Navy Tactics, Re-Finding our Purpose

By Matt Hipple

Where have the tactics gone? In his article at the USNI Blog, LT Rob McFall points out this deadly silence on a fundamental navy skillset. He suggests a combination of obsessions with certifications and a fear of breaching OPSEC as the culprits in the U.S. Navy. While I heartily agree with the former, I believe the problem goes much deeper; as a community, our mode of operation has changed our relationship with tactics for the worse.

The navy’s process-driven culture has changed the value of tactics to a junior officer in the fleet. In a process-driven organization, there is always a right answer. There is a correct form with a correct format for every fault. For the junior officer, boards become much the same process as any certification, and the tactical learning meant to accompany those boards is likewise transformed.  An “understanding and adapting” of tactics is replaced with the “memorization and application” of tactics. This becomes especially true with the dearth of training on enemy capabilities. The memorized lists of gouge are de-coupled from any real purpose when an understanding of an opponent’s capabilities does not accompany it. It is hard to discuss new tactics against an enemy one is unfamiliar with. Tactics become rote retention of the prescribed courses of action in the prescribed situations. Ideation is lost in behind the “proper answer.”

 We also prioritize material condition and engineering over tactical proficiency. As most junior officers know, to gain a prized billet at a riverine squadron, as Naval Gunnery Liaison Officer, or even as an individual augmentee to Afghanistan, one must certify as an Engineering Officer Of the Watch. Such opportunities do not exist for officers qualified as Tactical Action Officers (TAO) or Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) Boarding Officers. While engineering is important, LT McFall mentions a “high-low mix” necessary to create a proper balance. In this case, that high-low mix would include conventional and irregular capabilities as show in TAO and VBSS respectively. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the engineering side is an absolute. This creates a situation where, at the end of their first division officer tours, many motivated junior officers gorge on engineering knowledge with no real option to pursue the “tactically oriented” high-end billets. This emphasis engenders natural career incentives against initial tactical pursuits in favor of engineering.

 However, tactical innovation is not dead. At the junior level, there are still places where it gasps some breaths of life. Particularly, in higher-level security force schools like Ship’s Reaction Force-Alpha and VBSS. A constantly taught concept is “IBT”, or initiative-based tactics. The idea is that no choreographed tactic will save you, that mistakes will be made, and more important is the ability to quickly adapt and execute. Rather than memorizing a scenario’s worth of reactions, each boarding team member is given a set of capabilities and priorities to which he can apply them. It is a refreshing contrast to the checksheet mentality.

 If the navy is to regain our original sense of purpose as warfighters, that appreciation of and incentive for tactical thought must be reclaimed. JO’s should be encouraged to actively question and develop tactics; boards for qualifications should value far more the ability to adapt capabilities and skills to scenarios, rather than merely repeat the approved responses. In the proper context, discussions on how and when to employ a ship in combat can be as engaging as discussions on taking down a room.

 To create a systemic incentive for tactical thought, prime billets should also be offered to those who have accomplished first tour TAO qualifications or who have served extensively as VBSS boarding officers.The navy’s material conditions issues and need for engineering-oriented officers cannot side-line it’s end purpose, to build warfighters. No matter how well a weapon is maintained, knowing how to use it will always make the difference.


The last heyday of wide-spread tactical innovation in the U.S. Navy was during the Vietnam War’s riverine operations. A cunning enemy, a challenging environment, and a difficult mission did not give the black berets much choice in the matter. From interdiction operations to supporting delta amphibious movements to conducting flight ops on garage-sized boats, all and more showed an incredible level of adaption on the tactical and operational level. A navy in a time of relative maritime peace and stability must struggle against the institutional inertia it produces to find that hunger. We need to shake ourselves out of our comfort zone, because an ounce of that innovative spirit now will save a pint of blood later.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

10 thoughts on “Navy Tactics, Re-Finding our Purpose”

  1. OK,
    Billets at a riverine squadron or as Naval Gunnery Liaison Officer are not “prized.” They are career neutral at best, and possibly/probably detrimental to a due course SWO career. You might not “like” that . . . but it is true.

    A first tour divo TAO letter has little creditability unless the officer was prior enlisted in a CIC watch-standing rate. Even then, it might be a stretch unless it was, say, an OS1. There is just too much to learn as a first tour divo to be able to operate competently as a TAO with a CSG in that timeframe, especially since you will not have the schools. 2nd tour FCO is a good possibility for a TAO letter since they have the actual AEGIS schools (but not the DH TAO course) and some more operational background. Granted, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between in my experience. It may come down to timing of your time onboard relative to what the ship/Strike Group was doing more than individual skill. Not a very fair way to stack people.

    VBSS . . . err? These are squad/platoon sized small team tactics that are not integrated as part of company sized operations. Aside from crisis leadership there is little there that translates into the skillsets required as you proceed forward as a SWO. Sorry.

    I get your point on IBT tactics, but I would say that is something to fold into your general philosophy as a CSTT team member/leader when you set up scenarios and train CIC watchstanders. However, you should recognize that because the philosophy translates does not mean that the direct skillset does.

    I thoroughly agree that scenario based boards are the way to go. I have seen many conducted like that, but not as many as I would like.

    However, the suggestion that we should reward 1st tour TAO letters (likely “kisses goodbye” without the requisite schools and experience) or VBSS guys (collateral duty experience that will not necessarily be valuable in future jobs) by sending them to “prized” billets . . . that in fact are not “prized” at all . . . just does not pass the common sense test.

    Want to be a great SWO tactician? VBSS and NSFS ain’t going to get you there. AAW. ASUW. ASW. LINK-16. CEC. etc. Understanding the Caps & Lims of not just your ship, but the other ships, the aircraft in the wing and the big deck as well . . . all the way down to the variant of their combat system suites and sensors, missile variants, what variant of Hornet and Hawkeye, etc. ASW ASW ASW. SQR-19 vs SQR-20? Why is AN/SQQ-89A(V)15 a game changer? Bi-static operations? What does LCS bring to the table? On and on and on. Once we understand the technical and tactical capabilities and limitations of all the different ship sensors AS WELL AS the other ships and airplanes and “other assets” AND the environment we are operating in AND THEN the capabilities and limitations of the opposing force . . . then you can tie it all together . . . and talk tactics.

    They don’t teach that at VBSS school, and it might be a bit more intellectually challenging than say landing a Huey on a zippo boat.

    1. Glad you brought this up; as Dennis Prager says, “I prefer clarity to agreement.”

      First, when I use “prized”, I mean in the sense that they are valued by JO’s, not the navy. These opportunities break you out of the conventional blue-water perspective. Littoral, riverine, and amphibious operations may not be the conflicts the training pipeline wishes to fight, but they are the conflicts we WILL be fighting more often. Many of our discussions about small boats and motherships are about skill sets and capabilities we had already, but abandoned because they were no longer “valued.” Fortunately, many JO’s recognize their real importance and will go after them despite the potential setbacks to their career.

      Next, if you claim that a first-tour TAO letter is a “kiss goodby”, you must assume that a first tour EOOW letter is as well and give it no special treatment. I know it happens, but that is a whole different Pandora’s Box of a discussion. That said, even when taken lightly, even a TAO-lite qual encourages someone to study tactics.

      As for VBSS… you hit on why it is important but slide right past. It shows a capacity for leadership and adaptability to situations. That “small team” could easily be a watch team in combat or on the bridge instead of a boarding team. Knowing isn’t everything; you also must have the ability to apply your skills and knowledge. If you assume higher-level first-tour quals are, as you say “kisses goodbye”, an active boarding officer is a better gauge of skill and knowledge in coordinating people.

      For the areas where a SWO should concentrate… you knocked TAO but then list all the things the TAO is supposed to know. EOOW as first-tour wicket does not encourage anyone to dig into that pile of data or how to apply any of it.

      As for the level of knowledge necessary, the discussion of tactics does not require an encyclopedic knowledge of US Navy platforms. Assuming it does will suppress any innovation on the junior level. Lack of knowledge in one area does not disqualify someone from speaking on another. Tactics runs the gamut from single-weapon employment to strike group dynamics. There is room on every level, and a single idea on how differently to apply a weapon system could change the way the entire group functions in the battlefield. Tactical development should not be the purview of high-level experts, but a team effort coming from every level.

      Interestingly enough, you don’t mention enemy caps and lims. How can someone discuss tactics if they don’t understand your enemy? While JO’s are memorizing the details of every ship and aircraft variant or where the torp tubes are on a CG vs. a DDG, no one discusses the average rocket ranges of Iranian small boats or the specifics of particular ASCMs our opponents might use.

      I’ll note that I agree simulation based boards are the way forward. Perhaps even utilizing simulators more extensively. Discussions of how scenarios and IBT could be integrated more into more aspects of training is another good idea for an entry.

      1. I will dance! My post was not very well organized.

        OK, “prized” riverene and NSFS billets. I get it that they sound cool so some young guys want to do it. My point is that it will not help you out towards DH performance. Your other peer DHs will have twice the sea time, and experience in another shipboard job. Ergo, they are likely to do better as a DH.

        With XO/CO fleetup screening, the bottomline here is that your DH fitreps will almost literally determine if you are to retire as an O-4 or an O-6. You have a better shot at good DH breakout fitreps with traditional ship tours, and less with the oddball ones.

        Now, I am not saying that is “right” or “best” or “most effective” . . . but I am saying it is “true.” You take those non-traditional jobs at risk to your career. You don’t have to like the game, but you should understand the rules of the game, and this is one of them . . . especially in the current retention environment.

        EOOW vs TAO: I think a smart 1st tour Divvo (esp in an Engineering billet) can get their hands around the skills required to qualify EOOW on that first tour. I do not think a smart 1st tour Divvo can get their hand around all the skills necessary to make a good TAO, especially since they will not have had the related schools. The difference, I think, is that the EOOW needs an understanding of what happens in the ship in his area. TAO needs that too, as well as the “off ship” understanding, so the volume of information is cubed . . . at least . . . and then we lay tactics on top of that.

        Given those facts and my own experience, most 1st tour Divo TAO letters are suspect. This is not behavior we should encourage.

        VBSS: Collateral duty. Hard work and fun, but does not translate into skills going forward to SWO skill sets to such a degree that we should “reward” those guys.

        I did mention enemy caps and lims . . “the capabilities and limitations of the opposing force” is the exact quote.

        To your point of utilizing simulators more extensively, we should be doing more with Fleet Synthetic Training. A lot more. There is tremendous opportunity there, and we have made significant investments in the gear and infrastructure. We tend to treat FST events as success if we can just connect everyone . . . lots of room for valuable work there.

        1. First, apologies on missing your mention of opposing forces.

          To start, we’ll have to respectfully disagree on VBSS. VBSS creates a tactical, aggressive mindset necessary to actually engage in “the fight”, whatever it might be. Spending countless hours sweating on multiple foreign vessels of varying degree of repair, engaging with all myriad of personnel from any number of backgrounds and countries, etc… is not only more challenging than the JO path to EOOW (hours in an air conditioned CCS and studying in their stateroom) but will give them far greater exposure to the environment and personalities we work around at sea.

          And while I agree that’s “how it is,” in regards to the fleet’s opinion of these side billets, I contend that these billets are valued because the lower levels of leadership are attempting to correct that error in perspective. They offer greater perspective on the breadth of navy operations, greater chances for independent leadership, and closer engagement with both friend and foe. That said, the navy is still treating them as an “award” for accomplishing EOOW, which is NOT a tactical billet. We’re arguing to cross-purposes and are both right. You say that the conventional pipeline does not value these billets. This is true. However, I say they are prized by young officers and the incentive system created by the navy is discouraging discussion about tactics, which is also true.

          You’re right that a first-tour DIVO could not get a TAO letter if, say, on an AEGIS platform or a carrier. However, there are platforms where it is possible (FFG’s, for however longer they exist), and at the very least the pursuit is worthwhile. It exposes junior officers to the bigger-picture skill-sets, namely how to fight ships. Pushing first-tour DIVOs to concentrate on engineering creates a system-wide deafault to the internal mechanisms of our own ships, rather than knowing how to use them. Tactics should be the primary concern of new JO’s if we’re to build a force of warfighters. I very much don’t want to disparage engineers, because I recognize how important they are, but the primary purpose of the navy is not to run a plant.

          And I hear you. It seems like many events are successful not even if we connect, but if we just all showed up in the attempt in the first place. With the vast simulating capabilities of the BRM complexes, the bridge and conning simulators at Newport, and like programs, we should be doing much more than we are now. Hell, we could even set up CIC simulators to further folks along in those hard-to-get TAO quals or give folks a real place to practice warfighting while inport.

  2. Bob – You are describing the way the current SWO career path is structured. I believe Matt is arguing for the way he thinks it should migrate to enhance JO saturation into tactical thinking at an earlier level. A JO who takes a 2nd tour Riverine or similar non-due course job may not have the same preparation for DH as the one who is sweating an INSURV or yard period as an engineer on a gray hull. But these days, the former might actually get to practice the Navy’s Title X mission – “to conduct prompt and sustained combat” and gain some tremendous leadership and decision making experience in the process. In some circles, that combat experience is valued.

    As to EOOW, maybe it’s time the surface navy took the advice of one of their own super stars(–Joint,-Interagency,-and-I), and let engineers be engineers and warfighters be warfighters.

      1. OK,
        I generally agree with the notion of splitting out the Engineers and Combat Systems & Deck guys like the Brits do.

        However, there is a significant difference between advocating a position, and making career moves based upon a notion that because you advocated for it, it had come to be reality. It has not.

        Matt acknowledged the likelihood that a 1st tour guy on an AEGIS ship or CVN could probably not get a TAO letter, but that it could happen on an FFG. We stopped sending 1st tour divvos to CVNs over a decade ago. Let’s talk about that FFG TAO letter for a one tour in the Navy guy. Since FFG’s are independent deployers for the most part, they will have little experience with integrated ESG/CSG operations or serving inside the CWC construct.

        From a career standpoint, talking that 1st tour FFG guy (even if he has a “stand alone” TAO letter from an independent deployment) and sending him to Riveriene or NSFS is damn near career suicide.

        If he shows up as a DH on a DDG/CG or amphib, it will be without real wold experience in the certifications he is expected to make happen as a DH, or with any real work experience with the numerous evolutions he is supposed to execute as a TAO.

        To put it simply, there is no possible worse combination of division officer tours than TWO “non mainstream” tours.

        Now, there is the typical bluster of “I want to go kick ass” . . . and I get that. However, realize that the NSFS billet with the Marines is not often that. You are not running through the jungle with a radio on your back calling in danger close missions. Many of those guys do not even call in fire missions, they are sent to the 3 or 6 shop to whatever billet needs a body.

        Riveriene . . . well there was a riveriene career path. I got deleted a few months ago. Many of the units got deleted as well.

        As to “I contend that these billets are valued because the lower levels of leadership are attempting to correct that error in perspective,” you are saying you will vote with your feet. I get that. You , however, need to realize the cost of your single vote.

        Show up to your DH rides unprepared by your previous tours. You will be playing catch up to your peers and trying to figure out things they figured out years ago. Your fitreps will be good . . . but just a little bit lower . . . and then they screen for fleet up and you don’t.

        Here is some homework. Calculate the difference in retirement pay from retirement age until death for an O-4 vs. an O-6. You are talking about over a million bucks.

        Are you really, really, willing to pay over a million dollars out of your own pocket to vote on how the SWO career path is set up? If you are . . . well than more power to you. Realize, however, that in the current retention environment, it may be a vote that is not even counted.

        To play the game, one must understand how it is played.

        1. I totally understand where you’re coming from, but I’m not attempting to describe how the system is outside of what’s necessary to illustrate a way past that current system. I realize that there is a process, that the system leans towards the conventional, that administration and management are often the name of the game if one is to get the best dollar for your time. Maybe I’m an idealist, but if I was in it for the money or the game, I wouldn’t be in it. I think especially post 9-11 officers are not joining for the “career” but rather the opportunity to win or deter America’s wars, to spread our influence abroad. We have a chance to harness that motivation and take our purpose more seriously, to develop our skills as a tactically competent force of war-fighting ships. In 2009, that last class of highschoolers who had 9-11 fresh in their minds when thinking about college programs graduated and commissioned. Now many are coming up on that fork in the road between the surface fleet and private industry. When the navy’s budget is being cut, valuable experience is being eliminated, but we have the time and money to develop new uniforms, sailor-nanny admin programs, and add breathalyzers to every ship… not only will we not retain many of these motivated personnel, but we will gravely undermine our ability to do our actual job while distracted by tertiary issues. McCain’s article on “leadership versus management” was quite cogent on this point. I know my solutions are far from perfect, but we can sacrifice some of our administrative capacity in order to change our perspective and mindset, to lose some of the “surface” to pack in more “warfare”. No matter how high we stack the 3M, CMEO, Division in the Spotlight, and Motorcycle safety binders on the inside bulkhead, they won’t shield the men inside from a C-802 blast.

          In another note, I’m glad you brought up the Brits. I never understood why we “split” all our officers when the two areas clearly involve high levels of expertise to become highly competent. I realize the need for “general” officers with across-the-board competence, but what’s the use of an Ordo, Auxo, Nav when he becomes a CHENG? Thank God for Warrent Officers! It’s also disappointing to hear that the NSFS billet is how you say. I’m rather glad I didn’t keep pushing towards that as a second-tour billet.

  3. First off I have to second the comment about heyday of tactical innovation. There was not much taught at NIOTC Vallejo which was not modified or changed once I got on the rivers of “Nam~ To that I would add most warboats once they got in-country were subject of “local mods” and no BOATALTs were filed.

    I think the disagreement above might be more related to the distinction between SWO and EXW career paths. I would submit that combat hours is more important to officers in the later. But I have heard that the EXW career path does NOT do that?

    I know that most PBR officers were primarily Patrol Officers who exercise tactical control. There were other officers ALL of whom were expected to “run the rivers” a description which I believe now equates to “going beyond the wire”?

    My experience in the Brownwater Navy in the form of combat hours and combat billets was deleted from my ODCR about three years after the war~

    I will wait to see WHAT the USN does with EXW combat time?

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