All posts by Jon Paris

Task Force Foo Fighter

Fiction Contest Week

By Jon Paris

*** Breaking News – Breaking News – Breaking News ***

Crisis reported outside the Strait of Malacca today. Cascading collisions clogged the packed waterway. A dozen vessels lay damaged and adrift. Others swing from anchors, unable to proceed. World markets opened in disarray while the maritime industry reels.

This catastrophe’s most puzzling victim is the cargo carrier M/V Lucky Charm, location unknown. Merchants witnessed the confusing events unfold, reporting strange lights in the sky and ear-splitting rumbles in this congested crossroads. Sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects spiked around nautical chokepoints last year, rumored to be responsible for eight un-confirmed disappearances. According to scores of professional mariners, the UFOs are back. Has Lucky Charm become Number Nine?

Opinions vary wildly. Though countless believers swear such disturbances are courtesy of extra-terrestrial visitors, a growing body of research by scientists and defense journalists points towards unacknowledged technology developed and operated by the country’s peer competitors. Others are sure we are seeing the latest black projects from the storied Area 51. With unprecedented candor, intelligence and military officials have been quick to comment recently, indicating the objects – officially referred to as Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon – are not highly classified American programs.

The Department of Defense maintains a specialized team to analyze UFO cases. With international outcry at a fever-pitch and an unidentified threat loose on the high seas, these professionals called in the big guns. The U.S. Navy, no stranger to such phenomenon, is on the way. A Carrier Strike Group surge-deployed to hunt and eliminate the threat. Named Task Force Foo Fighter, the Pentagon pledged the group’s sole mission is to end this mysterious menace and welcomes any ally to the fight.

Will they find hyper-advanced secret technology from an aggressor state, or marauding little green men? The world watches in rapt attention as the Navy arrives on scene.

F/A-18E, Rock 101
Andaman Sea
5 minutes after engagement

Black smoke trailed behind the plane. Peeling metal rattled in the slipstream from a shredded fuselage and wing. Scorch marks marred the Super Hornet’s haze gray paint.

“Rock 101, Strike, copy your mayday. Proceed. Mother at your 030 for 100 miles. Emergency pull-forward in-progress. Air Boss is rigging the barrier. Say state.”

The pilot’s body was cool. No sweat, only icy determination.

She struggled to find words – the first since her mayday call.

“Strike, 101, three-point-niner.”

First get aboard in one piece, then get your revenge. They will not escape.

She put in right stick to head towards the carrier.

F/A-18E, Rock 101
Andaman Sea
30 minutes before engagement

Lieutenant Frankie “Burner” Adams retracted the refueling probe, slid to starboard, and joined on her wingman. She verified “Swine’s” spacing. Her hand pushed out towards the other Super Hornet – the young officer nodded, nudging his plane away.

Burner’s keen eyes scanned – sea, sky, instruments, sea, sky, instruments. The radar was clean – nothing out there. Today’s surveillance hop had, so far, proved fruitless – frustrating Burner’s long-held dream of seeing a real UFO. Everyone made fun of her during the brief back in the ready room.

No matter. She knew the truth.

The radio crackled.

“101, this is Alpha Whiskey. Bogey, Bullseye 350 for 85, low, hot, strength unknown. Heading 180.”

Yes! Unidentified objects. Flying her way!

“101, roger. Rock flight, commit. Declare.”

“101, this is Alpha Whiskey, unknown. But ma’am – we think it’s them.”

“Roger.”

This is it!

Over squadron tactical, Burner transmitted, “Rock, buster.” “Two,” her wingman replied. The section of Super Hornets leapt forward at full military power.

“Swine, bring it left 20 to sweeten intercept.” He clicked the radio twice in response and followed her turn.

Accelerating through 500 knots, the radar chirped, and Burner saw distinct returns connected by a green blob – as if someone had sneezed on her screen. She slaved her infrared sensor to the track. The image snapped around and settled on an object 50 miles away, very low. She peered at the screen, flipping between black and white-hot modes, unable to identify the contact before it abruptly darted away.

“No joy,” Burner called over fighter control, frantically searching for the Bogey.

She saw the radar and her mouth went dry.

F/A-18E, Rock 101
Andaman Sea
15 minutes after engagement

“Rock 101, Approach. Good line-up. You’re set for a straight-in. Take angels two point eight.”

As the pilot slowly repeated the ship’s instructions, the plane buffeted from major damage to its control surfaces. After a jolt to the left, she leveled the wings. Reducing airspeed and bunting the nose down, she inched closer. Must survive. Must relay the enemy’s position.

F/A-18E, Rock 101
Andaman Sea
20 minutes before engagement

“101, Alpha Whiskey – your Bogey jumped! Merge plot!,” the shipboard controller cried.

Adrenaline coursed through Burner’s veins. I knew it!

“Rock, break!”

Burner and her wingman rolled 90 degrees and pulled hard away from each other. Bright flashes blew by. One. Two. Three! Finally!

“Alpha Whiskey, 101, Rocks are anchored defensive! Engaged by three, I say again, three bogeys.”

Three orbs darted up, down, left, and right – in every dimension, bending time and space – creating a furball impossible for the Super Hornets to escape. Their maneuvers defied physics, incurring g-forces incompatible with the human body. The dazzling blobs sported every color of the rainbow – shapeless refractions from an intense prism.

Burner stood her jet on its tail and lit the cans. The plane rocketed up and Burner twisted in her seat, looking back and right – one orb trailed her.

She called out, “Swine, you up?”

“Burner, I’ve got two all over me – riding the waves. Need you down here – NOW!” Her wingman sounded uncharacteristically frantic.

Passing through 35,000 feet, Burner flipped the Super Hornet on its back. The blue sky filling her canopy transitioned to slate-gray ocean. Diving, she searched the surface below. As she looked, the trailing orb flew over her canopy and, an instant later, hovered above a bubbling piece of ocean. A thunderous cacophony consumed her. The aircraft shuddered for five long seconds. Plummeting towards the sea, Burner recovered and locked onto her wingman, 50 feet off the deck. He was impossible to miss – the escaping Super Hornet kicked up a rooster tail of salt water as it skimmed the whitecaps.

Out the windscreen, she spotted the orbs flitting back and forth, causing her to squint. Looking down, the picture on her forward-looking infrared video shocked her. Two cylinder-shaped craft bobbed and weaved ahead and astern of Swine’s jet. Smaller than her plane, with no control surfaces and no visible exhaust. And… semi-transparent! Magnifying her camera, she could see inside the cylinders.

“Alpha Whiskey, 101, captured! Hot damn! Never seen anything like it! They’re… cylinders. Slick on the outside, like flying tubes. I can only see their shape on FLIR; visually they’re just balls of light moving like crazy!”

Burner’s jet chewed up the distance to her wingman. Something caught her eye.

“Alpha Whiskey, standby.”

Burner saw movement inside the closest cylinder! As she stared, her world turned inside-out. An upright, shadowy figure – right there! Burner saw its eyes glow and look back at her. A being was in that craft! A being. But not a human being.

She felt light-headed and a pit formed deep in her gut. The earlier gusto transformed to dread.

Burner’s voice croaked, barely a whisper. “Alpha Whiskey, they’re… here… Engaging.”

Flipping the Master Arm switch to “ARM”, she worked the radar for a lock and received a quick solution. Yes! She pulled the trigger. “Fox Three!”

The AMRAAM entered her camera’s field of view and impacted its target. The smoking cylinder flipped end-over-end.

“101, splash one,” she transmitted.

As she pumped her fist in victory, Burner’s eyes bulged. The cylinder ahead of Swine stopped in its tracks and reversed course. It flew straight through her wingman’s jet. An explosion lit the sky.

Nooooo!

Wreckage fell to the sea, throwing up a plume, but no parachute. A silent scream raged through her body.

F/A-18E, Rock 101
Andaman Sea
30 minutes after engagement

“Rock 101, Approach, 5 miles. Barrier rigged. Dirty up.”

“101.” The pilot closed her eyes, concentrating. After several beats, her hands moved haltingly over switches, eventually slapping down the hook and landing gear. It was strange flying so slow. The plane was difficult to control, and her wings rocked, alternating left, then right, back-and-forth. The pilot wiped away soot from the canopy and the Landing Signals Officer came online.

“101, Paddles, keep it coming. Normal approach but pay close attention to line-up. When you cross the ramp, I’m going to give you a cut-cut-cut order – when I do, kill the engines, and ride it in. Fly your pass and we’ll catch you, Burner. Promise.”

The pilot acknowledged Paddles and focused on the carrier. It got bigger every second. Her excitement swelled. The mission drew to a close.

“101, Paddles, you’re on glideslope, on course, three-quarter mile. Call the ball.”

Two beats, searching for the right words. “101, Rhino ball, two point four.”

The Master Caution light flashed, a red warning light illuminated, and the speaker intoned, “ENGINE FIRE LEFT – ENGINE FIRE LEFT.” No turning back.

F/A-18E, Rock 101
Andaman Sea
10 minutes before engagement

Burner selected SIDEWINDER. A weak tone. “Fox Two!”

The smoke trail streaked away and jinked right, tracking the massive heat signature. A blue ray shot out from the target cylinder and incinerated the missile. Burner slammed a fist on her kneeboard. I had it!

Watching through her canopy, she saw the orb dart north. Pissed, Burner pushed the throttles through the detent into afterburner and gave chase.

The murky being inside turned its… head?… and glanced at her. When it looked away quickly, Burner took stock of the situation. Are they driving me here? Zooming out, she observed twelve – no, maybe twenty – craft of various sizes lurking menacingly in a wide arc above a roiling sea. An ambush! She chopped her throttles.

“Alpha Whiskey, 101. In pursuit of one bandit with one in trail. Interrogative: Do you have a group of contacts 300 for 30 from your posit?”

“101, affirm. Count at least twenty low-slow contacts.”

“Roger, that’s them. I don’t know who they are, but they’re hostile, I say again, contacts are hostile. They splashed my wingman and I am defensive. They’re… they’re waiting for us. Recommend kill with birds. Take ‘em! Do it now!”

Inside the cruiser’s Combat Information Center, the Commanding Officer pointed at the large screen display and nodded at the tactical action officer.

“Air, TAO, kill track 8762 and company.”

The lieutenant at the front table turned his key. Sweat glistened from his forehead under the glow from the large screens.

A junior officer sat 15 feet away in Air Alley. She leaned forward, clicked on the first track, and mashed a flashing button on her screen. “TAO, Air, killing track 8762 and company!”

Through the bulkheads, watch standers could make out the muffled, mournful wail of the salvo siren. Deeply unsettling, the sound was quickly interrupted – SMACK!

Hatches slammed open, fire belched skyward, and gray smoke blotted out the lines of the ship’s superstructure. Standard Missiles jumped from vertical launch cells, climbing steeply before tipping over towards their prey. Two for each contact. Sailors sat transfixed, staring at their consoles during the fifty second flight time.

The missiles glided to their targets at supersonic speeds and lanced into the waiting enemy. Explosions washed out Burner’s screen. She peered outside and saw several orbs remained. They bolted in the direction of the cruiser. Burner put her jet on its wingtip and yanked into a body-crushing turn to follow, but they were too fast and sped out of view.

A glare from her mirror. All but one.

“Alpha Whiskey, 101, bandits are inbound your posit!”

The cruiser heeled over as it settled broadside to the approaching threat. The Combat Information Center was silent. Additional missiles leapt into the sky as the weapons system tried to keep up. The deck guns thundered. Nothing could match the speed and maneuverability of the targets. The ship’s radar showed the craft approaching at 3,000 knots. As they drew near and slowed, the optical sight system showed four blimp-sized craft. The Commanding Officer stared and cursed under his breath as they marked on top of the now-defenseless ship and circled.

“Alpha Whiskey, 101 is supersonic!” Burner closed the cruiser, trying to squeeze every knot she could get out of the Super Hornet. Still miles away, she was ready for battle. To defend herself. The Navy ship. Her country. Her planet. Burner’s thumb chose GUN and her jaw clenched tight. She watched the scene unfolding ahead, terrified.

The craft circled the cruiser at blinding speed, forming a halo of kaleidoscopic light in the sky and a swirling vortex on the ocean. Opening suddenly, a yawning chasm appeared below the ship. It swallowed the cruiser in a flash. The rotation stopped instantly, and the orbs dove smoothly – without splashes – into the water and disappeared.

Dumbstruck, Burner blinked. And blinked again.

The ship is gone.

Rage filled her heart. A primal howl spilled into her mask. She popped flares and chaff and wrenched back on the stick, continuing until inverted, looking down on the orb, and rolled wings-level in the opposite direction. In her mirror, Burner saw it match her maneuver. She pushed the jet to the edge of the envelope, aware of her dwindling fuel, but desperate to escape. Close on her heels, the orb pulsed.

F/A-18E, Rock 101
Andaman Sea
32 minutes after engagement

“Easy with it, easy with it. You’re on and on, Burner. Easy with it. CUT-CUT-CUT!”

The pilot secured the engines and the Super Hornet fell to the deck, yawed, and crashed unceremoniously into the emergency barrier. I made it.

F/A-18E, Rock 101
Andaman Sea
The engagement

Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. Burner centered herself and compartmentalized the fear. She climbed and started a gentle turn to the southwest. The carrier is out here somewhere. Burner would not give up – the thought was anathema to her very fabric. While she looked down to switch buttons, azure light washed over the jet. She jammed in the frequency and transmitted.

 “Strike, 101, mayday, mayday, mayday. Wingman is down, Alpha Whiskey is down. I am engaged with one Bandit.”

The jet shook violently. It took all of Burner’s strength to maintain level flight. Something is wrong! Caution lights flared in front of her. Alarms overwhelmed and assaulted her senses.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday, 101 taking damage, losing control. Request vectors!”

Panic.

Help me! The plane rattled furiously.

She shrieked when light filled her cockpit. Dripping sweat, she sat paralyzed.

The luminous orb settled onto her plane. The collision caused it to roll and yaw.

Stunned, Burner was helpless to stop the uncontrolled maneuver.

Gulping oxygen, she felt a presence. I am not alone.

Stillness.

Time slowed.

Motion arrived in clips.

No words. Terror melted away in waves of euphoria.

The light ceased.

Her head lolled forward and then quickly snapped back.

Time sped back up.

Motion flowed.

The pilot stared ahead with icy determination.

An empty cylinder tumbled to the sea.

Andaman Sea
Flight Deck

Fire crew swarmed the plane, spraying foam and climbing ladders to access the canopy. Sailors in silver hot suits carried the pilot to the deck and away from the smoking wreck.

Following the mob towards a waiting stretcher, the pilot stopped and faced aft. With its face wrinkled in great concentration, it called out to the deep.

They are here. Attack!

LCDR Jon Paris is a double-Marine Corps brat who grew up immersed in Naval Aviation. A career Surface Warfare Officer, he has deployed on cruisers, destroyers, a minesweeper, and an aircraft carrier. This piece is a work of fiction. The ideas are the author’s alone and do not reflect the positions of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: “Preparations for cat shot – F18 Hornet,” by rOEN911 via DeviantArt.

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.

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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.

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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.

The Virtue of Being a Generalist, Part 1: A Day in the Life of Sub Lieutenant Snodgrass

By Jon Paris

The United States Navy’s surface fleet finds itself in dynamic times. The standard length for deployments continues to rise, numerous hulls are on the chopping block, maintenance is battling to keep up with a harried operational tempo, and as ever, its leaders – Surface Warfare Officers, or SWO’s – are struggling to both improve, and in fact define, the community’s identity. Whether it is the uniforms we wear, our training pipelines, or our often-mocked culture, the community seems to lack a firm grasp on who we are, what we stand for, and how we do business. Over a series of three articles, I intend to first analyze a few counterparts – the Royal Navy, U.S. Naval Aviation, and U.S. Navy surface nuclear officers – and then explore some proposals meant to solidify the officers who take the world’s most powerful ships to sea.

Just Another Day at the Office

After working alongside the Royal Navy, most American surface warriors walk away immensely impressed by the impeccable professionalism of their British counterparts. When SWO’s talk about improving their community, the Royal Navy’s practices inevitably come up. “We should do it like the Brits,” is a common theme. Few truly appreciate what that statement means, though. The Surface Warriors of the U.S. and Royal Navies are different: in size, mission sets, tempos, training, and priorities. There is not always a one-for-one correlation between the two. Before analyzing proposals or judging the merits of each side, let us simply gather some information by comparing the lifestyles of Sub Lieutenant Snodgrass, RN, and Ensign Timmy, USN.

The first area of comparison is training and path to qualification. All Royal Navy officer cadets spend between six and eleven months at Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC), where students receive military indoctrination and learn the ins and outs of the naval profession through a standardized curriculum. Upon graduation from BRNC, the young surface officer proceeds on to a training track for Warfare Officers or Engineers. The prospective engineers endure a rigorous 20-month pipeline of practical and theoretical training.

Our Sub Lieutenant Snodgrass is a Warfare Officer, which is the career track most comparable to an American SWO’s. He and his comrades train for an additional 18-months. First, they attend three months of advanced seamanship theory training, followed by an intense year of practical bridge watch standing under instruction. If they are successful to this point, they stand for a week of individual bridge simulator assessments. Students must achieve passing marks on these assessments to proceed on to a final three months of advanced seamanship and navigation training. Upon graduation, they report aboard their first ship as an Officer-of-the-Watch (OOW) with a well-earned Navigational Watch Certificate. Within a month or so, SLt Snodgrass has earned his Commanding Officer’s Platform Endorsement – akin to a SWO’s Officer-of-the-Deck Underway Letter – and is entrusted with operating the ship unsupervised. While some Warfare Officers attend a 4-month long course and become navigators after gaining at least 4 years experience as an OOW, the next major pipeline for now-LT Snodgrass is the Principal Warfare Officer (PWO) Course and occurs at the nine-year point. Thirteen months long, the PWO Course trains Royal Navy surface officers to be the Commanding Officer’s advisor on either “Above Water” or “Under Water” Warfare, and can see up to 40 percent attrition.

The U.S. Navy SWO training pipeline has seen several iterations over the past 12 years. Before 2003, newly commissioned Surface Warfare Officer Trainees attended the six month-long Division Officer’s Course. SWOSDOC, as the course was called, taught the basics of ship handling, navigation, shipboard maintenance, damage control, leadership, and divisional administration. The objective of the course was to give all ensigns the tools necessary to immediately contribute to their wardrooms and a foundation from which to qualify aboard their ship. This course was disbanded in 2003 and for approximately nine years, new officers reported directly to their ships, took over their divisions, completed computer-based modules, and received on-the-job training as they progressed through their qualifications. The current training model sees new officers attending an 8-week Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) in their Fleet Concentration Area, where they delve into many of the topics found in the old SWOSDOC program.

Upon completion of BDOC, ensigns report to their ships and are assigned a division of anywhere between 10 and 30 Sailors to lead and the associated responsibility of the maintenance of their division’s systems. Concurrent with their division officer duties, they embark on a journey to earn their Surface Warfare Officer designation and pin. This journey, nominally 18-months long, entails qualifying in a series of watch stations – namely, Officer-of-the-Deck In-Port, Small Boat Officer, Combat Information Center Watch Officer, Helm and Aft-Steering Safety Officer, and ultimately, Officer-of-the-Deck Underway – through the completion of Professional Qualification Standards (PQS) books and various oral boards. The milestone pre-requisite to the SWO Pin is the Officer-of-the-Deck Underway letter – similar to the Royal Navy’s Platform Endorsement – and usually comes after about a year aboard the ship and ultimately represents the Captain’s trust in the officer to safely and professionally operate the ship in their stead.

Typically, our Ensign Timmy will accumulate another six months of experience leading his bridge watch team, his division, and learning the catch-all nature of his chosen trade before sitting for his “SWO Board.” The SWO Board is a memorable event and involves the candidate sitting across from what, at the time, seems like a firing squad made up all of the department heads, the executive officer, and the Captain. While there is no formal, written or otherwise, fleet standard (outside of the pre-requisite watch stations) and no tangible result (aside from the pin), the SWO qualification represents a junior officer’s journeyman-level grasp of the surface, naval, and joint profession. Topics covered range far-and-wide: from logistics matters to amphibious landings and missile engagements, to personnel records, geography, ship and aircraft capabilities, emergency procedures, and naval justice fundamentals to meteorology. Now, with a pin and new officer designator, Lieutenant Junior Grade Timmy completes his first tour and attends approximately 1-2 months of job specific training before reporting to his next ship for a two year tour as Navigator, Auxiliaries officer, Main Propulsion Assistant, Fire Control Officer, Training Officer, Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer, or Force Protection Officer.

At the 8-year point, prospective SWO Department Heads attend up to nine weeks of intensive training in combat systems fundamentals, followed by 6-months in the Department Head Course, which includes three months dedicated to maritime warfare, and three months dedicated to administration, maintenance, damage control, and topics unique to the officer’s future billet.

The next point of comparison is more overt and was touched on briefly above. In the Royal Navy, recruits select and compete for a specialization before attending the Royal Navy College. They attend training either for Warfare Officers, Marine Engineers, Weapon Engineers, or Air Engineers. Warfare Officers are first responsible for bridge watch standing and safe navigation, and later in their careers for the tactical employment of the ship’s combat systems. Their engineers are responsible for leading the ship’s technicians and the upkeep of their respective kit – or in U.S. Navy terms, the preventative and corrective maintenance of their assigned shipboard systems. SLt Snodgrass, our Royal Navy Warfare Officer, will start his career with three tours as a bridge watch keeper. Later on, he serves two tours as a Principal Warfare Officer. His engineer counterparts – either marine or weapon – leave their training and serve a tour as a shipboard Deputy Head of Department, where they ultimately sit a professional board qualifying them as capable of leading a department. After engineering focused “shore drafts,” those who qualify return to sea as Heads of Department.

In the U.S. Navy, Surface Warfare Officers do not formally specialize in their billets. The community prides itself in producing Jacks-of-all-Trades. Ensign Timmy starts his career as a SWO by serving two division officer tours. He has little to no say in what his first billet will be – he could just as easily serve as the Electrical Officer as he could the Gunnery or Communications Officer. When proceeding to his next tour, his desires and performance are taken into account along with the ever-present needs of the Navy. En route to his second ship, LTJG Timmy receives his first formalized billet training. His second division officer tour may or may not fall under the same department as his first. After four years ashore, now-LT Timmy serves two 18-month Department Head tours. While his desires are given heavy weight, his assignment will not necessarily be to a department in which he previously served. The career experiences, training, and development of SWO’s is designed to ensure that they are notionally plug-and-play – able to serve in any capacity at a moment’s notice. The U.S. Navy does not have a direct comparison to the Royal Navy’s Marine and Weapons Engineers, though in our system, they would most closely be seen as a mix of our Limited Duty Officers and Department Heads.

A final point of comparison is the Royal Navy’s focus on watch-standing over billets in their Warfare Officer community. On a typical Type-23 Frigate, their Warfare Officers will fill the roles of the four Officers-of-the-Watch, Navigator, PWO Underwater, PWO Abovewater, Operations Officer, Executive Officer, and Captain. Other billets, including Weapon Engineer Officer, Marine Engineer Officer, and their deputies, are filled by specialized engineering officers.

The primary duty of SLt Snodgrass, as an assigned Officer-of-the-Watch and later a Principal Warfare Officer, is watch keeping. Officers-of-the-Watch are also assigned secondary duties like Classified Books Officer, Intelligence Officer, and XO’s Assistant. They are also responsible for the pastoral care of a group of Sailors. While leadership and special duties are a reality for the Warfare Officer, it is a fact of life that they come second to their job as professional watch standers. This fact was driven home to me by one Royal Naval Officer who said, “an OOW is a prime target for secondary duties… then we encounter an incident, and a casual factor is found to be that the OOW was distracted from their core task of watch-keeping, and an admiral directs a high-pressure blast getting rid of many of them (secondary duties).” Junior PWO serve as their Captain’s advisors on warfare and as the lead watch-stander in their Operations Room. When not standing watch and serving as a warfare advisor, they serve as shipboard staff, execute event planning, and serve in what the U.S. Navy might consider a special projects officer capacity, in addition to the pastoral care of the junior officers in their wardroom.

 

Surface Warfare Officers are detailed, or assigned, to a specific shipboard billet. This billet is not only on their orders, but also serves as their very identity aboard the ship. They are the Gunnery Officer – GUNNO – or the Chief Engineer – CHENG. As a division officer, Ensign Timmy spends his day seeing to his division’s Sailors, equipment, and operations, while also standing roughly ten hours of watch per day, whether that be on the bridge, in Combat, or in the engineering plant. Later on, Lieutenant Timmy leads a department of approximately three divisions. While serving as a Department Head, he qualifies and stands watch as Tactical Action Officer, leading the watch team tasked with employing the ship’s sensors and weapons and serving as the senior watch stander aboard the ship. Watches are not collateral for SWO’s, yet their professional bias is most certainly towards their billet and their people.

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One key difference between the two navies that creates this disparity in bias is their respective approaches to duties covered by officers – specialists or not – vice enlisted Sailors. In the Royal Navy, most of the day-to-day upkeep of a division’s personnel and spaces is delegated to a senior petty officer. The Royal Navy also uses officers in many watch stations, like Quartermaster-of-the-Watch (duties considered a core competency of an RN OOW), Air Intercept Controller (Fighter Director in the RN), and Anti-Air Warfare Coordinator, that the U.S. Navy either mans with senior petty officers and chiefs, or splits between enlisted and commissioned watch standers. As a Royal Navy PWO broke it down for me, “tactical advice on Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) is my job as PWO(U), planning ASW matters is my chief’s job, looking after the ASW ratings is my petty officer’s job with direction from the two levels above, and maintenance of the ASW kit is the Deputy Weapon Engineering Officer’s job.” In the U.S. Navy, while surface Sailors are certainly empowered through delegation, a division officer or department head would have their hands in all of those levels in the execution of their assigned billet, while also concurrently standing watch throughout a given day.

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Undoubtedly, each country could take something positive away from the other for their own betterment. Our unique cultures and operational commitments, as well as our relative sizes, certainly drive our respective methods. Now that we have a better understanding of how the Royal Navy does business, we can draw rough comparisons to the American Surface Warfare Officer community and start to imagine elements we might adopt as we endeavor for self-improvement. Before exploring specific proposals, though, my next piece in this series will again seek to inform by comparing the professional standards, training mindset and approach to attrition of the SWO community with that of both Naval Aviation and nuclear trained officers.

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.