|Out of sight, out of
mind has always worked for the men who run silent, run deep. At least it
did until now. For the first time since the United States Navy launched
its first submarine 100 years ago, the silent service is making noise.
Led by a respected Pearl Harbor admiral, submariners have taken on a new
target: the keepers of the federal purse strings who in recent years have
inflicted more damage on the U.S. submarine force than the Soviet Unionís
Cold Warriors ever dreamed about.
Yet even as America fiscally torpedoes its own fast-attack nuclear submarines Ė from a fleet high of 100 when the Berlin Wall came down to about 50 today Ė other nations are heading deeper and further into the worldís oceans.
"Thatís whatís amazing to me," Adm. Al Konetzni, Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, told MidWeek during an interview at his Pearl Harbor office. "While the United States is reducing its submarine force level, the rest of the world is growing [their below-surface warfare capability]."
"Here are a couple of numbers for you: Iíve got 25 fast-attack submarines plus eight ballistic missile subs. And there are 268 submarines other than mine in the Pacific theater. More importantly, (by Konetzniís count) 193 of them are not necessarily our friends. Within five years, most of these nations will have very good long-range and high-endurance coastal type submarines. And with the advent of some of the new systems that are coming out now, that will allow these folks to stay down and not have to snorkel (for air, allowing the sonar of American subs to locate them). Itís going to cause problems for us."
"What a submarine does for a competitor, at least in their own mind, it makes them a world power Ö It would be one hell of a wakeup call if some competitor or rogue nation thought they could get away with popping off a torpedo at one of our major ships."
In a major break from the silent serviceís usual style, Konetzni has recently been "speaking out, speaking up" to strengthen the U.S. submarine force. He even appeared on Larry King Live to bring his message to American taxpayers. And The Wall Street Journal recently called about a story.
It helps his cause that Konetzni Ė technically, two-star Rear Admiral Konetzni Ė is one of the most popular leaders in the Navy.
"They call him ĎBig Al the Sailorís Pal,í" says Commander Bill Stacia, skipper of the USS Cheyenne (the boat that is the star of Tom Clancyís latest novel, SSN).
That monicker largely explains why retention of sailors and officers under Konetzni is double the overall Navy average. And while Konetzni, 56, can be quite emotional in discussing the contributions of the "wonderful young men" who serve in his command, "this wonderful democracy we live in," and the sacrifices that his "wonderful wife" Missy has made over the years, he offers only reason and mathematics in the debate over force levels.
"If you have a good intellectual argument, you have an obligation to speak up Ė as long as itís an intellectual argument," says Konetzni in a resonant baritone.
"What weíve done is say here are the statistics and facts that show that we may be heading in the wrong direction. And weíve tried to back that up with the intellectual argument about the number of mission days, what we need for war fighting, what our operating tempo is for the ships and so forth."
The bottom line is this, says Konetzni:
"In simple arithmetic, we have halved our force in the Pacific and doubled our responsibility of what I call Ďfinding the pieces of the puzzle.í The numbers donít add up.
"Thereís a war plan, I canít go into details because it gets into classified things, but it says that I need to have a certain number of ships in Asia ready to go at the communication of a threat. Last year, over one-third of the year, I could not meet that commitment. I did not have those ships.
"I am really stretched thin."
The strain is felt by sailors and their families. During the USS Buffaloís recent six-month deployment, they were submerged more than 80 percent of the time. Thatís not bad. Some deployments keep the crew down 90 percent of the time. During the six months they are in homeport, submariners may be at sea for up to a month for training. And because their missions are classified, submariners canít share with family members exactly what theyíre doing or where theyíre going.
"In peacetime," he says, "half of our time in a six-month deployment is spent doing surveillance operations in water that is not much deeper than 150 to 180 feet Ė in a ship that is 360 feet long, so thereís very little margin for error Ė for 30 to 40 days without a break, in areas that are very well populated by merchant ships and fishing junks and ferries and the like, so thereís a lot of noise to filter through and traffic to avoid. The service our young sailors are performing for the nation is incredible. And remember, I donít come up with these surveillance missions. They come from the highest command authority. Weíre bringing back information that is vital to national security."
Perhaps even more disturbing than the reduction in the submarine force level is the number of submarine tenders. The Navy now has just two ships that can resupply everything from food to weapons while a sub is deployed. Konetzniís only sub tender in the Pacific is homeported on Guam.
And the Pacific is anything but pacific these days. Thereís a hot spot in every corner of the worldís largest ocean. North Korea and South Korea. China and Taiwan. China and Tibet. Russia and its former satellites. India and Pakistan. Sri Lanka. Malaysia. Indonesia. Myanmar. The Philippines.
But even given the tinder box nature of the region, for most Americans who learned everything they know about submarines from the movies Ėwhich have little to do with day-to-day life during six-month deployments at sea Ė Konetzniís intellectual argument raises several questions:
Why submarines? What is their role in national security? Why should we care?
"Thatís a question that we, myself included, could have done a better job of explaining to the American people in the past decade Ė that wait a minute, we are not Cold War relics," Konetzni says.
"All naval ships do three things: First, we provide presence. The fact of the matter is that, especially in Asia, the sight of the American fleet brings stability. Weíre lucky in the submarine force because we can bring that presence either overtly Ė with port calls in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, Australia Ė or we can do it covertly. We have a wonderful ability to dwell."
During a change of command aboard the USS Buffalo two days earlier, outgoing Commander Robert Hennegan had described how a South Korean admiral credited the Buffaloís presence for helping to defuse a confrontation last year between North and South that included boats getting rammed and shots being fired.
"Second," Konetzni continues, "we engage (train with) our allies. Naval engagement is so important, not only for friendship and understanding, but even more important in war-fighting. We need war-fighting partners. And if we do not exercise, if we do not plan and we donít have the ability to train with them, our war-fighting ability is a disaster. It can result in blue on blue, friendly to friendly casualties, which is the last thing we want. But from 1995 to now, our friendly nation engagement has decreased by half.
"Third, we react to contingencies. In 1996 when they had the election in Taiwan, a lot of people donít realize it, we had four submarines off China (listening, just in case China followed through on threats). They were the first to arrive and the last to leave."
Were American submarines again posted off China for the recent Taiwan elections? While the admiral canít say Ė classified information Ė itís a good guess that several U.S. subs were lurking in the vicinity.
More to the point in discussing contingencies, during the air war on Kosovo last year 25 percent of the missiles targeted at sites in Kosovo were launched from American submarines.
Fast-attack subs also have the capacity, without surfacing, to drop a team of Navy SEALS close to land or to deploy them in a mini-submarine attached to the larger vessel.
"Our submarines today, half of their time deployed is doing intelligence collection, surveillance and reconnaissance," says Konetzni. "And it begs the question: If you only have half of what you really need, what donít you want to know? Are you ready to kiss off any knowledge of Russia, a country that has had some problems, a country that is showing some strange patterns in its deployments? What about Korea? Most Americans donít realize that the North Koreans really believe that theyíre the true patriots and they look upon the South as the collaborators. And you have 40,000 Americans living there, plus 44 million South Koreans. And the need to surveil, to understand, to do indicational warning is critical. That Army four-star, the U.N. commander there, he knows that. And if you donít have enough submarines, youíre not there. And thatís the case.
"What about China? Is China a threat? I donít view any nation as a threat today, because I donít like that term. But I certainly use competitor. And what concerns me is that you need to know as many pieces as possible about those competitors.
"What about India? What about Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, Malaysia?
"When you ask what submarines do, well, they keep your competitors guessing and they come back with information that quite frankly is of critical importance to the United States that only a submarine can get, regarding many things Ė his weapons of mass destruction, his defenses and capabilities, and more important how rapidly is he advancing. The proliferation of weapons in Asia is phenomenal. Those things are a great concern. I really worry Ė because competitors can count too Ė that this lack of assets we have in the submarine force will allow someone to miscalculate and we will get punched in the nose. And thatís the nice way of saying it. But we will lose American lives, our sailors, our soldiers, and weíll lose prestige. The bill on America will be in blood, but every year that we delay in having an adequate submarine force is going to cost us more money too.
"The other day, a very senior officer who understands this theater very well, said something that expressed my thinking exactly. He said that when he thinks of competitors, he feels like Indiana Jones felt about snakes."
Konetzniís eight SSBNs Ė nuclear-powered subs loaded with long-range Tomahawk missiles Ė are based at Bremerton, Wash. The admiral says of their role, "They go out and disappear. Theyíre somewhere out there acting as deterrence."
Of those 193 not-necessarily-friendly submarines operating in the Pacific, how many do you suppose are actively keeping their ears open for our roving undersea deterrence?
Itís a stretch to call Konetzni "the accidental admiral," but you sure wouldnít have predicted that heíd last this long or reach this high. "I didnít plan it, thatís for sure," he says with a laugh.
Konetzni Ė the name is German and originally was Konetzny Ė grew up in the Queens section of New York City, one of four children. "I loved New York Cityís great ethnic neighborhoods. I learned to be pretty tough," he says with just a hint of Noo Yawk accent.
His father, Al Sr., was a commercial artist who worked for a department store, later worked for Personna razor blades and then "got a job with Disney in the í50s and moved into their character merchandising division. This was when the Mouseketeers were popular and Disney was selling a lot of records. He designed the Disney lunch pail and the Disney phone. In fact, he just became a Disney Legend and received an award from Michael Eisner at a big ceremony in Los Angeles."
Konetzni attended a Catholic elementary school, then an all-boys Catholic high school.
"I didnít know what I wanted to do and then one day my father asked me, ĎDid you ever think about the Naval Academy?í Well, yeah, I used to watch that TV show, Men of Annapolis. He said, ĎYou like to swim. Like to fish.í So I went to the Naval Academy. I picked out that school in the most immature way in the world.
"The first day, they shaved my head and put me in a white suit, and I said, ĎWhat have I done?í
"On day No. 3, I got this nickname, Zero, for being dumber than a box of rocks, because I filled out an administrative form incorrectly. I was ridiculed, put on a stage in the mess hall, a hot June day at Annapolis, very humid, and it broke my heart. The nickname lasted that whole first year, and in some ways all four years. But it made me think very honestly that I will never treat people improperly if I can. Those thoughts have stayed with me, and itís only recently that Iíve told my Zero story. Itís because I hate hazing from the bottom of my heart. I was hazed as a midshipman and I still have evil feelings about those days.
"When graduation came along (1966), I didnít know what I wanted to do. Submarines were the only thing I hadnít seen, so ... another dumb way of doing business. I didnít want to go into the Marine Corps. The surface Navy did not please me. I wasnít ready for aviation, so I picked submarines. And then I despised the nuclear training, but I figured it was time to get smart and get on with my life. When I got to Pearl Harbor for my first assignment, the USSMariano G. Vallejo, my first two commanding officers were marvelous men, Jack Nunley and Arnie Johnson. They treated me like an adult, and I said, if theyíre making me feel this good, and I hadnít felt good in four years at the Naval Academy, then there must be something to it. Iíve stayed ever since."
Along the way, Konetzni fell in love and got married. He and his wife Missy are parents of six adult children.
Konetzniís career includes serving as executive officer of the ballistic submarine USS Kamehameha from June 1976 to December 1978. He served as commander of the fast-attack sub USS Grayling from August 1981 to May 1984. At that point, the guy they once called Zero returned to Annapolis as deputy commandant. He later worked in strategy planning and served as chief of staff for the commander of the Atlantic submarine fleet. He also did a tour as director of the Pentagonís Attack Submarine Division. He assumed his current duties in May 1998.
But itís only been in recent months that he has started to speak up. "Adm. Dennis Blair (CINCPAC) in his Integrated Priority Listing said he needed 35 fast-attack submarines in the Pacific today. And here weíre down to 25," Konetzni says. "I have stated before that I think it is a national security disaster, and I would say that again and again.
"Thank goodness the latest Joint Chiefs study review, which is dated November í99 but passed to Congress this year, says we need 68 submarines to meet the minimum critical force level Ė and critical is defined as critically important to national security Ė anything less than 68 would impose more risk. But somehow in the executive summary in this report, it says anything less than 55 would be detrimental to national security. It doesnít swag with the number 68. Those sorts of tradeoffs in a real intellectual argument Ė that says 68 and then somewhere out of the sky picks a peacetime number of 55 Ė doesnít work."
Konetzni also questions procedures that recently cost the Navy 10 fast-attack submarines.
"Dr. John Hanley, Deputy Secretary of Defense, signed a tasking memo to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in March of í97. It was to be done by September í98. But that report didnít come out until February 2000. In that interval of 18 months, we lost 10 nuclear attack submarines (via decommissioning, six in the Pacific). That is unsatisfactory. We cannot run national defense that way. And thatís why I have spoken out and spoken up.
"I will say, though, we have made great progress, particularly in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, in making them see our needs. And they have been wonderful. But even the congressmen and senators I know asked, how did we let that many fast-attack nuclear subs get away? How did we let that happen? But weíre coming back."
While Konetzni is making headway in Congress and at the Pentagon, he has ruffled some feathers. "I want to keep the focus on the message, not the messenger, but when I wake up in the morning I feel good about our approach," he says. "Some people have responded with angst or frustration or even downright anger, but nobody has ever said intellectually that we were wrong. It makes me feel good that weíre seeing more senior officers speak up for the overall need for the appropriate number of aircraft and surface ships and submarines. If our intellectual argument has helped that to occur, itís good."
Konetzniís willingness to speak up has had another effect on his command. Officers are speaking up on issues regarding their crews and boats without fear.
"As an officer, I feel like I have a voice for my ship," says Commander Mark Patton, skipper of the USS Topeka. "Because Adm. Konetzni is willing to stand up for his people, I feel I can too. Itís been one of the real positive aspects of my command. I can call him up any time and say I need some help, and heíll get it for me."
Perhaps the greatest testament to Konetzniís leadership is that even as submariners are subjected to more demanding missions and less time between them, he has raised retention of sailors to a record high.
"Our submarine retention rate in the Pacific in the past six months is 60 percent, more than double the rest of the Navy," Konetzni says. "Keeping your people is truly the essence of leadership. In any company, people will stay if they are well led and the atmosphere is right for them, if they feel their contribution is important.
"How did we do it? We stopped using bumper sticker phrases and said that when it comes to the people portion of the equation, it really is important. Itís No. 1 and weíre going to grade you on your legacy, and we made that very clear."
In other words, officers who donít keep their people around shouldnít plan on being promoted.
"This is my third tour at Pearl Harbor, and Iíve never seen the positive kind of spirit we now have," says Commander Dennis Murphy, skipper of the USS Tucson.
"The deck plate sailors know he cares about their interests," adds Commander Stacia of the Cheyenne. "The other day he came by, and there was a group of senior officers over here, a group of enlisted men over there. And he went over to the junior guys first and started talking with them. He makes them each feel that they are as important to the Navy as the most senior officer. Iíll tell you, he inspires me."
"He is not a desk admiral. Nearly every day you see him out on the waterfront, talking to people," says Bill Cramer, USS Greenville captain of the boat and a former member of Konetzniís staff. "Heíll smoke a cigar with the sailors. Before, a lot of guys didnít even know who the submarine force admiral was."
Following the Buffaloís change of command ceremony, Big Al the Sailorís Pal walked along the waterfront, slapping the backs of his people. "You men are doing a fantastic job!" he called to a group of sailors. He stopped and put a big arm around the shoulders of Brian Samuel, a young sailor from the Buffalo, and lightly punched his arm. "Iíve heard good things about you, sailor." As Konetzni continued down the waterfront, Samuel, who grew up in Baltimoreís inner city, beamed. "I never had an admiral do that before," he said.
But thereís more to Konetzniís style than knowing how to work a crowd. "Heís improved life for the sailors," says Andy Mayerchuk, an electronic tech who was named the Buffaloís sailor of the year. "He changed what we call our sections. It used to be that when weíre in homeport, we had to sleep on the boat every three days. Now itís every six days. That means a lot, especially for people with families."
When asked about the Big Al the Sailorís Pal nickname, the admiral smiles and says: "Iím proud of it. My supporters, and I have a lot of them, think thatís a term of endearment. It does not mean we have lowered any standards. Iím the toughest guy in the world when it comes to work ethic. The detractors, I suppose, find it very easy to say he has too much energy, heís lowering standards. But I blow that off because we have proven what good leadership can do."
At the same time, he continues to speak out for increasing the submarine force level. Thereís another saying that is a favorite with submariners: "By the time you hear us, itís already too late."
Konetzni is hoping that he didnít wait too long to be heard and that itís not too late for whatís left of Americaís submarine force.