Washington — The United States Navy foresees "grave problems" ahead in manning its nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships. Private industry is outbidding the Navy for college graduates in the physical sciences. And the Navy is losing many nulear-trained officers to private industry, where they enjoy more attractive salaries and working conditions.
Ironically, the nuclear power plant accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania is partly responsible.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Joseph Doyle says new government regulations, plus actions by private industry in the wake of Three Mile Island, "significantly increased" private sector recruitment of the Navy's nuclear personnel.
All this means it will be increasingly difficult to find and keep officers for the Los Angeles and Trident class submarines, currently being built, says Rep. David Emery (R) of Maine. Mr. Emery is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Navy is taking steps to avert even more serious manning problems in its nuclear fleet. But the shortages perturb Pentagon admirals. They are particularly concerned since the Soviet Union recently launched the first of its new Typhoon class of ballistic submarines. These are nuclear-powered monsters armed with 20 missiles ca pable of bombarding targets over 4,000 miles away.
"The Navy's problem is mainly an inability to offer competitive starting salaries," Mr. Doyle explains. "The general shortage of technical graduates in America, combined with the increase in the demand for these individuals by industry has increased starting salaries significantly."
The average civilian salary for graduating engineers is $20,000 to $22,000. Even with the 11.7 percent pay raise recently awarded the armed services, a newly commissioned ensign receives only $15,000.
At present, the Navy is meeting only 70 percent of its nuclear officer recruiting targets, according to Mr. Doyle. "The overall nuclear officer accession goal has been met only once in the last 10 years," he admits. Over the last four years, there has been an 800-man shortfall.
The retention picture is equally dismal, judging from Navy statistics. The current overall retention rate for nuclear power officers in submarines is 34 percent and for those in surfave ships, 40 percent.
Nuclear-trained submarine officers claim that insufficient pay, family separation, infringement on personal life, long deployment, work pressure, and long hours are the chief reasons they leave the service. Because of personnel shortages the nuclear-trained submarine officer is now spending 15 years out of a 20-year career at sea -- instead of the 11 the Navy would prefer.
The Navy is very much alive to the manning plight of its nuclear warships. It recently proposed an increase in submarine duty incentive pay; and the White House Office of Management and Budget last month submitted legislation to Congress for additional nuclear officer incentive pay.
In Assistant Secretary Doyle's view, these increase are "essential," and in his opinion "the initiatives that we are taking, if enacted, will provide us with the ability to properly man these nuclear-powered ships."
Representative Emery, who is the second-ranking Republican on the House Seapower Subcommittee, is studying the proposed pay increases. "If they are not satisfactory for what we think is needed, we will offer legislation of our own," says an aide who predicts that the "increased requirements of the private nuclear industry will have a disastrous effect on the nuclear Navy." He points out that the report of the president's commission on Three Mile Island urged that the operators of nuclear power plants be better trained and employed in greater numbers. "The Seabrook nuclear reactor in New Hampshire is going to have to have 38 additional operators," he says. "An article in our Maine newspaper says they intend to draw all of them from the nuclear Navy."
If recruiting and retention fails to improve, says the aide, US nuclear submarines and surface ships may simply not be able to put to sea. "There could be that sort of problem with the Los Angeles attack submarines. It would be a problem with the Tridents if they were putting them out fast enough." And he adds: "I don't think that there's any question that the problem will get worse unless pay is increased and conditions of service are improved."