Life on a Navy Submarine: What It’s Like For Officers

Last Updated on September 11, 2023

If you’re considering a career as a Navy officer, particularly on a submarine, you’re likely filled with both excitement and questions. The idea is captivating, but the reality involves far more than what you see in movies or read in books.

This guide gives you a comprehensive look at the challenges, responsibilities, and rewards that come with being an officer on a Navy submarine.

Buckle up and dive in.

The Daily Grind: Responsibilities of an Officer

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Work Shifts

Life under the sea operates on a stringent schedule. Officers work in a three-shift rotation: eight hours on watch, eight hours off watch, and eight hours of training time.

When on watch, your focus could range from manning the periscope to overseeing the propulsion system.

The concept of “continuous watch” is taken seriously in the Navy; someone must always be alert and ready for any emergencies or unforeseen circumstances that may arise.

Submarine duty typically entails longer hours — up to 100 a week — than what you’d find in most other Navy roles.

But if you’re looking for a unique challenge and an adrenaline-packed job, this may be the perfect fit.

Navigational Duties

As the Officer of the Deck (OOD), you’re literally steering the ship. The OOD has a suite of technology at their disposal, including sonar, radar, and GPS, to help with safe and accurate navigation.

This task is often assigned to junior officers, making it a fast-paced, high-responsibility role from the get-go.

And with the ocean as your road, there’s no room for error; even a minuscule mistake can lead you significantly off course.

Management and Leadership

Beyond technical roles, an officer’s duties involve significant managerial responsibilities. This is where your leadership skills are put to the test.

You’re in charge of a team, which means you’re responsible for everything from day-to-day operations to crew morale.

You’ll need to conduct evaluations, lead drills, and ensure that everyone adheres to safety protocols and regulations. This responsibility is expected of all naval officers.

Living Conditions: Closer Quarters Than You Think

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Space Management

Space is more than a premium; it’s a luxury. Picture sharing a room, not much larger than a walk-in closet, with two or three other people.

Your “rack” is your tiny corner of the world where you sleep, read, and find a moment’s solitude. Privacy is scarce, making emotional intelligence and mutual respect critical attributes for submariners.

Amenities: Less Is More

If you’re imagining a floating hotel, think again. Amenities onboard are basic and functional. There is a small mess hall where meals are served, a limited exercise area with basic gym equipment, and maybe a modest movie room.

You won’t find expansive lounges or swimming pools here. And with no windows, days can blur together, making it essential to keep your mind sharp.

Food and Nutrition

The upside? You won’t go hungry. Because storage space is at a premium, supplies are restocked more frequently than on surface ships.

This means food quality is typically higher. According to the U.S. Navy’s food budget, around $10 per person per day is spent on meals, providing a variety of options to meet nutritional needs.

There typically is a Culinary Specialist onboard submarines whose job is to oversee the menu and provide fresh meals.

Communication and Isolation

Silent Operations

Nuclear submarines often operate under conditions known as “radio silence” to remain undetected. During these times, all external communications are minimized and carefully controlled.

Even incoming messages are screened and often redacted to maintain the confidentiality of the submarine’s location and mission.

This is crucial for keeping the ship safe, but also means that crew members are completely cut off from their families and friends.

Family Contact

Limited communication isn’t just a professional issue; it’s a personal one. During missions, you’ll have only sporadic contact with family and friends.

While some emails and supervised phone calls are allowed, you’re off the grid during deployments, heightening feelings of isolation.

This can cause stress and strain family relationships, making it important to plan for extended periods away from home.

The Navy offers support, such as counseling and other resources to help you manage both professional and personal responsibilities.

The Rewards: More Than Just a Paycheck

Skill Development

The intense training and experience offer unparalleled skill development. Leadership, technical knowledge, and crisis management are just a few of the skills you’ll hone.

You’ll come out with qualifications that are highly transferable, whether you stay in the Navy or transition to civilian life.

The nuclear engineering field is one of the most in-demand fields, especially for those with submarine experience. Submarines are powered by nuclear reactors and require highly specialized professionals to manage these systems.

The required training is competitive and rigorous, but it’s also an opportunity to stand out. Submarine service is a badge of honor that employers and recruiters recognize.

Financial Benefits

Monetary incentives include special pay scales for submariners and additional “sub pay” ranging from $125 to $425 per month based on your service length.

These financial benefits can make your time onboard more lucrative than equivalent positions in other military branches or civilian jobs.


Perhaps the most enduring benefit is the deep sense of camaraderie that develops among crew members. When you share such close quarters and intense experiences, the bond formed is unlike any other.

Many submariners cite these relationships as one of the most rewarding aspects of their service.

The Submarine community has a long and proud tradition of service, offering unique challenges and rewards.

While life on board is far from glamorous, the experiences can provide invaluable skills, financial benefits, and lifelong friendships.

Challenges and Risks: Not for the Faint of Heart

Mental and Physical Strain

Being a submariner is both mentally and physically demanding. Psychological studies show a higher incidence of stress-related conditions like depression and anxiety among submariners compared to the general population.

Rigorous screening processes are in place to evaluate an individual’s ability to handle the unique strains of submarine life.

Operational Hazards

The underwater environment poses inherent risks, from mechanical failures to the danger of enemy detection.

Between 2000 and 2020, there have been nine recorded submarine accidents, as reported by the Naval Safety Center.

These statistics underscore the critical importance of extensive training and strict adherence to safety protocols.


Being an officer on a Navy submarine is not for everyone, but for those who can adapt to its unique challenges, it offers an unparalleled career path.

From invaluable skill sets to strong bonds of camaraderie, the life of a submariner is both tough and rewarding.

So if you’re someone who can navigate through confined spaces, both physical and emotional, a career in the Navy Submarine community might be your perfect match.

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