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Taking the Navy Deep

Rear Admiral Paul Sullivan spent 29 years taking US Navy sailors deep under water, out of sight and out of touch in a global military cat-and-mouse game. Then he fulfilled a new mission, one for which he was trained more than two decades ago.

In the early 1970s, the Navy sent Sullivan, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, to the MIT/WHOI Joint Program as part of an effort to “get naval officers better equipped to talk as peers with members of the scientific community.” The goals, Sullivan said, were to develop naval officers who understood ocean science, to create and maintain a mutually beneficial dialogue between the Navy and civilian scientists, and to share data and equipment when possible to advance both military and basic research goals in the oceans. He earned an engineer’s degree in ocean engineering in 1975.

The MIT/WHOI program “was a great introduction to how difficult, unpredictable—but fun—the ocean can be as a work environment,” Sullivan said. And his work at WHOI on upgrading the submersible Alvin gave him an “introduction to the challenging world of deep submergence.”

Over three decades, Sullivan pursued his first love, the camaraderie and challenges of submarine life, and he rose through the ranks of the Navy’s submarine fleet. By the late 1980s, he was elevated to commanding officer of USS Birmingham (SSN 695) and later USS Florida (SSBN 728).

“As the commanding officer, I was a mentor, overseeing a crew and a complex machine,” Sullivan said. “You’re out there in the middle of the ocean, without a lot of contact with the rest of Navy, no less the world. So you have to depend on your fellow crew members as a team. As a commander, you have to rely on your ability to think through a problem.

“Teamwork is the hallmark of a good submarine crew,” he said. “To operate a submarine, you have to depend on each other.” That team approach earned Sullivan nominations for numerous leadership and combat readiness awards.

Along the way, he also spent time in Washington, DC, earning a master’s degree in national security strategy from National Defense University, then serving on the Joint Staff. Later, he was commander of Submarine Group Nine, supporting all Trident missile submarine crews in the Pacific.

In April 1998, Sullivan was tasked with promoting another type of teamwork—between scientists and sailors. He was appointed director of the Deep Submergence Branch, overseeing the Navy’s efforts to map currents, survey ocean bathymetry, and conduct search-and-rescue missions for sailors and sunken craft. Working with other federal agencies, commercial companies, and research institutions such as WHOI, Sullivan kept the Navy equipped to work in the deep ocean.

Sullivan oversaw craft that dive miles deeper than the submarines he once commanded, including NR-1, a small nuclear sub that can maneuver on the seafloor, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), either tethered or autonomous. The Navy has an abiding interest in understanding its extensive, exacting, and unpredictable theater of operation: the ocean. Navy deep-ocean research ranges from exploring US and foreign wrecks on the seafloor to research on the evolution and health of the planet. “There is so much history and so much knowledge of the planet lying on the bottom of the ocean,” Sullivan said.

“The deep ocean is a tough environment to work in,” he said. “We are trying to push the technology” through miniaturization, computerization, and higher-resolution sonar systems. “We are working on the cutting edge, trying to learn to do this work more economically. Any time you have humans in a sub, it gets expensive. Much of the future is on the surface—that is, with the humans on the surface, manipulating equipment thousands of feet under water.”

Sullivan’s work in Deep Submergence reconnected him with WHOI Scientist Emeritus Robert Ballard on the recent search for the USS Yorktown, lost off Midway Island during World War II. And it had him working occasionally with his MIT/WHOI classmate John Krieder, vice president and general manager of the Advanced Technologies Group of Oceaneering International Inc., a private company that provides technical support and deep-diving ROVs to the Navy for salvage and deep-ocean search and submarine rescue operations.

Two decades after he graduated from WHOI, Sullivan has become the consummate citizen-soldier-scientist.

—By Mike Carlowicz

Originally published: October 1, 1999