Cmdr. Gregory Zettler said early reports regarding a 24-hour sub watchbill have been positive. (MC1 Todd A. Schaffer / Navy)
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ABOARD THE ATTACK SUBMARINE NORFOLK — For decades, submariners have lived in flux, shifting between 18-hour days on deployment and 24-hour days in port.
That may soon change because of guidance issued to the sub fleet that allows, but doesn’t require, submariners to stand longer watches. Boats now can try an eight-hours-on, 16-hours-off watchbill that matches a 24-hour day.
One Los Angeles-class attack sub, the Scranton, has already done so with positive results. Another, the Norfolk, may give the new watchbill a shot on its next deployment, expected to begin late this year or early next.
Cmdr. Gregory Zettler, commanding officer of the Norfolk, sat down with Navy Times to talk about changing the watchbill on his sub, the integration of women across the sub fleet, the crew’s favorite port visits and what they’re doing to gear up for their next deployment.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. Watchbills that follow a circadian rhythm [based on a 24-hour day] have become popular in the Navy. What sort of watch rotation was this sub doing on the last deployment, and have you looked at adopting a circadian watchbill?
A. We were on a six-hour, three-section watch rotation, so essentially an 18-hour day. We just received guidance [in May] that allows us to explore the option of using eight-hour days. We, to be honest, have not quite sorted out what we plan to implement. There’s a couple boats out there right now that are doing it and we’ll probably collect their lessons learned and make some good decisions based on what they’ve seen and successes they’ve had. It sounds interesting, it sounds like it’s working out pretty well for them.
Q. What other subs have tried the new watchbill?
A. [The sub] Scranton here in Norfolk was one of the test platforms for it; that’s the only one I know that has tried it. But with the message having been out, I just haven’t had a chance to come full circle and talk to other subs, like the Boise, which just got back from an underway, to see if they tried it out. It’s something that you don’t want to run into without having thought out. I’m sure there are implications, there’s meal planning, for instance, and other stuff like that that will require adjustments to make sure we do that well.
Q. Do you expect to make a decision on this so it might be in place for your next deployment?
A. For sure. We’ll definitely take a look at that between now and the next deployment and assess whether or not the crew likes it. As far as I know, the Scranton’s crew liked it. It requires a mindset shift from how I have done business my entire 19-year career. So it’s just something we’ll want to think carefully through before we go do it.
Q. As of right now, women are not planned to integrate on the Los Angeles class of submarine, but the Navy has said it will look at it in the future. Do you think putting women on this class of sub is possible and worthwhile?
A. That’s a question that I probably can’t answer, just because I have no understanding of what the real cost would be. What I’ll say is that it’s been clear to me for a long time that women can easily do this job and have done this job very well. I think that it’s an idea whose time has come. The Navy needs to do it in a way that makes sense.
All of the ships of this class are going to go away in relatively short order. That sounds ridiculous because it’s actually 20 years or more down the road, but in terms of defense dollars, that’s not a very long time. I’m not sure that it would make a lot of sense, certainly not to refit first flight 688s or second flight 688s.
Maybe if the third flight 688s are going to be around for another 20 years and someone makes a decision to retrofit a couple of those, that might be fine. But it looks to me like they’re making plans now to do the Virginia class and I see that as probably the smartest decision they could make.
Q. During your most recent deployment, the ship visited some unusual ports like Haifa, Israel, and Limassol, Cyprus. What were they like?
A. Israel was fantastic, and Cyprus was excellent as well. I think what really appealed to the crew about Israel was that we got to go to Jerusalem, the foundation of the three Abrahamic religions. They love Americans there, so we really had a great time.
Q. What do you think the benefit is of visiting different ports where many ships don’t get to visit?
A. For us, it’s an opportunity to relax and recharge our batteries, which is pretty important. When we go out and we’re operational in those kinds of deployed environments, it can be very stressful. If you’re doing an 18-hour day, it’s a solid 12 hours of work in that day, if not more, so guys are just doing that over and over and over again.
When we do it right — and I’m very proud of the crew because they did this in each case — we’re really great ambassadors for America. It may be the only view of America that some of the people in those countries ever have. Israel, that’s probably less the case, but certainly in Cyprus, we may be the only view of America that people have.
When we go there, we’re respectful and we have a great visit, I think it represents America well.
Q. You’ve been back from deployment for more than half a year. What’s the crew been up to since you’ve been back, and what are the next big events looking forward?
A. We’re already gearing up for our next deployment. It’s to be determined when our exact next deployment date will be, but we’re already in the cycle with the first major maintenance period to set us up for being ready to go back and conduct a [U.S. Central Command] deployment later this year or early next year.
What we’ve been up to is really a major post-deployment availability and then we’ve done some exercises and tactical readiness — just standard stuff to work our way back into the pre-deployment routine.