Category Archives: Human Capital

Learning to Get Real and Get Better: A Conversation with Learning Leaders

“History shows the navy which adapts, learns, and improves the fastest gains an enduring warfighting advantage. The essential element is fostering an ecosystem—a culture—that assesses, corrects, and innovates better than the opposition.”—Admiral Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, remarks at 2022 Surface Navy Association Symposium

Assembled and edited by notetakers Professor Mie Augier and Maj Gen (Ret.) William F. Mullen, USMC.

Learning is an important topic. The increasing pace of change in the operating environment, as well as the evolving requirements of leading each new generation that comes of age, makes both individual and organizational learning essential. At the same time, dedicated time for learning may be missing, or the desire for continued learning is lacking. But it can be reawakened through learning about learning itself, and discussing the need for both individual and organizational learning for warfighters.

The CNO’s recent initiative of “Get Real, Get Better” (GRGB) touches on the importance of learning on several levels. Learning is difficult and often painful as it involves transformation and change, and is not just something that one can put on “like a new suit,” as Mortimer Adler wrote in his classic piece, “Invitation to the Pain of Learning.” The emphasis in GRGB on taking hard honest looks at our performance and to have the courage to take the steps to improve have resonated well with the recent iteration of our Naval Postgraduate School course, “Maneuver Warfare for the Mind: The Art and Science of Interdisciplinary Learning for Innovation and Warfighting Leaders.” We sat down with a handful of students/learning leaders to listen to their reflections on the topic and how learning about learning itself can help us get real and get better as warfighters and warfighting organizations.1

The course starts with understanding the ‘why’ of learning, the need to exercise our minds, and embracing the pain along the way. It approaches learning as a manifestation of Marine General Al Gray’s approach to “maneuver warfare,” and as a mindset that is relevant across industries, organizations, services, and warfighter topics. We focus on different dimensions and elements of learning, such as the mechanisms for individual learning, organizational learning, learning organizations, and some of the key tradeoffs between refining existing competencies and exploring and experimenting for new ones.2 We use a broad set of interdisciplinary as well as warfighter-oriented readings ranging from Mortimer Adler’s ‘How to Read a Book,’ Herbert Simon, James March, General Gray, Secretary Mattis, Colonel John Boyd, and other articles on behavioral strategy, organizational learning, and counterfactuals.

We believe that active minds are best developed through active learning, and not lecturing and rote learning (no PowerPoints). That too was something emphasized in Gen Gray’s approach to learning and education, and we try to honor that by facilitating discussion through questions, small groups, and relating scholarly material to warfighter issues. As a result, we studied and learned from Gen Gray’s leadership and the maneuver warfare movement not just as an important episode in USMC institutional history, but also an approach to thinking, leading, and learning that can be useful to help evolve current initiatives (such as GRGB) into something that can have lasting impact on how our organizations think, learn, and fight.3

In the conversation below, our learning leaders reflected on aspects of what we studied and discussed in the course; such as different mechanisms and levels of learning, some links between individual and organization learning, the role of leaders in facilitating both, and how learning is essential to ‘get real, get better.’

What is your main takeaway about the importance of learning at the individual level and how it can help us become better learning leaders? How does that help us ‘get real’?

Individual learning becomes a building block for the organization. If learning is inculcated on an individual basis, it is more likely that the organization can become a learning organization. However, while individual learning is important, it is not the only thing needed. The organization has to provide the space, time, and opportunity for the individuals to be learners. And specific to Navy or military bureaucracies as a whole, there has to be a culture to allow for learning, innovation and innovative thinking, and the status quo needs to have less of a hold on progress. The status quo can be an inhibitor of innovation and of change in general.

Another takeaway is the role of the leader as a teacher. You cannot teach if you do not have a desire to learn, understand the mechanisms of how people learn, and more importantly for the sake of the organization, you need to understand how to help others be lifelong learners. That is really important because in organizations like the Navy and Marine Corps that are multi-tiered and stratified, the one thing you can find that will bind us all together as a learning organization is to cultivate this in future leaders/teachers. This is an example of something that links individual learners/leaders to building learning in others and a broader learning culture as well.

It is not enough to say you are a learning organization – you have to learn how to learn, and you have to learn to teach how to learn. That is a mechanism for how our approach to learning as individuals can help transmit and transform the organization into a learning organization.

We feel strongly that the role of the organization is essential. That is not specific to learning only – but to everything since the leader drives where the organization is going. We also saw that in some of the cases we discussed in class and some of the guest speakers. Boyd did that; Gen Zinni did that; Gen Gray too. All of those leaders offer examples of people in key positions deliberately driving change and learning in their own way.

There are important traits and skills that characterize learning leaders. It takes vulnerability to push folks beyond their comfort zone, to admit they may not know something, or to be willing to ask for another’s advice. It can also take vulnerability to stand up for learning efforts, especially when their takeaways challenge the norm. We discussed Gen Grays emphasis on “we,” not “me,” which is one manifestation of humility. How do you see the roles of humility, vulnerability, and courage in learning?

We better understood that through one of the readings, the Levinthal and March reading.4 In their article they are looking at learning at the individual level, and how that has implications for the organizational level. They are also looking at the cultural and social aspects for why learning fails or does not always succeed. That could be due to friction between people; people being too focused on themselves and not the organizations; and the myopias of learning.

It is also connected to the idea of satisficing – that we are often satisfied with the minimum solution, or what is good enough, to be effective. We also probably over-attribute success (or failure) to particular events or people. What if the success or failure was just by chance? What happened, and how much of that was attributed to things we were doing intentionally, and how much of that was influenced by chance? It involves self-awareness and comfort with uncertainty. Too often people and organizations attribute success or failure to efforts, mainly individual efforts, that may not have much to do with the actual causes. The “Myopia of Learning” article speaks to that in a great way. Admitting that you as a leader may not be the source of all great things involves some humility as well.

At a deeper level, it also relates to the idea of moral courage as a leader and that revolves around humility and vulnerability. Humility is difficult to teach, but it might be easier if you engage in a conversation about vulnerability as well. There have been leaders who lead with the statement, “I will confide in you something that I wouldn’t tell anyone else, and you do the same.” It is a challenge because it relies on trusting someone you may not know well. So vulnerability here builds trust. And that is part of the fuel that gets to learning.

Modeling learning behavior is critical, like with any other favorable leadership trait. To be a leader you need to be willing to be vulnerable, not only for accepting outside criticism, but also to be self-critical. As you embark on Senge’s concept or discipline of personal mastery, it is a journey that is ongoing and you never fully arrive at the destination. We can tie in a little bit of Boyd as well. A lot of folks naturally start the OODA loop with the first part, the observation. But once you delve into it you realize that you never take off on the OODA loop unless you get the orientation right, the part where you consider the implications of your observations. And orientation is itself its own OODA loop that is built on things like culture, norms, shared values, and others. But through observation from other parties and your own self-observation you are able to change that orientation. This then changes the nature of the OODA loop and how you perceive the environment, decide, and act.

As a leader, what we talked about regarding vulnerability, humility, and values, if you tie it back to Boyd, you are hitting the center of the orientation piece and the necessity of you as a leader to really understand yourself. A leader has to have the self-awareness to understand their strengths and shortcomings, while actively striving toward personal mastery so that they can make better decisions, and they can model better learning behaviors for those they lead.

How can learning help the Navy “get real, get better,” and what are the difficulties in creating learning organizations? Is there anything from the course that would be particularly useful to share? What would we do to help make it more like a movement, like MW/FMFM-1 Warfighting?

You can take a page out of General Dempsey’s “Mission Command,” and you have intent, trust, and communication. This helps with explaining the importance of learning, not just for learning’s sake, but for the mission and the organization, a point Gen Gray made in the maneuver warfare panel we discussed. This would ideally guide you as a leader and your colleagues to foster an environment where people have your intent and your trust. Trust is defined here as the absence of fear of humiliation, mocking, or ridicule, including for wanting to learn something new or pursue a novel idea. Once you have that environment, a leader can embrace those efforts, including those trying to understand what is wrong and develop solutions.

If you as a leader do not foster an environment where people can think outside the box – can think beyond the NAVADMINS and instructions and guidelines – then you are going to struggle to explain the orientation part of your thought process. You are going to struggle to think differently. If a leader does not foster trust, adequately communicate their intent, and foster an environment where people are not afraid to explore beyond the conventional boundaries, then they will struggle to develop creative solutions. It is not enough to say we need to harness constructive failures. We have to be able to create an environment where people are not afraid to explore beyond the boundaries of what they would normally do or think about. You will struggle to get to the creative solutions GRGB is aiming for without that organizational environment. GRGB is both about individual-level traits and approaches, but definitely organizational culture as well.

Boyd was able to use the bureaucracy against itself at times. The true secret is to reward the behavior you want and carefully manage the incentives. A perfect example for the U.S. Navy is this – I came across a NAVADMIN that completely rewrote the definitions for performance evaluations, and it put out exactly what should be ranked in terms of efforts to create and sustain a learning environment at both the individual level, in the workspace, at the organizational level, across the U.S. Navy. We saw this document come out – and be completely ignored – and then we had the perfect opportunity where the performance evaluation system was completely revised. Now we have gone from navfit98 to eNAVFIT online. Lo and behold, all of that wonderful criteria that was supposed to evaluate me on how good I am as a personal learner and how good I am at getting those under my charge to be learners – it evaporated overnight! How can we get better in building more lasting changes? It needs to be pushed within the bureaucracy itself, we need it to be sustained, unlike the implication of that NAVADMIN, unfortunately.

Another problem is leadership turnover. Leaders often want to put their mark on things and change things just for the sake of change. But they often rotate out of the position after so little time in the seat that things can rarely be sustained, or rarely do leaders have to live with the possible consequences of their initiatives, and the cycle repeats with turnover.5 So we need to help build a sustainable vision and change how the organization thinks, so it becomes embedded in our overall approach, much like the Marines and Gen Gray did with FMFM-1 Warfighting.6

What do you see as barriers to GRGB?

I think if you survey all members of the Navy, most would want the organization to become a learning organization where they can have time for personal learning, have the room and freedom to think, and they want to become deeper learners themselves. But it is hard. Learning is painful as we discussed in class, and it needs to be. On the organizational level, it is often everyone else’s fault for why it doesn’t happen. Because of the Navy mentality and what is valued, certainly in the officer corps it is often about FITREPs and promotion. No one is going to make the push that is needed when it may be seen as professionally risky. In other words, there can be a mentality of, ‘The system that promoted me can’t be wrong,’ but the GRGB initiative could change what the system values in people.

The Marines seem to have done a decent job at reversing some of these trends, both historically with the reforms Gen Gray lead, but also more recently. They seem to be at least trying to build an organization that embraces learning and exploration, with MCDP-1 Warfighting and the recent publication of MCDP-7 Learning really demonstrating that. Not having as much funding and having different challenges might have helped. We could learn something from how the Marine Corps institutionalized the emphasis on thinking and learning with FMFM-1 early on and the value of lifelong learning it embodied.7 It doesn’t cost money to think as Gen Gray reminds us.

Some of the recommendations in the Education for Seapower study can address these themes if we applied them. These include an organizational emphasis to developing learning and thinking as part of the culture and the ethos of the organization. It includes emphasizing this in the key documents which the organization derives guidance from over time, not just in a set of instructions that are changed tomorrow. The Navy hasn’t done that.

In the Navy we are so focused on our communities and too focused on depth, and unwilling to accept breadth in knowledge and proficiency, that we sort of get in our own way. We focus so much on operating our highly technical platforms that it signals to people that this is all we really care about. But what do you do in your free time, what do you do to educate your mind? What do you do officially, formally, organizationally to enhance learning for yourself and your command beyond the baseline standards?

What can we do to help GRGB become more of a movement and build it into our organizations?

We saw examples of the mentoring process in class and having a dialogue about the purpose, where to get more information, and how it can be implemented. Taking the time to discuss and share the ideas behind the GRGB initiative is essential and can help build excitement for it as well.

But it is really about renovating or transforming organizational culture and that is very difficult. The pamphlet and training package is good in providing some structure and training for how to deliver GRGB. But what they don’t really get at is where does it go from here, what is the follow-through? Who does this? What is the qualification? Where do we do this? There is nothing that says this is part of our organizational DNA now, as MCDP-1 is for the USMC. So as far as you can help make GRGB be part of the organization, you have to make it an agent of change, to make it something that is genuinely embraced by the organization, not just printed by the organization.

There are things happening at a high level now that supports making it a movement, such as mandatory GRGB training for flag officers, and the fact that it is a warfighting enabler is important. The Navy respects and acts upon what is written in ink. If it is not in ink then it is less likely to care. This spans from completing a travel voucher, to performance evaluations and other things. We need to have that hard document that I can wave and say, ‘This is why we are doing this, because this is directive, this is official.’ That is when it will really start to take hold.

The idea of publishing an FMFM-1/MCDP-1-type document for the Navy is key. It can become something the organization embraces as a sign of it becoming a deeper learning organization. It can be something that is foundational to new and experienced members of the organization, and part of who we all are and how we learn. An outline for an MCDP-1 type document might be a good start to at least start the conversation and discuss the benefits of a more structured organizational movement.

We look forward to you writing that!

Commander (Dr.) Art Valeri is an Operative Dentist stationed at NMRTC Great Lakes serving as the Department Head/Chief, Dental Service of the Veterans and Military Staff Hospital Dental Clinic, Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, North Chicago, IL.

Commander Paul Nickell is a Naval Flight Officer currently stationed at the United States Naval War College as a student in the College of Naval Warfare in Newport Rhode Island and an MBA Candidate at the Naval Postgraduate School. 

Captain Daniel G. Betancourt is a career Foreign Area Officer and Naval Aviator specializing in Latin America and the Indo-Pacific. He currently serves as Chief of the United States Naval Mission to Colombia.

Commander (Dr.) Jay Yelon is a US Navy Trauma Surgeon currently stationed at the military-civilian partnership at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.


1. The course, inspired by Gen Gray’s approach to thinking and learning, utilizes organizational documents, scholarly articles as well as cases and examples relating to learning to study and understand different dimensions and levels of learning and how we can improve.

2. The classic tradeoff between exploration and exploitation and the difficulties balancing them and how both are essential for learning, is discussed in James March’s work (e.g. Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning | Organization Science ( A recent discussion and application of important parts of “Learning to Win” ( 060822_Learning_to_Win_Report FINAL.pdf)

3. During this iteration of the course, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is the contribution from the students in the 865 program, which offers an innovative and very student centered graduate degree with a lot of flexibility and electives, in keeping with what navy leaders have emphasized as being essential for the ‘cognitive age’. Each of the students in this program were all taking the course (and in their program) despite working full time in responsible positions, thus already having important intrinsic motivation as learners. The 4 learning leaders in this conversion are all part of this program.

4. The myopia of learning – Levinthal – 1993 – Strategic Management Journal – Wiley Online Library

5. Gen Zinni talked during his visit to class about the problem of leadership ‘By temps’; the lack of continuing to vision. That is a problem both for our own organizations focus over time, and at the national level (General Anthony Zinni (ret.) on Staying Honest with the Troops and Translating Experience | Center for International Maritime Security (

6. Gen Gray emphasizes the importance of thinking and learning embodied in FMFM-1 as a way of thinking that is applicable across organizations and industries. FMFM-1 later became renamed as MCDP-1; hence it is referred to both by students.

7. Gen Gray and Van Riper both mention the study groups and the informal efforts that helped inspire and facilitate learning beyond instructional learning Warfighting Panel – YouTube.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Oct. 14, 2022) Sailors conduct training in the combat information center aboard Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jordan Jennings)

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Strengthen the Afloat Community, Strengthen the Coast Guard

By Jasper Campbell and James Martin

As the U.S. Coast Guard undergoes a period of “prolific” acquisitions, the service must resolve a lurking specter: How to fill all of these ships with qualified personnel? At a time when the U.S. Coast Guard afloat community, known as cuttermen, are set to receive the largest influx of cutter classes since the Vietnam War, the Coast Guard is struggling to fill critical billets at the O-3 and O-4 levels, despite projecting having 10,000 afloat billets service wide by 2030. There has been considerable discourse on so-called “sea service attractiveness,” though no discrete proposals have been offered to tackle the problem. The proposals that have been put forward focus less on metrics than conceptual shifts targeting shipboard climate, unit pride, or paradigm shifts in officer promotion and graduate school selections.

But, while the woes of the Coast Guard cutter community continue to make headlines, cuttermen do not face their demise in a vacuum. Their infirmities take place in the context of an organization whose workforce is hemorrhaging across specialties and demographics. These reverberations are felt more acutely in certain demographics, such as women and minorities. Dogged institutional focus on the retention woes of a particular specialty, regardless of its contributions to service culture, ignores systemic issues plaguing the workforce. Therefore, a holistic approach to workforce retention may be the solution to meeting the Coast Guard’s “track line to 10,000” while simultaneously securing the future for myriad specialties. They are: foster geographic stability by creating centralized “hubs” for the Coast Guard workforce, buttressed by increased opportunities for remote and hybrid work and education.

With the release of the newly minted Coast Guard Strategy in October 2022, Commandant Admiral Linda Fagan has touted revolutionizing the Coast Guard talent management system and “transforming the total workforce” to account for modern socioeconomic realities. Employing centralized hubs to promote geographic stability is exactly the sort of initiative this strategy calls for, and the Coast Guard must adopt it as soon as practicable.

Coast Guard “Hubs”

There is hearty debate surrounding a perceived diminished “sea service attractiveness” of the U.S. Coast Guard’s afloat community. The basic line of reasoning goes, the ready availability of viable career paths ashore, stressful moves every several years, and sea tours where service members deploy throughout their tour combine to make sea service increasingly difficult to “sell” to families. Further, service members or their spouses must make tough career compromises to remain competitive in their respective fields. This is exacerbated in the modern age, where spouses typically fall into two categories: a) in the service along with their spouse or b) have their own civilian careers in professional fields. In fact, the number of dual-income households has significantly increased since the 1950s, the era in which the modern personnel system was created.1

A tangible way for the Coast Guard to conduct a meaningful course correction is to reexamine the much-touted concept of “geographic stability.” Geographic stability and centralization should be reimagined at a macroscopic level and seen as a tactic to revitalize the health of the afloat officer corps writ large. By aggressively working to consolidate billets at desirable geographic “hubs” that allow the afloat community to move along linear, successful, and promotable career trajectories, the Coast Guard has the opportunity to stem the growing gap between billets and cuttermen to fill them. These centralization concepts, desperately needed in the afloat specialty, can be replicated elsewhere across specialties.

Key West is the Model

Fortunately, the service need only look to Key West, FL as an ideal model that can be replicated elsewhere. Between a windfall of demanding afloat opportunities across multiple platforms, high-profile staff tour opportunities, and a desirable geographic location, Key West, Florida, represents the model “hub,” which, if emulated elsewhere, would require the following characteristics:

Multiple Fast Response and Medium Endurance Cutters

Sentinel-class, “Fast Response Cutters” (FRC) are O-3 commands and have O-2 Executive Officers. Both an XO and CO tour aboard a “patrol boat” are milestone career tours that afloat officers in the Coast Guard typically must attain to continue to progress in the cutterman community. Medium Endurance cutters (WMEC) also boast multiple junior career milestone billets, from mid-grade department head opportunities to more senior command billets.

Reputable staff tour with multiple O-3 and O-4 billets

Key West is home to both Coast Guard Sector Key West, which has some, but limited “afloat” staff billets, and Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS), which is a joint DoD command that falls under U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM). Long considered the gold standard of joint operations, JIATFS is home to 13 Coast Guard officer billets spread out across the J2 (Intelligence), J3 (Operations), J6 (Communications), and J7 (Innovations) directorates. In an increasingly complex world, the Coast Guard is called upon to conduct its work in a crosscutting, interagency fashion. Officers with joint or “purple” experience are prized for this unique experience. In fact, the Commandant’s annual Guidance to promotion boards and selection panels specifically highlights joint and interagency experience as something promotion and graduate school panels should focus on as positive attributes in an officer’s record.

Desirable geographic location

While geographic tastes are diverse, many would consider Key West a highly desirable location, devoid of snow and cold weather. Despite arguments to the contrary, attractive duty locations are an underappreciated recruiting and retention tactic, especially among the junior ranks, where the opportunity to be stationed in a vacation-worthy destination is a worthy tradeoff for the hardships of sea duty. 

Key West, Florida, organically possesses all the ingredients for a centralized hub, where given the right portion of each, an afloat officer and their family can remain in one place for four to ten years and, importantly, remain competitive for promotion by meeting career milestones, including completing reputable staff assignments.

There are boundless possibilities when it comes to a career path. Obviously, there are other key considerations, such as graduate school and special “broadening” assignments, that officers aspire to. For those who prize the pressure relief valve on family life that geo-stability can afford, they can pursue it at no detriment to their career. The table below illustrates the versatility and longevity a “hub” can afford an afloat officer in the Key West Area.

Years 0-2 2-4 4-6 6-8
JIATFS Staff (O-3) WMEC OPS FRC CO Transfer
FRC CO (senior O-3) JIATFS Staff

(Make O-4)

WMEC XO Transfer

(Make O-4)

(Make O-4)
Chief of Enforcement, Sector KW (O-4) Transfer

Table 1. Potential Key West Afloat Officer Trajectory.

While Key West contains many of the ingredients necessary to make it a centralized hub, a cutterman can make a home for more than two years, those ingredients can be expanded upon in certain areas to make an even more fertile hotbed for afloat officers. For one, additional medium endurance cutters and fast response cutters would significantly increase the number of first, second, and third tour junior officer opportunities to go to sea without having to conduct a permanent change of station move.

The Coast Guard could also immediately add a number of O-3 and O-4 staff officer billets to JIATF-S. After all, if the service is set to spend a combined $12 Billion on the Legend Class cutters, the service could make a paltry investment in comparison by adding subject matter experts to the command that is the primary controller of cutters deployed for the counter-narcotics mission. Further, the service could add additional Intel and Cyber billets to the JIATF-S staff. As the Coast Guard cyber and intelligence apparatus matures, having officers who have operated in the joint environment with seasoned intelligence professionals will yield enormous dividends for the service.

Key West is just one of many locations where the Coast Guard can look to implement geographic stability in the afloat officer corps. This “blueprint for success” of multiple opportunities for junior and senior command, a reputable staff tour, and a desirable geographic location can be replicated elsewhere with relative ease. Charleston, Hawaii, Miami, and Newport present opportunities for immediate implementation, all containing elements of the necessary ingredients for successful geographic stability. Others still, like Norfolk, Pensacola, and Los Angeles/Long Beach are missing one crucial element or another that can be easily remedied. 

The Future is Remote:
Realizing “Hubs” Service Wide

Fully remote work and hybrid models are an obvious step towards rapidly scaling “hubs” across operational and mission support communities. Unfortunately, many still distrust the basic premise of remote work, citing that the military should be concerned with winning wars, not “keeping pace with big tech.” Others still acknowledge the manifold benefits of remote work but worry it would exacerbate a gap between “operators” and “supporting elements.” However, few can deny that it represents the future of employment across myriad industries.

Anyone who has visited Coast Guard Headquarters recently can attest to this phenomenon, as the home of nearly 4,000 military, civilian, and contractor staff members have been largely partially manned for the past three years since the emergence of COVID-19. Major mission support commands fulfilling critical C5I, naval engineering, and administrative support functions have performed exceptionally in remote and hybrid work conditions as well.

If willing to deviate from established norms, the Coast Guard is poised to offer hundreds, if not thousands, of enlisted and officer billets that can be staffed completely remotely. This number expands dramatically if it includes “flex” or hybrid billets that, with occasional travel, allow members to maximize geographic stability while maintaining successful, varied career paths. For instance, the C5I community is primed to offer a majority of its O-2 to O-4 billets remotely. Doing so would allow those desiring to maintain a “dual” career track (in a traditionally operational specialty such as afloat or aviation specialties and traditionally “non-operational” e.g. cyber, logistics, or legal specialties) to avoid alternating between the National Capitol region and coastal communities, a major known drawback. Simply put, if the Coast Guard is able to offer expanded remote opportunities, it should.

Geographic flexibility could be further enhanced by de-stigmatizing online advanced education opportunities by Coast Guard leadership (and be extension what promotion and assignment panels value). Additionally, geo-stability should take advantage of nonterminal expanded industry partnerships with major private companies (as opposed to DOD Skillbridge, which servicemembers can take advantage of during their last 180 days of service). Both are useful incentives which, if paired with reasonable corresponding obligatory service requirements, could allow servicemembers to significantly reduce the number of PCS moves made over the course of a full 20-year career while remaining competitive at promotion boards. The table below illustrates the “hubs” concept, expanded by access to fully remote billets, industry partnerships, and a greater acceptance of online graduate school opportunities:

Year Range Tour/Life Event Location Incentive
1-2 Div Tour aboard Offshore Patrol Cutter (O-1) LA/Long Beach, CA N/A – academy payback
3-5 Sector LA/LB Response Officer (shoreside) (O-2) LA/Long Beach, CA
6-7 Information Assurance Grad School


LA/Long Beach, CA Open up more grad programs to online school
8-9 CGCYBER Division Officer tour (O-3)


LA/Long Beach, CA


Remote work
10-12 Sector LA/LB Enforcement Chief (shoreside, makes O-4)



LA/Long Beach, CA


Centralized Hub


13-14 PCS to D.C.: CGHQ tour crafting CG Cyber Policy (O-4)


D.C. Hybrid Work


15-16 Detached Duty, Pentagon: OSD Cyber Policy (O-5)


D.C. Joint Assignment; Centralized Hub
17-18 Response Department Head: Sector Delaware Bay (O-5) Philadelphia, PA Geo-bachelor (minimal weekend commute)
19-19 Industry Partnership at Microsoft (O-5) D.C. Expand industry partnerships program


20-21 Special Assignment, National Security Council | The White House: Senior Director for Resilience Policy (traditional CG O-6 billet)


D.C. Competitive Special Assignment
22-23 CGCYBER Deputy Tour (O-6)


Alexandria, VA (short commute)
24-28 Sector Commander: Sector Hampton Roads (O-6)



Hampton Roads, V.A.


Geo-bachelor (minimal weekend commute)

Table 2. Highlights a theoretical dual officer career path in Cyber and Response Ashore specialties, enabled by centralized hubs, remote/hybrid work, and industry partnerships. As a result, the officer only needs to conduct a permanent change of station (PCS) move one time in a 28-year career.

Final Thoughts

Some will say that the U.S. military should not try to seek parity with private industry. Of course, while there will always be those few whose martial ardor is enough to make familial sacrifices, for many, “love doesn’t pay the bills,” and enthusiasm alone should not be seen as a universal retention tactic. In 2021, only 29% of American youth are eligible for service; the Coast Guard simply cannot afford to put on a “put up or get out” mentality that discredits the valuable service members who simply do not wish to move all the time and have a semblance of normal life in between sea or duty standing tours. What’s more, these attitudes would overwhelmingly affect women and minorities because of the lifestyle flexibility they offer with respect to family planning and make the Coast Guard a less diverse workforce. As the former Commandant, Admiral Schultz stated in the 2020 Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, part of being the world’s best Coast Guard is being the world’s most diverse Coast Guard.

Ultimately, geographic stability is not a silver bullet to solving afloat retention and bolstering sea service attractiveness. However, it is a simple, meaningful, and easily implemented tool for keeping seagoing officers afloat. The Coast Guard should look to Key West, FL, as a blueprint for success, and replicate this formula elsewhere. What’s more, centralized hubs should be seen as an easily implemented, repeatable, and concrete solution to addressing workforce shortcomings across all Coast Guard work specialties. The concepts illustrated can, in many cases, be easily carried over from the officer to the enlisted world. When bolstered by expanded hybrid and remote work and education options, these “hubs” will remove many service-imposed impediments to “normal lifestyles” that force otherwise willing and capable service members to choose between meaningful service and civilian life. The Coast Guard has all the tools it needs to address the retention crises it faces – it needs only implement them.

Jasper Campbell served on active duty for six years in the afloat and C5I communities. He departed in 2021 to launch a technology company,, that offers solutions for public safety and healthcare markets. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.


1. Concordia St. Paul, “The Evolution of American Family Structure,” CSP Online, 2022, htps://

Featured Image: Cutter crewmembers based out of Portsmouth, Va. stand at the pier, ready to assist the USCGC Northland (WMEC 904) moor in Portsmouth on Monday. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Hillard)

The Value of Variance in the Surface Warfare Officer Qualification Process

By CDR Robert C. Watts IV

In his recent CIMSEC article, Bill Golden argues that there is too much variance in the surface warfare officer (SWO) qualification process and questions whether ship captains have adequate experience to qualify junior officers.To address these perceived problems, he proposes that the Surface Warfare Schools Command (SWSC) commanding officer (CO) administer a qualification test between an officer’s first and second division officer tours. The argument for this change overstates the problems posed by variance in the qualification process, neglects the value of the current method, and does not reckon with how the proposed changes would deviate from the community’s culture, which values diversity of experience and command at sea. 


For context, the existing process culminates in an oral exam, or board, during which the candidate answers a wide variety of questions from the ship’s department heads, Executive Officer (XO), and CO. Based on completing pre-requisite qualifications and their performance in the board, the captain then decides if the candidate has earned the SWO qualification and presents the SWO pin in a wardroom ceremony.

While it is true that qualification boards vary from ship to ship, this variance is not as wide as Golden suggests. To paraphrase Mark Twain, SWO boards do not repeat themselves, but they often rhyme. The SWO Career Manual emphasizes the importance of maintaining “consistent qualification standards.”2 Despite differences in detail, boards across the fleet are generally similar in approach. Every CO designs their boards based on their experience, both as a candidate and then as a board member, resulting in boards that are generally consistent in scope and scale. Variance typically reflects the CO and board members tailoring questions to the ship’s technical and operational circumstances, an assessment of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and the board members’ own diverse professional backgrounds.

It is unclear whether this variance is a problem. Golden writes that “SWOs yearn for standardization,” but neither defines this desire’s extent, nor cites evidence of it. He suggests several potential benefits of standardization, specifically increasing confidence in the readiness of SWOs and improving other communities’ respect for SWOs. Again, Golden presents no evidence for either issue. With regard to readiness, he does not identify negative outcomes caused by SWO qualification variance. Like him, I have not found any. For example, the 2017 Comprehensive Review following the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain collisions did not point to SWO qualification variance as a contributing factor.Moreover, managing other communities’ perceptions should not shape SWO qualification policy.


Golden asserts that COs – of all ranks – are not the most experienced officers available and suggests that the SWSC CO, a post-major command Captain, is the most experienced and would therefore be the ideal qualification authority. Although a ship CO may not be “the best available,” COs of all ranks have sufficient naval experience – and command perspective – to lead a rigorous and fair qualification process that is consistent with community policy. Some COs may have more experience, but even an O-4 CO has served at sea as a division officer, department head and XO, just like any other CO. Although the SWSC CO and staff have extensive experience, they are removed in time and space from afloat operations, inevitably causing their shipboard experiences to atrophy and perspectives to shift.


The existing system benefits the candidate, the board members, and the wardroom in ways that would diminish or disappear under the proposed overhaul. For the candidate, qualifying during the first division officer tour provides a significant goal to pursue (and achieve) during that assignment. The oral board format presents a perhaps unfamiliar challenge, but some scholars argue that, unlike a written test, it enables the candidate to demonstrate mental agility and to be treated like someone “who [has] interesting things to say and can handle being put on the spot.”4 Completing the qualification during their first tour also gives them the opportunity to “grow into” their new role as a warfare-qualified officer and report to their second tour as a “full up round.”

For the board members, each board offers opportunities to reinforce and improve their own knowledge, while also considering how they might run boards themselves when in command. For the rest of the wardroom, preparing a candidate for SWO qualifications is a team effort that includes accomplishments to publicly recognize and collectively celebrate. These “pinning” events affirm the qualification’s significance, commend the effort made to earn it, and help build community identity. If centralized ashore at SWSC, preparing for qualification would remain a team effort until the candidate leaves the ship, but the team would lose that direct connection to, and positive feedback from, the new SWO’s milestone accomplishment.


Golden’s premise also raises important fundamental questions: What does a SWO pin mean? What is the culture of the surface warfare community? What should both be in the future?

The SWO qualification represents that the wearer not only achieved pre-requisite qualifications – most notably officer of the deck underway – but also built a foundation of knowledge, has the aptitude to continue their professional development, can confidently discuss complex naval concepts, and will well represent the community. A SWO pin earned through a standardized, bibliography-based, written test and shiphandling assessment, as Golden advocates, would not necessarily represent the wearer’s holistic foundation for future growth.

Culturally, the current qualification process is consistent with the community’s long-standing character, which values diversity of experience and upholds command at sea as the pinnacle of responsibility and trust. The members’ wide variety of perspectives and experiences enrich SWO boards and increase their rigor. Furthermore, it is only natural that the CO bears responsibility for training and qualifying junior officers on their ship, not just in a division officer’s capstone SWO board, but also throughout their time onboard. The CO observes and guides an officer’s qualification progress and, over time, builds trust in them as a watchstander and confidence in them as a future SWO before making the qualification decision. The Navy entrusts the captain to lead a warship and its crew. It would be logically inconsistent to remove qualifying junior officers from their responsibilities. Such a change would undermine the community’s commitment to the importance of command at sea. 


The surface warfare qualification is a critical career milestone and symbolizes an officer’s identity as a SWO. Golden rightly examines how to improve the SWO qualification process, but standardizing the process and centralizing it ashore would not be as beneficial as he argues and would be contrary to the community’s character. If the SWO community desires to standardize the qualification process, it should first consider refining the current approach. For example, just as the SWO Career Manual outlines what topics should be included in a command qualification board, this instruction could also describe in more detail what a CO should include in a SWO board.5 Although worthwhile to assess through the “Get Real, Get Better” lens how officers earn the surface warfare qualification, the existing process maintains a sufficiently consistent standard, benefits both the candidate and the wardroom, and reinforces the culture of the SWO community.

CDR Rob Watts is the Current Operations Director at U.S. Pacific Fleet and most recently commanded USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53). He holds a B.A. in Foreign Affairs and History from the University of Virginia and a Master’s in Public Policy from Princeton University. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


[1] William Golden, “Get Real, Get Better: Revamping Surface Warfare Officer Qualification,” Center for International Maritime Security, 25 October 2022,

[2] U.S. Navy, “Surface Warfare Officer Career Manual,” Commander, Naval Surface Forces Instruction 1412.7A, 22 November 2021, p. 3-1.

[3] U.S. Navy, Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents, 2017,

[4] Molly Worthen, “If it was Good Enough for Socrates, it’s Good Enough for Sophomores,” New York Times, 2 December 2022,

[5] U.S. Navy, “Surface Warfare Officer Career Manual,” p. 5-4 to 5-6.

Featured image:  Lieutenant Junior Grade Shamaal Fletcher submerges his SWO pin into the Norwegian Sea as part of his pinning ceremony aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), Sept. 20, 2022. (Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Almagissel Schuring)

Get Real, Get Better: Revamping Surface Warfare Officer Qualification

By Bill Golden

First awarded in 1975, the SWO pin was created to identify a cadre of professional mariners who operate U.S. warships, largely in response to the insignia worn by aviators and submariners.1 As a result of the evolution in naval warfare in World War II, the SWO community was competing with the submarine and aviation communities for talented officers. The new insignia helped the SWO community reestablish its identity and instill a sense of pride within the SWO wardroom.

Today, there is demonstrated, acknowledged variance in the execution of requirements for a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) to earn their qualification and warfare insignia, the SWO pin. The breadth of knowledge needed to be a successful SWO today is different than when the SWO pin was established. Olympian Steve Prefontaine was at the top of the track world in 1975 when he died (and when the SWO pin was created). Runners still use many of the same tools as they did almost 50 years ago but have advanced their processes to be faster today. Organizationally, through standardization, SWOs will evolve many of their proven tools and also learn how to run faster. The SWO community has the opportunity to authentically embrace “Get Real, Get Better” by better standardizing the path to, and final assessment for, SWO qualification.2

SWOs can get real by acknowledging the varying degrees of experience and warfare expertise among COs who award SWO pins. A lieutenant commander with 12 years of experience in early command has the same authority to award a SWO pin as the captain of a cruiser, who has over 20 years of experience and is a warfare commander. SWOs need to Get Better by standardizing and aligning the qualification process ensuring our assessors are the best available. To do so, the SWO community must centralize awarding the SWO pin at Surface Warfare Schools Command (SWSC) or the Type Commander (TYCOM) to reduce variance in the requirements for qualification and unite SWO identity across the Navy.

Today, the requirements to earn a SWO pin are codified in Commander, Naval Surface Forces Instruction 1412.7A, “Surface Warfare Officer Career Manual.” Ultimately, however, the authority to award the SWO pin rests with each Commanding Officer. The SWO corps is diverse and experience of these commanders is varied; the process of earning a SWO pin is similarly diverse and varied on each warship. This variance must be leveraged to distill the very best practices, making clear the identification of SWOs as professionals. Standardizing SWO pin qualifications in this manner will also allow Commanding Officers to focus on shipboard watchstanding qualifications, where they have the most skin in the game.

The SWO Pin’s Roots

When the U.S. Navy was established, new officers received on the job training (OJT) as midshipmen on warships. Formal school-based training was not part of the path to become an officer or earn command of a warship. This process was fundamentally altered in 1845, with the establishment of the U.S. Naval Academy.3 Recognizing the need for formal training in weapons, engineering, and operations, the Naval Destroyer School was created in 1961 in Newport, Rhode Island. Destroyer School evolved into Surface Warfare Officer School Division Officer Course (SWOSDOC), which was a six month course launched in 1975 and provided baseline training for all newly commissioned SWOs.4

In 2003, the Navy eliminated SWOSDOC and created SWOS-At-Sea.5 SWOS-At-Sea changed the Navy’s accession training to mirror the system in place in 1845; newly commissioned SWOs learned their trade, again, through OJT. Since that regression, the SWO community has returned to providing new SWO ensigns formal classroom training before they report to their ships. Today, in 2022, a newly commissioned SWO attends Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) and Officer of the Deck Phase I (several months of classroom training) to learn the foundational tenants of seamanship, navigation, and leading sailors at sea. These courses have been received positively by SWOs of all ranks, and the change has proven invaluable in improving at-sea bridge watchstanding performance. The formalization and evolution of training refined what it means to be a SWO and provided a superior product at each step of the way: an officer better prepared to operate and lead at sea.

The SWO community experienced an identity crisis in the 1960s, losing officers to the other line communities. When Admiral Zumwalt became CNO in 1970, SWO retention was at 14 percent. Admiral Zumwalt created a group of junior SWOs to study factors causing poor retention, the SWO Retention Study Group. This group recommended “more rigorous standards, better schooling, and a surface warfare pin equivalent to the dolphins worn by submariners or the wings by the aviators.”6 By 1975, retention had improved to 35 percent. Firmly establishing the identity of a SWO, through uniformity in training and awarding of insignia, improved the SWO wardroom. Continuing to refine our SWO training processes, by standardization of the SWO pin, will increase confidence in the readiness of SWOs and strengthen respect of the SWO community across other line officer designators.

The SWO Pin of the Future

The process for standardizing the SWO pin already exists; it simply needs to be tailored to a more junior cohort. The Command Assessment, administered between department head tours, screens midgrade SWO lieutenants before they are considered for Commander Command. The Command Assessment includes a written assessment, tactical assessment, and shiphandling practical. A similar process should be used to award the SWO pin to officers in between their first and second division officer tours and after earning their OOD underway qualification, contingent upon a recommendation from their current Commanding Officers.

In between a SWO’s first and second division officer tours, he or she attends Advanced Division Officer Course (ADOC). This new SWO pin assessment, which could be called the Surface Warfare Qualification Exam (SWQE), will consist of written exams and a shiphandling practical, to be conducted immediately before ADOC. The SWQE will not include a tactical assessment as first tour division officers have mostly focused on shiphandling and divisional leadership. To prepare for the exam, new SWOs will receive a bibliography at BDOC to guide their preparation for the written exam. Additionally, this bibliography will inform the officer training curricula for ship COs and XOs. Again, like the Command Assessment, first tour division officers will be expected to prepare in simulators throughout their tours prior to their shiphandling practical. After passing the SWQE, a newly minted SWO will receive his or her warfare insignia from the Commanding Officer of SWSC, a leader within the SWO community.

With this process, an established learning center will be the responsible custodian for qualification, removing the self-induced pressure on COs to qualify a poor performing division officer. While there is inequity in the opportunities to prepare for the current Command Assessment, the process is overwhelmingly viewed as objective and fair; the same cannot be said regarding the current path to SWO qualification.

During the existence of the SWOS-At-Sea program, SWOs were required to attend a finishing course, Advanced Shiphandling and Tactics (ASAT), at SWSC after attaining their officer of the deck underway qualification but before earning their SWO pins. The SWQE process is not the same as ASAT. In the legacy system, the responsibility to award the SWO pin rested with the Commanding Officer and attrition at ASAT was negligible. With the SWQE, every SWO pin in the Surface Navy will be awarded by SWSC.

While this will remove some responsibility from afloat Commanding Officers, it empowers them to focus on the most critical qualification awarded by a ship captain, Officer of the Deck underway. Additionally, this course will add one week to a training pipeline for junior SWOs. Rotation between first and second division officer tours can still follow the current model (24, 27, or 30 months) but be based on OOD underway qualification. The SWQE will allow officers to pursue additional shipboard qualifications (e.g. EOOW and TAO), and the success rate of officers throughout the assessment will inform ship captains regarding the efficacy of their training programs.

Creating a single standard for SWO qualification will make clear to the community what is expected of a qualified SWO. SWSC is well positioned to evolve exam material and influence shipboard officer training programs throughout the fleet. As additional leadership assessment programs gain maturity, they can be rolled into the SWQE. Data from performance at the SWQE will empower PERS-41 to understand which rising second tour division officers show promise to grow into senior SWOs and enable targeted retention packages before these officers have the opportunity to resign their commissions.


The military hinges on the ability of units to react with one another; units are expected to act according to established tactics, techniques, and procedures. Units that have been trained to the same standard are able to operate interchangeably because their capabilities are uniform. Aviators use the Air Combat Training Continuum to ensure each of their officers is able to operate at a codified level of expertise on their designated aircraft in any squadron in the Navy. SWOs not only need this same level of standardization in their officers, they yearn for it.

If the SWQE is established, it will require more resources and planning. Forecasting the appropriate number of accessions each year, scaling and budgeting for an additional assessment, and managing the timing of division officers (which is already a challenge) will be harder. Removing qualification from ships also removes the relationship between that officer, captain, and crew.

One possible alternative to centralizing all SWO qualifications at SWSC is designating an ISIC (e.g. PHIBRON or DESRON) in each port as the executive agent for SWO qualification, or conducting the assessments at the TYCOM with the training department (N7) as the executive agent. This will allow officers to be pinned on their ships after passing and decrease the variance that exists today, but it will not reduce variance to the same extent as having all officers assessed at SWSC. The proposed SWQE is imperfect with many details requiring refinement.

None of these factors outweigh the benefits of standardizing SWO qualification. Since 1845, the SWO community has reduced variance within its ranks and imbued a clearer identity in its officer corps through more robust, formalized training. To take this to the next level, the SWO community must standardize SWO qualification such that it incorporates the very best of what we already know about what SWOs need as warfighters and leverages the most experienced officers as assessors.

LCDR Bill Golden was commissioned as a Surface Warfare Officer in 2008. He has served on five warships and operated in the second, third, fifth, sixth, and seventh fleets. He holds a B.S. in Mathematics from the U.S. Naval Academy and an M.S. in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia.


1. Robinson, J.T. (2008). Initial Training of Surface Warfare Officers: A Historical Perspective from World War II to 2008. [Master’s thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College].

2. “Get Real, Get Better.” U.S. Navy,

3. “History of USNA.” The U.S. Naval Academy,

4. Wills, S. (2016, April 6). CIRCLES IN SURFACE WARFARE TRAINING. Center for International Maritime Security. Retrieved October 2017, from

5. Wills.

6. Robinson.

Featured Image: April 29, 2021 – Ensign Soon Hyung Kwon receives his surface warfare officer pin aboard USS Cole, as U.S. Fleet Forces Command head, Admiral Christopher Grady, looks on. (Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theodore Green/Navy)