In the submarine force, unconventional career paths are more normal: A response

In the submarine force, unconventional career paths are more normal: A response


By Lt. Jeff Vandenengel, USN
Best Defense guest respondent

Last week in Best Defense, P-3 pilot Lt. Danny Kuriluk discussed his frustration with the Navy and the way it chooses officers for promotion to lieutenant commander. He is upset with a system that determined him worthy of selection for the prestigious Politico-Military Master’s Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, yet not worthy of selection for O-4.

Lt. Kuriluk identified the Army and Air Force as having “mechanisms to identify, promote, and retain folks who take an unconventional path.” He went on to assert, “In the Navy, your actual leadership capabilities are meaningless.” However, the submarine community is proof that the Navy is already successfully sending its officers to complete numerous unconventional programs without negatively affecting their chances of promotion, ensuring that their performance at sea determines their future.

The first four years in the submarine force, including initial training and the division officer sea tour, have little room for flexibility. However, the ensuing shore duty provides an excellent time for many junior officers to participate in a wide range of challenging programs and to take “unconventional” career paths, as Lt. Kuriluk discussed. The system is not perfect, and many officers cannot participate because they are needed to fill demanding conventional billets, oftentimes in shift work or at sea. However, when possible, the submarine community does a good job at working with its members to send them to a wide variety of interesting programs. Detailers and community managers closely monitor proposed programs and timelines to protect officers’ careers and ensure that they are ready for their next tour.

When these officers return to sea duty, they help form a highly educated and diverse wardroom. For example, during my division officer tour, the commanding officer, executive officer, and three department heads had a combined six master’s degrees between them. Those degrees were all from different prestigious schools, some as far away as Singapore and Cambridge, England. Additionally, half of the prospective department heads currently completing the Submarine Officer Advanced Course with me already have master’s degrees, in subjects ranging from nuclear engineering to catechesis and evangelization. In the submarine community, unconventional career paths are somewhat conventional.

When these officers are up for promotion to O-4, performance at sea is clearly the dominating factor, as it should be. Their various shore duties appear to have minimal if any effect on their selection. While mistakes can be made, the vast majority of the time good ship-drivers and leaders are selected for O-4, regardless of what they did between their division officer and department head tours.

Overall, there is plenty of room for improvement in the officer retention and promotion processes, with many of the issues discussed in Best Defense. Despite this, the submarine community’s encouragement of various programs (Olmsted Scholar Program, Immediate Graduate Education Program, Legislative Fellowships, MIT/Woods Hole Oceanography Program) is a bright spot.

The submarine community’s success in allowing and encouraging unconventional career paths is merely offered as proof that such a system is possible, not as a suggestion that the aviation community adopt this process. The aviation community has a bigger challenge because it has no clearly defined shore duty, fewer officers leaving after their initial commitment, and a substantially longer initial training process, meaning aviators are considered for O-4 before they start serving as department heads. However, let. Kuriluk’s declaration that it is “amazing how bad the Navy is at selecting good leaders,” without any accompanying recommendations, does nothing to improve that system.

Lt. Jeff Vandenengel is currently completing the Submarine Officer Advanced Course in Groton, Connecticut, before returning to sea as a department head in October. During his division officer tour on USS Cheyenne (SSN 773), he was selected as the 2013 junior officer of the year for Submarine Squadron Seven. He has an MBA from Boston College and an MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Rochester.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy