Key point: The Perisher course is secretive, highly competitive, and built to be tough.
The art and science of naval command has traditionally been passed on from captain to captain through tutelage and mentoring. Cook and Nelson, in particular, trained many junior officers who went on to illustrious careers in the Royal Navy. This system began to break down in World War One when an expanding fleet and high loss rates meant that submarine commanders, in vessels unlike anything they had known, weren’t able to learn on the job. In 1917 the Admiralty introduced a formal course of instruction in submarine command which continues today. It eventually became famous as the toughest leadership program in the world and the high failure rate made it known as the ‘Perisher’.
While much about the Perisher is understandably classified, there’s quite a lot of information in the public domain about how it’s run. It’s a four-month course combining theoretical work, simulation exercises and two critical months at sea off the west coast of Scotland, including a final intensive month. During this last stage the submarine will be engaged in relentless exercises of search, detection, evasion, surveillance and simulated combat with up to three frigates plus air support, often in confined waters. There’s also an exercise against another submarine. Groups of four or five students are overseen by a guide and examiner known universally as the Teacher. If necessary, the Teacher has the right to resume control of the submarine at any time if safety is threatened. The Teacher will take notes, advise and criticize, but not make decisions for the students, who must learn that while surrounded by crew members they’re also alone. Success in the Perisher entitles an officer to be entrusted with command of a nuclear powered submarine worth close to AUD$1 billion and the lives of more than 100 crew members.