TWO WATERSHED EVENTS OCCURRED IN 1963 that effectively spelled the end of America's postwar period of national innocence: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the destruction of the nuclear submarine Thresher, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander John Harvey. Just as the context for both these events were markedly different, so too would be the fallout from each. In the case of JFK's assassination, it would mark the end of the moral rectitude of U.S. politics and the sanctity of the office of the president. Robert MacNeil of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour summed this up by stating, "… perhaps we lived in a fool's paradise before the Kennedy assassination" (Proctor, 1993). In the case of the Thresher accident, the result would be scrutiny of submarine design and the implementation of assurance systems. It marked the beginning of SUBSAFE, a quality assurance program of the U.S. Navy designed to maintain the safety of the nuclear submarine fleet. Specifically, it provides maximum reasonable assurance that sub hulls will stay watertight and that they can recover from unanticipated flooding. Interestingly, and by a twist of fate, both Kennedy and Harvey share more than just a tragic place in U.S. history. Both had apparently received a gift from enigmatic Admiral Hyman Rickover, director of the U.S. Navy's Naval Reactors Branch. The gift was a plaque inscribed with an old French fishing prayer: "O God the sea is so great and my boat is so small." Rickover had made a habit of presenting these plaques to new submarine captains, which was intended to be a reminder of their vulnerabilities. Kennedy, a World War II U.S. Naval Reserve officer, had also received the plaque (which now resides in his presidential library). While the Thresher's demise did not put the brakes on the U.S. nuclear submarine program, it underscored the fact that these ever-increasingly complex platforms were still susceptible to their environment, a dark, frigid world of extreme pressures occupied by adversaries, both above and below the surface. These weaknesses have been reasonably well appreciated since the earliest of submarines, as the accident record will attest. Since the 18th century, more than 1,800 submarines have been sunk and roughly 60,000 submariners have perished worldwide in peace and in war (Gray, 2003). While these figures may seem relatively high, consider them in the following context:
Early submarines were notoriously unsafe. However, when coupled with the drive to maintain a technological edge, these early losses resulted in improved design and operation.
Major overt conflicts naturally increase the risks to submarines.
Losses in these scenarios will continue to occur despite improvements in design and operation. The question remains: Have improvements in design and operations realized benefits in terms of reducing losses or has the increasingly complex submarine coupled with the ebb and flow of the geopolitical situation introduced even greater risk resulting in relatively more losses? To determine this, the author analyzed submarine accident data that has been collated since 2001. The scope of the data covers the 60-year period, 1946 to 2005. These data were selected as they ensured elimination of accidents attributable to poor design during the early part of the 20th century as well as