The U.S. Navy is honoring the forward-thinking Pacific submarine leader who ushered in a parade of changes to the undersea force twenty years ago. The impact of those changes today are proving prescient in what’s become a great power competition with China.
From U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs
Apra Harbor, GUAM — The Commander, Submarine Squadron 15 (CSS-15) headquarters building in Guam will be named in honor of Vice Adm. Albert H. Konetzni, Jr., during a ceremony April 19. Konetzni was the Pacific Submarine Force commander who saw to the squadron’s reactivation in 2001, which included forward-deploying of three attack submarines out of Guam.
“Vice Adm. Konetzni has been a mentor of mine for decades,” said Adm. John Richardson, the U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations. “He taught me in clear terms that the three most important things about leading in our Navy were the people, the people, and the people. His focus on our Sailors – loving them, inspiring them to perform, and holding them to high standards – changed my thinking forever. His service and relationships in the Pacific are still defining the terms of our operations and partnerships there. This is such a fitting tribute to Admiral Al Konetzni.”
The decision to re-establish CSS-15 was one of a dizzying array of changes he implemented at the turn of the 21st century. When most military thinkers were seeking savings by reducing military force structure, Konetzni observed that demands by both the military and intelligence community for U.S. attack submarines were climbing. Operational tempo for deployed submarines in some cases climbed in excess to 90 percent, while turn-around rates for available submarines continued to shrink, reducing the ability to effectively maintain the boats and train their crews. The increased tasking and decreasing number of hulls had a corrosive effect on the men who operated them.
While it wasn’t politically expedient, Kontezni raised alarms with leadership that more needed to be done. He undertook a number of initiatives within his span of control, to improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of the submarines operating in the Pacific. While effective, they could not adequately compensate for diverging paths of supply and demand of the force. Using empirical data, he unapologetically sought to reverse declining Pacific submarine operational availability and readiness. He focused on retaining a force structure commensurate with the increased global submarine demand.
Informed by multiple previous tours in the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel, he also recognized the Navy as an organization that often viewed manpower – people – cheaply. Famously, he drove culture change down through the ranks and through Navy personnel policies that incentivized retaining Sailors. Morale in the ranks dramatically improved.
“Vice Adm. Konetzni has laid the foundation upon which forward deployed submarines operate in the Pacific Ocean,” said Capt. Timothy Poe, Commander, Submarine Squadron Fifteen.
Investing in the Future
After a decade of drawing down, the Submarine Force in the late 1990s was well along in decommissioning a quarter of its attack submarines, and it became clear that ‘doing more with less’ was going to be a way of life. The numbers told the story. Deployed operational tempo (OPTEMPO), personnel tempo (PERSTEMPO), and reactor core usage were all increasing and threatening to undermine the long-term viability of the submarine force. The time between six-month deployments was shrinking – resulting in fewer and increasingly more stressful in-port periods, as well as sub-optimum maintenance for deployed submarines.
The ‘do-more-with-less’ environment was having a corrosive effect on the submarines and the men who crewed them. At the same time, there were indicators that submarine proliferation among potential competitor nations, including China, was not only likely – but underway.
When he assumed command of the Pacific Submarine Force in May 1998, Konetzni was singularly focused on delivering combat-ready forces in the Pacific. To achieve that, the U.S. required enough sufficiently capable submarines and qualified submariners.
“I saw mission numbers creeping up… There really was a disparity between the dwindling number of attack submarines available and increased tasking by the national leadership. It struck me that most people didn’t have the same perspective that I had here in my position,” he said.
Konetzni was persistently vocal about the need to retain multiple attack submarines planned for early decommissioning. He also pushed leadership for conversion of four ballistic missile submarines, also slated for early decommissioning, into guided missile submarines (SSGNs). His argument was driven empirically, and relied on improving efficiency and to make the best use of taxpayer dollars.
While he pushed his leadership hard, he drove his commanders and commanding officers harder. He challenged his force to innovate potential savings. One potential saving was to reduce transit time in the vast Pacific.
Konetzni initiated the study, planning, and execution to return submarines to Guam, Marianas Islands. The increase in demand for the unique capability attack submarines offer the military and intelligence community was legitimate. Positioning hulls further west saved considerable transit time and kept them ready to respond more quickly to national tasking. It offered an opportunity to make more efficient use of our Pacific attack submarines in providing forward presence and crisis response and better meeting the requirements of the Seventh Fleet commander. It provided a measure of reassurance to our friends and allies of our national commitment to the Western Pacific, as well as giving any potential adversary something more to consider. The resultant savings translated into an increase in the number of operating days available.
Other remedies to improve efficiency included assignment of mini-AORs (areas of responsibility) so that missions, port visits, and support of tasking could be concentrated within one relatively localized area. Concurrent training during exercises optimized the use of underway time. Another outside-the-box idea was employing ballistic missile submarines to serve in “attack” roles while they were already underway.
“We worked really, really hard to squeeze every drop of efficiency out of the force. But eventually it became like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. There was no way we could reconcile having too few attack subs and too many missions. But we did gain some savings from initiatives within our control,” Konetzni said.
Having a sufficient number of submarines available to meet the increased tasking assumed the Navy could operate them with qualified crews. But the relentless pace of operations was having a corrosive effect on manning.
Not surprisingly, a by-product of an over-tasked submarine force was dwindling morale. In 1998, seven out of ten submarine Sailors would leave the Navy after their initial tour. Besides the parade of departures, there was an alarming trend in attrition. One-in-four first-term submarine Sailors did not even fulfill their original enlistment contract. The investment in dollars and years spent schooling these nuclear power- and submarine-trained Sailors was eye-popping. The attrition also made maintaining qualified submarine crews a pressing problem. Those assigned to afloat units, including those returning from deployment, were often being shuffled to other deploying boats, driving individual Sailor’s operating tempos up, and exacerbating the problem of an already exhausted force.
The confluence of declining first-term retention and increasing attrition wasn’t just a personnel matter: Achieving and sustaining combat readiness was at risk.
Konetzni immediately made improving retention and reducing first-term attrition a focus point. For submarines between deployments, his staff reduced demands on the crews during the Inter-Deployment Training Cycle. Some inspections were consolidated, while others were deleted; hard-pressed engineering departments were better manned; in-port duty section rotations were improved; training was transferred off-ship so crews could concentrate without distraction; and an eight-hour in-port work day was encouraged, with a half-day off during the work week. In one controversial initiative, he expected submariners who were not working out on one submarine be transferred to a different crew. The initiative was not unlike sorts teams who had a player traded who might have been failing expectations or underperforming. Konetzni was convinced that all some young people needed was a change of scenery or a second chance.
“It wasn’t easy – we placed a significant amount of pressure on the commanding officers, execs (executive officers), and COBs (Chief of the Boats),” Konetzni said then. “We told them they had to plan harder and be as efficient as possible with each person and every second. For far too long we had fallen into the mentality that Sailors’ time and lives took a back seat to demands of the ship. It was painfully clear to me – and anyone who saw the data – that we didn’t have a choice. We had to get those boys some relief.”
The attention paid off.
In less than three years he reduced personnel attrition in the Pacific Fleet Submarine Force from 25% to 7%. First-term retention had doubled from 30 percent to 60 percent. The success in retaining talent even drew the attention of the Wall Street Journal in the form of a front-page story.
“I have to say that in my Navy experience, I’ve regularly heard folks say, ‘People are our most important resource’ – and then treat them like slave labor! I made it clear to my COs (commanding officers) and COBs that people were my number one priority, and that I wasn’t just saying it. I meant it,” Konetzni told the newspaper.
Some twenty years later, the nation’s security position in the Pacific is being challenged. His leadership, innovation and sense of history have proven crucial in what the U.S. National Security Strategy calls a great power completion.
The Evolving Pacific
For years, China has been acquiring a navy that aims to challenge the U.S. Furthermore, China is using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea. Elsewhere Russia has violated the borders of nearby nations and pursues veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbors. China and Russia are deploying all elements of their national power to achieve their global ambitions.
The Pacific Fleet today remains focused on fighting and winning a war.
The world’s largest fleet command encompassed 100 million square miles, from Antarctica to the Arctic circle and from the West Coast of the United States into the Indian Ocean. The U.S. Pacific Fleet consists of approximately 200 ships/submarines, nearly 1,200 aircraft, and more than 130,000 Sailors and civilians. For nearly 75 years, America has demonstrated a credible and enduring commitment to a free & open Indo-Pacific.
“I had the honor of serving on the SUBPAC staff under Vice Admiral Konetzni during his tour as the Commander of the Pacific Fleet Submarine Force, and to this day I have never seen such an inspired, empowered and enthusiastic TEAM,” said the person who holds that job today, Rear Adm. Blake Converse. “His warmth, his generosity of spirit, and his focus on the Sailor set the standard for people-centered leadership. Make no mistake, Vice Admiral Konetzni was a warrior who expected and demanded the highest level of operational performance from his team, but he understood better than any of us that exacting performance in combat could only be achieved through and by competent, motivated, and confident Sailors… and he produced the best!”
As a Pacific nation, America’s Navy has sailed and remains committed to sail wherever international law allows to preserve longstanding ideals of fairness and stability. History favors a prepared Navy.
In a nod to history, Konetzni has been fond of saying “If you want a new idea, read an old book.”
The re-establishment in 2001 of CSS-15 was a logical decision.
Geography, time and precedent would see to it undersea forces could be more efficiently operated and commanded. The squadron was originally established on Sept. 1, 1963 at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and eventually moved to Guam in October 1964. The squadron had responsibility the submarine-based nuclear deterrent in the Pacific. As the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines and support facilities came on line, the squadron was deactivated at the end of September, 1981.
The squadron was reactivated Feb. 23, 2001 to lead and support submarines and submarine support ships assigned to Seventh and Fifth Fleets. Today CSS-15 consists of four Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines (SSNs): USS Key West (SSN 722), USS Oklahoma City (SSN 723), USS Topeka (SSN 754) and USS Asheville (SSN 758). The squadron additionally supports attack submarine deployed to the Pacific and the cruise missile submarines USS Ohio (SSGN 726) and USS Michigan (SSGN 727), home ported in Bangor, Washington.
The nation is stronger and better equipped to accomplish its mission to assure regional allies and deter potential adversaries by increasing the submarine force presence in the Western Pacific.
Qualified U.S. Navy forces, especially Pacific submarines, will allow Pacific nations to operate and prosper in a maritime environment that values an established and enduring international framework of norms, standards, rules and laws.
The stealth for submarines are known are what make them such valuable weapons of war.
British author Edwyn Gray once characterized their value in this way:
“Unlike other warships a submarine has no peacetime role. She cannot ‘show the flag’ or be used to entertain foreign dignitaries. She is unsuitable for the pomp and ceremony for which war vessels of all nations are in such great demand and she is hardly the ideal vehicle for carrying a Head of State on official visits. She has no facilities or surplus space available to enable her to provide aid when natural disasters such as earthquakes, flood and volcanic eruptions occur in remote areas; and she can only offer limited assistance in a rescue situation. The submarine, unlike her surface sisters, is solely a vessel of war. Thus, by definition, her Commanding Officer is, in Winston Churchill’s stirring phrase, a Captain of War.”
Having capable, ready naval forces in the Pacific is increasingly important. The decision to move attack submarines further West then better positions the U.S. to support and defend a free and open Indo-Pacific now. Every Sailor who walks through Konetzni Hall today will be reminded of the importance of sustaining a viable, credible undersea force, especially if and as challenges arise militarily.
Vice Admiral (Retired) Albert H. Konetzni, Jr. Biography
Vice Admiral Albert H. Konetzni, Jr. attended Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, New York. In 1962, he entered the United States Naval Academy where he graduated with merit and received a commission in 1966. Following graduation from the Naval Academy,
Vice Admiral Konetzni attended Naval Submarine School in New London, Connecticut followed by Nuclear Power School in Mare Island, California and completed his nuclear training at Naval Nuclear Power Prototype Training in West Milton, New York. In 1968, he reported to USS MARIANO G. VALLEJO (SSBN 658) (Gold) for his initial submarine assignment, and in 1970 he reported to the United States Naval Academy and served as a Company Officer.
In 1972, Vice Admiral Konetzni reported to the pre-Commissioning Unit WILLIAM H. BATES (SSN 680) under construction in Pascagoula, Mississippi and served as Engineer Officer through commissioning until 1976. Following that tour, Rear Admiral Konetzni served as Executive Officer, USS KAMEHAMEHA (SSBN 642) (Gold) from June 1976 to December 1978. In December 1978, Rear Admiral Konetzni reported to the Naval Military Personnel command and served as Submarine Placement Officer and Executive Officer Detailer. His first command tour was onboard USS GRAYLING (SSN 646) from August 1981 until May 1984.
Vice Admiral Konetzni served as Deputy Commandant of the U.S. Naval Academy from August 1984 until May 1987. He commanded Submarine Squadron SIXTEEN from May 1987 until July 1989. After his squadron command, he served as Senior Fellow of the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group. Vice Admiral Konetzni then served as Deputy Director of the Submarine Strategic Division in the Office of the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations (Undersea Warfare) from July 1990 until April 1991. From April 1991 to April 1993, he served as Chief of Staff to Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.
His next assignment was as Director, Attack Submarine Division (N872) at the Pentagon from June 1993 until February 1994. From February
1994 to November 1995, he served as the Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel to the Bureau of Naval Personnel for Total Force Programming and Manpower (PERS-5) and Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel for Personnel Policy and Career Progression (PERS-2). He went on to serve as Commander Submarine Group SEVEN in Yokosuka, Japan from December
1995 to April 1998. Vice Admiral Konetzni assumed the duties of Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet in May, 1998 to March 2001. He served his final tour in the Navy as Deputy and Chief of Staff for Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command from April 2001 until he retired in June 2004.
Vice Admiral Konetzni is entitled to wear the Distinguished Service Medal with a gold star, Legion of Merit with a silver star, the Meritorious Service Medal with two gold stars, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with two gold stars, and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. He was also awarded the Order of National Security Merite Cheonsu Medal by the Republic of Korea in December 1997. He holds a Master’s Degree in Industrial Personnel Management from George Washington University and is the coauthor of the book “Command at Sea.”
Vice Adm. Konetzni Career Assignments
July 1966 – December 1966 U.S. Submarine School, New London, Conn.
January 1967 – June 1967 Naval Nuclear Power School, Mare Island, Calif.
July 1967 – December 1967 Nuclear Power Prototype Training, West Milton, N.Y.
January 1968 – August 1970 USS Mariano G. Vallejo (SSBN 658) Gold, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
August 1970 – September 1972 Company Officer, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md.
September 1972 – June 1976 Engineer Officer, USS William H. Bates (SSN 680), New London, Conn.
June 1976 – December 1978 Executive Officer, USS Kamehameha (SSBN 642) Gold, New London, Conn.
December 1978 – September 1980 Submarine Placement Officer and Executive Officer Detailer, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Washington, D.C.
September 1980 – July 1981 Prospective Commanding Officer Training, Washington, D.C. & Norfolk, Va.
August 1981 – July 1984 Commanding Officer, USS Grayling (SSN 646)
August 1984 – May 1987 Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md.
May 1987 – July 1989 Commander, Submarine Squadron SIXTEEN, Kings Bay, Ga.
August 1989 – June 1990 Senior Fellow, CNO Strategic Studies Group, Newport, R.I.
July 1990 – April 1991 Deputy Director, Submarine Strategic Division, Washington, D.C.
April 1991 – April 1993 Chief of Staff, Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Norfolk, Va.
June 1993 – February 1994 Director, Attack Submarine Division, Washington, D.C.
February 1994 – November 1995 Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel for Programming and Personnel Policy, Washington, D.C.
December 1995 – April 1998 Commander, Submarine Group SEVEN, Yokosuka, Japan
May 1998 – April 2001 Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
May 2001 – July 2004 Deputy and Chief of Staff, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Norfolk, Va.