and thank God I didn’t. He finally gives me a minute to respond to his tirade and he asked me a question, “If I let you in my program, how many hours per week outside of class will you study?”
I had heard about previous interviews where that same question had been asked. I had a number in mind, so I blurted it out, and he exploded again. He said, “You haven’t studied that much since you’ve been at the Naval Academy. You’re lying to me.” I mean oh my gosh, it was another tirade. And then he slowed down for a minute and he said, “If I let you in my program, how many places will you improve your class standing this year?” Well I had heard that question too, so I had an answer. I blurted this answer out and he exploded again. He said, “You’ll never be able to do that. You guys come up here and lie to me all the time, and I don’t trust you.” Finally, he said, “Get out. Just get out.” So, he threw me out. And I figured, “Okay, well, what’s next? What am I going to do for the rest of my career?” And a couple days later they post the list on the wall of the dormitory with the people who have been accepted, and my name was on it.
Was this part of his style to just sort of scare you straight?
Oh, I think it was probably to see how you reacted. Yeah. And he was trying to put some pressure on you to see how you would respond. The other thing that happened was as I walked out the door after he threw me out, there was a guy standing there at the door with a piece of paper and said, “Here, sign this.” It read something like, “I, Kirkland H. Donald do hereby agree I will study X number of hours outside of class and I will stand at X in my class at the end of graduation.” I asked, “Do I have to sign this?” He says, “Well, that’s what you told the Admiral, right?”
So, I signed. And so that was in 1974. In 1988 I went back, and I had a job at the Naval Reactor’s headquarters. Admiral Rickover had retired by that time, but I actually found that document that I had signed in 1974.
Oh wow, that’s great.
(Laughter) So yeah.
Kirk, did you make good on your pledge?
As far as he could tell, yes. But back to your original question, the thing about reporting aboard your first ship, it is overwhelming at first. The one thing the program has done well is teach you how to get qualified. You have to get qualified to stand watch on your own, and since there are relatively few officers on the ship, about fourteen, there is a sense of urgency to fill your spot in the watch rotation. The challenge is that the pace and volume of information to be learned is overwhelming at first, and the expectations for mastery of the material is very high.
What was a day in the life when you first started? What did it look like?
I was assigned as the Communications Division Officer and had a group of radiomen working for me, all qualified in submarines and all knew way more about that boat than I did. My main job was to learn and to help them get their work done as efficiently as possible. I spent a lot of time with those men, and they spent a good bit of their time teaching me about their jobs and how to be a good Division Officer. And then at the same time, I was standing under instruction watches to qualify and support the ship’s watch rotation. The duty day was twenty-four hours, spending the night on board the ship learning how to direct a shift of about thirty-five sailors through a day of maintaining the ship and getting her ready to sail. It was similar when we went to sea. I was put into a rotation as a trainee with the goal of becoming a qualified watch stander. It was nonstop study, training, hands-on practice and managing a division. The only break you had was stopping long enough to eat a meal and then maybe grab a little bit of sleep and then getting back to work.
How much of the work is technical? In other words, how much are you putting your ocean engineering degree to use on a daily basis?
Very little directly from my degree, but most of the work at that stage in my career was technical in the sense that I was a trying to learn how this system of systems that is a submarine works. I think it’s the most complicated machine man has ever built. At the same time, you’re trying to learn how to employ this submarine. It’s a tactical tool, so you’re learning the war fighting piece of it—how you go out and find targets, how do you track targets, how would you engage a target? And then there’s the whole leadership piece of it. You are trying to build a team to achieve the goals of the ship. I was responsible for the performance of my division and my watch team, and I had call upon my leadership training from the Naval Academy and my Navy schooling to figure out how to lead people to help accomplish the mission. The work ran the full spectrum from hard core technical to the softer skills of leadership.
And I assume that these are things that cannot be learned in the classroom, right? Particularly leadership, but also the technical aspects of how a submarine works. I mean, how much of there is there like a flight training simulator for submarines or does that not really exist at the Naval Academy?
There was nothing like that at the Naval Academy, but once we had completed the nuclear power training and got to Naval Submarine School in Groton, CT, we had ample opportunity to train on simulators and in the classroom to become familiar with submarine operations. The goal of the training at Submarine School was to teach you enough about submarining that you could very quickly qualify as a Diving Officer of the Watch (DOOW), the first non-nuclear related watchstation you would man. As a DOOW, your job is to lead a team of helmsman, planesman and a Chief of the Watch to carry out the orders of the Officer of the Deck to reach and maintain the required depth of the ship. The simulators at Submarine School helped speed up that qualification process, but there is no substitute for the real thing.
What did you realize you were good at in this environment and what did you realize you needed extra work on?
I think the thing that helped me the most early on in my career was I wanted to be a contributing member of the team as quickly as I could. That meant I needed to do the work and practice to learn the job and gain the trust and confidence of my peers and crewmembers. There was a lot of pride on that ship in “knowing the boat,” and we constantly challenged each other to learn more. Respect was earned by being a good operator and having deep understanding of how the ship works. It was clear from the very first day that I was going to have to work hard to live up to that standard. The other thing I learned was that it was important to know where to be and when to be there. If there was some important evolution going on that was affected by things under my responsibility, I learned there were times when I needed to be there to help ensure all went well.
There are times when leaders need to be present, and in some ways, the good ones have an instinct about where to be and when to be there. On one of my early deployments on that first ship, I had not yet qualified in submarines. That deployment which was classified at the Top Secret level at the time was declassified in 2000 and included in a display in the Smithsonian in celebration of the Submarine Force’s 100th birthday.
We left Charleston, SC in early 1978 with a mission to go out and find a Soviet ballistic missile submarine leaving on patrol out of the Barents Sea and trail it, while remaining undetected, for its entire patrol. It had been tried, but never completely accomplished. Upon arriving in the Norwegian Sea, we got some intelligence to indicate that there was an outbound ballistic missile submarine. We detected it and fell into trail for what ended up being about fifty days.
At that time, I was a relatively junior officer and had little official responsibility for the tactical employment of the ship. However, I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever was going on to accomplish this challenging and unique mission. My opportunity came once we settled into trail and had to make a daily trip up to the surface to collect our message traffic and do all the housekeeping things you can only do at shallow depths. It had to be carefully coordinated to be accomplished safely and quickly to minimize the time away from the best acoustic trailing depth and out of contact with the target. Too long at shallow depth could result in permanent loss of contact and mission failure. I volunteered to take the conning officer watch, train the team to execute the evolutions and get the ship to and from periscope depth whenever we needed to do so. That would free up the Officer of the Deck and the rest of the team to focus on tracking the target. Every twenty-four hours or so, my team and I would take the ship up periscope depth and get back down as quickly as we could, and we did it for most of the fifty-day trail. It was tremendously valuable because it gave me a lot of experience and a lot of “reps”, if you will, and in doing that. I really got much, much better at it.
And Kirk, precisely what? What was it that you were getting better at?
At driving the ship, employing the sensors, getting to periscope depth safely. Any submariner will tell you the most dangerous thing we do in peacetime at sea is taking the ship from a deep depth to the surface. There is always as higher risk of collision with another ship and a submarine is particularly vulnerable to catastrophic damage in the event of that collision. I was also getting better at building a team of individuals to help me get up there, get done what we needed to get done, and get back down. It was a tightly choreographed event and we trained and practiced extensively. When everything “clicked” and the evolution went well, it was a thing of beauty. It was a leadership opportunity that was just wonderful for a young lieutenant junior grade like I was at the time. And the other thing was it helped establish my reputation on the ship that I knew where to be and when to be there.
And I think it made all the difference in the world for setting the tone for my tour on that ship. It was just a tremendous opportunity.
Kirk, how much of the feedback in terms of figuring out that you have a talent of this, how much is it just you feel it in your hands, you feel what you’re good at, and how much of it is what your commanding officers are telling you?
There’s some of both. It’s a little bit that you know what it feels like when you did it right. But I also served under excellent commanding officers. I had seven commanding officers before I became one myself, and every single one of them were just superb. One, they were good at what they did. They were good at their craft. Two, they were very good at developing their people. They would spend time with you and as you pointed out, they would be very quick to tell you when you had done something well, similarly they would be very quick to tell you that’s not the way we do things in this business. And also, thank goodness, very forgiving when you made those mistakes that we all make when we’re learning. I mean, I can’t say enough about those men, what they did for me, and I’m forever in their debt.
How long did you serve with this submarine?
I was on BATFISH for three and a half years. We did two years of operations out of Charleston, and then we moved the ship to Norfolk, Virginia for about a year and a half in maintenance and overhaul. When that was completed, we came back to Charleston.
And when do you know it’s time to move on? Is that a decision that you’re a part of or you’re simply told?
Well, there’s a plan, as you can well imagine. There’s a career path. You get through all your qualifications and have some time to gain experience as a fully qualified officer and then it’s time for you to move on. At that time, about sixty percent of the junior officers left the Navy after their five-year commitment was up, which is about the time you were leaving your first ship. For those of us who stayed in, some would have to go right back to sea again on another ship as a department head and some went to shore duty. I chose to go back to sea because I felt that I was as good at my job as I was ever going to be, and I didn’t want to spend two years ashore getting rusty. At the three-and-a-half-year point, I transferred to a ballistic missile submarine and did patrols for two years.
How had your rank changed over these years?
I was a lieutenant at that time. Up to that point, it was pretty standard. You were promoted to lieutenant junior grade at two years after commissioning and lieutenant two years after that. One of the interesting things at the time, and even to this day, is if you went to be the Engineering Department head you were eligible for a “spot promotion” to lieutenant commander. You wore the rank and got the pay, but it was only good for as long as you were in the job. For me, it meant I was promoted to the next rank, lieutenant commander, at the five-and-a-half-year point in my career.
What did you want to do at this point? What was your next move?
Well I wanted to be a successful Engineering Department Head. I still had not made a firm decision if I wanted to make this a career, so I was just concerned about doing the best I could in the job I was in at the time.
So, there was not a grand plan where you were admiral-bound at this point.
No. Diane, my wife, and I had just had our first child, and we were all still adapting to the Navy life. My focus was on my current job. In fact, that was my approach to every job I had in the Navy, and I didn’t spend much time planning career moves. In my later years as a senior officer, and even today when I get the opportunity to talk to young officers, I encourage them to not get too wrapped up in planning your next two moves down the career chess board. The most important thing is to do well at what you’re doing today. If you don’t do that, then nothing else matters. We had experienced the attack submarine often chaotic lifestyle, and for my second ship we decided to try a fleet ballistic missile submarine. I was still gone from home about half the time, but the schedule was very regular.
And what does that tell us in terms of Cold War naval strategy about the regular scheduling of a ballistic submarine versus an attack submarine that does not maintain that schedule?
Yeah. Well the ballistic missile submarine concept was all predicated on having sufficient ships and missiles at sea to be able to respond to an attack by the Soviet Union.
And that’s a second-strike capability? Is that what that would be considered?
Yeah. That’s right. It was a retaliatory strike philosophy at the time. The overall fleet planning was very precise, and it was based on having sufficient warheads available for launch to hit all the targets. Given the size of the fleet at the time and the number of targets, it was vitally important that if your ship was scheduled to be at sea covering your share of the targets, you had to be there. If you weren’t, some other ship had to stay out longer until you arrived. When it was our turn in port, there was a lot of pressure to get the crew trained and the ship repaired and loaded out, ready to deploy on time.
For the ballistic missile submarine, it follows a regular schedule. Does it also follow a regular path? Are you going the same places or that’s subject to change?
You got orders at the very beginning of the patrol that told you where to go and—
And did you have a sense of how those things were decided?
I know a little more now than I did then, but in fact, the actual patrol locations were known to relatively few people on the crew.
And that’s because it was so sensitive that they didn’t want anything to get out that the Russians might become aware of.
Right. For us to be effective as a nuclear deterrent, we had to remain undetected. Divulging our position in anyway was tantamount to mission failure.
And how would you know, from a technical level, that the Russians were not able to track where these ballistics submarines were?
First, we worked very hard to ensure our ship was as acoustically quiet as possible to minimize the possibility of anyone, even our allies and our own ships, detecting us while on patrol. We were confident that the likelihood of an acoustic or visual detection if we operated properly was very low. There was also intelligence information provided to us to give us a sense of our vulnerability of detection.
Did you ever get a chance- I mean, how closely did you work with the actual missiles themselves? Is that a different world, even if you’re on the same submarine?
There were specialists on board that are trained operators and technicians for those missiles. The Navy’s Strategic Systems Program was responsible for the missile and launching systems.
At this point, what are you doing? What’s your day to day looking like at this point on the submarine?
As the Engineer Officer, I was running one of the departments. There were four departments; weapons, engineering and operations navigation and supply. My responsibility was to ensure the propulsion plan continued to operate reliably, effectively and safely. I spent most of my day dealing with planning for maintenance, planning for training, and supervising watch standing. And then at the same time, I stood watch as an Officer of the Deck. I did my six hours on watch every twenty-four, just like every other relatively senior officer on the ship.
When we returned to port, it changes. When I was in home port during our training period, it was all about getting ready for the next patrol. We had to make sure the crew was trained, qualified, had their dental appointments up to date and their medical treatments all up to date so they were ready physically and mentally to deploy. When we were in the maintenance period, it was all about getting the ship repaired and fixed and ready to go back to sea.
How much are you in contact with headquarters on a daily basis? Is this like all the time or only as needed?
Depends on which headquarters you’re talking about and when. In a maintenance period, you’re in daily contact with your squadron staff led by a squadron commander who was responsible for six or eight submarines in King’s Bay, Georgia. When you’re at sea on patrol, we didn’t transmit from the ship at all. We received messages continuously from headquarters to ensure we were able to receive a missile launch order on very short notice. The concern with transmitting from the ship was the potential for that transmission being detected, compromising your covert position.
I’m curious how well-connected submarine officers are to sort of the broader ebb and flow of the Cold War? For example, particularly tense moments like when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan or Able Archer, you know, those kinds of events, would you feel that on the submarine? Did those events work their way into the submarine, both the way that people are feeling on the submarine and the actual missions that the submarines have in moments of tension like that?
They certainly can. Whether you got the information from the media or from headquarters, you were mindful of the potential for impact on your ship and crew. It was not uncommon for attack submarines in those days to deploy very short notice to response to some move by the Soviet Union. Another example would be the Yom Kippur War in 1973 where most of the Navy’s Sixth Fleet deployed to be ready in the event violence spilled out beyond the established borders of the conflict. One of my commanding officers was involved in that event and he recalled the very real tension everyone felt over the potential for the further outbreak of hostilities.
I remember- it wasn’t so much Cold War related but I was at sea as executive officer on the USS SEAHORSE out of Charleston in the local operating areas when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. We, along with all submarines at sea in the area at the time, got direction from higher authority to stay at a shallow depth to maintain constant communications. They wanted to “count noses” to make sure everybody was accounted for and to stand ready to respond if a submarine could help in anyway. As it turned out, there was nothing we could do, but it makes the point of the importance of being trained and ready to respond however needed.
Are there any particularly tense moments that stand out in your mind during your long career in this Cold War backdrop?
Well, I remember it was fairly late in my sea going career when there were a couple of well publicized collisions between Russian Federation (the Berlin Wall had fallen by that time) and US submarines. USS BATON ROUGE, an attack submarine in my squadron, collided with a Russian submarine while submerged in the Barents Sea. That was followed a couple of years later by USS GRAYLING colliding with another Russian submarine. Those events were justifiably troubling on both sides at all levels of our respective governments. Most importantly no one wanted to see sailors injured or killed. Additionally, we as a nation were trying to navigate the emergence of Russia out of the Soviet Union and the tension created by these events were definitely not helpful to the relationship. The concern was felt all the way down to the ships on the waterfront, and we were all challenged to examine our training and readiness to avoid such events in the future.
Now of course, you were commanding officer of the USS KEY WEST on either side of the end of the Cold War, so I’m curious if you can reflect a little bit about what it was like to serve as commanding officer during this very interesting period in international relations?
Let me give you an example of just how much things changed in the short time I was in command. Most of my training up to assuming command was about being ready for conflict with the Soviet Union. I had been in command for little over a year and we were at sea off Norfolk (the ship’s homeport) doing some training. We get this message from my boss telling us that upon our return to port at the end of the week, we need to be ready to conduct a ship tour for a distinguished visitor. We did VIP tours all the time, and we would certainly be ready. However, this tour was different; it was for Russian Fleet Admiral Chernavin, the Fleet Commander in Chief.
It was the first time that a Russian or a Soviet had ever been allowed below decks on a US nuclear submarine. I recall getting a lot of “help” on this tour, as it had the attention of most of my chain of command, and no one want it to go poorly. We planned for a twenty-minute tour. The Admiral and his entourage would come below decks, walk through and leave. On the appointed day, the touring party arrived led by Admiral Chernavin. My first impression was that of a “straight out of central casting” senior Soviet officer – stout in stature and grim. Turned out he was also a career submarine officer.
We had planned a tour for him to see the equipment onboard the ship. It turned out he was much more interested in the people. As we walked around the ship and he had the opportunity to interact with crewmembers, he would pepper them with questions like “How long have you been in the Navy? How long were you trained? Where do you stand your watch? How do you do it? Are you married? Do you have a family? Do you have kids? Where do you live? Does your wife work? Do you own your own home?” This went on for a couple of hours. We wrapped things up in the Officers’ Mess, and I was struck by the visual of it. There we were, lifelong adversaries, at the same table on my ship, talking about sailors while eating chocolate chip cookies. I never thought I would see the day! When we reflected on the discussions, it was clear Admiral Chernavin was trying to figure out how to transition the Russian Federation Navy from a conscripted, non-volunteer service, into an all-volunteer service. He knew that dramatic change was coming to his Navy, and he was trying to learn how to manage that change.
Now as commanding officer, if you could give a sense of the hierarchy, how much of the buck stops here mentality exists with the commanding officer on the submarine within the overall structure of hierarchy?
The Navy has a longstanding culture that the commanding officer is ultimately responsible for his or her ship, and there was never a question in my mind that the buck stopped with me. If we did good things on my ship, then we would get credit as a ship. If bad things happened, then I would certainly be held accountable for that.
What would be an example of both a good thing and a bad thing where the buck would stop with you for the ship?
I’d been a skipper for a couple years, so I felt pretty comfortable in the job at that point in time. The Squadron Commander position, my direct boss, had just turned over, and I was summoned to the new commander’s office. His only advice, if you could call it that, was, “Okay, Kirk, here’s the way it is. If you run your ship aground or if you hit another ship or if you mishandle your reactor plant, I’m gonna kill you. Everything else is pretty much forgivable” (laughter).
Well at least you know where you stand.
I assumed he meant the other stuff was forgivable – once. Repeating mistakes was not a way to attract positive attention to yourself and your ship. His point is that there are a few what we called “pinnacle events” that you just cannot allow to happen. You can’t run your ship aground. You can’t hit another ship. You can’t put your ship at risk of loss. And you work very, very hard to make sure you’ve trained your people and you operate your ship in such a way that that type of thing did not happen. If as a commanding officer you are party to a pinnacle event, the expectation is the commanding officer, as a minimum, is going to get fired. And if it happens to you, you expect it and that’s the way it is.
On the other hand, there is the situation where there is a loss of confidence in a commanding officer and when that comes into the public domain, it is not well understood. It’s not mysterious at all. Our commanding officers are given tremendous responsibility and authority and the expectations for performance are very high. The expected standards to be maintained on our submarines are also very high. After all, submarining is a hazardous and unforgiving endeavor. If a skipper doesn’t consistently meet those standards, the leadership will lose confidence, and once that happens, there is no alternative to removing that person from command.
On the other end of the accountability spectrum, I remember getting a call from my boss around the time my tour as skipper was coming to an end. My relief had been identified and I was getting ready to move on to my next job. My ship, USS KEY WEST, was conducting a namesake city port visit in Key West, Florida. As you can imagine, we were having a grand time. The Squadron Commander said, “I’ve got some good news for you. KEY WEST is the Battle Efficiency “E” winner this year.” That is the award for the best ship in the squadron for the previous year and it’s one of the best indicators of how well the whole team on the ship has done. I was pretty proud of that accomplishment by the crew.
Those are examples of accountability on both ends of the spectrum, appropriate recognition when things are done well; disciplinary action when they don’t. Late in my career when I would train commanding officers, I would tell them “Never underestimate the effect that you, as a commanding officer, can have on how your ship performs. Your ship will follow your lead and you will be surprised that if you walk onboard your ship and you’re feeling down and your head’s hanging down and you’re moping around, look around at your crew. Their heads will be down, they’ll be moping around because they follow your lead. If you’re upbeat and ready to take the challenge on and all that, you’ll see that in your crew- they look to you for that leadership.”
Is three years about a standard time to reserve in that role as commanding officer?
Yeah, about that.
What was your next move after that? What happens next?
I went to Washington, DC and went to work in the Bureau of Naval Personnel as the submarine assignment officer for commanding officers and post-commanding officers.
Did you have a sense that this was the end of your career at sea or did you look at this as an interlude and you would be headed back?
I had obviously decided to make the Navy a career. I thought that I was doing okay. I’d had a pretty good commanding officer tour, and the assignment that I got after that was generally considered to be a good one. I felt I had still had opportunity to do more in the Navy, as long as I did my job the way I was supposed to as an assignment officer, then hopefully there would be something else. I wanted to be a squadron commander. I had observed my squadron commanders, and it was a job I aspired to. Having said that, my approach to career planning had been and continued to be to do the best job in the job you were in and the rest tends to take care of itself.
How long were you in that position for?
Two years. At the end of my tour, I was supposed to go to the National War College for a year of study. I ended up getting diverted, initially, to work another job inside the Bureau of Naval Personnel as a result of an unexpected retirement of one of the senior officers. And then out of the blue, I got orders to a squadron command in Groton, Connecticut. It was another one of these quick moves, but I was thrilled. It was a great opportunity, so I was not hesitating at all.
In what ways is that a great opportunity? What were you able to do in that position?
I was assigned to Submarine Development Squadron 12. It was unique in that it had nine ships assigned to it, very similar to every other squadron, plus we had the Tactical Analysis Group that was responsible for tactical development for the Submarine Force
How long were you in that position for?
And where did you head next?
I was a Navy captain by that time, and one of the things that changed with the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1987 was a requirement that to be eligible for flag rank, to be an admiral, you had to have served in a joint assignment. That’s an assignment that includes working with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines along with the Navy. I had not had a joint assignment, so when I came out of squadron command, that had to be the next job. There was no such job available right away, and I was ordered to Norfolk, Virginia to work on a special assignment for the Submarine Force commander and the Pacific Fleet Commander. My tasking was to conduct a study and develop recommendation for the allocation of attack submarines between the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.
Up to that point, it had been a 60/40 split. Sixty percent in the Atlantic, forty percent in the Pacific and that had been driven by demands associated with countering Soviet aims in the Cold War. The view from the Pacific was that times were changing. China was becoming more concerning and the Russians less so. Their perspective was that we needed to shift the balance. That point of view wasn’t particularly well-received on the Atlantic side, so the decision was to do a study and develop fact-based recommendations. I assembled a small team, and we did the study. It took about a year, I reported our findings and recommendations and moved on to a joint job in the Pentagon.
What were some of the principal findings of the study?
There was a need for some rebalancing of the Force and the real questions became how much and how best to achieve it. As you can imagine, it’s pretty disruptive when you’re moving ships back and forth across the fleets We provided recommendations as to how many attack submarines needed to be transferred and how to achieve it in an orderly fashion using normal home port shifts like occur to get ships in the right shipyard for extended maintenance. We also provided some ship deployment options designed to relieve some of the pressure in the Pacific Fleet, by having Atlantic submarines cover the requirements in the Arabian Gulf. It was a fascinating and very rewarding assignment for me because I found myself working between two very senior and strong-willed leaders with very different views as to what the right answer was. Looking back on it, it was a pretty good test as to my worthiness for consideration for promotion to flag rank. Ultimately, it all worked out well and, in fact, one of those senior officers overseeing the study was Admiral Archie Clemins, and he ended up being the President of the promotion selection board that selected me for flag rank. He must not have been too displeased with how it came out. It’s was an interesting year.
Kirk, what did those opposing viewpoints tell you more broadly about the overall strategic situation of the Navy at that time?
Well, particularly the Submarine Force, when I was a commanding officer, we went from this Cold War, Soviet Union, Russia focus to this broader, rest of the world point of view. There was more attention paid to that capability for submarines to influence matters in the near shore areas, or the littorals as they were called. The Submarine Force spent more time either developing or refreshing capabilities like land-based target attack with cruise missiles and combat swimmer delivery. It was more about being responsive to lesser conflicts while still maintaining our ability to fight and win in major theater warfare. Detractors looked at it as the Submarine Force and, to some extent, the Navy looking for a mission after the Cold War was over. I never saw it that way. I saw it as, “We’ve got great ships, sailors and capability. How do we use it to the best utility in this brave new world?” All of this was against a backdrop of an emerging and more ambitious China.
And then after this, you headed to the Pentagon.
I did. I worked on the Joint Staff in the Operations Directorate. The Joint Staff worked for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the principal military advisor to the Commander in Chief.
At that point I had been a commissioned officer in the Navy for twenty-three years, and I had little experience with the other services. The Joint Staff was a whole new world.
I’ll never forget the first morning briefing I attended. First, it was early; really early. The day started in the Operations Directorate at around 5:00AM. When the slides started, there were so many new acronyms, some unique to the other services, some unique to the joint world, that I didn’t have a clue what most of the briefing was about.
And Kirk, this is really your first time working with other branches of the military on a sustained basis.
Yes, and it was tremendously valuable. I quickly got past the overwhelmed feeling, learned the new language and did my best to contribute to the team. For the first year, we spent a lot of time in what they called Crisis Action Teams. Anytime there was a crisis in the world where there was some possibility that the Department of the Defense would have to respond, the Joint Staff Operations Directorate activated a Crisis Action Team from within the staff to help coordinate that response across the government. Events ranged from the war in Kosovo to terrorist bombings in East Africa to natural disasters to cruise missile strikes in Iraq.
So, Kirk, kind of a broad question at this point. Given how so much of your career was laser-focused on the Soviet threat, in what ways did the mission of the Navy change as a result of, you know, reformulating its position to enhance US national security in these sort of minor flashpoint kinds of situations?
From the Submarine Force perspective, it varied. The strategic nuclear deterrence mission fulfilled by the fleet ballistic missile submarines did not change much. Russia, with a huge nuclear arsenal, still posed an existential threat to the US, and while relations were thawing between the former adversaries, the potential for deadly misunderstanding remained. The attack submarine force spent less time working on traditional antisubmarine warfare skills and more time integrating with the larger fleet and expanding multi-mission capabilities to address a more diverse potential threat. Probably the best example of those expanded capabilities was the maturing of the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile system. The weapon had been in the Fleet for some time in one form or the other, but much work needed to be done to elevate its utility to what we see today. And, of course, the Submarine Force continued to exercise it traditional intelligence collection mission, only now expanding to other areas of operations around the world.
What was your next move after this?
I was selected for flag rank while I was on the Joint Staff. I moved within the Staff to lead one of the round the clock watch teams in the National Military Command Center. I went from being a pretty senior captain kind of running my own show to now standing watch in rotating shift work in the bowels of the Pentagon (laughter). But even that was a really interesting assignment.
The watch teams constantly monitored events around the world and provided information to senior leaders in the Department of Defense to enable them to make decisions on military employment. We were also responsible for executing the orders from the National Command Authority, the President, in the event of a launch of nuclear weapons. While we all knew that the likelihood of such an event was extremely remote, we also knew that if directed, there could be no mistakes. We trained continuously and exercised the system every day.
I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how you saw the Navy being integrated within the overall framework in the global war on terror?
The most obvious contribution of the Navy was support for ground forces in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Aircraft carriers, their air wings and their supporting battlegroup ships have had a near constant presence in the areas of the conflicts providing both a strike capability and intelligence about potential adversaries. The Navy’s special operations forces, the SEALs and Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists, played a huge role in these conflicts. The Submarine Force provided key intelligence collection capability and, when necessary, cruise missile strikes from the sea to key targets on land. Lesser known is the role sailors had in taking on support roles for troops on the ground, like the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan where the US tried to support the nascent Afghani government with infrastructure projects. From where I sat, it was a true team effort, but one that significantly stressed the resources of the entire Defense Department.
Now, was the buildup to you being named director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program- was that in the works for a long time or did that sort of drop out of the blue for you?
No, it clearly dropped out of the blue for me. I mean, the leadership may have been thinking about it, but I was not aware. I was on a pretty standard Navy submarine Flag Officer career path and as we discussed earlier, I wasn’t thinking much beyond the job I was in at the time. Things started to change quickly when I was in my submarine group command in Naples, Italy. My wife and I were thoroughly enjoying both the job and living in Italy. I got a call about eight months into a two-year tour from the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vern Clark, telling me he was moving me to Norfolk, VA to take command of the entire Submarine Force. And I wasn’t long after I settled into that job, that I got a call again from Admiral Clark that he was recommending me for the job at Naval Reactors.
What was your understanding or appreciation of the propulsion program prior to your front view seat of it?
Well, I remember Vern Clark asked me when he was thinking about sending me to Naval Reactors, “Why would I want to send you to this job?” And I said, “Well, because I don’t think there’s anybody in your flag community right now that knows that world as well as I do.” I said that not out of arrogance, but just because nearly every job I’d had in my career had somehow been associated with the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. I had been a nuclear operator, worked in Naval Reactors Headquarters, served on a nuclear propulsion inspection team and worked in the personnel side of the program. I knew I would have a lot to learn, but I felt pretty confident that if there was a four-star job in my future, that was the one that I was best suited to do, and that’s what I tried to convey to Admiral Clark.
I’m curious if you saw the long legacy of Admiral Rickover in a new light when you assumed this position as director?
Absolutely. Again, as someone that had been around this business for a long time and interacted a lot with the Naval Reactors staff, I had developed, an admiration for the program and how it had been so successful for so long. The culture and system created by Admiral Rickover was deep and strong throughout the program. But upon taking the job and expanding my exposure to all parts of the business, I gained a whole new appreciation for his genius as a superb engineer, as a master of organizational effectiveness and as an unequaled developer of talent. To say that his legacy was alive and well would be a significant understatement.
What did you see as your primary mandate in this position and did that mandate change over the course as your eight years as director?
I used to tell people that it was great to wake up every morning and know exactly what your job was. It was in the law, and it was to ensure the safe and effective operation of naval nuclear propulsion plants. If you read the actual public law, it’s a very simple couple of paragraphs that not only make clear the responsibility, but also makes clear the authority that goes with it. That mandate has not changed since the program started in 1948. While the mandate is straightforward, the scope and scale of the program is extremely complex and large. If something touches the program, Naval Reactors has authority to ensure it supports reactor safety and effectiveness.
To what degree did you need to enhance your technical understanding of nuclear propulsion in this role?
In the sense of the physics of it, not much. All of my training and experience gave me great comfort in understanding the fundamental technology. The design, engineering and manufacturing took more work on my part to ensure I made sound decisions. As an example, Naval Reactors had to decide on the type of propulsion plant for the new COLUMBIA class ballistic missile submarine. We knew the ship would likely be around for the better part of this century and that the operating profile and the threats would certainly evolve. We had to build in the capability to do the job today and the design margins to ensure the ship remained viable for a very long time. One key decision was whether or not to proceed with a new, electric drive propulsion system. We felt we needed it to ensure we could remain acoustically secure for the life of the ship. At the same time, our experience with electric drive on submarines had been one of mixed results. There were months of engineering studies, benchmarking and intense debate to get ourselves to the point that we were confident we could build the plant. It was a textbook example of rigorous design and engineering balanced against the projected industrial capability needed to do the work while remaining mindful of affordability- the ultimate three-dimensional chess game. I think we all learned a lot, but I know it challenged me to step up my game.
Kirk, from this vantage point, what did you learn as some of the greatest liabilities associated with nuclear propulsion and greatest advantages?
The advantages are pretty clear, as evidenced by the evolution of the technology to become the propulsion system of choice for the most potent warships in the fleet. The endurance, range and warfighting capacity of nuclear ships are unsurpassed and vital to our national security.
From a liability point of view, you certainly have to consider upfront cost to build the ships. It is an expensive proposition to ensure the plants are properly designed and constructed to ensure safety and effectiveness. The biggest liability, however, is the consequence to national security if we ever gave the public reason to lose confidence in the safety of our plants. The commercial nuclear utility industry, which, in fact, is one of the safest industries in the world by any metric you can find, has suffered in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima reactor accidents. There is a public perception that nuclear power is inherently unsafe and that the consequences of an accident of any kind will be catastrophic. The Navy, because of it unblemished record of safety and environmental stewardship, has avoided the same fate. Our ships enjoy essentially unfettered access to the seas and over 150 ports around the world. We have nuclear ship homeports throughout the US and in Japan and that would not be possible if the public lacked confidence. I can tell you it was something on my mind every day in the job as Director, and it was the same for the entire team.
In what ways, if at all, did technological change affect your work as director during these years?
I think if you talked to some folks who are familiar with the program, there would be a view that we were among the most conservative when it came to introducing new technology. We were always mindful that the equipment we provided to the fleet had to be operated under the difficult conditions of being at sea and potentially in a combat environment. Reliability and durability were essential, so we were appropriately skeptical of new, unproven technology for our applications. However, there were areas where we were industry leaders such as solid-state power systems and digital nuclear instrumentation and control. If we saw a technology that we felt could provide a real operational edge for our sailors, we would do the work to ensure it met our standards for ruggedness and reliability and then get it into the fleet as soon as we could.
Kirk, did you appreciate this at the time that- in this role, you were involved with technology that was really on the cutting edge and was a driver? Or was this only after the fact that you realized this fact?
No, we knew at the time. In the case of digital instrumentation and control, we were approached by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to help them understand how they might apply our experience to the introduction of the technology in the commercial nuclear industry.
What are some of the top line safety product protocols that caused you concern, not on a daily basis, but more from a strategic framework?
I used to get a question from time to time, “What keeps you up at night? My reply was two words, “Institutional arrogance.” And I say that not because I felt the organization was arrogant. Far from it. My concern was that they had been doing what they were doing for so long and doing it so well that there was real the risk of “reading your own press clippings” too much, becoming overconfident and coming to believe that we’ve done so well before, and that means we’ll continue to do it well in the future. That’s human behavior. And it’s not something that we could allow to happen in that program.
We as leaders spent a lot of time, particularly with the younger folks, teaching them the history and principles of the Program and inculcating them with the standards essential to success. We also made sure everyone was intensely aware of the consequence of failure. This effort was even more important when you considered we were experiencing a demographic shift where a lot of experienced talent was retiring and new, young engineers were joining the team. While we saw that shift as a risk, we also saw it as an opportunity to refresh our talent and bring in new perspectives. We just couldn’t allow the standards to decline.
Obviously incremental improvement in changes is a daily, if not yearly, endeavor, but what do you see long-term as next generation technologies that will power submarines, you know, looking well into the twenty-first century?
The US has a leadership role on the global stage and that implies the US must be present globally economically, diplomatically and in the national defense role. Taken further, I believe that highlights the significance of having a Navy that is globally deployed, maintaining a strong presence ensuring our sea lanes remain open and free and reassuring our allies of our commitment to peace and stability. In that context, submarines have a critically important role as a globally deployable, responsive and flexible force. In my opinion, nuclear propulsion is the best option for that type of capability today and for the foreseeable future. Nothing else gives you the power, speed, range and endurance to range the globe on a continuous basis. The additional size and volume of our submarines enabled by the energy contained in the nuclear power plant gives ships exceptional payload volume. That provides the opportunity to carry more sensors and weapons today and the capacity to integrate emerging capabilities of the future. We have and I suspect the Navy continues to consider alternatives to include investing in research and development of promising technologies. Beyond the propulsion plant, one of the most exciting and revolutionary opportunities in the undersea domain today involves the integration of unmanned systems with our manned platforms. We have been working on this for many years, but of late, technology advancements in power systems, communications and autonomy have brought us much closer to achieving our goals for seamless integration and deployment.
Now, for those who say, and of course this goes all the way back to the peace dividend during the Clinton administration, people who raise concerns, Cold War is long over, whatever happens with China is gonna be a very different beast, right? What’s the response that you have for people that call into question, even on an existential level, the idea that the United States needs to project power in a naval sense on a global level?
My first reaction to that is if you think you have a crystal ball about what’s going to happen, whether it be with Russia, China, or anybody else as they seek their position in the global hierarchy, then you are not a student of history. We’ve been remarkably bad at predicting what’s going to happen as potential adversaries emerge and develop, and I am not optimistic that’s going to change. I go back to my earlier comments that we, the US, are a maritime nation with responsibilities on the world stage. We depend on the maritime domain for our commerce and our national security. Our allies do as well. It is no secret to our competitors that the bulk of our trade traverses critical chokepoints at sea such as the Straits of Hormuz, Straits of Malacca, Straits of Gibraltar, Suez Canal, and Panama Canal and if one of those competitors were to wish us ill, blocking passage and trade would certainly be possible and immediately impactful around the world. If we want to continue to have substantive influence on the world stage, credible global naval presence is an essential element in the portfolio of our national power.
What do you see as your most proud accomplishment during your overall Naval career?
I go back to what I used to tell commanding officers when we trained them at Naval Reactors. I said, “You know, when you’re all done with this game, when it’s all over with and you’re sitting on your front porch with your grandkids on your knee, what you’re gonna remember most about your time as a commanding officer or a leader in this organization is not the specific ship you were on. It’s not the deployments you made, the awards you received, the recognition of your ship and your crew and all that. It’s going to be about the people. You’re going to remember the people that you served under, with, and people who served for you. You’re going to remember them and the positive impact you were able to have on those individuals’ careers and lives from your position of leadership.” So, if I’ve got anything that I’m particularly proud of in this career that I had, it was the opportunity over the thirty-seven years of commissioned service to interact with and positively influence people, some of whom have continued on to this day to be leaders in the Navy.
When you stepped down as director in 2012, what did you think about next? What did you wanna accomplish next in your career?
That was the $64,000 question. I had been in the Navy since I was seventeen years old. I had not been given a lot of choice in the jobs I had or where I lived. Now I have actual choices to make. I remember Bruce DeMars, who was my predecessor at Naval Reactors once removed, and I’d worked for him when I was lieutenant commander, doing some career counseling at this time. He said, “The first thing you have to figure out is where your wife wants to live and then move there because she has followed you around all over the world for nearly 40 years. It’s her turn.”
Right. Smart man.
When we recently moved to the Charleston, SC area, this was our twenty-sixth move. It’s nice to be settled. I chose to take another job after retiring from the Navy and went to work as the Chief Operating Officer and then Chief Executive Officer at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. in Alexandria, VA. I wanted to try my hand at running a business, and I wanted to keep my hand in the national security world. The company had been around about forty years and was still founder owned. It was a tremendous opportunity for me because I got to learn how to run a business from someone who had started one and grown it to be a very successful company. It was an MBA on “steroids” from that point of view, and we did some very good work for our customers. It was a very strong team of about 500 professionals, and it was a privilege to lead them.
In what ways did working in this new world come as a shock to somebody who had been in a military environment since you were a kid, essentially?
I think sometimes we in the military come to believe with have the market cornered when it comes to having good people. My experience at SPA and elsewhere I have worked in the civilian sector tells me that’s just not the case. As I mentioned, we had a great team at SPA. Also, having to make payroll every two weeks and knowing that many decisions you make as a COO or CEO could put people’s livelihoods at risk is always on your mind in a much more personal way than in the military. I never paid much attention to my paycheck when I was in the Navy-it showed up on time and my wife took care of it and the bills that needed to be paid.
You were truly institutionalized.
Yeah (laughter). Exactly. Additionally, there is unrelenting competition in the private sector, and if you are not proving yourself to your existing and potential customers on a daily basis, you will get left behind. And lastly, I learned a lot more about the challenges of federal contracting from the contractor perspective that I wish I had known when I was a senior officer in the Navy. I actually worked more with contractors in my role at Naval Reactors than most of my peers, but if I had more knowledge and understanding of the process from their perspective, we would have been more effective and efficient.
And Kirk, just to bring the narrative up to the present, what are some of the things that you’ve been involved in in recent years beyond the private sector?
Beyond the private sector, I am the chairman of the board of the Naval Submarine League, a nonprofit that advocates for the Submarine Force in educating and informing the public on what their Submarine Force does. We’re not a very big non-profit, about a million dollars of revenue a year, but I think we punch well above our weight when it comes to bringing the active-duty leadership, the industrial base leadership and the public together to a common understanding of what the Submarine Force is trying to do and what it takes to do that. I’ve been working for the Australian government helping them with their submarine force as a member of their Submarine Advisory Committee. The Australians are among our very best allies, and they have a very capable submarine force. That is vitally important to our national interest as well when you consider the geo-political situation in the Western Pacific and China. They are investing and working hard to ensure they maintain a robust submarine capability through the rest of this century.
Kirk, now that we’ve gotten up to the present and you’ve given some thoughts about where you see things headed, I think I wanna ask, for my last question, something that it harkens back to a comment you made about your own legacy that really jumped out at me, which is the way that you’ve helped to influence the next generation of leaders.
And so I wanna ask you, looking forward, in what ways do you see optimism for that next generation of leaders in the Navy and what are some of the things that you might see culturally that might give you pause to think about some of the challenges that this new generation of leaders might face that were unknown or not part of the world in which you came up in?
It’s no secret that the Navy has had some significant challenges in the last few years. There has been a significant scandal involving inappropriate relations with a contractor that has resulted in disciplinary action for several senior officers. There were recently two separate collisions of destroyers in the Western Pacific with tragic loss of life. And there was a large fire recently on the USS BONHOMME RICHARD that will take that ship off line for a long time. All of it taken together points to an erosion of standards exacerbated by very high operational tempo for a thinly stretched force. Both the Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of the Navy recognize this and are working to change it. I have been around long enough to know we have been in similar situations in the past. In those instances, the Navy was introspective and self-critical, identified the root causes and fixed them. I am confident we will do it again. Success will come from our people, and we have some of the very best in the world. Additionally, our Navy has the public support to get the resources needed to correct the problems. I look at the opportunities from technology with great optimism. The Navy has a long tradition of leveraging technology to better fleet capability. There is a strong sense of innovativeness and an openness to new ideas that is very exciting. Our potential adversaries are not sitting still, so the imperative to move ahead is clear.
Well, Kirk, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today. These are perspectives that are not very well represented in our collection at the Niels Bohr Library and so I’m absolutely thrilled that we connected and that I was able to get you for our time together. So, Kirk, thank you so much for this.
This was a delight. I mean, I’m not used to talking this much, my voice is waning on me here, but when you told me that Sean O’Keefe recommended we talk, I’ll do whatever Sean tells me to do!