The father of the US nuclear navy was that rarity in the world of defence procurement — a bureaucrat who never lost sight of the fact that weapons systems are for winning wars, rather than expensive tools whose peacetime purpose is to secure votes for pork-barrelling politicians
Late in the afternoon of his life, I had the privilege — it could not be described as a pleasure — of spending a few hours with Hyman Rickover (left), recently-retired father of the US nuclear naval. He had been a tiny man in his prime, but by that stage, no more than a year or two before his death in 1986, the years had shrunk him to not much more than a pair of blazing eyes. It was as if the sheer, cussed and determined contrariness of his 88 years had been distilled into two piercingly dark pin-pricks. This was a man who, if he did not command affection, most certainly warranted respect for a lifetime of unremitting feistiness.
He was a Jew, for starters, and that made him the rarity indeed amongst his Annapolis graduating class in 1922, a target for the petty slights and snubs of an officer cadre then as WASPy white as its tropical dress uniforms. But more than that particular mark of the perpetual outsider, he had the annoying habit of being both right and extraordinarily blunt in announcing as much. As Thomas Allen and Norman Polmar recount in Rickover, Father of the Nuclear Navy, he was both a consummate corridor warrior and, that happiest of coincidences, a Pentagon bureaucrat whose mission and vision happened to coincide with the US national interest. Charged with building the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, he did just that, overcoming ferocious institutional opposition within the military establishment while establishing in parallel an empire of his own.
As it happened, that was a good thing. Rickover’s ‘big bangers’ validated MAD and allowed several generations of very fragile children to grow up believing that a changing climate is the greatest threat to our species’ survival, not men with Slavic cheekbones and bad attitudes in the Kremlin. But the man himself was a thistle, a prickly knot of irascible temper, especially when the Pentagon’s bloated, seat-warming bureaucracy was the topic.
Defence bureaucrats, he said, had established an uninterrupted record of waste and incompetence that went all the way back to the US Navy’s first attempt to incorporate a submarine in its fleet. At the time, the 1890s, Irish-American inventor John Philip Holland had a practical, proven, petrol-driven model that he and his backers had been trying to sell to Uncle Sam without success. Instead, the Navy opted for a steam powered monster of its own design and manufacture, a vessel that submerged only briefly and never again, the crew having been very nearly cooked alive by the heat of its boiler. When he was charged with taking the Navy nuclear, Rickover insulated his feifdom by making it, in effect, a kingdom within a kingdom. His approach was born of his personal standards: failure was unacceptable, with those who fell short of his standards sent packing. In the 60-plus years since the Nautilus left the dockyard, more than 300 nuclear-powered Navy ships have followed it, with not a single propulsion-related mishap.
I no longer have the notes from our conversation, but Rickover’s analysis of the perils facing any defence procurement project went something like this: The first enemy of success is politics, which seeks to impose its will on engineers. The second is the bureaucracy, which doesn’t care if a weapon system performs so long as budgets grow, staffing increases and there are no consequences for mission failure.
Two things bring Rickover’s twin insights to mind. The first, need it be said?, is the bizarre decision by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to buy French nuclear submarines, rip out their reactors and replace them with diesel-electric systems. One does not need the gift of clairvoyance to see how this will turn out. Submarines must to be kept in constant trim — balance, if you will — and here nuclear offers a huge advantage, as there is no need for miles of extra plumbing and compensatory tanks to maintain trim as water is taken on to replace the weight of burned fuel. What Australia has contracted to do is worse than re-invent the wheel. In effect we have taken a wheel, made it square and then set out to make a very different wheel.
The second prompt to reflect on this madness is a remarkable essay in the January 2017 edition of the US Army’s Military Review (which can be read in pdf format here) by the Australian military scholar Richard Adams, who writes of the Super Seasprite debacle and the absolute absence of Rickover-style accountability on the part of those responsible:
“In the modern military bureaucracy, the soldier who loses a rifle suffers more obviously than the general who loses the war. This is because senior elites, who do not police themselves or their friends, are too good at ducking responsibility. Their shortcomings are on record, since their legalistic dodging hallmarks the official reports, which follow the fiascos.
The reports are important since they reveal the habituated phraseology of people unaccustomed to taking a stand. Shy of moral language, scared of ideals, overeager to seek the asylum of formulaic and morally meaningless language, the official reports allow bureaucrats to speak for themselves.
The report of the Australian National Audit Office into the Super Seasprite helicopter project offers a prime example. The significance of this report lies in the official trick language—the slippery, astute, and downright devious words and phrases with which the military bureaucracy is regrettably comfortable.”
Adams does not touch on our French submarines, nor link them to what the Seaprite says about the design compromises, cost overruns and lacklustre performance that will be the inevitable result. But then, for most readers, he doesn’t need to do so, as his military audience understands those deficiencies to be self-evident and self-fulfilling truths.
Politicians, though, they are a different breed. No doubt Defence Minister Marise Payne could get a copy of Adams’s essay, should she so wish. But why would she? As Rickover observed those decades ago, to vote-hungry politicians a weapon system is not a weapon system so much as an opportunity to distribute m0ney, jobs and favours.
Is this any way to look after the national defence?
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online