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Achieving Dominance in the Cyber Domain: Lessons from Rickover’s Development of the Nuclear Navy

Lieutenant G. Creigh Greensmith, USN

 Every day, cyberattacks are launched against the United States military, critical infrastructure, and key resources. In June 2015, hackers stole the background investigation records of active duty service members, veterans, and federal employees from the Office of Personnel Management. The records included 21.5 million social security numbers, individual employment histories, information about immediate family members, and 5.6 million fingerprints.[footnote:footnote0] From 2013 to late 2017, Iranian cyber actors stole more than 31 terabytes of academic data and intellectual property from 144 American universities, 36 American companies, and five American government agencies.[footnote:footnote1] Since March of 2016, Russian hackers have been mapping our power plant networks.[footnote:footnote2] They attempted and even succeeded at penetrating our election-related networks.[footnote:footnote3] Our adversaries are laying the groundwork for the next war and they are building it by ones and zeros.

The U.S. Navy’s security has been no less vulnerable. In 2013, a nation-state penetrated the Navy’s unclassified networks. In June 2018, Chinese government hackers stole secret plans to develop a supersonic anti-ship missile for use on U.S. submarines.[footnote:footnote4] Beyond this, nearly every Navy vessel and aircraft uses software in propulsion, steering, navigation, and weapons systems. The Navy acknowledges that these systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks, and in the case of the recent USS John S. McCain collision with a tanker, it considered the possibility of a cyberattack on the steering software concerning enough to send a cyber team to investigate.

As the United States has entered the twenty-first century, our military and intelligence community leaders have identified the importance of our strength in cyberspace. In 2011, the Department of Defense declared the strategic initiative to treat cyberspace as a new warfare domain, adding cyber to the list of air, land, sea, and space.[footnote:footnote5] This year’s elevation of United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) to a combatant command in many ways represents the fulfillment of this initiative. The National Defense Strategy identifies the United States’ military cyber capability as a key component in maintaining a competitive advantage.[footnote:footnote6] Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates, in a February 2018 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, identified cyber as the top threat the United States faces.

Responding to this threat, other branches have developed dedicated career paths for their cyber officers. The Navy, meanwhile, has lagged behind, maintaining pathways that fail to provide officers with the technical expertise and focus necessary to lead effectively in this evolving domain. If the Navy does not change its approach, it risks losing parity with other branches in filling roles at Cyber National Mission Force and USCYBERCOM. But this is not the greatest peril. Competitive nations around the globe are investing heavily in cyber to tip the balance in their favor, hoping to disable our communications, expose our intelligence and research, and immobilize our fleet. Without a robust cyber force, the Navy risks being outpaced on the battlefield.[footnote:footnote7]

Parallels Between Cyber and Nuclear Submarines

This isn’t the first time the Navy has wrestled with new technology. In the dawn of the nuclear age, while interest was developing among senior leadership as to the potential of nuclear power, many in the Navy were reluctant to devote resources to developing the nascent technology. Costs, training, and manpower were legitimate concerns, as well as the idea of using the Navy’s budget on this untested idea instead of for badly needed fleet modernization of aircraft carriers and ships. Yet one naval officer, Captain Hyman G. Rickover, was inspired by the revolutionary impact he believed nuclear power could have on the submarine. His efforts led to the creation of USS Nautilus and the nuclear Navy, and fundamentally transformed submarine capabilities in the twentieth century.

Rickover’s example provides a compelling parallel for the Navy’s development of a premier cyber corps for several reasons. On a strategic level, the mission and capabilities of nuclear-powered submarines and cyber are similar: a submarine goes undetected to the adversary’s territory and collects information vital to national security. It observes the adversary’s movements, recording tactics, techniques, and procedures. Our ballistic-missile submarines provide strategic deterrence, promising unstoppable retaliation by hiding in the depths of the ocean. In the same way, cyber actors penetrate the adversary’s network for foreign intelligence collection. Inside the network, they read private communications by senior leadership and expose military plans. Kinetic cyberattacks inside the adversary’s networks have even been used for strategic deterrence, e.g., Stuxnet.

The other key similarity between the nuclear force and the cyber force is the substantial training and expertise required. For the nuclear force, operators must understand a myriad of technical subjects—from reactor theory to radiation science and chemistry—in order to safely and effectively control the reactor. This information isn’t taught in general education courses and nuclear engineering is an uncommon offering at universities, which makes recruiting a proficient workforce difficult, especially as the Navy competes with the private sector. In the same way, most schools do not offer coding and computer science classes as part of their general curriculum—hardly any offer courses on hacking and penetration testing. As a result, the Navy must compete with federal agencies, the financial industry, cybersecurity firms, and Silicon Valley to procure officers from a small group with the right expertise.

The Navy Cyber Force Today

Currently, the Navy offers two tracks for cyber officers, both with significant flaws. One creates generalists and disrupts specialization, the other takes specialists but only retains them for six years before forcing them to move on.

The Cryptologic Warfare Officer community covers signals intelligence, electronic warfare, and cyber. These officers are expected to gain experience in all three of these specialties, and a “jack of all trades, master of none” approach is encouraged. Practically, this means that formal training in cyber is limited to definitions of cyberspace operations, an understanding of public key infrastructure, and identifying the layers of the Open Systems Interconnection model. Officers do not code and have no formal training in computer science or cyber operations, so their ability to direct the enlisted who serve under them is limited. Furthermore, officers interested in cyber are strongly encouraged to spend tours developing experience in signals intelligence and electronic warfare. Detailers warn that avoiding these tours might make promotion uncertain. But the technology behind cyber defense and cyberattacks changes at breakneck speed. Removing talented and experienced mid-grade officers from cyber puts us at a disadvantage to adversaries who have dedicated career paths to cyber. Understanding this, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force created the cyber operations officer communities. Officers in these communities will spend their entire careers filling cyber-related billets and develop far more experience and technical skill in the domain compared to their Navy peers. Yet they will still compete with the Navy’s cryptologic warfare officers to fill leadership positions at USCYBERCOM, Cyber National Mission Force, and Tailored Access Operations at the National Security Agency. There should be concern that the Navy’s future representatives, with their diluted experience and limited training, won’t be equipped to lead as effectively.

For those who have specialized degrees, the cryptologic warfare engineer is the Navy’s true cyber officer. These men and women build software to protect against adversary attacks and write code for use in cyberspace operations. To qualify, applicants must have either a computer science or a computer engineering degree, and the degree must come from a school listed on the National Security Agency’s Center of Academic Excellence.[footnote:footnote8] While these officers are technically proficient, their expertise is eventually squandered. After six years, they are shown the door because there is no opportunity for cryptologic warfare engineers to promote beyond lieutenant. If they want to continue their careers in the Navy, their only option is to join the cryptologic warfare officer community,[footnote:footnote9] where they will face pressures to dilute their experience outside the domain.

Solutions from Submarines: Train Your Own

“To practice a profession one must have acquired mastery of an academic discipline as well as a technique for applying this special knowledge to the problems of everyday life. A profession is therefore intellectual in content, practical in application.”—Hyman G. Rickover[footnote:footnote11]

Before Rickover disrupted modern warfare by harnessing the potential of the nuclear-powered submarine, the Navy relied on diesel-electric boats. Vessels of the era were severely limited in usefulness due to the slowness of the boat when powered by electricity, and the noise and vulnerability on the surface generated by running the diesel. But with nuclear power, the submarine became capable of unbelievable feats: crossing under the polar ice caps, remaining underwater for weeks at a time, and quietly lying undetected off the coasts of an adversary while surreptitiously tracking other submarines and surface ships. In just 10 years after the creation of the atomic bomb, Rickover successfully organized the Navy, the Atomic Energy Commission, industry, and Congress in order to achieve this historic feat. Education was a critical factor in his success.

In June 1946, Captain Rickover, an engineering duty officer, received a special assignment to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. During WWII, the secret facility had been one of the major installations responsible for building the atomic bomb. But after the war, Oak Ridge Laboratory adopted a new focus: developing nuclear reactor technology. In preparation for this assignment, Rickover studied textbooks on physics, chemistry, and electrical engineering. When he arrived at the facility, he took note of the other naval officers stationed there, and finding himself the most senior, he organized the group and began assigning educational tasks. Under his watch, the officers attended every lecture available and completed definitive reports, assigned by Rickover, on weight and space requirements, power generation, fuels, metallurgy, chemical processing, and other topics related to nuclear power.[footnote:footnote12] Following review, Rickover sent the reports to his superior, Vice Admiral Mills, assistant chief at the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships (BuShips).

It would take time, but the expertise Rickover and his team developed at Oak Ridge did not go unnoticed. This started with a paper prepared by Captain Rickover and Lieutenant Commander Roddis on the consolidation of their research, entitled, “A Discussion of the Navy’s Interest in Nuclear Energy Applications,” which eventually made it into the hands of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Nimitz. Though the paper had little impact on the immediate development of nuclear-powered submarines, it elevated the recognition and research of Rickover and his naval group to the most senior ranks.

Rickover’s prioritization of education didn’t abate when the Oak Ridge team disbanded. Three years later, as the head of Nuclear Power Branch, he stipulated that every staff member he hired would first spend several months receiving advanced training in reactor technology. Some went to Oak Ridge, and other to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Rickover had played a major role in designing the reactor technology curriculum.[footnote:footnote13]

But as Rickover’s workforce grew, he faced a dilemma. He could attempt to recruit the few experienced people in reactor technology from private industry, or he could train his own.[footnote:footnote14] He chose the latter—and 62 years later, the rigorous training pipeline he created for nuclear officers is still in use. Before receiving orders to a submarine or carrier, nuclear officers spend six months learning physics, chemistry, electrical engineering, and reactor theory followed by six months of training on a nuclear power plant. The United States Navy’s record on nuclear-related accidents stands as a testament to the effectiveness of this program; there has never been a U.S. Navy nuclear accident. In contrast, Russia, the only other nation with a large number of nuclear ships, has had 13.[footnote:footnote15]

Undergirding Rickover’s emphasis on education was an important technique: He never relied on others to generate the talent he desperately needed. Instead, in every circumstance, Rickover created his own training plan for subordinates, from his team at Oak Ridge, to his staff, to every member of the nuclear Navy.

Similarly, the United States Navy must create their own training plan for the cyber officer. It cannot rely on academia or private industry to supply prospective officers with specialized degrees, because, as with the field of nuclear power, the market is too small and competitive. While this kind of overhaul will take time—and advocacy, as I explain in the next section—there are steps the Navy can take in the short term, like providing basic certifications for officers, including Net+, Sec+, and Certified Ethical Hacking, and affecting policies that allow cyber warfare engineers to promote beyond lieutenant and cryptologic warfare officers to specialize. In the longer term, the Navy must establish an educational program similar to the six-month Joint Cyber Analysis Course (JCAC) enlisted computer operators attend, where officers would be taught computer engineering, electrical engineering, coding, and cyber strategy.

Solutions from Submarines: Create Internal and External Advocates

“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.”—Hyman G. Rickover[footnote:footnote16]

Rickover’s devotion to education was only the first component of his success in establishing a nuclear Navy; the second was his strategic lobbying. As has already been mentioned, Captain Rickover’s first report on the status of nuclear propulsion made it to the desk of the CNO. The next step, in Captain Rickover’s mind, was to steer the Navy’s interests towards building a nuclear-powered submarine. He knew it would take leaders at the top of the organization to make the change, so he worked with Lieutenant Commander Ray Dick to craft a letter for the CNO. After gaining Admiral Mills’s approval, Rickover presented his letter to Captain Grenfell and Commander Beach, both well-respected submarine officers, who passed the letter to Admiral Nimitz. At the time, support was growing among senior Navy leadership for the usefulness of nuclear power, but the Navy had not declared any official direction. Dick and Rickover’s letter provided that direction. Admiral Nimitz approved the letter immediately, forwarding it along with proposed letters for the Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan and the Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. The content of the letters made it official: “There was a military need for a submarine with unlimited endurance at high speed submerged. Only nuclear power could meet that need. With sufficient effort, such a submarine could be completed by the mid-1950s. The Bureau of Ships was to be the Navy’s agency for carrying out this development.”[footnote:footnote17]

Historians Polmar and Allen describe the consequence of this event: “With this high-level backing, Rickover was able to take a strong stand in soliciting—and cajoling and badgering—various Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) laboratories to begin work on the nuclear-propulsion effort.”[footnote:footnote18] Rickover’s campaigning with senior leaders—convincing those at the top to direct policy changes—is a technique he used at multiple points throughout his career. Admiral Nimitz’s successor signed a memo drafted by Rickover declaring nuclear propulsion to be a formal development project in the Navy.[footnote:footnote19] Rickover’s letter writing campaigns maximized his impact. He, a captain in the Navy, in a staff assistant position, was driving Navy policy forward.  

Rickover also sought out the power of Congress to help him share his vision and achieve his goals. He would frequently visit representatives and senators, bringing models, samples of exotic metals to be used for nuclear power, and other hard evidence that demonstrated his current achievements, and convinced Congress that his work was worthy of further support.[footnote:footnote20] He emphasized the Soviet Union’s submarine production capabilities and argued that silent, nuclear-powered submersibles would be able to conquer the threat.[footnote:footnote21] Once funding had been obtained through Congress, Captain Rickover was quick to show off every stage of development of Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine. Through Senator McMahon, Rickover invited President Truman to attend the keel laying.[footnote:footnote22] Upon completion of Nautilus, Rickover held meetings on board the boat with the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, and frequently invited members of Congress for rides. His tireless defense of nuclear power, his aggressive calls for shoring up national security, and his underdog status made his case incredibly appealing to Congress. He benefited greatly from this relationship—it is ultimately what saved his career.[footnote:footnote23] But more importantly, Rickover’s emphasis on the benefits of nuclear power and his invitations to Congress won Rickover critical support when he sought to create a nuclear fleet of aircraft carriers, cruisers, and submarines. Today, our Navy is able to operate safely and effectively at every corner of the globe because of his legacy.

In order to create a Navy equivalent to the “cyber operations officer” communities the other branches offer, the Navy will require significant resources and support. Education, too, will be a costly expansion. While most senior levels of leadership today recognize the strategic importance of cyber, Rickover’s example shows that lower-level individuals can be key actors in developing this community. But the Navy also needs Congress to be an active ally. Threats of election influencing, government institution hacks, stolen military secrets and cyber kinetic attacks against our fleet are clear and pressing concerns for our nation’s representative body. Right now, the Navy is capable of responding to these threats, but it must do more to advertise current capabilities and ensure that funds exist to improve our force for the future. Leaders at USCYBERCOM, Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command, and Cyber National Mission Force will need to invite members of Congress to their commands and give them the opportunity to witness cyber operations in action, appraise current defense abilities, and partake in Navy cyber successes. At the same time, Navy cyber representatives should be regulars on Capitol Hill, crying out in the halls of Congress: “Prepare ye the way of cyber!”


“The development of naval nuclear propulsion plants is a good example of how one goes about getting a job done. It is a good subject to study for methods… it has involved the establishment of procedures and ways of doing government business for which there was no precedent, and which I believe will be necessary in the future for similar large projects.”—Hyman G. Rickover[footnote:footnote24]

The future of maritime superiority will depend on the actions of the individual to make a difference. We are at a moment of great potential, when the Navy’s influence in the cyber domain can develop in one of two directions: dominance or obsolescence. Will we learn from Rickover, who, when confronted with a nascent technology, saw the future and worked vigorously to ensure the United States Navy was its harbinger? I hope, for the safety of our nation and fleet, the answer is yes.


A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Lieutenant Creigh Greensmith entered active service from the University of Virginia Naval ROTC program in May 2013, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry.

He was commissioned as a submarine officer and attended initial training at Naval Nuclear Power Training Command and Nuclear Power Training Unit in Charleston, South Carolina, before reporting to USS Henry M. Jackson in April 2015. During his tour, he served as the Main Propulsion Assistant. In April 2016, he reported to COMSUBRON 17 to serve as the Assistant to the Chief Staff Officer. In November 2016, he was re-designated as an 1810 and from January 2017-April 2017 attended Information Warfare Basic Course in Dam Neck, Virginia and Cryptologic Warfare Officer Basic Course in Pensacola, Florida. In April 2017, he reported to Cryptologic Warfare Group Six where he currently serves as the division officer for CSA-23 and as a Senior Watch Officer. Lieutenant Greensmith is married to Jessica Greensmith, a writer. They live in Annapolis, Maryland, where they enjoy boating, gardening, trips to D.C., and their daughter, Jolene.

  • [footnote:footnote0]Office of Personnel Management, “Cybersecurity Incidents,” June 29, 2018,
  • [footnote:footnote1]Nicole Hong and Ian Talley, “U.S. Charges Nine Iranians With Cyberattack Campaign,” Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2018,
  • [footnote:footnote2]United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, “Alert (TA18-074A),”
  • [footnote:footnote3]Testimony of Jeannette Manfra, Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Cybersecurity, United States Department of Homeland Security before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,
  • [footnote:footnote4]Ellen Nakashima and Paul Sonne, “China hacked a Navy contractor and secured a trove of highly sensitive data on submarine warfare,” The Washington Post, June 8, 2018,
  • [footnote:footnote5]Department of Defense Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace, July 2011,
  • [footnote:footnote6]Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America,
  • [footnote:footnote7]Jim Garamone, “Cyber Tops List of Threats to U.S., Director of National Intelligence Says,” Department of Defense News, February 13, 2018,
  • [footnote:footnote8]United States Navy, “Cyber Warfare Engineer,”
  • [footnote:footnote9]NAVADMIN 205/10 “Establishment of the Cyber Warfare Engineer Designator.”
  • [footnote:footnote10]NAVADMIN 205/10 “Establishment of the Cyber Warfare Engineer Designator.”
  • [footnote:footnote11]Theodore Rockwell, The Rickover Effect (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1992), 19.
  • [footnote:footnote12]Francis Duncan, Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 99.
  • [footnote:footnote13]Ibid., 108.
  • [footnote:footnote14]Ibid., 293.
  • [footnote:footnote15]Dave Oliver, Against the Tide (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 3.
  • [footnote:footnote16]Hyman G. Rickover, “Doing a Job,” Speech, Columbia University, 1982,
  • [footnote:footnote17]Rockwell, The Rickover Effect, 57.
  • [footnote:footnote18]Norman Polman and Thomas B. Allen, Rickover (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 139.
  • [footnote:footnote19]Duncan, Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence, 111.
  • [footnote:footnote20]Rockwell, The Rickover Effect, 168.
  • [footnote:footnote21]Duncan, Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence, 112.
  • [footnote:footnote22]Ibid., 119.
  • [footnote:footnote23]Rickover was passed over for selection to rear admiral twice. This meant an automatic retirement at the grade of captain in 1953. In response, the Senate delayed confirmation of captain promotions to rear admiral and threatened to open an investigation into the Navy’s selection board process. As a result, the Secretary of the Navy changed selection board practices to ensure Rickover would be retained.
  • [footnote:footnote24]Hyman G. Rickover, “School Address” Speech, Naval Postgraduate School, 1954.
Published: Tue Jan 08 16:07:42 EST 2019