A Writer’s Guide… to Nuclear Submarines

This is part of the new series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…“, check out this article by writer Ryan Hickey on Nuclear Submarines.

A Writer's guide to nuclear submarines. Image: Submarine

Nuclear Submarines

by Ryan Hickey


First off, I wanted to thank Ari for her wonderful blog, and giving writers a chance to share knowledge and information like this.

Now, for the subject at hand. I served in the United States Navy for eight years, and four of those years were spent as an Officer in the Submarine Force.

In this article, I will describe how one becomes a Submarine Officer, what kind of duty being a Submarine Officer entails, what types of submarines the United States has, and what operations they perform.

Officer and Enlisted

To start off with the basics, personnel in the military belong, in general, to one of two categories: Officers or Enlisted. Enlisted join the Navy directly, going to boot camp and then subsequent military schooling befitting their intended positions.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much experience in this process, so my knowledge is more limited.

On the other hand, there are three primary ways to become an Officer: Graduating from the United States Naval Academy (USNA) in Annapolis, Maryland, graduating from a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) unit while earning one’s Bachelor’s degree, or attending Officer Candidate School (OCS) after earning a Bachelor’s degree.

I attended USNA, and if anyone would like more information on the process of attending, what it was like there, and any such details, please feel free to reach out.

Becoming a Submarine Officer

For this section, I will specifically be speaking from the perspective of a USNA grad. The other commissioning sources may be slightly different.

Midshipmen (USNA students) get to put in their preferences from what Navy Community they wish to serve in upon graduation.

The primary choices are: Surface Warfare Officer (SWO), Naval Pilot, Naval Flight Officer (NFO), Marine (USMC), Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), Navy SEAL, and Submarine Officer.

There are a few other options, but those are the minority and often require mitigating circumstances.

These preferences are normally put into the system at the beginning of the fall semester of a Midshipmen’s First Class (senior) year.

Midshipmen who desire to become submariners can do this, though they are the only community that grants the option to apply during the spring of their Second Class (junior) year.

No matter when they apply, however, the process is the same. First, an Officer at USNA will review the applicants, interview them, and determine based on their record and interview whether not they can proceed.

If accepted, the Midshipmen will receive study material and attend seminars with Submarines Officers to prepare them for the formal interview process.

To actually get accepted into the Submarine Community, each applicant much travel to the Navy Yard in Washington D.C.

There, they will partake in 3-4 interviews: 2-3 strenuous academic interviews and a final interview with the Admiral in charge of the nation’s submarine force.

The academic interviews are grueling. They are a one-on-one interview with a civilian DOD technician who quizzes the applicant.

The questions can cover nearly anything from mathematical problems, thermodynamics, physics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, engineering, and everything else in between.

The applicant has only a simple calculator, blank paper, and a pen to work with. The questions tend to start simple, but quickly escalate to nonsensical and nigh impossible.

During such questions, the interviewer is testing the applicant’s ability to apply creative intelligence to solve problems that are beyond their ability to solve.

Ingenuity, determination, and quick thinking are truly what is being tested. And any applicant that throws in the towel is doomed to fail.

Every applicant is guaranteed two of these interviews. If they pass both or fail both, then there is no third. If the pass one, and fail one, however, there is a chance they may be granted a third.

No matter which of these outcomes the applicant falls under, however, they proceed to the final portion: the Admiral interview.

In a luxurious office, each applicant will sit across from the Admiral in charge of the entire submarine force. Here, the Admiral will ask them 5-10 questions of a more personal nature, discussing the applicant’s academic interviews, their life, and their transcript.

The Admiral’s goal is to address any discrepancy in the applicant’s record, get to know them, and to size them up.

After this interview, the Admiral dismisses the applicant and calls in the senior officer from USNA. The Admiral informs them whether or not the applicant is accepted.

An applicant can fail both academic interviews and be accepted by the Admiral, or they can pass both academic interviews and be denied by the Admiral.

Sometimes, the Admiral will accept the applicant with a caveat, such as the applicant will have to graduate with a certain GPA. Either way, once the Admiral gives the thumbs up, the applicant will join the Submarine Force once they graduate.


Once a midshipman graduates and becomes an Officer, they are officially part of the Submarine Force. However, they do not go straight to a submarine. First, they have to survive what is known as The Pipeline.

The Pipeline can last anywhere from a year and a half to two years, and is incredibly difficult. There are three distinct phases, the first of which is the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command (NNPTC).

Every submarine in the United States Navy is powered by a nuclear reactor. Because of this, every Submarine Officer goes through rigorous training to learn, understand, and eventually operate these reactors. NNPTU is the first step.

Based in Charleston, South Caroline, NNPTC is the school that teaches the theories and knowledge Submarine Officers need to be successful.

For eight hours a day, five days a week, the Officers will be in class learning everything from advanced reactor physics, to metallurgy, to chemistry.

Beyond these school hours, students are required to put in mandatory study hours to prepare them for weekly (sometimes two in a week) midterm level exams.

This pace is kept up for six months, which ends up being the civilian college equivalent of 45 credit hour semester.

At the end of it all, each Officer takes a Comprehensive Exam that serves as the capstone for the school. Upon passing this exam, a Submarine Officer has passed their hurdle to get to their boat.


After acquiring knowledge and learning theories, Officers graduate from NNPTC and move on to the Navy Nuclear Power Training Unit (NNPTU).

Just down the street from NNPTC, NNPTU is a large training command that is accompanied by two old, decommissioned nuclear submarines.

The reactors and engineering plants on these submarines are used to give the Officers practical experience and skills to take with them to the fleet.

NNPTU training, often called “Prototype”, can last six to eight months. The Officers are sorted into crews and perform shift work. Twelve hours a day, seven days in a row, then two days off.

After these two days off, they take on a new 12-hour shift and repeat. Every three shifts, they get four days off before starting all over again.

At the beginning of Prototype, Officers are given a massive notebook with thousands of tasks they are required to complete.

These tasks range from locating equipment in the engine room, displaying levels of knowledge on various subjects, or performing tasks in the engineering plant or reactor control room.

Upon getting a signature for every single one of these thousands of tasks, the Officers have three hurdles they still have to cross.

First, they have to pass an 8 hour, comprehensive exam with a 92% score or higher.

Second, they have to operate the nuclear reactor with several observers, in which things constantly go wrong and the Officer has to fix them to keep the reactor safe. Lastly, they are put in a room in front of a whiteboard with four observers.

These observers will then spend several hours asking the Officer detailed, in-depth questions on anything they’ve learned at NNPTC and NNPTU.

After completing those tasks, the Officer will have passed the second hurdle for the Nuclear Submarine Pipeline.


The final hurdle for the Submarine Officer is the Submarine Officer Basic Course (SOBC). Compared to both NNPTC and NNPTU, SOBC is far more calm and relaxing, but still with its own challenges.

While the previous two courses prepared the Officer for the engineering plant and the reactor, SOBC prepares the Officer for piloting and navigating the submarine, as well as non-nuclear systems and procedures.

Here, the Officer spends time in the classroom, learning theories on SONAR, RADAR, how to operate a periscope, and other methods to keeping a submarine safe both beneath the ocean and on its surface.

SOBC lasts roughly three months, and once the Officer graduates, they will go on their way their assigned submarine.

Being an Officer on a Submarine

On a submarine, there are three tiers of officer: Junior Officer (JO), Department Head, and Command. Command is comprised of the Commanding Officer (CO) and Executive Officer (XO) who run the submarine as first and second in command.

There are four Department Heads:

  • The Engineering Officers (ENG),
  • The Weapons Officer (WEPS),
  • The Navigation Officer (NAV), and
  • The Supply Officer (CHOP).

There are, in general, 9-12 Junior Officers that serve various, and changing, roles.

For JOs, showing up to the submarine means the work is only just starting. The first task is getting Qualified.

All the tasks the Officer completed at NNPTU have to be done again, this time for their specific submarine.

Once they are Qualified, they stand watch in the Engine Room as the Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW) when the submarine is underway or the Engineering Duty Officer (EDO) when the submarine is in port.

Beyond standing watch, a JO is also a Division Officer (DIV-O), standing in charge in one of the many Divisions on the submarine. They start off leading one of the five Engineering Divisions:

  • the Mechanical and Propulsions Officer (MPA),
  • the Reactor Officer (RO),
  • the Damage Control Assistant (DCA),
  • the Electronics Assistant (EA), and
  • the Chemical and Radiological Assistant (CRA).

After qualifying as EOOW and EDO, the JO will proceed to qualify in the forward part of the submarine as Periscope Operator, Contact Manager, and Officer of the Deck (OOD).

The OOD is the officer who stands watch and is in charge of the entire boat, from piloting it, to maintaining its systems, to keeping it and everyone else safe.

Once a JO is qualified as OOD, it is said they are qualified Submarines, and earn their submarine warfare pins, referred to as “Dolphins”.

Once a JO earns their Dolphins, they are considered a true submariner and their qualifications on the submarine are over. Beyond that, their job remains as a DIV-O and standing watch.

Types of Submarine

In the United States Navy, there are three broad categories of submarines:

  • the fast attack submarines (SSN),
  • the ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), and
  • the guided-missile submarine (SSGN).

Each serve a different role, and life on them is varied from their counterparts.

SSNs are the smallest of the three, and serves the role of reconnaissance and counter-submarine operations.

If a war were ever to break out, the SSNs would be the ones who would fight other nation’s submarines and their surface fleet. They come armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles, capable of striking both sea and land targets.

SSNs are currently manned by two classes of submarine, the Los Angeles Class and the Virginia Class.

Most Los Angeles Class submarines are reaching the end of their life cycle and are being phased out.

The Virginia Class submarines are more advanced and capable, and slowly becoming the norm in the fleet.

Both SSBNs are a crucial element of the United States nuclear triad. They carry nuclear InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in their arsenal, ready to fire on order.

Given the need for SSBNs to always be at the ready, they are manned by two crews, a Gold Crew and a Blue Crew.

While one crew mans the SSBN, the other is onshore, training and resting. The two crews then constantly switch, so the SSBN can always be on patrol. SSBNs are comprised of the much larger Ohio Class submarine.

SSGNs are also comprised of Ohio Class submarines, retrofitted to carry cruise missiles vice ICMBs. There are only four in the United States Navy, and they serve a wide variety of missions, often being the first to fire land strikes in many of America’s military excursions.


There are parts of this article I have intentionally left vague. Most of the particulars of submarine operations, engineering, and reactor composition are classified.

I cannot go into too much detail, but if you ever have need of more information, I can answer some. Feel free to reach out to me with questions. You can message me on Twitter, @RMH_Winter or email me at rmhwinter@gmail.com.

Thanks again to Ari and I hope any of this information has proven helpful.

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About Ryan

Writer Ryan HickeyA native of both Illinois and Minnesota, I’ve been writing my whole life. But before I pursued a career in the craft, I applied for and was accepted into the United States Naval Academy.

There, I was trained to be an officer in the navy, and earned my Bachelors of Science degree in chemistry, with a minor in Japanese.

Upon graduation, I served as a submarine officer for another four years, before finally deciding to move on to the next journey of my life.

Now I’m pursuing writing and working on my first novel, Strings.

Twitter: @RMH_Winter

Email: rmhwinter@gmail.com

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