Tag Archives: Sea Control

Warfare Tactics Instructor: A Unique Opportunity for Junior Officers

By Rear Adm. John Wade and Cmdr. Jeff Heames

Rapid technological advancements and the re-emergence of near peer competition require that we continue to invest in high end tools – platforms, weaponry, and sensors. Equally important are the tactics to employ them and the associated training investment we must make in today’s warfighters and future leaders in the Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) cadre. The centerpiece of an amped-up warfighting culture in surface warfare is the Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) program, available to all division officers, department heads eligible for shore duty, and a small number of limited duty and chief warrant officers.

The ideal onramp into the WTI community is during the first shore tour following completion of at-sea division officer assignments. This timing allows the WTI program to fit neatly in a career pipeline. Three attributes set the WTI program apart: the opportunity to develop expertise in areas the Navy needs, exposure to exclusive professional development opportunities during the readiness production tour and throughout a career, and the empowerment to make significant contributions at a very junior level.


The ability to develop confidence through professional expertise early in a career has a profound accelerating effect on an officer’s development, and directly contributes to a sense of purpose and fulfillment. WTIs are afforded the time, resources, and experience-building opportunities they need to learn while making substantive contributions to tactics and warfighting proficiency.

The WTI program offers a gateway for young officers to develop deep tactical expertise in the fields of Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD), Anti-Submarine/Surface Warfare (ASW/SUW), and Amphibious Warfare (AMW). Each field begins with a two week Instructor and Tactics Course (ITC) followed by a tailored, 14-16 week course of instruction. During this instruction period, prospective WTIs are mentored and coached to develop their skills at leveraging the Plan, Brief, Execute, and Debrief (PBED) methodology for rapid learning. Following this training, WTIs complete a 24-month “readiness production tour” at SMWDC headquarters or one of four SMWDC Divisions – focused on Sea Combat, IAMD, AMW, or Mine Warfare – or selected training commands (CSG-4/15, TTGP/L, ATG, CSCS, or SWOS, to name a few). During this tour, WTI skills are matured both in the classroom – and at sea – during Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) and other fleet training events.

Learning by Teaching

The emphasis on teaching as a basis for learning is based on an idea espoused by the Roman philosopher Seneca, who declared, “docendo discimus” or, “by teaching, we learn.” This model of learning is also used to develop WTI candidates, which is why instructor skills are a main focus of ITC. Quality of lesson delivery is established through a rigorous standardization process that must be completed for each lecture delivered by a WTI. It’s not uncommon for a WTI to invest weeks or months of research, as well as conduct numerous “murder boards” with fellow WTIs, technical experts, and senior officers, before presenting at the podium. The process is meant to maintain a high standard of instruction where WTIs have established mastery of content and exhibit confidence in delivery.

Focused Specialty Areas

During initial WTI training, students are assigned relevant tactical projects that match critical fleet needs and account for student interests. Projects often involve new technology or capability that must be thoughtfully and effectively integrated into maritime warfare doctrine. Other projects center on updating existing doctrine or repurposing existing systems in new and innovative ways. Specialty areas and projects are assigned based on WTI preference and crosscut broadly, from high-end tactics to training systems and learning science.

Focus area research often extends past initial WTI training, into subsequent readiness production tours, and beyond. SMWDC provides mentorship, applies resources, and opens doors to connect WTIs to thought leaders, technical community experts, industry partners, and community leaders to develop their specialty area work.

Coaching and Training Skills

WTIs are the core workforce of SMWDC’s advanced tactical training at sea. They rely on replay tools that include systems data, voice, and other information to rapidly build ground truth and facilitate debrief sessions. Equipped with irrefutable data on what really happened, the “I thought” and “I felt” ambiguities are driven out of the debrief process, enabling shipboard watch teams to learn and grow together more rapidly.

The combination of WTI knowledge, replay-assisted PBED, and specialized training focused on team dynamics and coaching skills offers a powerful method for improving learning across the fleet. The aim is to create an environment of transparency and mutual trust among watch team members, where Sailors enter debrief sessions eager to identify their own shortfalls in order to improve team and unit performance.

Lt. Cmdr. Katie Whitman, left, provides advanced training during an event at sea during her readiness production tour at Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center headquarters on Dec. 15, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo)

At-sea training allows WTIs to observe multiple ships and teams across a variety of training and operational circumstances. The WTIs gain practical insight into how doctrine plays out on the deckplates, as well as hone their ability to identify team performance issues during at-sea training. While the immediate objective is to improve tactical proficiency and unit performance, the skills WTIs gain are extraordinarily useful in future roles as department heads.

Performance Analysis

The final link in WTI expertise development leverages the strong partnership between SMWDC and the technical community. Our ability to measure and analyze performance among units is a challenge due to complex weapons systems, ship configuration variance, and the number of watchstanders distributed in different controlling stations. To build a clear picture of how tactics, training, and systems converge into warfighting capability, a detailed event reconstruction must take place that considers system actions, operator actions, and tactics.

Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Corona, Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Keyport, and SMWDC have developed a Data Analysis Working Group (DAWG) to conduct performance analysis of SMWDC training events. The intent is to extract empirical, data-driven insights from the careful analysis of systems, operators, and tactical performance.

The process is laborious, but straightforward. Following at-sea training, event data is extracted from unit combat systems and sensors and then brought to NSWC for detailed analysis. Following initial analysis from the technical community, WTIs and SMWDC leaders stand up a 1-2 week DAWG event.

By examining system performance, operator performance, and tactics as a consolidated effort, the process can lead to discoveries not captured by direct observation – system anomalies, operator actions, and flaws in tactics. Findings and lessons learned can be very useful because they are underpinned by empirical data and technical analysis. To date, more than 40 weapons system performance anomaly reports have been generated from DAWG events. Systems issues have been identified and funneled to the appropriate technical community to resolve, tactics have been updated, and numerous operator performance issues have been provided to the training community as opportunities to grow or strengthen curriculum. This allows SMWDC to advocate for tactical updates among partner warfighting development centers and provide feedback to the TYCOM and Surface Warfare training enterprise.

For the WTI, immersion in performance analysis activity with civilian technical experts offers a unique lens into how weapons systems, operator performance, and tactics are all linked to create combat potential.

Professional Development

Because the program is highly sought after by driven, focused professionals, the majority of WTIs are on track to return to sea as department heads. Notably, WTI cadre retention is double historical averages in the Surface Warfare community at roughly 70 percent. WTIs heading back to sea have a notable advantage given the training they receive and the experiences they gain at a formative stage of their career that others simply do not.

Assignment Consideration

Similar to officers with other subspecialty skills – Nuclear Program, Financial Management, Operations Analysis, and Space Systems – WTIs have unique skillsets based on their focus areas. For example, IAMD WTIs in readiness production tour billets at the Naval Air Warfare Development Center in Fallon, Nev., have completed the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School, becoming dual-patched WTIs. These officers are among very few in the Navy with expertise in Integrated Fire Control (IFC) from both the Aviation and Surface perspectives.

To maximize the return on investment for these unique WTI skills, SMWDC is closely aligned with PERS-41 in the distribution process, ensuring future assignments leverage these strengths (e.g., assigning a WTI with IFC expertise to IFC-capable units). While assignments will always consider many variables, this close relationship ensures WTI experience and skills are considered during the assignments process. 

Continuing Education

WTI training and readiness production tours leave less time to complete graduate education between division officer and department head assignments. To mitigate this challenge, WTIs are awarded priority for graduate degree programs at service colleges as well as the Naval Postgraduate School distance learning programs.

Additionally, WTIs are afforded unique and exclusive professional development opportunities that extend throughout their careers. Annual “Re-Blue” events held at SMWDC Divisions are a venue for WTIs, both in-and-out of readiness production tours to attend week-long immersive workshops where information is exchanged and re-distributed into the fleet. Funded travel to Re-Blue events keeps WTIs connected to the sharp edge of the operational Fleet during their readiness production tours and beyond. Re-Blue events are an example of SMWDC’s commitment to maintaining excellence within the WTI cadre.


SMWDC is unlocking the potential of our junior officers and post-department heads, empowering them to swarm and solve difficult problems. While experience will always have a place at the table, this new generation of naval officers holds several key advantages. Unencumbered by “the way things have always been,” these officers are better suited to envision a future that leverages trends in technology, communication, and learning. This is an area where fresh perspective is an asymmetric advantage. WTIs bring their creativity, ingenuity, and initiative to developing the next generation of cutting-edge tactics, techniques, and procedures.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Sept. 26, 2016) — Lt. Serg Samardzic and Lt. Aaron Jochimsen, Warfare Tactics Instructors (WTI) of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) coordinate missile exercise rehearsals on the USS Princeton during an anti-submarine exercise in the Southern California operating area Sept. 26, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Trevor Andersen/Released)

WTI’s are creating a positive impact in the Fleet. From immersion in their focused specialty areas to tactical projects, and deckplate innovations, WTIs have built an impressive list of contributions since SMWDC’s formal establishment in June 2015. Consider the below examples of projects inspired, developed, and built by WTIs, while being supported by SMWDC leadership.

  • Lt. Cmdr. Katie Whitman was the lead action officer developing the SWATT in port and underway curriculum from the ground-up, using best-of-breed practices culled from aviation and other communities. She developed replay-assisted PBED for rapid learning and crafted the SWATT performance analysis strategy, which are now distinctive features of the exercise.
  • Lt. Ben Graybosch partnered with NUWC Keyport to revise the VISTA replay tool to include A/V-15 sonar system data, enabling the detailed “ground truth” ASW replay for unit sonar teams within 4 hours of completing ASW events. Graybosch’s effort moved the needle on ASW ground truth replay availability from days or weeks down to hours after an event. With replay tools that offer ground truth much earlier, we can increase the velocity of learning within surface ASW teams dramatically. VISTA is now employed in every ASW event supported by SMWDC and other fleet training events.
  • Lt. Brandon Naddel was the lead author for the Naval Surface Gunnery Publication released in 2017. Naddel and his team revised a 15-year-old document laden with technical jargon and dated systems into an information-packed and easily understood tactical publication relevant to all surface ships.
  • Lt. Tyson Eberhardt authored tactical guidance for the emerging Continuous Active Sonar (CAS) capability. Eberhardt leveraged at-sea training and experimentation events to rapidly refine tactical guidance in 2017. Based on his work, the CAS capability was used to great success in the operational fleet later that year.
  • Lt. Matt Clark designed and built a Target Motion Analysis (TMA) training tool accessible on any classified terminal with built-in performance analytics. Clark’s tool has potential to provide insight on the rate of individual skills decay in TMA. This type of information could then be used to inform currency thresholds for future training requirements.
  • Lt. Aaron Jochimsen was the lead author for the SM-6 TACMEMO. He conducted extensive research on SM-6 that included production site visits, participation in wargaming and experimentation, as well as involvement in fleet missile firings.
  • Chief Warrant Officer Troy Woods completed a readiness production tour with the Center for Surface Combat Systems, where he was involved in training individuals and teams on IAMD skills. Woods was subsequently assigned to USS BUNKER HILL (CG 52), where his skills are being put to use as lead IAMD planner within the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. Woods attended the IAMD WTI Re-Blue event in Dahlgren, Va., to share the operational perspective with his fellow IAMD WTIs and receive the latest tactical information from SMWDC IAMD Division leadership.

The WTI Program is a career opportunity that values our officers and empowers them to solve complex and challenging problems. SMWDC WTIs naturally have an eye toward innovation, are re-building the surface warfare library of tactical guidance, are shepherding new capability from delivery to operational success, and challenging the status quo in surface warfare training. Lt. Jochimsen, the lead author of the SM-6 TACMEMO, said it best:

“The opportunity to develop deep knowledge – Subject Matter Expertise – is a game-changing confidence builder as a junior officer. I feel much more prepared for the challenges of an at-sea department head assignment after completing a WTI readiness production tour.”


The WTI cadre of warriors, thinkers, and teachers are uniquely equipped with the experience and knowledge to make significant contributions during their readiness production tours and throughout their careers. It is no coincidence that the same skills involved in developing tactical mastery are extraordinarily useful in subsequent assignments at sea – department head, XO, CO, and major command.

While statistically significant trend data does not yet exist for WTI selection for career milestone billets, members of the WTI cadre performed very well during recent administrative boards.

For those looking to increase their confidence and competitiveness for future at-sea assignments, the WTI program offers a unique opportunity to strengthen their professional attributes and shape the Navy for years to come.

Rear Admiral John Wade is Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. 

Commander Jeff Heames serves as the assistant chief of staff for operations, training, and readiness for Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 9, 2017) – Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI), Lt. Lisa Malone of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Canter (SMWDC), provides tactical training to officers aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during a Group Sail training unit exercise (GRUSL) with the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier strike Group (TRCSG). (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Bill M. Sanders/Released)

Sea Control 142 – The Blue Economy and Ocean Clusters with Kate Walsh

By Matthew Merighi 

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Professor Kate Walsh of the U.S. Naval War College about the Blue Economy, ocean clusters, and their relevance for maritime security. It’s a conversation about innovation, organization, and competition between the U.S. and China.

Download Sea Control 142 – Blue Economy and Ocean Clusters with Kate Walsh

For additional information on this topic, take a look at the following links:

The Ocean Economy in 2030 (OECD)

Center for the Blue Economy (Middlebury Institute of Monterey)

CMSI Workshop on U.S. and Chinese Perspectives on the Blue Economy (U.S. Naval War College)

Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative

A transcript of the interview between Professor Walsh (KW) and Matthew Merighi (MM) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity. The views in this interview do not reflect those of the U.S. Naval War College, Navy, Department of Defense, or Federal Government.

MM: As is Sea Control tradition, please introduce yourself.

KW: I teach at the U.S. Naval War College as an Associate Professor of National Security Affairs. I teach officers and others policy analysis, which is basically policy decision-making in the U.S. and how it works or doesn’t work in some cases. I am also an affiliate with the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) where I do research on China.

I came to the Naval War College as a former think tanker and consultant in Washington, DC. In 1997, I was offered a project in the Commerce Department to look at China and issues of technology transfer. That’s where I started on a different area of research focusing on science, technology, and innovation in China. I’ve stuck with it since then. In 2013 or thereabouts, I started to find references to the Blue Economy in that research. I started asking around what the was and didn’t get any good answers. I found since then that this idea is one which China and others are developing.

MM: Let’s dive into the idea of the Blue Economy. I’ve noticed that there’s a general lack of awareness on what the Blue Economy is. Tell us more about what it is, what industries are involved, and how is it relevant to your maritime work.

KW: One of the challenges is the different terminology whether you call it the Blue Economy, Ocean Economy, or Marine Economy. The definitions are not set yet so it’s hard for the U.S. and China to know what the other is talking about.

It’s organized around clusters where industries, such as fishing and shipbuilding, ones which deal with marine issues, are clustered together in a coastal area. It follows on earlier research done in the 1990s on innovation clusters in Silicon Valley. The ocean clusters build on that original research because it’s not just about innovation but also conservation. There’s the industry, innovation, and conservation aspects in ocean clusters. Some of the industries involved include oil and gas, shipbuilding, fishing, fisheries, conservation NGOs, government departments including navies and coast guards, and anyone having to do with anything wet or ocean or coastal or water. But the terminology differs in different areas.

MM: You mentioned different time periods. From your research, how long has this ocean cluster concept been around? Is it new or is it new branding for an existing trend?

KW: I’m still investigating this as I know you and others are as well. My best understanding is that they build on earlier research but focusing on an area which doesn’t get a lot of attention. My sense is that the cluster concept only goes back to about the late 2000s or 2010. Iv’e been focusing mostly on China’s Blue Economy concept which dates to a policy from Hu Jintao in 2010. China’s concept was built on earlier work in Europe and the U.S., so dating it is difficult. It’s definitely still new, which is what makes the terminology so difficult. That terminology is a real world problem. Just recently I was at an event and these definitional issues were raised because it hasn’t really been decided what they mean even in the U.S. It’s a new field in early days, which is exciting.

MM: Have you discovered why the Blue Economy is going unnoticed? A lot of our listeners are likely already literate in ocean issues but why is the broader academic enterprise ignoring this area?

KW: I don’t have the definitive answer but my sense is that a lot of the actors and interest is there but that the cluster idea is new. What I’m seeing regionally in Rhode Island is people saying they already have the parts that go into clusters: the academics, industries, and entrepreneurs. What they don’t have is an approach to network and connect these different players in a way that is beneficial to all of them.

There’s a natural resistance with some of these actors, such as ocean researchers and fishermen who are in competition with each other over use of water resources nearby. It takes work to overcome these differences; they don’t happen organically most of the time. I think there’s an interest, as globalization is progressing, to connect people together in ways which promotes cooperation, new ideas, and new opportunities. When I look at China, it’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which in itself was a cluster, dates back to 1979. The focus on the ocean and adding of blue conservation in a way that serves everyone’s interest in the long term is the new part. The ocean is already under threat due to climate change and overfishing which I think has increased the focus on the ocean as an area of study.

MM: You mentioned geopolitical entities of various sizes ranging from China to Rhode Island. Clearly the cluster concept is happening in a lot of different places. Which areas, whether its counties, cities, or regions, have the most dynamic ocean cluster systems?

KW: I started my research with China and I would put them high on the list because they’ve been thinking about this for almost a decade now. Other countries are looking to China for their expertise, including countries in Africa. China is a big player there not only because of their size but because of their interest in this issue for such a long period of time. Under Xi Jinping, it’s been enhanced. Also of course the U.S.

We have a very different approach from China but the idea is not new here; in San Diego, L.A., and Monterey, they’ve been studying this idea for a while. San Diego is particularly strong. They have a virtual network of companies called The Maritime Alliance to foster and collaborate on opportunities. They’re providing a lot of advice to other countries now in Europe and elsewhere. Europe is the birthplace of the Blue Economy concept, so a number of countries there are pursuing this in their own way. Iceland comes up quite a lot and is prominent, along with other Scandinavian countries. Ireland has a Blue Economy effort underway. There are other countries in Asia beyond China, particularly in Small Island Developing States. It’s a global enterprise and the attraction is universal. I think this will be a growing area of study. In the U.S., there’s a number of different pockets: Maine, parts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Alaska, among others.

MM: You mentioned different approaches in these different clusters. You said the U.S. and China models have the largest different. What is the biggest difference between them?

KW: I alluded to China’s system, which is top-down like most of their innovation programs. The plan comes from Beijing and trickles down to the province and local level. It’s the same with the Blue Economy. In the U.S. it tends to be more organic, more locally driven. Many of them start because something was already happening and there was a clear opportunity for more. It comes from an opportunity to be entrepreneurial and seeing that the actors are there. All that’s missing is the coordination and collaboration. It just takes one person to start that.

For example, in San Diego, The Maritime Alliance started when its founder, Michael Jones, started talking to people and trying to get people connected. In Rhode Island, there’s an effort to develop a cluster with an international linkage between a local city with a sister city relationship in China. At the end the day, it’s all about global networking.

MM: What is the most pressing or relevant aspect of the cluster model for maritime security and national security?

KW: Building on the idea of global networking, this is a cooperative opportunity, but also a competition in terms of who does this better. Because global population is increasing and food and energy are depleting, the ocean is being looked at as more of a resource but one which is very unexplored. There’s competition to be the one who exploits the resources more effectively. I use the term exploit very carefully here to mean “understand what opportunities the ocean provides.”

One of the differences between the U.S. and China I’ve found is how they look at the ocean. Americans see the ocean as tourism, as recreation, and beach-going as well as industry. In China, it’s very different because they had a land-based mentality for a long time. They look at the ocean as an extension of the land. Conservation is the last priority. It is a part of their model but it’s not a priority; the priority is industry and innovation. There’s opportunity for cooperation but there’s going to be competition. And whoever competes better is going to have an economic advantage.

On the science and technology side, this is part of the consideration when evaluating the South China Sea or Arctic or Antarctica. What comes back is about Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), mineral rights, and economic rights with these zones. Part of the Blue Economy efforts have to do with planning who will be able to use which parts of the ocean and who can’t. Of course, in the Asia-Pacific much of this is under dispute. There’s a lot of uncertainty in that relationship and that has to do with the nature of the ocean itself. The ocean connects us whether we like it or not. And if countries start to fight over ocean spaces, this could become more a conflict driver than cooperation driver. On the positive side, we’re involved with a number of Track 2 discussions with our Chinese colleagues. I think we have similar goals but different approaches to developing the the Blue Economy, especially for disputed EEZs.

MM: For those who are interested in ocean clusters, what are the short and long term trends to see how this concept develops?

KW: I’m going to be a bit parochial with my interest in China. One of the things I’ve seen that is important to the U.S. government and U.S. Navy is China’s plans for the Maritime Silk Road. Xi Jinping announced in 2013 a new One Belt, One Road plan; a very ambitious plan to connect China to parts of the old Silk Road on both land and sea. The maritime part of that plan includes the Blue Economy and ocean clusters along the way. If you look at the map, there are dots along the route where China hopes to develop the maritime road. There’s an action plan that came out March 2015 that has considerable detail. These includes developing ocean clusters, SEZs, and Blue Economy zones along this route. It takes China’s model and develops them overseas.

There’s a question as to whether or not the U.S. and its allies, partners, and friends will be able to be a part of this effort as collaborators and investors. China just recently announced a new maritime vision which is even more ambitious than the original plan. That’s important because it puts Xi Jinping’s stamp on what was originally Hu Jintao’s concept. This new maritime vision has a number of different initiatives which have the word blue attached to them: Blue partnerships, Blue carbon efforts, and Blue conservation efforts. The Blue Economy idea will be a carrot to other countries along the Maritime Silk Road. I don’t see anything in competition with this coming from the U.S., so it’s something to keep an eye on.

It seems to me that these zones and cluster are to be driven by Chinese investment, developed by Chinese infrastructure, using Chinese telecommunications, possibly with Chinese labor, all along the Chinese cluster model. This is not necessarily bad but it opens questions on how much the U.S. and its allies could be able to be involved. This is going to be somewhat of a race to see who can exploit these opportunities in a way that doesn’t undermine conservation. The ocean is a lot of ungoverned space with a lot of unknowns. We’ll have to work hard to make sure that, if it is a competition, that it’s a benign economic and industrial competition.

MM: What things would you recommend to learn more about the Blue Economy and ocean clusters? Beyond that, are there any other interesting things you’re reading now?

KW: There’s a great study by the OECD from 2016 which looks at the Blue Economy through 2030. It’s quite long but it is a good introduction and those with a strategic mind will find its future orientation useful. Those interested in the economic aspect, the Center for Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, has a journal which is worth looking at. They’re trying to come up with economic metrics to measure what the Blue Economy is and how much it contributes to GDP.

Those interested in the China question, CMSI held a workshop in late 2014 addressing U.S. and Chinese perspectives on the Blue Economy to understand the similarities and differences. The Center for American Progress, a think tank in DC, has done a number of studies on the Blue Economy and U.S.-Chinese issues. They’ll be coming out with a report soon from a June dialogue which focused on the Blue Economy, fisheries, and the Arctic.

Those interested in the Maritime Silk Road should read the maritime vision white paper which China put out on 20 June to get a sense of how they promoting new blue partnerships not just domestically but in the entire region. In terms of other things, because I teach policy analysis, I picked up John Farrell’s new Nixon biography. I’m also just starting The Beautiful Country by John Pomfret.

Kathleen (Kate) Walsh is an Associate Professor of National Security Affairs in the National Security Affairs Department at the US Naval War College (NWC), where she teaches Policy Analysis. She is an affiliate of the China Maritime Studies Institute  and participates in NWC’s Asia Pacific Studies Group

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer of Sea Control and Assistant Director of Fletcher’s Maritime Studies Program.

Sea Control 141 – The Law of the Sea with John Burgess

By Matthew Merighi 

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Professor John Burgess of the Fletcher School about the Law of the Sea and its enduring effects on maritime security. This interview was conducted as part of the roll-out of the Fletcher School’s recently released primer on the Law of the Sea.

Download Sea Control 141 – Law of the Sea with John Burgess

A transcript of the interview between Professor Burgess (JB) and Matthew Merighi (MM) is below.

MM: And we’re back as I mentioned at the top I’m here with professor John Burgess of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Professor Burgess thank you very much for being with us on Sea Control today.

JB: It’s my pleasure.

MM: As is Sea Control tradition, please tell us a little bit about yourself. Tell us about what are the main formative experiences you’ve had that brought you from where you were to where you are today.

JB: Well, I’m a Professor of Practice at the Fletcher School and that’s after having worked in law firms for about 35 years. But I did always have an interest in national and maritime security. I took a sabbatical and worked for the U.S. State Department in the area and I’d say the majority of my published articles were in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, so moving towards maritime security and Law of the Sea as part of the courses I taught here was a pretty natural progression for me.

MM: I guess I’ll probably start the podcast off by mentioning the fact that you have a very robust library of maritime books. I’m curious, you’ve done maritime work but what got you interested in maritime law in the first place? Was it a personal experience or was it kind of discovering it by happenstance through your legal work or what brought you into maritime law?

JB: Well, of course a place like Fletcher been interested in international law and it’s interesting the way fashion works sometimes. The Law of the Sea, as we’ll talk later about the principal Convention, was adopted back in 1994. The course at Fletcher was taught for a while but then dropped out of the curriculum and the more I looked at the issues the more odd that seemed because the Law of the Sea, as embodied in the Law of the Sea Convention, is one of the most comprehensive pieces in international law that exists. And it covers obviously 90 percent of the planet and it raises all the classic issues of international law: how nations work together, how disputes are settled, how resources and rights are allocated, and it crystallizes all of those issues and we face the questions and disputes and developments every day. And so that led me to really want to focus on it in a systematic way. And, of course, here at the school of the international relations, it was a great venue to be able to apply the law to a very rapidly developing set of global situations.

MM: Let’s talk then about the historical underpinnings that have led us to where we are now before we get too far into the current issues. So, the Law of the Sea: tell us a little bit about it. What is it? You talked a little bit about its effects but what is it functionally at its core, why does it exist, what’s the history behind it, and how did it come to be?

JB: To summarize concisely, for the Law of the Sea, one of the reasons that it’s so interesting is that it’s both very old and it’s newest today. When nations began trading, gradually maritime custom and maritime law developed governing those relationships and by the 17th century, international legal thinkers were beginning to think about the ocean as a separate legal space that was not owned by any nation or controlled by any nation, but was a common; shared for commerce and navigation among the world’s nations. And that concept has evolved as part of customary international law for centuries.

After the second World War, in a more complicated world in some ways, with increasing numbers of nation states and  technology permitting greater exploitation of oceanic resources, nations began to focus on that system of customary law and whether it should be embodied in a treaty or treaties. And back in 1958, under UN auspices, preliminary group of treaties was adopted, but the scope was limited. And that led to a desire to address, on a comprehensive basis, the issues of Law of the Sea.

Over 10 years, dozens of nations in a conference of Law of the Sea worked to evolve what has become today, the Law of the Sea Convention: a treaty regarding the Law of the Sea, which became effective in 1994. And it is very, very detailed and very broad in its scope. It did several revolutionary things. It defined on a systematic basis a series of maritime zones; parts of the ocean over which states had different rights. And particularly, introduced the concept that we can spend a few more minutes on later, of an Exclusive Economic Zone, the right of coastal states to exploit the living and nonliving resources of the adjacent waters out to 200 nautical miles. It also crystallized in a written form the rights of maritime nations to freely navigate.

That idea that there is an element of the commons that is available for free navigation, the conduct of trade, the conduct of naval operations and at one level, the 1994 treaty of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is a great compromise that assures developed nations and maritime nations the traditional rights and access of navigation. And developing nations and others have the right to exploit neighboring living and nonliving resources in the sea. Of course, for some countries it’s both; the United States draws great value from its economic zones off its oceans in terms of fishing, mineral, petroleum, other resources and as the world’s leading naval power, it’s critical to the United States to be able to exercise the rights of navigation that are embodied in that treaty.

MM: Before we go into some of those areas and get into the specifics, I was wondering if you could tell us since many of us already know customary international laws but I’m sure there are some people out there that haven’t worked in international relations in the legal space, but walk us through what is customary international law and if that is a form of law, why then would there need to be a treaty and then a Convention to institutionalize that in paper?

JB: Customary international law is sets of practice that are adhered to by the international community as evidenced by state practice, what nations do, as evidenced by the supporting actions of international courts, the adjudication by these commentators, that isn’t written down in a law book, but which by reason of practice over the course of time and the acquiescence of the international community, takes on the nature of law and that is an historic element of international law and is relevant to the Law of the Sea to this day.

The issue with customary international law however is it’s neither comprehensive, things can develop technological enabling or security issues that the law hasn’t addressed before, and you can’t rely on the accumulation of custom to address. And its interpretation is limited in scope but comes up as academic commentators write articles, as courts interpret decisions and with somethings as complicated as the governance of the world seas, something more comprehensive, something that was more up to date in many respects was critical.

I’ll just throw one example and that relates to environmental issues. For protection of the oceanic environment for a variety of reasons, there was no substantial body of customary international law on that topic, and it could’ve taken decades or longer for it to evolve. And by then environmental issues in the 20th century to respect to the world’s oceans could be critical. So, one of the thing that treaty does is systematically set up a regime for addressing those questions. You can’t do that customary international law, you need a treaty.

MM: Let’s start going through the treaty then. You mentioned there’s a number of different areas, but you mentioned first and foremost the fact that the ocean is divided into different zones.

JB: Yes, that is correct.

MM: So, walk us through those zones, what are they, how are they determined, and what can states do in those different zones?

JB: I’m going to walk through it beginning close to land and heading out to sea. And in principal, the rights of a coastal state are highest, this makes sense, closest to land, and are more limited as you go out to sea. Internal waters which are the waters on the landward side of the low tide line are, sovereign territory; those waters are fully subject to the laws of the state, and if you’re on the Connecticut river, you’re under U.S. and Connecticut law as an internal water. But then, on the other side of that baseline, that’s created to determine the outer limit of internal waters, you’re in what’s called the territorial sea, the territorial sea has a breadth of up to 12 miles. States can define it, and most do, out to 12 miles and states, in essence, are sovereign over the territorial waters along their coast as well. They have the full ability to legislate and enforce their laws in those waters. Subject to one very important right that we can talk about later which is a right of innocent passage by third party states to traverse the waters, subject to limitation, but that’s it.

That’s really the only exception or limitation on the coastal states sovereignty. The next key zone is the one I described to you, the one that really was created under the Convention of the Law of the Sea and that is an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). That goes out all the way to 200 miles and it says that the coastal states have the exclusive right in that zone to exploit the living and nonliving resources. The seabed, what’s under the seabed, petroleum, fish, mineral rights, but those otherwise are part of the high seas, they can’t restrict navigation in the way they can in territorial waters, and their rights are therefore limited as opposed to territorial waters.

Once you get beyond 200 miles, it is the high seas, a commons that the world continues to have rights to navigate in. Below the surface, after 200 miles, there may continue to be rights to exploit minerals, under the extended continental shelf. That continental shelf set of rights can extend depending on the geology, it’s a complicated equation of a coastal state, out beyond 200 miles but typically not beyond 350 miles as an outer limit. And beyond that the seabed again becomes part of the common. It’s open to exploitation by all nations, whether they have access to the coast, whether they are landlocked or not, under the separate regime established under the treaty.

MM: So, it’s pretty intuitive then in terms of the rights of different zones and how they’re allocated for large bodies of land, so say for example knowing how far the end of California is from 200 miles, that’s pretty easy.

JB: It is, yeah.

MM: But they’re also notions of a place where there’s a lot of other features, I guess is the technical terminology from there and I think one of my favorites from the Law of the Sea Convention is the difference between islands and rocks. So, I was wondering if you could walk us through the differences between those two features are and how they play into the Law of the Sea?

JB: Yeah, I’m always reminded of the old Simon and Garfunkel song, “I am a rock; I am an island,” but it’s actually a legal concept here, not a musical one, and the key point is that, as you described, if you’re along a continental coastline, it’s pretty intuitive, you get 12 miles and then you get 200 miles. It’s a small percentage relative to the size of the continent, but how do you treat an island? And an island is defined under the Convention as a body of land surrounded by water that’s above sea level at high tide, and it actually creates a territorial sea and an EEZ as well, so if you’re looking at the Florida Keys individual islands that remain above high tide, they have the potential to create, a territorial sea and an EEZ all on their own.

So, I’m going to indulge for a second if it’s okay in a little geometry, let’s say you’re in the middle of the Pacific and you’ve got an island that is a mile wide. Well, it can create a territorial sea and an exclusive economic zone. I’m not great at geometry but I think the area of the circle is πr squared. So, 200 miles and square it: 40,000 miles, multiplied by pi; a one-mile island can create a tens of thousands of square miles of exclusive economic rights. Interestingly enough, that would mean that the nation that has the largest EEZs is the United States because of the range of the islands principally that are United States territory in the Pacific. Surprisingly enough, the next one is France.

MM: France?

JB: To understand that, you need to go look at a map and go “oh yeah French Polynesia or the islands that France controls in the Indian sea, Indian Ocean rather.” And how did they get so big? Because of this leverage and the drafters of the Law of the Sea Convention, they kind of knew that, they said we have to safeguard the abuse of that status so only one kind of island gets those rights. There’s a subset of islands that we’re going to call rocks. And those are islands that can’t sustain human habitation or economic activity. They don’t have to be literally rocks; they could be a sand spit, they could be a coral reef, but if they lack the capacity to support human habitation in a meaningful way or meaningful economic activity, then they do not generate an EEZ. And it eliminates that ability to leverage, so dramatically, the territory of an island to an essence to create very, very significant and valuable oceanic zones. So, they thought of it, but it’s still an issue in today’s law.

MM: So, let’s talk about that a little bit, because obviously the incentive for a country that owns a rock, you know, if it’s not the size of Oahu which has Honolulu on it, but is kind of the cartoon depiction of sort of a person on a tiny deserted island with a palm tree on it.

JB: Yeah with the palm tree on it (laughs).

MM: But the incentive I’m sure for a country with that in order to gain those exclusive economic rights is to say, “oh well, that can sustain human habitation.” So, I was wondering how then is it determined whether a piece of land in the water is an island or a rock? You have this sort of the definitions, but how do you define then human habitation, well, human habitation is pretty easy, but economic activity seems to be kind of fuzzy?

JB: Well, actually both of them are a bit tricky and as typically happens, the treaty doesn’t give you a lengthy piece of guidance on how to do that. And many nations including the United States have, I’ll use the phrase, been liberal in their interpretation whether a feature is an island, for the reasons you described. But in the last year, last summer, an international tribunal on the South Seas, which adds South China Sea in particular, which we’ll talk about, looked at that question and provided some more detailed interpretation and it said a few things.

First of all, when we evaluate whether an island can sustain human habitation or economic life, we’re going to look at the island in its natural state, so for starters, if the Chinese or somebody else build a huge structure or transform the island, you can’t look at that, you have to go back historically, see what it looked like before human intervention transformed it. Secondly, you’re going to look at the ability to sustain human life without massive outside intervention. If you fly in lots of people, you fly in water, fly in food, it’s clear that those external interventions again aren’t the test, you have to look at what is there on the island. And interestingly enough, it doesn’t necessarily have to have a human population. The question is “is there water, are there resources to supply food whether its vegetation or animal or fish that could or does sustain a human population?” And not on a transitory basis, people coming through for two months a year to fish doesn’t count.

Secondly, in the tribunal they also took a hard look at what economic activity or life would mean, and underscored that it couldn’t be merely extractive. You know there are islands that were made of bird dung, guano, and in the 19th century, people would go and mine these islands, well that’s just extractive, that’s not economic life, there has to be some set of resources that would permit economic activity on an island, and that could be mining, it could be fishing, but it can’t simply be mining that cannot sustain and does not sustain a local population. That still raises lots of factual questions in every case, but it does make clear that an island has to be something more than just a palm tree and someone waiting for the ship to come, to qualify. And that’s going to have implications for nations like the U.S. and France and others who have significant island claims.

MM: So, we understand a bit about the zones, how they’re built, how they’re projected out, and some of the controversies surrounding this which we’ll get into the specifics in a bit, but to set up the ground work for everyone out there in our audience, tell us a little bit about what you alluded to earlier, about innocent passage and freedom of navigation. What is it, how does it function, and how does the Law of the Sea Convention define those different kinds of activities? What are the rules of the road?

JB: And those are critical elements because really the Law of the Sea is a balancing of interests of states, the coastal states want to control as much as possible, as far as possible and obviously maritime and commercial states wish to be able to conduct trade and activities without interference by coastal states, and those compromises are reflected in a couple of different concepts.

The first is the concept of innocent passage. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, the sovereign coastal state has a lot of power and authority in the territorial sea, subject to one exception and that is the vessels of third parties can traverse the territorial sea to make a transit or to enter into the ports of the coastal state under the doctrine of innocent passage. The coastal state cannot forbid that kind of transit or activity, and when you think about it that’s pretty critical to commerce, a cargo ship proceeding along the U.S. coast in order to trade in order to access U.S. ports in order to efficiently transit is going to enter territorial waters, and this right of innocent passage allows it to do so, but it’s a very limited right. The passage has to be continuous, it has to be expeditious, you can’t anchor off a coast for a week, absent an emergency set of circumstances, so it’s got that test, and it has a variety of other tests that are designed to assure that innocent passage isn’t exploited to take advantage of the coastal states’ resources or military security.

For example, you can’t fish on innocent passage, because that is in conflict with the rights of the coastal state. You can’t operate military systems, you can’t take on or land aircraft or launch aircraft. Submarines have to proceed on the surface which kind of spoils the whole purpose of being a submarine precisely to avoid provocative threats to the security and safety of the coastal state. So that’s the balance its achieved.

Transit rights relate to a very specific kind of territorial water, and that’s international straits. Straits of water that connect bodies of the high seas or economic zones and you could think of lots of examples: the Straits of Gibraltar, the Straits of Malacca, places which are narrow waterways, that would be the territorial waters of the contiguous states, but this special set of transit rights are granted. It’s rather like innocent passage, but because international straits are so critical to global security and commerce the rules are more relaxed.

I mentioned submarines couldn’t proceed on a submerged basis in innocent passage. They can in transit rights. The number of restrictions on activities in transit rights is much more limited than for innocent passage. And aircraft have transit rights as well as vessels in innocent passage, only surface vessels and submarines have that right. So, this is to the more liberal regime, which is a critical regime to assuring global access to those straits that are fundamental choke points in the conduct of global commerce.

MM: There’s also a concept inside the Law of the Sea called sovereign immunity.

JB: Yes.

MM: I was wondering if you – since that’s at least tangentially connected to innocent passage and freedom of navigation rules – walk us through what is sovereign immunity? What does that mean?

JB: Well, it’s more than in the Law of the Sea; it’s really more of a doctrine of international law that states will not conduct criminal or adversarial actions against other states. And when you think about it, it’s an element of comity and we won’t go on with France interfering with U.S. military aircraft and ships and France similarly does not want us doing the same with theirs. But its significant with the Law of the Sea in that many of the provisions in the Law of the Sea exempt vessels that are subject to sovereign immunity or aircraft that are subject to sovereign immunity. For instance, the anti-pollution provisions don’t apply to a U.S. warship or a French warship for that matter.

In innocent passage, it’s an interesting dynamic because it basically says that if a ship that has a right to sovereign immunity violates the ground rules for innocent passage, the coastal state has the right to take steps to ask it to cease the passage. What that means isn’t entirely clear, it is in fact very likely that there’s no right of force or coercive ability to force the sovereign immune vessel to change its course and conduct, so implicit of that is risk of standoff and certainly the rights against the sovereign immune vessels are more limited. And state interference with those kind of vessels is a very serious breach, not just of Law of the Sea but of international law, which was why when the Chinese picked up a drone operated by the U.S. vessel, which is subject to sovereign immunity, it was a U.S. government vessel although not a naval ship as such, that raises implications of a breach of sovereign immunity.

MM: So then let’s talk about some of the specific examples since you mentioned China, since that’s the one that probably most of the people out here are familiar with. Walk us through the South China Sea, why is the Law of the Sea a part of the disputes happening there? What does it say about the disputes that have been happening and how is it generally guided the developments that have happened in that region?

JB: Well, in some ways it’s a textbook example of the importance of the Law of the Sea because the South China Sea is fraught with conflict. There are small islands: the Spratlys, for instance, and the Paracels that are claimed by the multiple adjoining states. The claims with respect to economic zones and extended continental shelf create issues of overlap and conflict. And, this is in a region where suspicion and friction between the neighboring states is high, so the ground rules of the Law of the Sea are critically important element in helping to resolve the frictions that are embedded in the issues I just described to you. And one of the key elements has been the tension between the Chinese view of its rights with respect to the South China Sea and those of the adjoining states.

The international tribunal decision at the permanent court of arbitration in 2016 that I mentioned earlier, really arose out of that and some other related disputes, but the principal core was with respect to China’s view of its rights over the South China Sea. China has asserted that it has broad sovereign rights within an area defined by the so-called 9-dash line, and that expression comes from the fact that the map that originally included it had nine dashes, the number of dashes varies from time to time, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the line embraces the great majority of the South China Sea. It comes down close to Indonesia, Vietnam and to the Philippines. And the line conflicts with the Exclusive Economic Zones of those nations. China’s never defined precisely, and certainly not in the context of the Law of the Sea, what it means by the sovereign rights under the 9-dash line, but both verbally and in action, has asserted rights that would be in conflict with the Law of the Sea for instance, the access of Filipino fishers to living resources within the South China Sea has been restricted by the Chinese on the basis of the 9-dash line.The tendency of China to increasingly enforce or assert the 9-dash line was triggered when Vietnam and the Philippines began oil exploration in the South China Sea.

The tribunal took a hard look at the 9-dash line, and it unequivocally said that, this line which China asserts has its origins in ancient historic rights to the sea is in conflict with the Convention of the Law of the Sea and hence is legally of no effect. The tribunal said that when China signed the Convention, it gained great rights including to the EEZ around China that didn’t exist before, and in doing so, also lost any more vague and historic claims. And that was a very important decision both legally and geopolitically. It’s no question that legally it was the right decision. This kind of broad, inchoate historic right to great reaches of water doesn’t exist anywhere in the Law of the Sea. And in addition, it was a firm message that, from a political standpoint, China’s position was an overreaching assertion of sovereign rights, which is one of the reasons why the Chinese have so bitterly denounced the decision.

MM: So, let’s talk about the other end of this, since we’ve talked mostly about the economic rights, let’s talk about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, because you mentioned the drone seizure, what then does the Law of the Sea say should be happening in the South China Sea and what is the position of China, how they’re acting, and how do they contrast with one another?

JB: Yes, the tribunal did not address that set of issues, but it has been an escalating and critical source of friction as well particularly although not exclusively between the U.S. and China. And it has two elements, the first relates to innocent passage. I’ve described that before, it’s the right for the continuous and expeditious crossing of territorial seas, innocent passage is available to warships as well as civilian vessels, but a certain number of nations including China have asserted that it’s necessary to provide notification and to obtain consent to conduct innocent passage. The U.S. position, which is consistent with the Convention, is that that consent is not required.

That war honestly has been more one of words than of action perhaps fortunately. The U.S. conducts what it calls freedom of navigation exercises from time to time to preserve those rights. It’s complicated in the South China Sea because those navigation exercises have sometimes been ambiguous, the U.S. has sailed within 12 miles of certain of these small maritime features and it’s been unclear whether the U.S. is in fact asserting innocent passage and conceding there’s a territorial sea around the feature, or is the U.S. asserting that there’s no territorial sea, and is simply a high seas transit right, and that ambiguity continues. China protests those exercises, we periodically conduct them, as I said the struggle has largely been one of words, but it is important and as a security matter for the United States, the assertion of the right of innocent passage within the South China Sea is very important.

The other and more broad question is, whether there are any limitations on the conduct of military surveillance, reconnaissance, or activities within China’s EEZ. And China also interprets its rights there very broadly. It asserts that the EEZ can only be used for peaceful purposes and that reconnaissance flights, this is beyond the 12 miles remember, it’s out beyond that zone, or military exercises are inconsistent with its interpretation of the Convention. And that has led to serious difficulties.

More than a decade now ago, there was a collision between a Chinese interceptor aircraft and a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, the Chinese pilot was killed and his plane crashed, the U.S. aircraft was forced to land on an emergency basis on a Chinese airbase. And unfortunately, with the last couple of years, nothing that serious has occurred, but there have been recurring games, for the lack of a better word, of international chicken between Chinese interceptor aircraft and U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. And the risk of an incident there is real. And again, arises from the U.S. goal of assuring, particularly as a major power in the region and as a leading naval power, that its high seas rights are preserved. The erosion of that would be a serious blow to U.S. security interests, and China’s assertions that at least within the EEZ, conduct of that nature is not allowed of absent Chinese consent.

MM: So, lest our audience assume that basically every tension over the Law of the Sea somehow involves the United States and China or let’s be honest, sometimes just China and its neighbors, tell us a little bit about the United States and Canada and its disagreements on freedom of navigation.

JB: What could be friendlier than the United States and Canada? But things do happen when the issues are ones critical to open navigation to the principles of Law of the Sea and to access resources and that’s shown up between the United States and Canada on an abiding disagreement regarding the fabled Northwest Passage, the sea route through the Canadian island chain, that once upon a time explorers hoped led directly to El Dorado, but now with melting arctic ice may offer a way through the great circle route to significantly reduced transit time between the U.S. east coast and Asia. 

The Canadian position is that they are internal waters and if you recall, internal waters are equivalent to sovereign territory, there are no rights of third party nations and the rights abide exclusively with the coastal state. And in some ways, this has become a key psychological element to the Canadians, the Northwest Passage being truly part of the “Canadian north” or the “Canadian arcti”c, however you define it. The U.S. perspective is rather different. It is that the Northwest Passage is in fact an international strait, a way to connect two sets of high seas, and is subject to the transit rights available to third party nations under international law. And that therefore for example, a U.S. ship could proceed through the northwest passage without consent or notification, provided that it abided by the rules applicable to transit passage.

This disagreement remains more theoretical than real in the sense that traffic obviously through the Northwest Passage is limited. The two states have agreed to share information regarding such passages without the United States in anyway acknowledging that Canadian waters are internal and without Canada acknowledging in any fashion that the Northwest Passage is an international strait. And part of the disagreement turns on what an international strait mean. What does it mean to be used to permit passage between two sets of high seas or EEZs? Does “real use” constitute part of that definition? Because historically transit to the Northwest Passage relative to most other international straits has been very limited.

The U.S. view is that it can be used and it has been used whether or not it’s a large number of times and hence it’s a strait. The Canadian view is that that’s not the case because usage has been highly limited and doesn’t correspond to what has been historically associated with international straits. There are ironies to the position on both sides, I will note that it’s not entirely clear that it would be a geopolitical victory for the U.S. if it is an international strait, because for example, that means that Russian reconnaissance aircraft are free to fly down the straits under rights of transit. On the other hand, from the U..S standpoint, the principle at stake is critical because if there is any evolving body of law that erodes the definition of international straits, it’s a clear detriment to a leading maritime and a naval nation like the United States, so it does matter.

MM: So, the Canada issue and the strait versus internal water alludes to the fact that the ocean is changing and that as a result of the changes in the ocean, it is also then driving changes in the Law of the Sea, if not the law itself, but in terms of evolving issues that are coming up. So, besides the Canada strait versus internal waters issue, what other issues do you see coming down the pike for the Law of the Sea?

JB: Well, the issue you just alluded to is one of them. And as you also mentioned it goes well beyond the question of the northwest passage. As we’ve talked about before, the definition of the low tide line is a very important marker, one of the key ways, not the only way, but one of the key ways that the baselines from which the maritime zones are measured is defined. We had a discussion about the difference between a rock and an island.

Well imagine if as it seems to be the case, global sea levels are rising, there are currently islands that are a meter or two above sea level. Given another 50 or a 100 years, if current trends continue, that could fundamental impact on the definition of maritime zones. They may be retreating landward. There are islands which would disappear, eliminating EEZs, or territorial seas associated with those islands. And there’s no resolution today about whether the baseline should be frozen and the way the borders are defined today is embedded, at least for some period of time, or whether they’re ambulator: the legal word for walking around, whether they reflect adjustments in sea level. 

There are groups under the International Bar Association and U.N. auspices looking at it and it’s a real question. Let alone dealing with the broader question which is not purely a Law of the Sea question of what becomes of island states, small nations in the Pacific or the Indian Ocean, it’s not simply a question of maritime borders disappearing, but of a country disappearing. And what is the status of a country’s sovereignty and what happens to its population? So it’s a good thing that it isn’t going to happen in the next five years, because it’s going to take a lot longer to resolve issues of that depth and complexity.

MM:  So, as is Sea Control tradition since we’re approaching the end, please walk us through what it is that you’re reading right now. You obviously have a very interesting and diverse background in terms of you know your education. So, tell us a bit about what you’ve been reading lately, whether its Law of the Sea-related or maritime-related, even if it’s something fun you found online recently.

JB: Yeah, well I think I describe two things. One is kind of a pure Law of the Sea book, but it covers a bit different topics then we’ve been discussing but one that the audience might be interested in is and that is a book by Natalie Klein on maritime security and the Law of the Sea that talks about issues we really couldn’t talk about today, including piracy and weapons of mass destruction and issues of intersection of security issues and Law of the Sea. And I’ve also been reading a book on the Barbary pirates which is a kind of a classic set of questions that relates to the history of U.S. frigates but also these, some of these issues were present at the beginning of the United States, issues of control of piracy, freedom of navigation. If the Barbary pirates were anything, they were dedicated to limiting freedom of navigation and exploiting the sea in a way that was at odds with freedom of commerce and of security.

MM: Wonderful, well thank you very much again professor for being with us on Sea Control and best of luck with all of your work. And hopefully we’ll be able to welcome you back on again at some point in the future

JB: My pleasure, thanks a lot.

John A. Burgess is Professor of Practice and Executive Director of the LLM Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He teaches courses on international finance transactions, international securities regulation and cross-border mergers and acquisitions.

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer of Sea Control and Assistant Director of Fletcher’s Maritime Studies Program.

Sea Control 139: What Does It Mean To Be A SMWDC Warfare Tactics Instructor?

By Matthew Merighi 

The Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) is a critical element of the Navy’s Surface Force Strategy: Return to Sea Control.The command’s four lines of operation are advanced tactical training and tactical guidance development, operational support to combatant commanders, numbered fleet commanders and task force commanders, and capabilities assessments, experimentation, and future warfighting requirements. A critical supporting element in each of these focus areas are the men and women who are trained as Warfare Tactics Instructors (WTIs). 

In this interview, Sally DeBoer (SD) spoke with four WTIs who are on the cutting edge of the cultural shift taking place in the surface Navy. Our guests are Lt. Tyson Eberhardt (TE), who is an Anti-Submarine Warfare/Anti-Surface Warfare Tactics Instructor (ASW/SUW), Lt. Brittany Hubbard (BH), who is an Amphibious Warfare Tactics Instructor (AMW), Lt. Benjamin Olivas (BO), who is an Integrated Air and Missile Defense Warfare Tactics Instructor (IAMD), and Lt. Damon Goodrich-Houska (DGH), who is an ASW/SUW WTI. Read the transcript or download the audio below. 

Download Sea Control 139: What Does It Mean To Be A SMWDC Warfare Tactics Instructor?

SD: Welcome back! On this episode of Sea Control, our guests today are four Warfare Tactics Instructors from the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) in San Diego, CA. Thank you all so much for taking time out of your schedule to join us today. Let’s begin by getting a little background on each of you. What did you do prior to coming to SMWDC, and what drew you to the command?

TE: I was the ASWO officer and navigator on USS Preble as a division officer, I really enjoyed the tactical aspect of getting to meet sonar technicians and finding submarines. As a division officer, the opportunity on shore duty to expand my knowledge base and help other ASWOs drew me to the command.

DGH: I served on USS Reuben James and as the training officer on the USS Rushmore, part of that tour was going through a training cycle where you get the crew and all the watchstanders up to the level they need to be to deploy. With that experience, I got to conduct drills, run through scenarios, and train sailors. What drew me to SMWDC was the opportunity to learn and implement advanced tactics, then train warfighters on how to fight more effectively, I really enjoy ASW especially.

BH: I spent my first division officer tour on the USS Green Bay, and then I moved to a destroyer, the USS Lassen, as the damage control assistant. What interested me in SMWDC was going back to my roots as an amphibious sailor. A lot of the mission sets we conducted with the Marine Corps taught me how to be a liaison and work on the relationships between sailors and our USMC counterparts. That is what interested me in joining this program.

BO: Before I came here, I was the communications officer on USS Paul Hamilton and then I was the training officer on USS Michael Murphy, both out of Pearl Harbor. I served as air warfare coordinator and I came from a background where most of my captains knew this domain really well; I truly enjoyed that billet. Working with sailors and teaching people was something I also found enjoyable. When I heard about SMWDC, I thought what better way to use all this knowledge I have accumulated, pass it on, and make a difference?

SD: What impact do you see from the work you have done at SMWDC

DGH: One of the biggest things I have seen is a culture shift, and one of the main aspects is the PBED (Plan, Brief, Execute and Debrief) model. If you look at elite athletes, they don’t just go out and do their event, they will study, watch videos of themselves doing the actions, look over the minute details to improve, as well as watch competitors to adapt techniques and methods.

So we go out and do Surface Warfare Advanced Tactics and Training (SWATT) and have WTIs on each ship and, after doing various events, we will actually show the crew and the watchstanders a replay of the event, including voice recordings of reports. Walking through that, we start with the WTIs doing the majority of the presentation with the watchstanders and crew jumping in here and there, but by the end of the training, the watch teams are running things on their own and identifying issues themselves. So, seeing that training change hands from the WTIs to the ship’s crew, to where they are able to conduct their own training and self-improvement, is really great.

TE: We also conduct training ashore, so my primary job as an advanced sonar instructor is to provide this advanced tactical instruction to officers that will go out and conduct training. This classroom training is another important part of our mission. Getting to work with officers before they go to sea is another exciting part of our mission here.

BO: We tend to pride ourselves on not just conducting training but also building knowledge. One of the things that we have done is try to apply the same type of teaching approaches we learn from our counterparts. We put them through the ringer here in terms of making them go up and do a brief, do it well, and do it repeatedly to the point where they’ve put in so many hours, done so much research, taken and internalized these techniques…this goes for all of the schools here. So when you see a sailor give a brief, you know you will get a certain product because it’s been tailored a certain way. Since we have been doing it this way, we’ve seen a great payoff.

SD: How does the reported success of the WTI program in improving tactical proficiency translate to future training development for the Navy’s SWOs?

BH: I think that the three different schoolhouses that we currently have provide a good baseline for how we expect our future SWOs to participate in developing tactical proficiency. We take an elite cadre of junior officers and we put them through these schoolhouses and then, as we complete our production tour, which is anywhere from two or three years, those same officers then go back out to the fleet as department heads that will eventually be XOs and COs. So we are bringing our tactical proficiency to a new standard.

DGH: Another point is that as we develop new tactics and doctrine, we get a chance to take it out to sea with real world watchstanders to test it out and make sure that it is up to par, that it’s effective, and if not, we can make adjustments very rapidly.

SD: Is the emphasis more on teaching rigid existing doctrine or on allowing WTIs to develop and pursue new, original ideas?

DGH: It’s a little of both. We do rely on doctrine, but we also take our WTIs and ensure that we apply rigor, academic rigor, to our doctrine and tactics to make sure they are in fact reliable, and if there are issues, then again we identify them, correct them, and ensure the WTIs are empowered to enact changes and improve things.

TE: I think to Damon’s point, we have WTIs out at sea who have a responsibility to know the doctrine and the guidance, but have the opportunity to think critically and bring new ideas to the organizations. We’ve taken a more active role in events like the SCC (Submarine Command Course) where we have a chance to try out new tactics and see how effective they can be, then feed that back into formalized doctrine.

BO:  One of the good things about being able to test out new TTPs and doctrine is also being able to apply those things earlier and develop that muscle memory. The more we internalize tactics, the more they are applied and become part of the ship. Out there on the water where officers are asked to make quick decisions, this muscle memory represents a force multiplier for the entire fleet.

SD: How do you see yourselves speeding up and improving the Navy’s ability to field new thinking and capabilities?

 BH: A lot of what we do when we go out to ships and in the schoolhouse is not only study current doctrine but also evaluate new ways of utilizing that doctrine. We receive immediate feedback from the ships, and then we conduct workshops and working groups that take a really hard look at what we are currently teaching and make sure it is the best way to conduct that event.

BO:  The other thing we’ve hit on in terms of improvement is the impact that we see in the classroom, the way we teach. Being able to sit down and listen to briefs and take them in has created a much better experience for the students, they take on a lot of what we’ve done and they “get it.” We have created these lessons so when they walk away from classrooms they’re ready to use what they have learned. We use the ARCS (attention, relevance, confidence, satisfaction) approach – we see that as a feedback loop for the students. Once we have their attention, we present relevant information. Confidence means that they can walk away feeling like they “get it,” and satisfaction (S) means they can go to their ships and into combat or an exercise and satisfactorily apply the things we’ve taught them. 

DGH: To add on, in operational environments, the more we get WTIs out to the ships as DHs, especially once we hit that critical mass where there’s one WTI per ship, we will have already created a network of WTIs that all know how to get in touch with subject matter experts (SMEs) in various areas. Much of that reach back comes here (SMWDC HQ), and we have good communications with the aviation and undersea communities, etc.

As things change and real world events occur, we rapidly take in feedback and develop new tactics and doctrine as needed. We can model new systems going into the fleet, and any feedback from doctrine and tactics used in the real world can be brought into the classroom to make sure that the next set of WTIs that head out to train others have the most up-to-date information. We are not teaching out-of-date stuff, we are teaching the latest and greatest.

SD: What kind of collaboration and integration do WTIs have with one another and different communities (aviation, undersea, etc.)?

BH: So, one way that we do this is anytime we have a course that we are trying to teach or area of interest we need more information on, we reach out to that community. For example, we are participating in an SCC (Sea Combat Commander) course for various DESRONs and PHIBRONs working through training cycles. We recently reached out to the aviation weapons schools for input and participation to make sure we are as tactically proficient in the relevant areas we are teaching as they are.

TE: Along those lines, an important part of what WTIs do is that broad reach. While we train WTIs here at SMWDC, others are working for various other schools and groups and counterparts that have a specific focus. That allows us as a community of WTIs to try and foster cross-domain thinking about problems that don’t just affect one area, but affect the whole spectrum of naval warfare.

SD: How can you work to keep your skills current in an age of rapid change? 

DGH: We have a lot of WTIs here that are traveling, going out and doing various events, training aboard ships, and getting a lot of great experiences, such as live fire events, things that previously were something an officer might get to do once or twice in a career, we have WTIs doing multiple times a year.

What we ended up starting was what we call “Tactical Taco Tuesday,” which we hold multiple times a month. It is a long working lunch where we cross-train between domains, IAMD folks, ASUW, ASW, and amphibious folks. We also pull in other warfare areas as well, such as CW or Intelligence, and get some good cross-training in a less formal environment that allows for really good quality discussion and in-depth questions – plus everyone brings food so it builds an esprit de’corps that keeps the WTI network strong.

When we go on to our next tours, we know who to talk to and who the experts are. The more formal way we do this is that when WTIs come back to the schoolhouse, which we call Re-Bluing, we conduct refresher courses where the latest and greatest TTPs are taught.

SD: What do you think is next for SMWDC and the WTI program? How do you envision WTIs being utilized five or ten years down the line?

BH: I think that as WTIs, this is simply a two or three year tour, but when we leave this production tour, we do not take off our patch, it is still up to us to continue remaining as tactically proficient as our patch would designate us to be. So in 5-10 years, the goal is to be DHs, XOs, and COs, all the while continuing to build that knowledge base that we started back during a WTI production tour.

DGH: As we have more and more senior leadership who are WTI-qualified, it’s going to push an overall culture change, much like the phrase “a rising tide raises all boats,” it’s that idea that as increasingly more senior leadership has experience as WTIs, they will maintain that emphasis on being the best, drilling hard, working on doctrine and tactics, and that will really shift our focus.

WTIs are supposed to be warriors and thinkers and teachers, so when we get out and stand tactical watches, those same WTIs will be thinkers and work on doctrine, tactics, and improving existing processes as well as developing new systems and ideas, while also serving as teachers, in that they will train watchstanders, crews, and even strike groups. Ultimately, this will improve our warfighting ability.

BO: One of the things that we really hammer home is that this command is primarily O-3s and O-4s, which in the grand scheme is very junior in rank, but we are the ones doing the homework and teaching people in ranks above and below. Ultimately, I think what we are trying to get at is that the tactical experts will be the gatekeepers and have the breadth of knowledge to build something great.

TE: The WTI program is an effort to put warfighting first among SWOs. As SWOs we have so many things we have to be proficient at, but the bottom line is we need to be warfighters, and this requires an advanced understanding of tactics. And by building this cadre of WTIs, for years down the line as DHs and beyond, we will be making an impact by bringing that to the fleet

SD: What is your message to aspiring surface warfare officers who are interested SMWDC

TE: I think what most excites me about getting to be a part of this command is that the Navy is investing in my level of knowledge and in my ability to go out and lead sailors in the future. It is exciting to train others, to do these exercises. The bottom line is that every single day I come to work I learn something new, and the organization is committed to training me to a higher level of knowledge that will pay off for years as I have come to a whole new appreciation for expertise in surface warfare.

DGH: For aspiring SWOs, as a JO, as a non-qualified SWO working toward that pin, you have much to learn and focus on, but number one I would encourage young SWOs to learn as much as you can and focus on tactics, but communicate early with your chain of command that you’re interested in the WTI program if you have a passion for tactics and training. Of course, work on your qualifications and do your job well, but there are many opportunities to become qualified in warfare areas as a JO, whether it’s ASWE for a second tour or various air warfare qualifications on an Aegis platform. Focus on those and work toward being the best tactician you can in whatever position you are in – strive to be the “go-to” guy or gal in that position. So when you do apply to be a WTI, those recommendations will really help.

BH: For SWOs looking to come here, this is probably going to be a once-in a-career type of opportunity. Every day when I come to work, my job is to take research, take what we’re doing, take a schedule, and make it the best that I can for the fleet, event, or scenario. There wasn’t a time in the first four years of my career where someone asked me to research tactics or to figure out a problem – but for all SWOs this is your time. You’re two to three years out of your career that you can spend just focusing on making the warfare areas better, building relationships, and networking. In that way it is different from many tours you could do otherwise.

BO: Looking back on everything, I think all of us are close enough to our JO tours to realize that being a junior officer onboard a warship is not an easy task. It is a lot of sustained hard work that keeps you up many nights studying. We understand how hard you’ve worked for your pin. The shore tour is a time when many look to take some gas off the pedal and regroup. Here we have an opportunity to do that, but we also have a lot of work to do, but it’s good work. It is something that is going to make a difference.

Quite frankly, of all the people I have worked with in my career, there is no one I would rather work with. The people here are trying to make a difference, and that work will echo in the Navy for many years to come. My takeaway to you is, if you’re qualified in an area, pursue it rigorously, look at the pubs, talk to the watchstanders, and ask as many questions as you can, because one day you may be the one teaching others to do that and it is going to matter. That is why we were created.

SD: Thank you all so much for taking time out of your day to join us here on Sea Control and for leaving our listeners more informed about the work you’re doing and the mission of the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. We hope you’ll join us again! For our listeners – this has been another episode of Sea Control. Thanks for listening!

Lt. Benjamin Olivas is a native of El Paso, Texas and earned his bachelor’s degree in history from the United States Naval Academy in 2011. He received a commission in the Navy and was selected to be a Surface Warfare Officer. Olivas is an Integrated Air and Missile defense Warfare Tactics Instructor (IAMD WTI), and currently serves as the Standardization Officer at the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) in San Diego, CA.

Lt. Brittany Hubbard is a native of Grand Chain, Illinois and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from University of Illinois in 2012. Hubbard is currently at SMWDC Sea Combat Division as an Amphibious Warfare Tactics Instructor.

Lieutenant Damon Goodrich-Houska graduated from Indiana University in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Public and Environmental Affairs. Damon earned his commission through Officer Candiate School in 2010. Additionally, he earned his master’s degree in Cyber Security from National University in 2016. Lieutenant Goodrich-Houska is currently assigned to Navy Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center as N5 Anti-Submarine Warfare Assistant, N5 Doctrine & Tactics Branch. Damon completed the Legacy SuASW WTI course at the top of his class, and completed the ASUW/ASW WTI Pilot Course as the honor graduate.

LT Tyson Eberhardt is a native of Seattle, Washington and earned his bachelor’s degree in from Princeton University in 2008. He holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania. Eberhardt earned his commission through Officer Candidate School in 2013. He is currently an ASW/SUW Warfare Tactics Instructor at SMWDC Sea Combat Division specializing in active sonar systems and tactics. During his time at SMWDC he also served as the uniformed lead for SHAREM 188 with the ROK Navy.

Sally DeBoer is an Associate Editor with CIMSEC, and previously served as CIMSEC’s president from 2016-2017. 

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control.