Thursday, March 17, 2005
The submarine world has always relied heavily upon the "big ocean - little ship" rule, with the marked exception of something called Mutual Interference, or MI. The idea of MI is that if every submarine were assigned specific areas of water in which it was safe to operate submerged and no other submarine was assigned the same area the potential for underwater collisions is reduced to either unknown submarines (i.e. non-allied) or a result of navigation errors (i.e. someone operating out of area). Even if you do want two submarines operating submerged in the same area (e.g. training exercises), MI can still be avoided by specifying separate safe depth ranges for each submarine in the area (e.g. sub X operates from 0 - 300 Ft and sub Y operates from 400 - 600 Ft). This is all managed by the Submarine Operating Authority (or SUBOPAUTH) for the theater (COMSUBGRU SEVEN in this particular case), coordinating the movement not only of US submarines but acting as the honest broker with allied submarine forces to best ensure safe submerged operation.
There are generally two ways to assign water to a submarine: the operating area and the moving haven. As the names imply, the major difference is that the operating area assigns a static geographic region to the submarine while the moving haven assigns a "moving haven" of safe water along the submarine's track. The moving haven is obviously more restrictive for the submarine, but in cases where the SUBOPAUTH is routing a submarine through waters with lots of other submarines or desires greater control over where and when specifically the submarine will be it has its advantages. From my experience, though, the Pacific is a particularly large ocean with relative few submarines and as of a decade ago the norm was to use operating areas. For this reason, it has always been my assumption that the San Fran was transiting its assigned operating area and not operating in a moving haven as some reports stated. The only bearing this has upon the accident is that if the San Fran had been assigned a moving haven it should have been carefully checked for hazards to navigation by the SUBOPAUTH prior to being assigned. While that would not obviate the Captain and Navigator of their responsibilities for safe navigation, any moving haven that routed the San Fran over the reported "discolored water" should have resulted in the SUBGRU SEVEN Ops boss standing in front of the green table right beside CDR Mooney. On the other hand, if the submarine was assigned a large chunk of ocean in which to operate advising them of hazards to navigation, like some commenters have mentioned, would be an exercise in the ridiculous and a terrible waste of time for the SUBOPAUTH considering that the submarine would likely never have been anywhere near 99%+ of the potential hazards.
So where does this leave us in understanding the findings against CDR Mooney? I must reiterate that I have neither reviewed the charts in questions nor do I have insider information on the investigation. Based upon the statement from COMSUBGRU SEVEN, however, I believe the Admiral's decision was likely based upon a lack of good sounding data in the area, the reported "discolored water" and the availability of alternative courses or routes that not only avoided the discolored water but also made better use of available charted soundings. To some the question of alternative routes may seem like Monday morning quaterbacking and 20/20 hindsight, but the Admiral obviously thought there were steps that could have proactively been taken to either avoid or reduce the risk of the accident. Again, this is just one long-gone boat driver's opinion who hasn't stood OOD in over ten years and then just as a JO, so I definitely do not consider myself the authority but, rather, more of an informed pundit.