Changing Surface Warfare Qualifications: Better Incentives Make Deadlier Officers

By LTJG Chris Rielage and LCDR JR Dinglasan

“The young officer deals in tactics. That is what he cares about most. While he chafes against other duties, his first focus is meant to be the development of skills to bring combat power to bear on an enemy in circumstances of mortal danger.”–Vice Admiral Cebrowski1

“The disconcerting truth, however, is that the modern naval officer is buried in reports… that deal with everything but how to fight.”–Captain Wayne Hughes2

These quotes from classic naval thinkers underline what has been glaringly obvious for years – every American Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) knows that the community spends less time on tactics than it should. SWOs mainly conceive of their professional identities in terms of their administrative function, such as “I’m the Auxiliaries Officer” or “I’m the 1st Lieutenant,” instead of their tactical or operational roles. The CASREP instruction is more familiar to Ensigns than the classic work Fleet Tactics. These administrative duties take up a massive amount of time and energy, and with the surface fleet’s emphasis on program management and material readiness, tactics consistently fall by the wayside. To state it more bluntly, warships are more ready for inspection than they are for war.3

What if it could be different? Other services and communities fulfill the same duties to man, train, and equip without losing their warfighting ethos. Naval aviators identify themselves by what combat aircraft they fly, focusing on their ability to fight over the administrative role they serve within a squadron. Marines conceive of themselves as riflemen even in the heart of the Pentagon.

The Surface Navy needs to cut itself free of its extraneous entanglements and make concrete changes to how it improves warfighting skill. Our most urgent target for reform should not be improving individual tactics on a piecemeal level. Rather, we should be focusing on systematic changes to the personnel and training systems throughout the Surface Warfare community that will cultivate more tacticians.

The lowest-hanging fruit is in the junior officer detailing process. The fleet is missing a major opportunity to incentivize junior officers to be more lethal, but reform would be relatively simple. When assigning officers in the SWO community, detailers at the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS) reward extra points for attaining certain advanced qualifications. Officers who quickly qualify as Tactical Action Officer (TAO) and Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW), the top tactical and engineering watches on a ship, often receive first choice of their next assignment due to the number of “extra points” they receive when slating for their next tour. This is a great way to incentivize hard work, but the limited scope of this program is a missed opportunity. The detailing process should also assign point increments to more junior tactical qualifications.

The obvious candidates are Warfare Coordinator (WC) positions – the watchstations subordinate to the TAO that actually employ weapons in combat. It is not feasible for most junior officers to become a TAO – a position normally filled by Department Heads ten years their senior – in the few extra months between earning their SWO pin and transferring to a new command. It is feasible, however, for a hard-charging division officer to learn how to fight a single domain under the TAO’s direction. Giving JOs a point incentive by qualifying these watches would motivate them to go after these qualifications earlier. Detailers could begin rewarding the watchstations listed above right away – and include even more, like Anti-Submarine Warfare Evaluator (ASWE) or Tomahawk Engagement Control Officer (ECO), after changes to the school requirements.

Detailers should also reward qualified Antiterrorism Tactical Watch Officers (ATTWOs) with a small point bonus. While not required on most ships, the ATTWO position requires officers to demonstrate calm under fire in a way more academic qualifications fail to achieve. Officers need to confidently know their tactics – but they also need to be mentally prepared to make decisions with limited information, preserve order in chaotic situations, and if needed, order the use of lethal force. Only the ATTWO qualification, with its focus on real-world drills, regularly trains JOs in these skills.

Our proposed model is shown below. BUPERS currently gives 0.25-point bonuses for TAO and EOOW, which are then added to a value calculated off of Fitness Report (FITREP) scores. To minimize confusion – that calculation is fairly complex, and unnecessary for this discussion – our proposal describes fractions of the TAO/EOOW bonuses. When ultimately implemented, the exact scores will also need to be tailored to match those FITREP scores.

A proposed model for adjusting point values for specific SWO qualifications. (Author graphic)

This new model has three main advantages – it will make junior officers more lethal, it will create a deeper bench of experience among more senior officers, and it will incentivize retention.

Today’s SWO qualification process only touches on tactics in the Combat Information Center Watch Officer (CICWO) and Maritime Warfare qualifications. These are cursory quals that provide only the barebones foundation of modern warfare. They cover U.S. Navy capabilities and limitations, but leave major gaps when it comes to other great powers and their tactics and doctrine. Despite earning the qualification, a qualified CICWO has not yet been taught how to track and assess threats, launch missiles, or maneuver the ship in combat. In contrast, the warfare coordinator qualifications, with their emphasis on exact weapon employment, countering specific threat tactics, and coordinating with other tactical watchstanders and units, represent a more serious professional achievement in becoming a skilled warfighter. Incentivizing junior officers to go after these specific quals earlier will make them much deadlier and increase lethality on a fleet-wide scale.

These changes will also benefit more senior officers. Today, most officers in the surface fleet formally learn tactics for the first time when going through the TAO curriculum in Department Head school, after seven to nine years of experience. That is much too late for the complexity of today’s weapons and tactics. Incentivizing early tactical qualifications would give Department Heads a stronger foundation, setting them up for success when they assume the TAO role. A stronger foundation will also allow for more advanced tactical education and training to be administered at later career milestones, further elevating the lethality of the force. Given enough years, it will eventually create more lethal captains and admirals.

Finally, these point incentives would boost retention among junior officers. When interviewed, junior SWOs consistently say that they are not well-trained for combat.5 The current point system feeds that problem by only rewarding the qualifications – TAO and EOOW – that are prerequisites for command. Shifting to the new model would improve combat skills across the fleet, and would send a powerful signal that the SWO community values tacticians at all levels. Bonus points for tactical qualifications are not a silver bullet – but they are a step in the right direction, showing junior officers that the Navy sees their achievements as worthwhile in their own right, and not simply as stepping stones to command. By providing tangible professional incentives that directly strengthen the Navy’s core function – warfighting – the Navy will boost warfighter retention and morale.

The SWO community should keep its big point incentives to create high-quality captains – but recognize that the best ships are ones where top captains are backed by lethal, combat-ready O-2s and O-3s. Today’s JOs are starving for a foundation in tactics. Incentivizing them to pursue tactical qualifications early may be the first step in convincing them that the SWO community prioritizes warfighting, and in turn, convince them to stay and grow into more deadly department heads and captains.

LTJG Chris Rielage is a Surface Warfare Officer onboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) in the Western Pacific. His publications have previously appeared in USNI’s Proceedings and CIMSEC.

LCDR JR Dinglasan currently serves as the IAMD WTI course of instruction (COI) lead at the Surface Advanced Warfighting School (SAWS), Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC). He recently completed his second department head tour as the Combat Systems Officer aboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). He is a graduate of the surface warfare community’s IAMD WTI COI and previously served at SMWDC as an advanced tactical training planner and as the lead instructor/tactics developer for Standard Missile-6 surface warfare (SUW) tactical employment.


1. Captain Wayne P. Hughs Jr. and RADM Robert P. Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Third Edition, U.S. Naval Institute Press, xxi, 2019.

2. Ibid, xxxi.

3. Senior Chief Gunner’s Mate Norman Mingo, U.S. Navy, “The Navy Is Prepared for Inspections, Not War,” Proceedings, March 2021,

4. This proposal is designed around an AEGIS cruiser or destroyer, as the US Navy’s most common surface combatant. Other watchstations, like a Naval Strike Missile (NSM) Planner on an LCS or Air Defense Warfare Coordinator (ADWC) on an LPD, could also be excellent candidates.

5. Lieutenant Judith Hee Rooney, U.S. Navy, “The State of the Warfighter Mentality in the SWO Community,” CIMSEC, August 22, 2022,

Featured Image: NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain (Dec. 6, 2021) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG 80) departs Naval Station Rota, Spain, Dec. 6, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Andrea Rumple/Released)

7 thoughts on “Changing Surface Warfare Qualifications: Better Incentives Make Deadlier Officers”

  1. I like your proposals. It is a good start. JOs need more combat training early on. Adm Sims got his start as a JO gunnery officer helping to solve the big gun accuracy problems.

    I have seen the difference between Amphib CICWO and DDG CICWO. On my two amphibs, as CICWO I was launching/controlling ship to shore movement from Onslow Bay to the Gulf of Thailand. Usually without a TAO. This experience running CIC, holding the OSs accountable, and supporting the bridge. With the right CoC support I could have earned a TAO letter.

    On the DDG as TAO, the CICWO was used primarily for I dont know. Except for the time the CO made the TAOs into CICWOs for VACAPE ops for safety of navigation.

  2. As a retired O-6 with both SWO and Aviator (A-6 Intruder) qualifications I couldn’t agree more with the premise of this article. I earned my SWO pin while assigned to (a now retired) LST prior to attending flight school in the early 80’s. Upon my transition to the aviation community I recognized that the young JO SWO was judged more on which utensil they used in the Wardroom than how to fight! After my first squadron tour I became a tactics instructor at the (then) Strike U in Fallon where Carrier Air Wings and their warriors were certified ready for deployment. We used a building block approach to teaching AirWing tactics until the Air Wing progressed to our “3-day war” which was scrutinized by our staff from planning to briefing to execution. I would go so far as to suggest a similar school and program for SWOs to what we used to call the Strike Leaders Attack Training Syllabus (SLATS). This course brought mid-grad (O-4 through O-5) aviators from all communities together for an academic exercise covering 2 entire weeks of intense learning and practical strike planning in both war at sea and strike warfare (overland missions). This education was then passed on by the graduates back at their commands….the process first established by Top Gun for air to air tactical training. It allowed the students to learn not only from the staff of tactics instructors at Strike but also from each other….helping to build and understanding of the tactical importance and capabilities brought to combat missions by ALL participants in the Air Wing and also the Carrier Strike Group. A similar effort would allow JOs in the SWO community regardless of their platforms to gain incredible knowledge of how to fight their vessels and how their vessel fit into the bigger tactical picture to accomplish the various missions. The aviation community has similar schools at the platform level which teach more basic tactics in both the academic and flying regimes prior to the Fallon experience. Learning TACTICS and WARFIGHTING is what should be the PRIORITY of the Naval Officer’s career training…over and above their duties in the administrative roles they are assigned. My first squadron Skipper, a VietNam vet with over 300 combat missions put it best when I checked into the squadron with the following instructions to me, “…Skip, you had better learn fast how to put your bombs on target on time because that is how I will grade you against your peers when it comes time for FitReps! I don’t want you to neglect your officer duties but….you are a COMBAT AVIATOR FIRST in my squadron. I’ll never have to risk one of your squadron mates or any else by sending then to do your mission over if you keep that in mind! Also remember that no one dies if you fail in your administrative duties…” Those are the words of a combat vet who watched 5 of his JOB (Junior Officer Bunkroom) squadron mates die in SE Asia! SWOs should take a few pages from the aviators playbook when it comes to prioritizing training and education. The bonus to refocusing a SWOs career is the majority of your JOs will enjoy learning tactics way more than filling out a CASREP….which will lead to better retention. Make our current Naval Officers Warfighters FIRST….

  3. A number of the problems the authors cite go back to the demise of the Basic Surface Warfare officers school course in 2003, and its slow return in a brick and mortar format, It would be much easier to provide the tactical training the authors suggest in basic surface warfare officer pipeline training before assignment to their first ship. Adding a modern training ship to the school curriculum where new O-1’s could practice their skills with qualified watch teams would be helpful. The surface navy has increasingly dumped the training of new officers onto operational commands as a way to save $$$. This process ought to be fully reversed to help achieve what the authors desire.

  4. Great article and I think captures a great deal of the same frustrations that many young Submarine Warfare Officers face as well, though maybe not to the same extent.

  5. Looking at officer progression more broadly, the command and staff course at Newport should shift from being a near clone of the senior course to a classified, year-long warfighting course. In it officers from all communities and those of other Services would experiment via repetitive gaming with new ideas on how to fight the fleet as a whole.

    1. You would also have to make it career enhancing. I wanted to go to MAWS and the detailer said since I had JPME and joined the navy with an MA that MAWS would hurt my career… so I went to OPNAV and worked for an O-6 MAWS grad.

  6. Increase JO sea tours to match LDO 36 month sea tours and you will have time for those JO SWO quals and skills. 18-24 months is not enough time to earn your quals. After seven years on an Aegis Cruiser I knew how to fight that ship. Taught me the ship baseline does not matter it’s crew proficiency that delivers lethality. USS SHILOH vs USS BUNKER HILL, PRECOMMED SHILOH but at the time of the blue/orange exercise I was BUNKER HILL EMO and stood SSWC – eventually TAO qualified.
    There is a reason LDOs know so much: prior enlisted and longer sea tours!

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