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Navy Seeks To Retain Senior Submarine Officers with New Bonus Program

The Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Olympia (SSN-717) on March 16, 2018. US Navy Photo

The Navy will begin offering large bonuses to senior captains in the submarine community – worth up to $180,000 in some cases – in Fiscal Year 2019 to boost retention.

Starting Oct. 1, the Navy will offer bonuses of $45,000 per year for senior submarine officers who sign two to four-year contracts. Signing a single-year contract will qualify for a bonus of $35,000, according to a policy released by Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Robert Burke.

The bonuses are being offered to current and former major command captains who have been commissioned officers for at least 26 years, Lt. Rick Moore, a spokesman for the Chief of Naval Personnel, told USNI News. A major command could include leading a squadron, task force or Naval Submarine School.

These bonuses are the latest tweak in what has become a steady stream of changes to the Navy’s personnel policies and regulations, all done with the intent of retaining both officers and enlisted sailors with highly sought-after skills.

For example, the recently approved FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act gives the Navy the ability to retain junior officers with valuable skills but who did not screen for promotion. Previously, junior officers who did not promote were forced to leave the service. This policy change was one of several changes to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) the Navy had wanted for years.

In June, the Navy brought back the rank of warrant officer-1 (W-1), which was discontinued by the Navy in 1975, as a way of enticing enlisted sailors with computer skills to remain in the Navy. Sailors with cyber skills have been especially hard to keep in the service, Burke told USNI News in a June interview.

Reestablishing the W-1 rank is seen as a way to retain enlisted sailors with cyber skills by offering them a quicker path to leadership roles. Only a small number of sailors will qualify for the W-1 program, but the goal is for those who do qualify to pass on their cyber institutional knowledge to enlisted personnel in the Navy’s cyber community.

In a similar vein, the number of eligible senior submarine officers eligible for the bonuses is relatively small – about 50 each year – but the purpose of the bonuses, Moore said, is to keep their expertise in the submarine community to train the next generation of leaders.

  • Western

    You could throw a bone to some of the gifted enlisted men too….

    • NavySubNuke

      Oh don’t worry — they have plenty of bonuses of their own! They stopped them for a few years back in the 08/09 time frame when the economy crashed and everyone was reenlisting but once things picked back up so did bonuses.

      • vetww2

        Pity, it should be standard and scaled so that E-3 to O-6 participate, independent of outside influences, I can also see it extended to all tough jobs. The savings in training would more than cover the cost.
        Similarly, “Up or Out” should be ended.

        • NavySubNuke

          Bonuses are a retention tool not a reward for having a hard job. If too many people from a certain rate/designator are getting out then the Navy ups the bonus. If to many are staying in – drop the bonus.

  • RobM1981

    Annapolis and ROTC have always screened out weaker candidates, with a surprisingly high level of success. If you don’t have “connections” and you make it into either program, then you are probably in the top 5%, academically, and top 1% in terms of motivation. Certainly top 10%.

    Our economy continues to polarize, giving the hard-charging STEM types a very nice lifestyle. For far fewer hours than a submarine officer has to put in, these people can earn a very nice paycheck.

    This is true to a lesser, but very real, extent with the enlisted ranks. We all know stories about very bright young people who, for whatever reason, get waylaid and don’t go to college (or whatever). If they can find a stable path forward, avoiding addictions and such things, these people can also find themselves in an economy where a good paycheck is easy to come by. There are no “back of the boat” ratings that I can think of that can’t parlay their training into an excellent private-sector paycheck. Electricians, for example.

    The Navy, more than the Army, have to address this. They have to automate more, to reduce the number of people needed. They have to lighten the load and make working on a ship/boat more like working in private industry. Deployments are deployments. You can’t be a Navy and remain tied to the pier so that young love can bloom… You can, however, lighten the load onboard. More time off. Fewer rotating watches allowing for more and better sleep. More entertainment on board.

    And, you bet, more money. Fewer hands, but better pay for those who are retained.

    The Navy operates in the same labor-market as any other industry. It offers some key benefits, not the least of which is a sense of duty and purpose, but it also has to compete in terms of pay and lifestyle. Retention bonuses, like those discussed here, are “light” compared to what people of this caliber can routinely receive in the private sector.

    A man/woman who has the skills and experience to successfully command an SSN/SSBN also have the skills to be a senior executive in the private sector. Big bonuses are the norm, there.

    • CuddlyCobra

      The civilian job market is great right now.

      Entry level starting salary with bonus was $67,000 for my STEM job and I only work 35 hours a week with a flexible schedule and a boss who buys donuts every week because of retention issues, the Navy can’t beat quality of life if you are genuinely competent.

      1.5x pay for overtime and a 6 figure salary within 5 years if I play my cards right.

      Everyone at work thinks I am crazy for applying to NUPOC. A good sub officer can set themselves up great if they have the initiative.

  • Curtis Conway

    Good move. We ‘Skimmers’ & ‘Targets’ need good guys down there. I hope the C.O.s with FBM pins get to go up the chain in the Nuclear Watch all the way to STRATCOM!

  • James Bowen

    I am not crazy about the idea of offering large bonuses to servicemembers. We are supposed to be public servants, not mercenaries.

    • James B.

      These are highly trained and experienced professionals who’ve already spent a career in public service, so if the Navy wants them to stay a bit longer, it’d better be willing to pay.

      • James Bowen

        If the Navy needs them that badly, the Navy could stop loss them. That would be a lot cheaper than paying corporate-style bonuses.

        • James B.

          That is an utterly terrible idea. Stop-loss was unpopular when in the early 2000s when we didn’t have good options, and it’d be even less so now. If you’re trying to save money, that is an unimaginably expensive way to do it. For every dollar you’d save on these late-career bonuses, you’d have to spend a hundred retaining LTs deciding whether to stay a career or make very good money as civilians.

          Those on their first enlistment or minimum service commitment are patriotic servants of the nations, but those who stay in are professionals. Many are still taking a pay cut out of patriotism, but they have families to feed and bills to pay. They may cost more, but veteran troops have experience that cannot be replaced quickly, easily, or cheaply, and will pay dividends in both money and lives saved.

          • James Bowen

            If the Navy needs JOs that badly, they could be stop-lossed too, or reservists could be called up. We need all personnel who stay in need to have a public service mentality. That is not achieved by trying to emulate the corporate world.

            We really need to end the Praetorian Guard mentality that has taken over the U.S. Armed Services and go back to having citizen soldiers.

          • James B.

            I don’t know where you got the idea that paying soldiers makes them less effective, but it has been proven wrong by every war in history.

            Full-strength units of well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led personnel cost money, but they regularly crush the amateur “citizen soldiers” you seem bent on venerating. Do you want Americans to die needlessly? That’s what happens when you drive talent away from the military. Also, the “citizen soldier” tradition is as much myth as tradition: US troops have always been commanded and trained by a professional element, and we wouldn’t be a nation without that.

            It may not seem intuitive, but proper study shows that a smaller force of long-service professionals is both more capable and cheaper than an idealistic but ill-prepared mass. The more complex the endeavor, the more vital skill and experience is. Nuclear submarines, as this bonus concerns, is about a complex as it gets.

          • James Bowen

            The two greatest wars the U.S. has fought were the Civil War and World War II. Both of those wars were largely fought by citizen soldiers. Those citizen soldiers were well equipped, very adaptable, and ultimately became better than the more professionalized enemy forces they faced. Our two greatest victories came from those wars.

            On the contrary, our wars fought by “professionals” have largely resulted in the setting of objectives that are unachievable by military means, and they have often resulted in defeats.

            Yes, citizen soldiers need training, and some types of warfare require more specialized training than others. We need devoted career public servants for that purpose, not corporate mercenaries.

            I am a nuclear submariner myself, and my experience tells me that having this kind of incentive will attract the wrong kind of personnel. A far more public service-oriented package of incentives would be to have respectable but not large salaries for active duty personnel, combined with ample pension and medical benefits for personnel who make a career out of the service.

          • James B.

            The US Army inducted masses of new recruits and draftees during many wars from the 1800s through World War II, but was commanded by West Pointers. Those professional leaders were essential to train and command, else none of the new soldiers would have lived long enough to be experienced veterans.

            Most of the battles between green US troops and experienced enemies went poorly; Kasserine Pass, for example. More successful battles weren’t actually using green troops (Marines on Guadalcanal had significant interwar experience) or were against exhausted enemies later in the war (many German units in Normandy in 1944 were reservists, conscripts, or even POWs captured from Eastern Europe).

            Equipment-wise, US troops through World War II were supplied with generous quantities of solidly built gear, but our designs were generally not state-of-the-art like they are today.

            That the post-World War II military has been given strategically impossible tasks is unfortunate, but it further illuminates the need for a thoroughly professional corps of leaders to understand the strategic environment and most effectively advise the civilian political leadership.

            I think your idea of “respectable but not large salaries” is wildly out of step with other servicemembers. You can make a moral judgement if you wish, but that is reality. Skimping on retention bonuses will cost many times over in increased recruiting and training costs, so it’s stupid even if morally pure.

            These specific retention bonuses are for retirement-eligible officers, who could immediately collect at least 65% of base pay in pension, so the Navy is already bidding against itself. That’s probably a stupid way to do things, but that pension structure is a different problem.

          • James Bowen

            The servicemen who fought and survived battles like Kasserine Pass, Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, etc. learned valuable lessons that were used to develop armed forces that were second to none. German officers later wrote about how remarkable the ability of American soldiers to adapt and learn was.

            The problem with those highly experienced professional personnel that we initially faced in World War II was that both Germany and Japan ran out of them relatively quickly. While it is probably fair to say that we never did have aviators who were as good as German Bf-109 and Japanese Zero pilots were at the beginning of the war, etc., we implemented a system that ensured we would have an ample and virtually endless supply of personnel that could hold their own and ultimately win by attrition. It was our ability to draw on reliably good and adaptable citizen soldiers that put our enemies in a state of exhaustion late in the war.

            The same was true of weapons. We produced very good weapons in World War II, but they were also rugged, relatively inexpensive, and easy to replace. Again, the Axis started the war with some very good weapons and made some even better ones as the war went on, but they were expensive and difficult to mass produce. Today, there is no question that our weapons are also expensive and difficult to mass produce, but I am not convinced they are even that great. Russian and Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles, to say nothing of inexpensive but quiet and suited to the task diesel submarines, could probably make short work of our fleet in places like the South China Sea.

            No one is arguing that we don’t need career service personnel to train new recruits, ensure that valuable lessons and knowledge get passed on, etc. However, trying to buy talent corporate-style is not the way to do it. There are many problems with this approach. For one, the Navy will never be able to compete with the corporate world in what it can offer in compensation. More fundamentally though, we need a system that is suitable for mass mobilization and rapid expansion. High bonuses and other large forms of compensation do not lend themselves well to that. A system of adequate but not excessive pay combined with good health and retirement benefits does.

            I will be the first to admit that saying that military pay should not be that high is not popular among other service members. Who doesn’t want to paid more? However, you speak of reality, and the reality is that the taxpayers can only afford so many public services (including defense). The American public cannot afford to pay very high salaries to career servicemembers. Therefore, a balance needs to be struck. The best way to strike that balance is to get men and women who have good civic spirit and and have their priorities straight, and who will therefore work for adequate but not large pay and benefits. Trying to buy talent with high bonuses will attract types who do not necessarily have the best interests of the public in mind.

            It is true that military leaders in our system ultimately have to follow the orders of their civilian bosses. However, not all of the blame for the assignment of strategically impossible tasks and missions can be put on the civilians. Generals and admirals could have made it much harder for those civilians to assign such tasking by strongly recommending against certain courses of actions, threatening resignations, etc. There was a period of time after Vietnam, from 1973 to about 1992, where this was the case. However, the current “professional” system we have has produced generals and admirals that have done the opposite.

            If the military needs personnel that badly (something I am not convinced is the case at least with our current force structure), we should scrap the all volunteer force and adopt a universal draft where all citizens have to undergo training and serve in at least a reserve status for a period of time.

          • James B.

            I’m really confused as to what you think the alternative is to the present situation.

            World War II was a good war for us because we had a safe place to raise and train forces, years to build up before assaulting Europe and larger Pacific islands, and we had enemies dumb enough to fight the Soviet Union. That scenario won’t repeat.

            In the next war with a nation-state enemy, a Kassarine Pass might be the end of the war–we probably wouldn’t lose, but we’d pull back without a win. The learning experiences early in World War II were largely unavoidable, so we gloss over how much blood they cost us, but we’d never tolerate that now.

            We also won’t have years to build up in tomorrow’s war, in large part because our enemies have seen how that turns out and they’d rather not repeat the mistake. Without years to build up, we are limited in the number of forces we can deploy, so low-skill conscripts are just a waste of space on the transports.

            You say you are a nuclear submariner–how much time and money did it take to train you? Time with specific resources (instructors, simulators, underway, etc) is particularly finite, and pretty soon money becomes a secondary consideration in the problem. Paying to retain is quicker (and still cheaper) than paying all the money and time to train new recruits.

          • James Bowen

            Most wars whose outcome does not affect the continued existence of the U.S. and the day-to-day well being of U.S citizens are what others and myself would call wars of choice. Those are wars we should generally not be involved in in the first place. The war we need to prepare for is for one with an enemy that could destroy us. The Civil War and World War II both fell into that category, and having a force of Praetorians won’t do for that.

            That is interesting that you ask about how much money it takes to train nuclear submariners like myself. There was considerable investment made in training officers like me, as is the case with other officer specialties and enlisted ratings. However, in my year group there were a large number of submariners who were good officers who, after their DIVO tour, were told that continued active service on their part was neither desired nor required. Some of them had even taken nuclear retention bonuses and were then forced to pay them back. At the same time though, the Navy continued to recruit new JOs for nuclear submarines. This happened in the mid to late 2000s, and the submarine fleet hasn’t gotten any bigger since then. So pardon me if I am skeptical of the need to pay out large bonuses to retain trained personnel.

          • James B.

            I could vent for hours on how the Navy’s rigid adherence to year groups mismanages personnel, but that is the present system, and it goes both ways. For ever year when post-DIVO JOs are ‘force-shaped’ out, there are two years when they struggle to fill DH billets because post-DIVO JOs are quitting in such numbers. The issue today is aviation, where pilots who’ve done 8-10 years and filled their commitment aren’t sticking around for DH tours, and no amount of new recruits can fill the spot of an aviation DH who took years to train and qualify. The issue isn’t money–we can get more of that–but time, which we cannot get more of easily.

            Both the Civil War and World War II were eventually won by largely new-recruited forces, but you gloss over some really important issues like how we survived getting attacked in the beginning. If the Confederacy had possessed a professional army with the ability to exploit the victory at Manassas, would the war have lasted long enough for the Union to prevail? Early battles of World War II–Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal–all relied on standing naval forces, and our buildup (begun in 1940) didn’t really start showing until 1943.

            You may want to prepare for an idealized version of the last war, but our enemies aren’t going to. If we don’t have top-quality forces available when the war starts, we still won’t have them when it ends.

          • James Bowen

            The experience with what happened in my year group taught me that all this talk about needing to retain personnel is nonsense. Trained personnel are available, and they are not being used. If the Navy does truly have a bad recruiting year, it makes far more sense to tap into the Reserves, where there are trained personnel available, than it does to offer outlandish and ultimately unaffordable bonuses. In the long run, it is far easier and more sustainable to make the personnel system more flexible than it is to (effectively) hire mercenaries.

            You seem to have the idea that I said we don’t need much of a standing force in peacetime. I don’t know where you got that idea. We absolutely need a good size Navy that is ready to fight in peacetime. I am just saying that it is a bad idea to adopt corporate/mercenary personnel practices. We need men and women who are committed to what they are doing and devoted to public service to man the ranks in peacetime, not ones who are doing it for the money. Any system is only as good as those who make it up, and for the armed services accomplish its mission of defending American citizens we need servicemembers who have their priorities straight. That is not idealism, that is reality. We also need a personnel system that lends itself well to mass mobilization should the need arise.

          • James B.

            You’re fixating on numbers, not quality or specific qualifications.

            An O-6 with 26+ years of active duty is nearly impossible to replace without extraordinary measures. There might be a recent retiree of similar experience and grade willing to return to active duty, but this is a pretty small pool to be relying on. If the vacancy can’t be filled at the needed level, it will probably be filled by someone more junior, which means robbing lower-level units of top performers, which will cause issues in the future.

            The Navy made a mistake when it downsized your yeargroup of JOs, but that mistake can’t be fixed now. O-3s forced off active duty a decade or more ago aren’t good for much today; even if they made O-4 or O-5 in the reserves, they’ve been away from the fleet far too long. If called up today, they’d be filling a desk so another officer could go to sea.

            The Reserves, stop-loss, and other measures exist for wartime and extraordinary peacetime situations. They do not exist to replace sound management of the active-duty force, because overusing emergency measures will destroy them. In terms of long-term effects, involuntary mobilization and stop-loss are much more expensive than paying relatively modest bonuses.

            With regards to priorities, every retention issue involves servicemembers who’ve already done 8-10 years, probably including warzone deployments, so questioning their patriotism is more likely to get you punched than agreed with. As they make career choices, they are calculating whether one military income can compensate for an un/underemployed spouse, trying to save for children’s college, and buying a house. That takes money. It would take less if the military didn’t PCS people so often, but retention still comes down to money.

  • Chris Heiden

    Here’s a novel thought. If you stop making the career field fucking horrible, you might not have to spend millions of dollars to retain people.

  • Deborah Martinez

    They are worth it and so much more.

  • vetww2

    Great idea. Exactly what is done in industry. But it should be extended to all ranks, and based on job performance