Rising to the challenge of serving under the sea Life on a Sub

Could you thrive in the exclusive, mysterious, pressure-filled submariner community? What are the unique opportunities, challenges and rewards that come with the various roles you could serve on a sub? How do accounts of everyday life beneath the surface compare to assumptions you may have? Here’s the place to test the waters.


If you’re drawn to the possibility of serving on a sub, you should first understand what being a submariner means. Many who know the answer to this question firsthand will tell you that being in the “Silent Service” is an experience they wouldn’t trade for the world.

A Rare and Unrivaled Opportunity

Nothing compares to the experience of living and working aboard a state-of-the-art submarine. It’s an opportunity that you just won’t find in an everyday job search or in other branches of the military – and one that’s unique even within America’s Navy.

Though manning some of the most cutting-edge machines on earth, the submarine force is a relatively small group – a mere six percent of all Navy personnel – but it represents some of the most skilled men and women in the Navy today.* To join these ranks requires that you volunteer, pass prerequisite tests to prove your ability to serve in this environment, and complete advanced training in everything from your technical specialty to damage control.

There’s no question – it’s not for everybody. But to current and aspiring submariners, this all just adds to the allure.

*Female Officers began serving aboard larger ballistic missile and guided missile subs in 2010. The next step will be welcoming women for sub duty aboard the newest Virginia-class fast-attack submarines – with opportunities for women in Enlisted roles to become part of the submarine force in the near future.

To be a submariner you have to be different. It takes a unique mindset to handle being isolated from [other] people, the sun and fresh air as long as we are. Most people just can’t handle the thought of being underwater, but submariners never really think about it. We try to tell people that being submerged at 400 feet is just like sitting on your couch in the living room.”
— Chief Electronics Technician (SS) William Murtha

The Submariner State of Mind

Submarine service is a stealthy and secretive business by nature and necessity. The course of executing missions routinely involves venturing unseen into the unknown. Conducting classified work that can’t be discussed outside the world in which one operates. And taking on responsibilities that most can’t fathom.

If you want to make it here, you need to have the smarts to do highly technical work. You need to be versatile enough to do your job and at the same time be prepared to do things like fight fires and control flooding. And you need to have an unwavering team mentality.

Earning your Dolphins

Since pressure is ever present on a submarine – safety is paramount. As you can imagine, everything is magnified in a 300-foot-long, 30-foot-wide, three-story capsule operating at depths down to 800 feet. In such confines, shipmates rely heavily upon one another’s abilities. Hold mutual trust in high regard. And generally develop life-altering, lifelong bonds.

The need to select the right men and women for the job is reflected in the extensive screening process, focused training regiment and extensive qualification program (preparation that typically takes a year). It culminates in the milestone achievement of “Earning your Dolphins” – which entitles one to wear the coveted Submarine Warfare Insignia, one of three major warfare pins in the Navy.

Reaching this point signifies that you are officially qualified to serve on subs – having successfully demonstrated expertise in the areas of Indoctrination/Damage Control, Propulsion, Auxiliary Systems, Electronic Equipment, and Navigation and Combat Systems.

Wearing Dolphins means much more than knowing how to draw all of the boat’s hydraulic, steam, electronic and air systems. It means more than being able to explain how a drop of seawater outside the boat makes it into your cup in the galley...wearing Dolphins means that the crew trusts you to know how to save the boat...regardless of your rating or rank. Earning that trust makes you much more than a professional Sailor — it makes you a member of the submarine family.”
– Culinary Specialist 3rd Class (SS) Jeff Smith


Video: Navy Submarine - Earning Your Dolphins

My command philosophy is first and foremost to take care of the crew both professionally and personally, to see them promote is just the most enjoyable thing, the most rewarding part of this job. For an officer to earn your Dolphin pin it is ah, it's essentially a warfare …

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Whether you want to manage a nuclear reactor, fire torpedoes or prepare meals, you’ll find that every job on a sub is important in its own right. Familiarize yourself with some of the exciting sub career paths available – and the types of subs you could be working on.

Sub Careers

With a typical crew of between 120 and 160, submarines carry fewer Sailors than most surface ships and have fewer career specialties available. At the same time, submarine crews:

  • Have highly specialized responsibilities (some found only on subs)
  • Serve as experts in their respective departments (including Engineering, Weapons, Operations and Supply)
  • Receive cross-training to develop proficiency in all submarine systems (something unique to the sub community)
  • Earn competitive salaries as well as Submarine Duty Incentive Pay (called Sub Pay) – an added reward for the demanding requirements of serving on a submarine
  • Enjoy closer working relationships with one another (including less formally regimented interaction between those in the Officer and Enlisted ranks)

“In the submarine force, we put an emphasis on being right more than what a Sailor’s rank might be, because everyone aboard a submarine is expected to be a backup to his shipmate. Our lives depend on knowing that we can count on each other to watch our backs, to make sure the safety of the ship is placed well ahead of rank or rate.”
— CDR Robert Palisin, Commanding Officer, USS Maine (SSBN 741)


There are well over a dozen potential sub careers to pursue – from Missile Technicians to Information Systems Technicians, from jobs geared around engineering to jobs heavy into electronics, from work focused on logistics to a role catered for those with culinary interests. Here are some especially in-demand careers to be aware of:

Whether on a covert, classified mission or a typical day of operation, Submarine Officers gain valuable lifelong experiences, advanced nuclear training and high-level responsibility from day one. What's more, they have a great time doing it all. See for yourself. And then learn more about a career as a Submarine Officer.


Video: Navy Nuclear - Submarine Officer

Pete Andrews, Christian Rivera, Peter Koziel, Joel Winbigler, Chris Carter, and Eric Molina discuss what it's like to be a Submarine Officer in the Navy.

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Petty Officer Michael Cooke, a Submarine Sonar Tech, is the eyes and ears of his ship. See how his career in the Navy has helped shape his life and the life of so many fellow Sailors. And then learn more about a career in the Submarine Electronics field.

Types of Subs

Navy submarines are the most powerful and capable vessels of their kind in the world today. There are more than 70 submarines in the Navy Submarine Fleet. Each one is nuclear-powered and classified as one of three different types:

Fast Attack Submarine (SSN) – The ultimate hunters of the sea, attack submarines are primarily designed to seek and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships. They are fast, agile and armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles. SSNs are the most common type of Navy submarine – highlighted by the state-of-the-art Virginia class. Learn more about Fast Attack Submarines.

Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN) – The great intimidators of the sea, ballistic missile submarines (often called “boomers”) are designed to serve a single mission: strategic deterrence. They are armed with long-range intercontinental nuclear missiles and stealthily patrol the ocean’s depths, unseen yet feared. There are 14 SSBNs in operation – each one with enough onboard firepower to make it roughly the fifth most powerful nation on earth. Learn more about Ballistic Missile Submarines.

Guided Missile Submarine (SSGN) – The covert operators of the sea, guided missile submarines are specially configured to serve and support the needs of special operations around the globe. They are armed with tactical missiles and superior communications and are equally ready to spy or strike. All four of the SSGNs in operation feature a lock-out chamber that allows for clandestine insertion and retrieval of Spec Ops forces. Learn more about Guided Missile Submarines.


When you imagine serving on a sub, it’s normal to wonder about things like where you’d deploy and for how long, when and where you’d work and sleep, what you might do with free time and how you’d stay in touch with loved ones. Get some insight here.

Travel & Adventure

Surfacing through an ice sheet at the North Pole. Cruising through the Panama Canal in an underwater boat. Hearing the sounds of whales and other sea creatures outside your place of work. With submarine service comes global subaquatic travel and a sense of adventure all its own.

Submarines are homeported at bases from San Diego, Calif., to Norfolk, Va., to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. And depending upon the type of sub you serve aboard, you could be making port visits from England to Australia to Japan. And whether you’re on duty or taking advantage of military vacation perks, the thrill of seeing new places and meeting new people can be yours as a submarine crewmember in the U.S. Navy. Your life on a sub can literally take you to locations anywhere in the world.


Video: Navy Submarine - Experience

Probably one of the proudest days of my life was the day I brought USS Texas into Pearl Harbor, it was a homecoming. And uh that was one of the most emotional days I've ever spent in the Navy. I was on the bridge of the uh Panama Canal transit and I didn't realize that most of the …

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Submariners rotate between sea and shore assignments, and specific rotation schedules depend upon the Officer or Enlisted Sailor role served. Typically, a submariner can expect to be on sea duty for a period of three to five years, followed by shore duty for a period of two to three years. And don’t expect to be at sea for years straight. Remember – most subs spend a significant amount of time docked at their home port.

Because of the nature of the work, the living conditions and the limited space for onboard supplies, submarines typically have shorter deployments than surface ships. A typical submarine deployment would be:

  • 3–6 months for a smaller Fast Attack Submarine (SSN)
  • 3 months for a larger Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN)

Working Environment

Sailors in the submarine service are exposed to a variety of different work environments – from academic settings to training on prototype units to eventual sea tours and shore assignments.

The time spent aboard submarines requires the obvious adjustment to a situation in which space is limited. But as you get comfortable in those confines, you will find yourself amid high-tech surroundings and highly capable people – both among the most unique and impressive in the Navy today.


Video: Navy Submarine - Anatomy of a Sub

Most submarines are fairly similar in their general design, they have what we call the pressure hull, that's where all the equipment that has to stay dry and where the people work at. Outside of the pressure hull we have main ballast tanks. The very bow of the submarine we have a …

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U.S. Navy

Living Quarters

When you come aboard a submarine, you will be assigned a “berthing area,” which includes a locker for storage and a “rack” for sleeping. What a non-submariner might see as cramped, a submariner would call cozy.

Beyond working and sleeping, you also have to eat. And whether its lobster tail, soft-serve ice cream or fresh produce fresh out of port, submariners enjoy the distinction of having some of the best chow in the Navy – something that’s also good for morale.

And though space is at a premium, you'll find areas outside the work environment to engage in a host of leisure activities during those times when you are not on duty.

Free Time

Rest assured, it’s not all work and no play aboard a Navy Sub. There is some downtime that can be beneficial to team building and personal rejuvenation. And it’s important to take advantage of it when you can.

Subs operate on an 18-hour schedule – and here’s how a typical day breaks down:

  • 6 hours spent on watch (actively operating assigned equipment)
  • 12 hours spent off watch (this time is divided between eating, studying, training, qualifying and free time – which includes sleep time)

From watching movies to playing games, socializing to exercising, your time away from work can be as exciting or relaxing as you want it to be.

Keeping in Touch

One of the most important non-work-related activities on a sub is communicating with loved ones back home. And you should know that even on a submarine, Sailors can keep in touch with friends and family.

Communication is more limited than when serving on a surface ship, but on port stops there’s access to mail and packages, the ability to make phone calls, and opportunities to receive email (some communication capability may also be available while submerged at communications depth).