Monday, June 13, 2016

Choosing between Submarines and Surface:

     As I noted in the text of the “Should I Join the NUPOC Program? / Is NUPOC a good deal?" post, most NUPOC accessions become Submarine Officers.  To flesh that statement out with some rough numbers, we have approximately 250 positions during each Fiscal year of which ~150 are Submarine Officer billets, ~40 are Nuclear Surface Warfare Officer billets, and the remaining 60 are split relatively equally between Nuclear Prototype (NPTU) Instructors, Nuclear Power School (NPS) Instructors and Naval Reactors Engineers (NRE).  NUPOC supplies right around 1/3 (slightly over that, actually) of all Nuclear officers with NROTC and the Naval Academy supplying the balance. 

The large fraction of Submarine officer positions is a consequence of having over 70 submarines, of which nearly twenty have two crews (SSBNs and SSGNs have alternating crews – a later post will discuss an overview of some differences between each of those classes and the “Fast Attack” SSNs which make up the backbone of the Submarine fleet).  Thus officers are needed to man ~90 Submarine nuclear reactors.  By contrast, we have 11 Aircraft Carriers each of which has two reactors for 22 total.  This comparison is not perfect (Aircraft Carrier power plants are larger and require more personnel, for example) but it gives a good idea.

To see the difference between attack and ballistic missile submarines I recommend starting with some videos available on youtube: Ohio Class Ballistic Missile Sub and Virginia Class Attack Sub.

1. Other Classes of US Attack Subs: Los Angeles Class & Seawolf Class 
2. Ohio Class Subs are being replaced by the Columbia Class beginning in the 2020s
3. Ohio Class SSGNs - Missions are similar to Attack Subs (SSNs), but retain dual-crew structure


     There are a lot of videos and resources available on the internet where you can do your own research (some linked here), but I’ll make an attempt to summarize some of the key differences to give you a starting point from which to proceed.  I would point you to the NUPOC Pamphlet linked at the right as a starting point for summaries of all programs as well.

  • Career Path: (Listed Sequentially)
    • Submarines:   
      • Nuclear Power School
      • Nuclear Power Training Unit (Prototype)
      • Submarine Officer Basic Course (Basic Tactical Training)
      • Submarine Junior Officer Tour
      • (Optional) Shore Duty
      • (Optional) Department Head Tour (Nav / Weps / Eng)
      • (Optional) Shore Duty
      • (Optional) Executive Officer (XO) Tour
      • (Optional) Shore Duty
      • (Optional) Commanding Officer (CO) Tour
      • (Optional) Shore Duty
      • Retire? / Variety of Staff Jobs / Squadron Commodore, etc. 
Note: For way more detail, click here.
    • Surface:   
      • Non-Nuclear Surface Junior Officer Tour
      • Nuclear Power School
      • Nuclear Power Training Unit (Prototype)
      • Aircraft Carrier Junior Officer Tour
      • (Optional) Shore Duty
      • Then alternate Sea/Shore positions as indicated for Submarines above, but alternate between Engineering and not

  • More details on the career path for Submarines can be found here and more detail for Surface can be found here.

  • Advantages to Surface (my perspective):
    • You are on the surface (Obvious point, but it is a difference!)
      • Sun, fresh air, ability to walk outside
    • Surface Ships are bigger
      • More / better gym equipment
      • More personal space
    • More consistent Internet access / communications when at sea.
    • Your "division" -- aka the guys who you're in charge of -- will be somewhat larger.  
      • A function of the much larger ship and nuclear plant on carriers
    • Enhanced retention bonuses
      • ONLY relevant if you sign a contract after first 5 years 

  • Advantages to Submarines (my perspective):
    • Tighter-knit crew
      • Smaller; you know everyone
      • Somewhat less rigid Officer/Enlisted separation
    • Submarines (in aggregate) have the smartest enlisted sailors in the Navy
    • Fewer peers, so more ability to seek out responsibilities
      • The flip-side of this is that it will be obvious if you are not pulling your weight, and sometimes responsibilities will seek you out and not the other way around! 
    • Combines Tactical and Engineering in the same sea tour
      • Every Officer on the Submarine (except the "CHOP" aka Supply Officer, but he doesn't count) can and does operate the reactor and drive the boat.  Generally you will start in the Engine Room operating the Reactor and gradually spend more time working with tactical systems and ship driving as you gain experience, but there is often some room for flexibility here.  As a personal anecdote, I enjoyed driving the boat much more than standing Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW) and minding the reactor, but several other Officers on my boat had the opposite sentiment.  As such they spent a greater portion of time in the Engineering plant than I did throughout their time on the boat but I spent more time as Officer of the Deck driving the submarine.  This wearing of dual hats contrasts with the relatively binary SWO life (first a conventional ship where you are almost exclusively tactically focused followed by a tour on an Aircraft Carrier where you focus exclusively on Engineering).
    • Generally better food
      • Emeril will not be in the kitchen, and this does vary from Sub to Sub, but generally the food is pretty good given the circumstances.
    • "Submarine Pay" - A bonus incentive pay that you receive starting at Power School
      • Starts at $230/month and rises incrementally to $510 by your 4 year point
      • SUB Pay > SWON Pay by that margin  
      • See this here (scroll to last page after selecting current year)

  • Homeports:
    • Submarines
      • Bangor and Bremerton, WA
      • San Diego, CA
      • Pearl Harbor, HI
      • Guam
      • Groton, CT
      • Norfolk, VA
      • Kings Bay, GA
    • Aircraft Carriers
      • Bremerton, WA
      • San Diego, CA
      • Norfolk, VA
      • Japan

Please note that this is not a comprehensive list of differences.  With a few exceptions, we require applicants to attend a trip to San Diego to get a better sense of the differences between the Submarine and Surface options, so hopefully if you are serious about applying to the NUPOC program this trip will answer your questions in much more thorough detail. 

As always I hope this helps and let me know if anything is unclear or if you would like to see something else addressed.


  1. For the surface advantages, you might want to list the other bonuses they might be entitled to. As a sub guy, I sometimes get tired of hearing my carrier buddies go on about their various retention bonuses.

    1. On further review and consulting some SWON colleagues, the difference is (a) SWOs do not get Sub Pay (obviously) or have anything that replaces it so they're effectively getting paid less until the first 5 years is completed, but (b) if they decide to stay in and sign a contract then they get an additional retention bonus. I'll firm up my understanding once I find the reference and add this to the discussion above.

  2. Mike,

    Thanks for the input. I assume you're a Sub officer? At a high level, the retention bonuses work nearly identically unless I've overlooked something: After initial commitment is completed, Nuke SWOs and Submariners have the option to sign a contract and commence their annual retention bonus, to stay in and not sign which gives them the $12,500 'rent-a-nuke' bonus, or to get out altogether.

    If you think I'm missing something shoot me a line, I'll do some research and make updates as appropriate. I had some SWOs in my office look this over and they didn't note any differences, but that doesn't mean there aren't any.