Tag Archives: Surface Warfare Officer- SWO

Specialize or Not? Former RAN CO’s Reflections on Surface Warfare Officer Development

Rear Admiral (ret) James Vincent Purcell Goldrick AO, CSC, RANR, served three times as a the Commanding Officer of a ship at sea. He is a fellow at the Seapower Centre and a Naval Historian.
(editor’s note) He is also served with the Patrol Boat navy, which means he is one of the best.

The recent discussion about the different approaches to surface warfare officer training in the British and American navies has been of great interest to me, if only because the Royal Australian Navy, my own service, has largely combined British training methods and career paths with the use of American designed ships and equipment.

I have had first-hand experience with both British and American methods, as well as the Australian approach, having served at sea on two exchange postings with the Royal Navy, been both XO and CO of RAN ships, small and big (by Australian standards) and sea ridden USN units, including in command time in tactical control of MIO operations in the northern Arabian Gulf. If I could sum up my view with a one liner it is that the British system is better for individual ships, the American for a navy as a whole.

Here I need to make an important distinction – the USN’s operational requirements are not those of the British, still less are they the same as those of Canada or Australia, so its personnel solutions should not necessarily be identical. Another, associated aspect of the comparison is that the USN system works better in major units because these can have enough experts onboard – with their associated rank and seniority – to provide the necessary leadership to all the specialisations involved. This is very difficult to achieve in smaller ships. Actually, it’s practically impossible.

The unit of power in the surface forces of the smaller navies, particularly in recent years, has been the frigate or destroyer. Within the USN, although times are changing – as recent deployment patterns not only in the Caribbean but even the South China Sea suggest – it has remained that of the carrier battle or expeditionary strike group. This requires a very different approach. A USN destroyer or frigate has been judged largely by how it fits into the whole, while a Canadian or Australian and even a British ship has in the past to manage both task group operations and independent activity to a much greater degree. In other words, the smaller navies have had to wring much more out of their limited capabilities and doing so successfully requires a higher level of expertise at more junior ranks than has generally been the case for the USN.

The reality is that deep expertise is found in the O5s and O6s of the American Navy that the other naval services can only envy. But, contrary to some of the declarations in earlier contributions to this discussion, I’d take a British or Australian O3 or O4 in their specialisation over the average (but not the best) USN surface warfare officer with the equivalent qualified sea service any day. This may seem a hard judgement, but it is not one based on intellect, morals or individual quality, it is simply a matter of experience – a USN officer has to cover so many more bases that there is an inevitable element – somewhere in it all – of ‘once over lightly’. My belief is that the USN maintains the standards it does by sheer hard work and a great deal of sea time.

But there is more to it than that. It seems to me that the argument has been confused by the inclusion of platform and propulsion engineering into the wider question of the requirement of warfare officers for technological understanding and technical mastery in addition to what could be described as operator skills. Because of the ‘once over lightly’ problem, my judgement is that, in general terms, propulsion engineers provide a more effective service and ship commanders are more expert in their essential skills if there is no attempt for platform engineers to proceed down the path of combatant command. I believe very firmly, in so far as frigates and destroyers which may have to operate as autonomous units are concerned, that it is practically impossible to accumulate the expertise necessary to cover all the bases associated if the officer complement are to have an ‘unrestricted line’ background. All that time in the machinery spaces has to come at the expense of the combat system and tactical knowledge as well as the associated ship driving skills which are vital to the effective direction of a warship’s operations. One sees certain resonances of this argument in the American submarine community and it is notable, although they have had their challenges in their nuclear force, that the British have never chosen to risk their tactical expertise in meeting their nuclear power demands. Royal Navy submarine captains get some nuclear power training, but they do not serve as engineers. I think that the British are right. My own experience is that I was very hard pressed to ensure that I was sufficiently expert as a surface warfare officer with the minimum mastery of combat systems and tactics necessary to fight the ship. I was also always acutely aware that my captains – and the ships’ companies with whom I served – demanded nothing less.

I do not have an engineering degree and I have also always had to work hard to ensure that I have had what I think is sufficient mastery of all aspects of ship design and propulsion to be an effective sea officer and, later, sea commander. Yet this was always in support of my primary functions, not such a function itself and this is the real point. Could I have known more about engineering? Yes, but at what cost to my warfare expertise? Did I end up knowing enough? I once had an exchange with my – extremely efficient and truly expert- platform (or what we call ‘marine’) engineer officer ashore over a beer one night. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I know that both your undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are in history. How is it that you always know the question to ask me that I don’t want you to ask me?’ ‘Simon,’ I replied, ‘I’m the captain, it’s my job.’ I still treasure that as one of the greatest professional compliments I have ever been paid – but I think it is one that, at least in part, I had earned. I will say here that the training system through which I passed allocated more time to engineering theory and practical engineering training for surface warfare officers than does the ‘objective focused’ system of the present day. There is a minimum required and I am not convinced that it is being met in either the RAN or the Royal Navy.

The point, however, is that my job as a captain was not to be the engineering officer, nor attempt to do his or her job. Mine was to be as expert as possible in driving and fighting my ship to achieve its military purposes. I am deliberate in suggesting that the platform engineering specialisation is not the ideal preparation for combatant command – although I have no objection to such officers commanding auxiliaries and non-combatant units, provided that they have had sufficient time on the bridge. Let me emphasise that I am not suggesting that officers with a platform engineering background are necessarily ineffective as combatant captains. What I am saying is that the individuals concerned would be much better off – and much better war fighters if they were differently prepared. There just isn’t enough time to do otherwise.

Let me return to explain one point – my view that the USN system can be better for a navy. If one is to accept that platform engineers as a group must be ‘Engineering Duty Only’, this must not result in their exclusion from the highest levels of decision making and influence. The USN has achieved as much as it has in the last seventy and more years because it got its platform engineering right so many times. And where it did not, it soon knew what to do to fix the problem. This must continue.

However, I do believe that the USN has evolved a generally more effective approach to combat systems management than the RN or the RAN both at sea and ashore. This is another area in which there could be more theory and practical training for warfare officers within our organisations. While I assess that there is a vital space for the specialists that the British describe as ‘Weapon Engineers’, I do not think that the British (and Australian) system has allowed surface warfare officers to develop sufficient understanding of their technology and the operation of their weapon and sensor systems since the old warfare sub-specialisations such as gunnery and ASW were replaced by the Principal Warfare Officer concept in the 1970s. The PWO possessed a much improved ability to make a correct, no-notice response to an immediate threat, no matter whether it was from over, on or under the sea, but it was partly at the expense of the much deeper system knowledge of his predecessors and to the detriment of a much more equal relationship with the Weapon Engineers who were and are responsible for the preparation, maintenance and readiness of the weapons, sensors, computers and communications concerned. Our navies have a lot to do in this area.

I don’t have any simple solutions for all this, but I will finish with one point. Whatever career system is adopted, it will only work if a truly professional attitude is adopted by all concerned. This includes, above all, a welcoming and inclusive approach to the new joiners that makes it clear that high standards are essential, but provides every opportunity to them to achieve their professional goals. Command at sea remains one of the most worthwhile experiences it is possible to have, but central to its value is encouraging and developing the young. None of our navies have always been as consistently focused on this as we should have been, but it is vital. As a very distinguished admiral once said, “You spend your first command proving yourself to yourself. You should spend your second and subsequent commands proving other people to themselves.”

He was – and is – right, but it also applies to every step in the surface warfare officer ladder. We all need to remember that we are there, amongst other things, to train our relief

The Virtue of Being a Generalist, Part 3: Viper and the Pitfalls of ‘Good Enough’

By Jon Paris

In both Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I compared various naval counterparts – laying the groundwork for discussing what the U.S. Navy’s Surface Warfare Officer community is getting right, and what areas could use improvement. It is easy to complain. Surface Warfare Officers are notorious for it. I am infamous for it, as my peers and superiors alike will attest. Combine our penchant for complaining and our ingrained inferiority complex and it is no wonder that so many SWOs think that everyone else is “doing it better.” This time, though, it is not typical-SWO wanking: they are doing it better, and we must pull our heads out of the sand and catch up. Royal Navy Warfare Officers, U.S. Naval Aviators and nuclear trained officers are specialists and are unmatched masters of their trade. They must train endlessly and they feverishly adhere to standards written in blood to remain at the top of their respective callings. They are role-models and could teach us a thing or two about being the best. As for Surface Warfare Officers – we are good, and that is the problem.

Surface Warfare Officers – and the ships we drive, fight, and lead – guarantee the free flow of commerce across the world. We deliver critical readiness to the Geographic Combatant Commanders and we send a powerful message to both overt and would-be enemies. What we do, works. Our ships deploy and our navy projects unparalleled power around the globe. As an inherently expeditionary force, we ply the world’s oceans, go where we please, and influence international events as a matter of course. We conduct prompt and sustained combat operations like no other nation can. Our ships are leaving port and returning safely, they complete the widest variety of operational tasking of any military community, our personnel are advancing, and finally, as one senior community leader put it to me, “We are pretty damn good… I would take our top 50% Department Heads and put them against the top 10% of PWO (RN, Principle Warfare Officers) or Snipes (engineers) and bet on our people.

It appears that there is nothing wrong here. As a Surface Warfare Officer myself, I can get onboard with most of the above. There is a seedy underbelly to all of this, though. It thrives on a couple of points: that our greatness has not been tested by an opponent in decades, and that the perspective of greatness is naturally skewed from the top down. If not by desire, doctrine, or intent – then surely through practice – the Surface Warfare Officer community accepts mediocracy.

Good Enough?

Tom Skerritt’s Viper stood in front of a room filled with the elite – “the best of the best,” and told them deadpan: “we’ll make you better.” In this fictional portrayal, which is representative of the real-life attitudes found in the previously featured communities, good enough, wasn’t. Surface Warfare Officers are undoubtedly the best in our business. Unfortunately, context matters, as the same can be said when a Major League club steps into a Little League park. We need to be better. We have ill-defined core-competencies, which leads us to becoming Jacks-of-all-Trades. Our habit of recoiling in horror at the thought of specialization causes us to become plug-and-play officers; ultimately figure-heads and placeholders with little value added to a respective sub-unit. Finally, we do not deliver professionals to the Fleet. One Surface Warfare Officer with multiple commands under his belt conceded, “We should be more deliberate. Success and mastery occur by happenstance.” Another community leader said, “We have good tacticians, but that is mostly by personal choice, and a little bit about your ship’s schedule and how interested your Commanding Officer was in tactics.” This series is not about career advancement. It is about a profession. It is about war. It is about winning! Our nation does not deserve victory by happenstance. It deserves an ocean-roiling, awe-inspiring, burned-into-the-history-books slam of Thor’s hammer upon our enemies. I do not think we are there yet.

Defending Freedom and Democracy Around the World

Getting there is not simple. It is not as easy as adopting all of the policies and culture of the Royal Navy or Naval Aviators or nukes. Surface Warfare Officers should be the best because we train to be the best, not because we happen to be a part of the American Navy. We should be the best because we retain the best, not simply because our kit is better than everyone else’s. Under some fantastic leaders, the community is getting the right idea. The introduction of the Basic Division Officer Course, the Advanced Division Officer Course, the Surface Navigator’s Course, the Command Qualification Exam, and rigor added to the Department Head Course are all aimed at developing professionals. Weapons Tactics Instructors – previously a rice-bowl of the aviation community – will invigorate tactical awareness and proficiency throughout the Fleet. The SWO Clock concept – another idea poached from Naval Aviators – which gets “beached SWOs” back to the waterfront, shows a tilt towards valuing production in the upwardly-mobile. We are making good efforts to improve our community in an environment that naturally builds anti-bodies to culture change. That said, we are not doing enough; our profession, our competencies, our reputation, and our retention suffer due to this slow trod down the middle-of-the-channel. As is evidenced by both the Naval Aviation and nuclear communities, it really comes down to what a community accepts in, and for, itself. Do we continue to accept mediocracy, or do we stand up and say that “good enough” is not good enough?

One admiral opined, “I think it is good we SWOs have this institutional ‘inferiority complex,’ as it keeps us from getting complacent…like naval aviation did in Vietnam and later years.” I am not nearly the first to question the level of professionalism in our force. In a 2009 Proceedings article, LT Mitch McGuffie discussed his shock at how much more professional Royal Navy Warfare Officers were than SWOs. This topic and topics like it pop up on Sailor Bob – the definitive forum for SWO discussion – all the time. We do have a questioning attitude and that does make us better. While I readily acknowledge that we are the best Surface Warriors on the block, I am not satisfied with a 10:1 or 50:1 advantage. Like Viper and his pals, and real-life naval professionals who recognize that “there are no points for second place,” I am not satisfied with us being the best – I want us to be the best of the best.

To lose the edge, one must have had it in the first place.

To be the best of the best, we must deliver professionals to the Fleet at all levels. To measure one’s professionalism, we must establish community-recognized core competencies. We must define what it means to be a SWO and prove that our pin is worth more than the money we pay for it. For the sake of brevity, I propose that our core competency be ship-driving. Imagine, if you will, a room full of mid-grade Hornet pilots: 20% of them openly admit to each other that they have no clue how to fly Hornets, and another 30% who are less open about their weakness demonstrate their ineptitude in the simulator. The remaining 50% range from barely capable to superstars. While quality spreads are a reality in any group, this scenario is un-imaginable. Naval Aviators with more than 8 years of service that do not know how to fly? Rubbish! This is a reality for Surface Warfare Officers, though. Lieutenants that do not know how to drive ships are commonplace. They exist because they were never trained, nor tested, much less held to a standard, in the first place. They were never trained, tested, or held to a standard because ship-driving – again, if not due to desire, doctrine, or intent, then through practice – is not recognized as a core-competency of the U.S. Navy’s ship drivers. As is demonstrated in the excellent film, Speed and Angels, Naval Aviators consider carrier operations to be a core-competency – if a student pilot cannot land on the boat, then he will not become a Naval Aviator. Why can’t Surface Warfare Officers take the same approach to our profession?

We need a flight school for Surface Warfare Officers. The name is not important at this point – rather, the purpose ought to be the focus: building ship drivers. We must stop accepting mediocracy in this venue! While the Basic Division Officer course is a fantastic concept meant to bolster our young ensigns, it lacks focus and does not zero in on core-competencies. The lessons taught in the Basic Division Officer course are important – being an effective small-unit leader is vital, and I do not propose that we scrap the current construct. Rather, I propose – nay, I implore – that we first recognize ship-driving as a core-competency, and second, require our officers to be competent ship drivers.

BDOC should not give us a warm and fuzzy.

SEALs do not accept sub-par. Neither do Naval Aviators, nor nuclear-trained officers, or Marines. While I applaud our most recent Commander, Naval Surface Forces for his outstanding efforts to instill meaningful training, we are still accepting sub-par, and are using the re-creation of half-way schooling as a security blanket. Under our current system, young SWO candidates are flooded onto ships in an effort to make future retention goals – an indictment of our culture’s impact on retention. They then fiercely compete for time on the bridge to gain experience – and hopefully competency – as ship drivers. On most ships, this is not a recipe for success. The Professional Qualification Standard books, which drive progression, are signed with unpredictable integrity, imparting sometimes-dubious knowledge on young minds. To cap it off, Officer of the Deck and Surface Warfare Officer qualifications, granted by Commanding Officers, are determined using two-hundred some different standards. Some candidates sit for gut-wrenching, rigorous tests of their skills and knowledge, and others chat with their Commanding Officers at local watering holes after a command event. The evidence of the disparity in knowledge is on display in Newport, Rhode Island – home of Surface Warfare Officers School – where junior officers return for the Advanced Division Officer Course, and later, the Department Head Course. Some officers were obviously put to the test during their professional development, and others were obviously not.

I propose that we start a Deck Watch Officer School – our flight school – in Newport, which all ensigns will attend, and must pass, prior to reporting to BDOC and ultimately, the Fleet. As with aviators, this school would not be a second thought or a 60% solution, but rather would be a proving ground for our nation’s future ship drivers. The length of this notional school can be figured out later; what is important is that SWO candidates shall qualify; ashore. We must have one standard, one organization responsible for enforcing that standard, and must require those desiring entrance into our community to meet it – otherwise, seek life elsewhere. We should not be ashamed of upholding a standard and of telling some people that they are not cut out for this business. At this school, candidates would receive in-depth, hands-on instruction in seamanship and navigation, basic-through-advanced ship handling, meteorology, bridge resource management, and a variety of other skills required for the competent mariner.

Integral to this process would be the move of the Yard Patrol Craft fleet – the U.S. Navy’s only training ships – from Annapolis to Newport for the exclusive use of the Surface Warfare Officers School. During the pipeline, ensigns would log hours and prove their skills in simulators and on the water. They would complete classwork, learn from case studies, and would be continually tested, remediated, and attrited, as required. If they successfully made it to the end of this program, they would sit for a SWOS-run and community-sanctioned Officer-of-the-Deck board, ensuring that all ensigns are held to the same standard. Earning one’s OOD letter – like the pilots and their wings – would be a culminating event, and those unable to meet the mark would not be sent to the Basic Division Officer Course or the Fleet. If we could implement this plan, we would then send Captains competent, qualified ship drivers, immediately useful to their commands. Like in the Royal Navy, newly reported officers would then complete their platform endorsement, signifying both their grasp of their new ship and the trust their Commanding Officers have in them. 

To be the best of the best, we must be good at our jobs. If Surface Warfare Officers are going to continue to be both professional watch standers, and small unit leaders, we must stop accepting the notion that plug-and-play is an effective way of doing business. Imagine a Naval Aviator spending his junior officer tours flying F/A-18’s, his department head tour in a P-8 squadron, and finally, growing up to command an MH-60 squadron. This progression would never happen in the aviation community because they are not plug-and-play pilots. Yet, a Surface Warfare Officer may indeed spend a tour in Weapons Department, followed by Operations Department, followed by Engineering Department, followed by eventual command. The issue as I see it is that the community views this as a positive – exposing officers to a variety of shipboard functions – but in reality, it ensures that we never become truly good at our jobs. We become personnel and administrative gurus, irrespective of our assigned department, perched to jump into a different role at a moment’s notice.

An Engineer Officer overseas his kingdom.

Instead of our current system, I propose that U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officers matriculate into the community with a billet specialty: engineering, operations, or combat systems. Anathema! Rather than wandering from department to department as figure-heads, I want us to have a vested interest, and subject matter expertise, in the Sailors we lead and the systems we are responsible for. An Infantry Officer leads infantry units. Armor Officers lead armor units. F/A-18 pilots fly Hornets. Today, a Surface Warfare Officer can become a Weapons Officer, and in theory, an Engineer Officer, without prior experience in those respective departments. Imagine, though, the benefits of the following: a new officer enters the community as a Surface Warfare Officer-Engineering, graduates the OOD School and BDOC, completes basic engineer training, serves two division officer tours in Engineering Department, completes shore duty, graduates Department Head School, and returns to the Fleet as an Engineer Officer. This officer has received specialized training along the way and has walked the walk and talked the talk at sea prior to stepping foot into what is acknowledged as the most challenging tour of a SWO’s career. They are no longer a figure-head, but rather: they are an engineer. Or a Combat Systems Officer. Or an Operations Officer. Their title means something. They are good at their job. To ensure preparation for command and to keep some semblance of well-roundedness, Surface Warfare Officers of all flavors would continue to earn the qualifications and stand the watches that the community currently holds dear: on the bridge, in the Combat-Information-Center, and in the engineering plant. Finally, the XO/CO fleet-up model would ensure that specialists are appropriately rounded-out before taking command.

I want Surface Warfare Officers to push ourselves “right to the edge of the envelope.” I want us to be proud of our community. I want our Surface Warfare Officer pin to mean something – to the military, to the service, and most important of all, to us. I want us to be professional watch standers and experts in our respective jobs. The Surface Warfare Officer community is known for being the dumping ground of Unrestricted Line Officers who could not hack it, and this happens because we do not establish, much less uphold, standards. No more! We should honor our heritage, establish a role in our force that is both respected and admired, and strictly and unabashedly police ourselves as consummate professionals who accept nothing less than the best of the best.

Lieutenant Jon Paris is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. At sea, he has served aboard both a destroyer and cruiser, in both Weapons and Navigation Department. Ashore he has served as a Navigation Instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and as a Flag Aide. He is a prospective destroyer Operations Officer. His opinions and generalizations are his own and do not reflect official stances or policy of the U.S. Navy. 

Featured Image: The Cyclone-class coastal patrol ship USS Whirlwind steams through the Persian Gulf. Whirlwind is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations and support missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and New Dawn. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kenneth Abbate)

The Virtue of Being a Generalist, Part 2: Are All Nuggets Created Equal?

By Jon Paris

U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officers have a Napoleon complex. The community is often described as inherently self-conscious and hyper-competitive. Though SWO’s often sell themselves short, in reality, they are in the highest demand at all levels of our service and throughout the joint world. Commanders want Surface Warfare Officers because they can be counted on to get any job done – regardless of past experiences or training. The community can be a meat grinder, and those with upward mobility possess well-earned street credibility. How do they get to that point, though? In Part 1 of this series, we compared the training pipeline, billet structure, and shipboard priorities of the Surface Warfare Officer and Royal Navy Warfare Officer communities. Now let us delve into the mysterious world of the Fleet Nugget. This piece will compare the products that the Naval Aviation, nuclear, and conventional Surface Warfare communities deliver to the Fleet on Day One.

Surface Warfare Officers and Naval Aviators – the Jets and the Sharks. While there is no more fearsome combat team in the world, the communities are notorious for their sibling rivalry. Though we train fiercely to integrate our forces and work extremely well together to the detriment of the enemy, the professional blueprints of each community are oceans apart.

A T-45 Conducts Carrier Qualifications aboard RONALD REAGAN

A Nugget is a first-tour Naval Aviator or flight officer, especially applicable during their first deployment. The origin of the term absolutely belongs to aviators, but it does have cross-over appeal, and its connotation paints a faithful picture of a new officer in his first unit, regardless of designator. The general insinuation of the term is that the officer has little to offer their unit and must be taken under someone’s wing – pun intended. Is an F/A-18 Nugget equal to a SWO Nugget, though? What does each community really provide to their Fleet Squadrons and ships when they deliver a new batch of officers?

Student Naval Aviators in the Advanced Strike pipeline spend approximately two years learning everything from aerodynamics and physiology to air combat maneuvering and carrier qualification. During the training pipeline, they spend nearly 250 hours in the air testing their skills on three different airframes and refine those skills over the course of 75 simulator hours. Earning one’s Wings of Gold does not spell the end of training. The new Naval Aviator’s final stop before hitting the Fleet is the Fleet Replacement Squadron, where they perfect their art in their assigned airframe, spending another 175 hours in the air and in the simulator. When a Naval Aviator executes his orders to his first fleet squadron, he has spent at least 500 hours in hands-on training scenarios.

What is expected of a new Naval Aviator? What do wings mean on Day 1? Wings only come after an officer has demonstrated that they are able to meet a well-defined standard. When seasoned pilots accept a Nugget into their ready room, they see a pilot who can safely operate their aircraft, manage their respective mission and flight administration, and serve as a competent and safe wingman.

Aviators are well-trained before reporting to the Fleet and we have established the practical meaning of wings. What is the true nature of the product, though? On Day 1, the Naval Aviator Nugget will already have demonstrated proficiency at landing aboard a carrier during day and night operations. During his initial weeks in the squadron, he could be entrusted to conduct mid-air refueling, air-to-ground strike, strafing, and close-air-support missions, carrier qualifications, or high-value air-asset escort duties. With these baseline skills, the new aviators are immediately useful to their squadrons and are able to jump into the rigorous Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor-lead curriculum.

Like aviators, Nuclear Surface Warfare Officers also use the train-to-qualify method. After they complete a conventional division officer tour, they spend 6 months at Nuclear Power School where they master advanced mathematics, chemistry, physics, and nuclear theory. This school is widely acknowledged as the most demanding academic program in the U.S. military. They continue their pipeline with an intensive 6 months of hands-on watch-standing training and examinations at one of two Nuclear Power Training Units, or Prototype. Their community’s methods are known internally as the “Gold Standard.” This standard is rigid, unquestioned, and unabashedly enforced. When an officer graduates Prototype, they report to their aircraft carrier as a proven, and more importantly, qualified watch-stander. Shortly after reporting, a SWO Nuke Nugget earns their platform endorsement and re-qualifies on their ship as a Plant Watch Officer, immediately contributing to their department’s watch organization while also leading their respective division.

Newly commissioned Surface Warfare Officer candidates notionally attend an 8-week course known as the Basic Division Officer Course, or BDOC, prior to reporting to their respective ships. Keeping with the community’s focus on generalists, BDOC covers a wide-range of topics, including: basic damage control, Navy pistol qualification, basic SWO engineering, Maintenance University, maritime warfare, division officer leadership and fundamentals, basic navigation, seamanship, and ship-handling. Students take numerous exams and are held to the community standard of a 90% passing grade on their Navigation Rules (Rules of the Road) exam. It is a demanding school and was established to rectify the absence of any such schooling that existed for nearly a decade. During their time at BDOC, the ensigns spend 24 cumulative hours in the ship-handling simulators where they get a taste for everything from pier work to harbor transits and man-overboard recoveries.

chonim

After graduating BDOC, our SWO Nuggets report to their ships and take over their first divisions. Unlike their aviator brethren, they do not wear a warfare pin when they report to the Fleet, nor do they possess any watch-standing qualifications. What then is the product that we are delivering to our ships? Our new ensigns – our Nuggets – are confident leaders and are capable of taking over the responsibility for people and gear from the get-go. They board their ships with a basic familiarization with shipboard systems, service policies, and standard commands (used to drive a ship). SWO Nuggets are not qualified to stand watch on their own, much less to lead an entire watch team, but they are prepared to step onto the bridge and take over as a Conning Officer – learning the finer details of ship handling from their fellow junior officers, enlisted specialists, and the ship’s leadership. Though they are not flying a Hornet solo over Afghanistan, they are standing tall in front of their divisions, as well as on the bridge, issuing commands to the helm and engines of their billion-dollar warships, increasing their competency and savvy exponentially during every watch.

chogoa

There is no doubt that the aviation and surface warfare communities have different demands, different priorities, and nearly polar-opposite cultures. An aviator must know what he is doing when he enters the Fleet, lest he crash his aircraft on the flight deck or drop his bomb on the wrong people. The Death-and-Destruction Factor is certainly relevant and is often used as an excuse for why Surface Warfare Officers do not have a similar training mindset. In other words, the argument is that young SWO’s can afford to be inexperienced because their mistakes are far less likely to cause catastrophe and because they operate with a safety-net of sorts made up of other watch standers. While I recognize the inherent danger of Naval Aviation, I disagree with this argument as a way to justify short-changing Surface Warfare Officer training. The culture and doctrine of the aviation community would not tolerate – much less conceive of – squadron skippers in the Fleet being burdened with building an aviator from scratch, yet our service puts that same burden on our ships’ captains, taking away from their crew’s overall combat-effectiveness. We are doing the world’s most fearsome warships an injustice. Surface Warfare Nuggets should report to the Fleet with know-how and qualifications, ready to drive and fight at the pointy-end from the moment they cross the brow.

After comparing the lives, methods, and priorities of Royal Navy Warfare Officers, Naval Aviators, and Surface Warfare Officers, I want to take the opportunity in the final piece of this series to analyze where the SWO community is getting it right, and where we could improve, as well as put forth two proposals that would fundamentally alter how the community trains and operates. In an era where fiscal uncertainty, regional conflict, and increasing operational tempos reign supreme, we must put our very best on the front lines – our country and our crews deserve it, and our enemies must fear it.

Read the next installment here

Lieutenant Jon Paris is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. At sea, he has served aboard both a destroyer and cruiser, in both Weapons and Navigation Department. Ashore he has served as a Navigation Instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and as a Flag Aide. He is a prospective destroyer Operations Officer. His opinions and generalizations are his own and do not reflect official stances or policy of the U.S. Navy.

Sea Control 47 – British and American Surface Warfare Officers

seacontrol2Jon Paris joins us to discuss his article, The Virtue of Being a Generalist, Part 1: A Day in the Life of Sub Lieutenant Snodgrass. We compare the Royal Navy and US Navy processes of creating officers for their surface fleet, the nature of being a maritime “professional,” improvements for the American model, and generally gab on for about 36 minutes.

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