The U.S. Navy Has a Nuclear Workforce Problem

The U.S. Navy Has a Nuclear Workforce Problem

Sailors man the rails aboard Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) at the Port of San Diego.
Sailors man the rails aboard Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) at the Port of San Diego. Haydn N. Smith/U.S. Navy

Grueling work, financial stress, and shifting values are pushing too many of the navy’s nuclear personnel out of the service. Here’s how it can turn things around.

March 26, 2024 4:44 pm (EST)

Sailors man the rails aboard Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) at the Port of San Diego.
Sailors man the rails aboard Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) at the Port of San Diego. Haydn N. Smith/U.S. Navy
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The U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered fleet has been central to the country’s ability to project power globally for decades. But this world-class nuclear navy—including all current U.S. aircraft carriers and submarines—is under threat amid a steady exodus of highly trained officers and enlisted personnel. The attrition in the nuclear workforce raises serious concerns about the sustainability of the modern fleet in a time of rising geopolitical competition.

A Worrisome Trend

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Taken at face value, some recent U.S. military statistics seem to show that the navy has a healthy nuclear workforce and that most are looking to stay in the service, perhaps, for many more years. For instance, some nuclear electrical positions have retention rates in the mid-eighties. This appears high compared to some much lower retention rates—below fifty percent—in some roles in the other services.

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However, these numbers are somewhat deceiving because of the extensive training that a sailor in the nuclear field must undergo. Each is required to receive two years of training ashore before they can serve on a ship or submarine at sea, which is typically a 4.5-year assignment—for a total of 6.5 years. But because their initial enlistment is only for a standard five years, many simply extend their time in the navy for two years—to fulfill that first seagoing assignment—and then separate from the service.

Unfortunately, both the navy’s officer and enlisted communities struggle to maintain these well-qualified and experienced people past their initial ship assignment. The heavy turnover rate becomes even more alarming when coupled with the steep cost of training the nuclear workforce—roughly several hundred thousand dollars before they even step foot on their respective ship or submarine.

The Security Risk

A dwindling nuclear workforce will diminish the navy’s operational capabilities and compromise its ability to maintain U.S. dominance of the high seas and a robust presence in strategic regions. Furthermore, the loss of skilled nuclear personnel erodes the institutional knowledge and expertise required to operate and maintain these highly complex systems.

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There are technical advances that can lower the number of personnel needs. For example, the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier has about one hundred fewer nuclear-trained personnel than the USS Nimitz class carrier because of these advances. However, more efficient technology alone cannot be relied upon to maintain our nuclear platforms. Sailors and officers remain the navy’s asymmetric advantage.  

Reasons They Leave

I served as Reactor Officer on the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), where I led thirty officers and some five hundred enlisted sailors in the operation of the aircraft carrier’s two nuclear power plants. During my tenure, I made a point of getting to know everyone and asking them why they joined the navy, why they chose the nuclear fleet, and where they hoped their future would take them. The response from an overwhelming majority of them was clear: beyond the propensity to serve their country, they joined to further their educational and professional goals, typically with the aim of a well-paid and fulfilling career. Talented people have options and will always seek better opportunities. These are driven individuals with predetermined exit strategies.

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Through my interactions with them, I also came to understand at least three underlying factors driving their exodus: the demanding nature of the work, inadequate compensation, and generational and cultural shifts.

Highly Demanding Work

Operating a nuclear-powered vessel is an intellectually and physically demanding task. The slightest mistake could have catastrophic consequences. In every role, such as reactor operators and maintenance technicians, the nuclear navy relies on personnel with specialized training and expertise. The grueling nature of the work, combined with the need for constant vigilance and keen attention to detail, places an immense burden on these individuals. Long hours, extended deployments, and isolated living conditions take a heavy toll on an individual’s mental and physical well-being, often leading to burnout. The navy has tried to ameliorate some of the social disconnect that sailors experience while at sea, by increasing the adoption of satellite internet services, for instance, but eight to ten months with slow connectivity remains disagreeable for many.

Inadequate Compensation

Nuclear navy personnel receive additional compensation for their specialized skills, but it might not commensurate with the demanding nature of their work or competitive with the salary they could obtain in the private sector. For example, a nuclear-trained enlisted electronics technician with three years of service, living in San Diego without dependents, currently earns about $6,000 per month. If they reenlist for four years, they can receive a retention bonus of up to $2,500 extra per month for a total of about $8,500 per month or $102,000 per year. This is a generous salary to be sure, and they deserve every penny. But this compensation struggles to compete with a starting salary of $120,000 to $150,000 for equivalent civilian nuclear careers. Moreover, the additional stress of living and working at sea could further incentivize a sailor’s decision to separate from the navy.

Cultural and Generational Shifts

More than their predecessors, younger generations of professionals often prioritize work-life balance, personal fulfillment, and flexibility in their careers. The nuclear navy’s demanding lifestyle and rigid hierarchical structure can clash with these evolving values, making naval service less appealing to potential recruits. Additionally, the military’s strict adherence to traditional chain-of-command structures and inflexible policies could deter talented individuals seeking a more horizontal and adaptable work environment.

Recommendations

The navy has taken several steps to improve retention in the force, but it still needs to engage in a frank discussion about advancement and compensation for all nuclear-trained sailors, officers, and enlisted.

Advancement

For officers in the nuclear navy, the service should consider creating a path for them to obtain a professional engineering license following completion of nuclear power school. This would be similar to the path that the navy currently provides for Engineering Duty Officers (EDO), in which they are all sent to graduate school as part of their career. Currently, officers belonging to the surface warfare, submarine, aviation, or special warfare communities can apply for special graduate education programs, but there is no guarantee the officers will get them, leading most to obtain graduate education while performing the regular duties associated with their jobs.

For enlisted personnel, there should be a standard path for professional licensing rather than the current model that relies heavily on an individual’s initiative to complete journeyman programs. The up-or-out model of advancement doesn’t help retain talent at certain levels either. For sailors who don’t necessarily want to become an officer, the navy should create a program that allows them to attend college and have more nuclear shore-duty billets.  

Compensation

The executive and legislative branches should consider expanding the combat zone tax exclusion (CZTE) benefit to also apply to those in the military who serve in contested areas around the globe. The CZTE exempts qualified income from taxation, providing a direct and important monetary benefit to individual servicemembers. Servicemembers currently qualify for CZTE by serving in a combat zone (CZ) as designated by executive order, a qualified hazardous duty area (QHDA) as designated by Congress, or an area outside of these where military service is in direct support of military operations in a CZ or QHDA.

In conclusion, the navy needs to take a holistic approach to retention that addresses compensation, career progression, work-life balance, and organizational culture. Some meaningful changes could require more resources or a larger force, while others might be possible without those adjustments. But it seems clear that without change, the status quo will inevitably exact its own toll on national security. By adapting to the evolving needs of the workforce, the nuclear navy will be able to man its capital warships and maintain naval superiority.

The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.

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