Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Obama Torpedoes the Nuclear Navy

Obama Torpedoes the Nuclear Navy

President Obama, possibly unaware of the implications, has made a mistake by nominating Adm. John Richardson as the new chief of naval operations. Adm. Richardson likely would do a fine job in that important role, but by trying to move him from his current position as director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, the president has crossed a line and created a precedent that could have grave consequences for the effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear fleet.

First, a little history is in order. Adm. Hyman Rickover, the father of the U.S.Navy’s nuclear fleet and one of the fathers of commercial nuclear power, was a great man. Including his time at the Naval Academy, he served for 55 years on active duty and ran the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program for three decades until his retirement in 1982. He created and oversaw a culture of personnel and engineering excellence that is unique in the world.

While Adm. Rickover reported to the chief of naval operations and the secretary of the Navy, he had virtually absolute authority and accountability for the Navy’s nuclear submarine and surface-ship programs. Largely due to the culture of engineering excellence and quality control he created, nearly 300 U.S. Navy nuclear warships have operated flawlessly for 64 years without a single nuclear incident. They played a major role in giving the U.S. Navy command of the seas and victory in the Cold War. During the same period their Soviet counterparts had many nuclear accidents and incidents.

I was the secretary of the Navy in the early 1980s when it came time for Adm. Rickover to retire at age 81. The challenge was to preserve his fail-safe personnel policies and the culture of engineering excellence he had created, while ensuring that it could be passed on from one capable successor to another without endangering its discipline even for a short period.

Working with the bipartisan leadership of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and the secretary of energy, we constructed a solution. We replaced Adm. Rickover’s personal rule with a position having…

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