Chief of the Boat vs Command Master Chief? A Quora Question

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My Navy career was unusual for the number of different types of ships I served on. Few people get to serve on both submarines and surface ships. Even more unusual, I served on two very different types of submarines, and two very different types of surface ships. This background gives me some unique perspectives on Navy life. So when I saw this Quora question, I felt I had the background to give a solid answer.

Chief of the Boat vs Command Master Chief

This Quora question was: What are the roles (and contrasts) of chiefs of the boat in submarines and surface combatants? My answer.

I think I’m qualified to answer this as I served in both submarines and surface ships.

The role of a Submarine Chief of the Boat (referred to as “COB”) compared to Command Master Chief (CMC) sort of reflects the differences between submarine and surface ship crews that I answered for another question recently. In both positions, their roles are to handle enlisted personnel Issues and act as the enlisted crews representative to the Captain and Executive officer. The position is also the head of the Chiefs Mess, dealing with the chiefs in handling personnel issues.

For one big difference, a COB is also an underway watch stander. Typically the COB is not nuclear power trained and stands watch as Diving Officer (or on new boats, Pilot). The most senior enlisted nuke has the title “Bull Nuke” and acts as a mini-COB for the nuke part of the crew.

As the COB is the senior non-nuke enlisted watch stander, they also tend to be extremely experienced in submarine operations and act as subject matter expert (SME) to the crew, officer and enlisted.

On a surface ship the CMC is not a watch stander. Their full-time job is handling enlisted personnel issues and head of the Chiefs Mess. Given the number of different types of surface ships, and the weaker position of enlisted surface warfare qualifications versus enlisted submarine qualifications, the CMC is not necessarily a subject matter expert on their ship.

They are one of the more senior enlisted people but not necessarily the most senior. And since they don’t stand underway watches they are seen as more of an admin person then SME.

In either case, a COB / CMC can make or break a crew. A good COB / CMC who earns the trust of the crew and can work with the CO/XO, will turn the crew into a “well-oiled machine,” and the ship will run smoothly. A COB / CMC who does not earn any trust, or worse yet is seen as a suck-up to the Captain, will have problems and the ships operations will reflect that.

I personally believe that the position of COB is a stronger role than the CMC position on surface ships. Mostly because of the SME role.

I saw both good and bad CMCs, and very good COBs and weak COBs. On my last ship, an Aegis Cruiser, we had three Master Chiefs and in my opinion (as a Senior Chief, one rank lower) only one of those Master Chiefs was worth anything. Unfortunately, that one good Master Chief was not our CMC and we did have problems. In several cases, one major issue in particular, I was the person bringing crew issues to the attention of the CO/XO, which pissed off the CMC, but too Goddamn bad.

Quora question

Follow-up Information

I haven’t been able to find any reference that states when the surface navy formally established the Command Master Chief program and created the billet. I believe it was sometime in the early 1980s. Prior to that, I believe a ship’s most senior enlisted person held an informal position as crew’s spokesperson. But the ship’s Master-At-Arms, effectively the ship’s cop, was the enlisted person who officially represented the crew to the Captain (CO) / Executive Officer (XO).

On submarines, the COB was a position well established at the beginning of World War Two. At that time, the crews were smaller, with fewer ratings, so there would have only been a small number of Chiefs on board (two to three). Navy rank stopped at “Chief,” and the most experienced Chief would have held the position of COB. The Senior Chief and Master Chief ranks were only created in the mid-1950s when the military standardized their rank structure to create nine enlisted ranks.

So this is your small piece of navy trivia for today.

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