Naval Warfare

Former US Navy XO involved in the making of the movie “Crimson Tide” explains why given the many roles the Executive Officer of a Submarine fills he is in control of everything in the sub’s operations

‘I didn’t think I would enjoy my XO tour. Turns out I loved it because you are in the middle of (and in control of) everything in the submarine’s operations!’ William Toti, former XO of USS Florida (SSBN-728).

Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman both give blistering performances in the now classic submarine film Crimson Tide, and the tension that crackles between them comes to an explosive head in the central “I cannot concur” scene, in which the two go shouty crackers at each other – and then, shockingly, what looks very much like a mutiny takes place.

As we all know Hackman plays the role of the USS Alabama submarine captain while Washington plays his new number two, the executive officer or “XO.”

The XO is the billet of the officer who is second-in-command. An XO is assigned to all ships, aviation squadrons, and shore units and installations, and is responsible to the captain for all ship’s work, drills, exercises, personnel organization, and the policing and inspection of the ship.

But what is the function of an XO in a submarine? Can a submarine captain function without an XO?

William Toti, US Navy Captain, (retired), former commodore, former CO and former XO of USS Florida (SSBN-728) Ohio-class SSBN who was involved in the making of the movie “Crimson Tide,” explains on Quora;

‘The Executive Officer (XO) of a submarine fills several roles:

• He is the second in command of the boat, and as such, the only other officer aboard who has gone through the submarine Prospective Commanding Officer course, and is therefore fully qualified for command should something happen to the Commanding Officer (CO)
• He is the second most experienced officer, so when the captain must take some rest in stressful tactical situations (the captain can’t be awake 24/7), he is able to assign the XO as “Command Duty Officer,” with authority to make some of the decisions normally reserved for the captain (for example, permission to proceed to periscope depth).
• He is the Fire Control Officer or Assistant Approach Officer during battlestations, whose responsibility it is to advise the captain when the “solution” is sufficient to conduct an attack on a ship, submarine, or land-based target.
• He is the ship’s Training Officer, responsible to the captain to make sure drills and training events are sufficient to ensure the crew is adequately trained.
• He is responsible to go to the scene of a casualty (fire, flooding, etc) to take charge at the scene while the captain remains in the Control Room, and to advise the captain on how things are progressing in the casualty. To that end, he should keep himself in good physical condition since he needs to be able to handle being in personal protective equipment for prolonged periods of time to fight a casualty. (Ship crews at sea can’t call the fire department— they ARE the fire department.)

• He is the officer responsible for ship administration (e.g. paperwork)
• He writes and executes the ship’s Plan of the Day on a daily basis.
• He is often the “bad cop” in engaging with the crew, allowing the captain to serve as “good cop.”
• There are also a whole host of informal, unofficial duties that the XO will have. Much like Spock on Star Trek, he is supposed to be the guy, along with the Chief of the Boat (senior enlisted person on the submarine), who “whispers” into the captain’s ear if he thinks the captain is about to make a bad decision. In that capacity, he is the most capable and trusted advisor to the captain.
• He should also, along with the COB, have his “fingers on the pulse of the crew” so he can advise the captain if something is amiss. I was involved in the making of the movie “Crimson Tide” when I was XO of the Trident submarine USS Florida (SSBN-728) Gold Crew, but I think the movie-makers took that factoid a little too far in the making of the movie.
• To answer the second question, everybody gets to go on leave sometime, including the XO, so yes, the submarine can function without an XO for short periods of time. When the XO is gone, the “Third Officer” (most senior department head) fills in for him. But we NEVER let the XO go on leave when the ship is deployed. (PS – when the CO is on leave, the XO fills in for the CO, but it’s rare that the commodore would ever let the ship get underway without the CO onboard. Only happens in emergencies.)

Toti concludes;

‘In other words, he is a very busy guy. I didn’t think I would enjoy my XO tour — I was hoping to merely endure it on the way to command. Turns out I loved it because you are in the middle of (and in control of) everything in the submarine’s operations!’

Photo credit: Hollywood Pictures

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • Generally, I'd let this slip. But either you never read the book or you or some subordinate needs refresher training in PROOFREADING. The book and the subsequent movie is entitled The FLIGHT of the Intruder.
    It was my favorite bird when I served on the MIDWAY in Viet Nam in 1971.

    • I guess you should have to check twice before commenting. This article is about submarines and Crimson Tide not about Coonts' The Flight of the Intruder.

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