RDML Christopher Alexander On Accelerating Surface Navy Tactical Excellence

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss the evolution of the Surface Navy’s tactical development with Rear Admiral Christopher Alexander, commander of Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC). In this discussion, RDML Alexander covers new initiatives on measuring tactical experience, the increasing demand for Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercises, and how SMWDC is transforming to accelerate tactical skill across the surface fleet.

How would you describe the value of SMWDC’s restructuring, such as the creation of the Surface Advanced Warfighting School (SAWS), the Fleet Training Directorates, the Technical Reachback Divisions, and other related changes?

Restructuring SMWDC from a mission-area focused organization (AAW, ASW, etc.) to an organization structured along functional lines creates efficiencies for SMWDC’s most valuable asset, the Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI). The reorganization will improve how WTIs are trained, how they train the fleet, and their involvement in the development of future capabilities with the highest tactical benefit to our customer, the fleet.

The reorganization to the specific functional lines of WTI Production, Training Directorates, and Fleet Technical Reachback Divisions facilitates consolidation of all the WTI courses of instruction (COI) in one location with the establishment of SAWS in San Diego. SAWS will standardize training across all WTI COI, cultivate innovation and collaboration across the WTI disciplines, and drive an all-domain approach to training and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP) development.

Fleet training directorates will manage SWATT resourcing requirements, planning and executing SWATT exercises on the East and West Coasts, and Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF). With the increasing number of advanced training events each year across the globe, Fleet Training Directorates — Pacific and Atlantic — are designed to leverage and build expertise on the geographic training differences of ranges and training resources of each SWATT location while allocating more WTI time and effort for the planning and execution of the training for the ships.

Finally, SMWDC intends to bring WTI warfighters closer to the combat system, weapon system, and platform developers. We are doing this by repurposing our IAMD Division in Dahlgren to a technical support division. Currently, Dahlgren is focused on training IAMD WTIs. The transition to a technical support division allows Dahlgren to focus on developing technical solutions to tactical problems and will enable us to integrate WTIs in the weapons system development process from conception. Our goal is to field systems with approved TTP and concepts the fleet can immediately use for tactical advantage against our pacing threats.

How are the SWATT exercises becoming more intense and challenging? How are the training audiences responding to these experiences and making the most of them?

When SWATT initially kicked off six years ago, we envisioned conducting approximately four a year for Carrier Strike Groups. However, SWATT proved to be very successful, and subsequently the demand for SWATT has increased to most surface ships participating prior to a deployment. As a result, around 8-10 SWATT events are now conducted annually, with nine completed in FY21.

The blue-to-blue integration provides the opportunity for ships and staff (Air and Missile Defense Commander and Sea Combat Commander) to work together and practice TTP execution, post-Basic Phase, and before Group Sail and Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX). As SWATT develops, we want to find the right mix of basic, intermediate, and advanced events, part of the Crawl, Walk, Run concept of progression. This mix ensures SWATT provides training for the high-end fight while addressing foundational proficiencies for the common operator and watch team, such as radiotelephone communications, link operations, risk identification, and systems setup.

SWATT is becoming more challenging as we increase Information Warfare integration, unmanned vehicle integration, leverage more complex Live, Virtual, and Constructive (LVC) training events, Live Fire With A Purpose (LFWAP) events with emphasis on offensive surface warfare. We also integrate warfighting concepts such as Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), U.S. Marine Corps Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). These challenging training events build watchteam cohesion, introduce warfighting concepts, and increase the performance of the participating units.

Then shortly after SWATT execution, our new Final Performance Reviews (FPR) provides feedback that is actionable prior to COMPTUEX. The FPR also allows SMWDC to improve SWATT by incorporating fresh lessons learned and feedback from the training audiences into future training events.

What is SMWDC doing to better measure and track the tactical skills and experience of individuals, such as through the Surface Warfare Combat Training Continuum (SWCTC)? How could this data be used?

SMWDC continues to improve a holistic and focused approach to generating the advanced tactical skills necessary to fight our ships and win the high-end fight. Foundational to that effort is better understanding the measures and drivers of proficiency of key tactical watchstanders. SWCTC will codify the training and experience standards Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs) will be required to meet through their careers, recognizing the individual’s contribution to combat capability. By capturing training data at the individual level, the surface force will better understand performance trends and leverage data to help systematically produce the best tactical watchstanders.

A pilot program is underway to collect tactical experience data for SWOs standing tactical combat watches to understand how much tactical experience an officer gains throughout different phases of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan.

SMWDC is also developing grade sheets to assess a watchstander’s knowledge and aptitude. The grade sheets, divided into three parts, comprise:

  • A skills assessment (general skills based on the watch station and specific skills based on the scenario requirements).
  • A survey portion that is the assessor’s opinion of the watchstanders’ performance.
  • An overall assessment that gives the assessors’ confidence level in the watchstanders’ overall ability.

A framework is under development to allow SMWDC to collect tactical assessment data from the schoolhouses to measure an individual’s performance in various areas and how those translate into indicators of tactical prowess on a warship.

As data is collected it will provide SMWDC the tactical competency data needed to align warfighting training across the numerous training organizations, and identify gaps and seams in warfighting training to inform risk calculations and resource decisions.

SMWDC integrates various Surface Navy functions that before were often stovepiped, functions such as tactical development, doctrinal experimentation, schoolhouse instruction, and advanced training events with operating forces, to name several. How does SMWDC manage a connected learning environment that helps these integrated areas evolve together?

Creating a more cohesive learning environment is central to the SMWDC reorganization. Since SMWDC’s formation, we have taken pride in leveraging the synergy between TTP developers, instructors, and trainers. Along with consolidating all WTI training under one roof, SAWS now hosts our TTP department. By co-locating the TTP shop with the schoolhouse Subject Matter Experts (SME), we can utilize the SMEs who are teaching the future WTIs to also write and update TTP. Similar to our TTP-SAWS relationship, our N8/9 (Experimentation and Advanced Concepts) Branch is co-located with our Fleet Training Directorate in San Diego which allows for easy integration of fleet experimentation into advanced tactical training (SWATT, LFWAP, etc.).

A practical example of this advantage is when ships and SMWDC discover an urgent change is required in a weapons system’s TTP during SWATT. The embarked WTI comes ashore and coordinates with the SAWS SME to begin working on the TTP change. When the change is complete, it is pushed to the Fleet Training Directorate (FTD) to include in a future underway event to validate the update. Once the TTP is validated, the updated publication is released to the fleet, and schoolhouse instructors begin teaching the updated curriculum, which then propagates out to the fleet. Before SMWDC, this process could take years to accomplish; in 2021, SMWDC reduced this time to weeks. We are constantly striving to improve the TTP update time, which is an added benefit to SMWDC consolidation.

SMWDC regularly solicits comprehensive feedback. As a result, we have created and implemented processes to capture lessons learned and integrate them into future TTP and training updates. Some examples include our FPR, WTI Re-Blue — our yearly gathering of WTIs to keep them fresh on TTP and fleet developments — and our SMWDC ENGAGEMENT QUEUE, a classified tactical newsletter where fleet authors can share lessons learned.

How does SMWDC emphasize the culture of being a learning organization, of pushing beyond limits, and constructively harnessing failure in the drive toward tactical excellence?

Everything we do at SMWDC centers on tactical improvement and learning. One of our main goals is to inculcate a culture of tactical learning across the Surface Force to create an effect where SMWDC’s influence lasts well after we work directly with a ship’s crew. The emphasis we place on the Plan, Brief, Execute, Debrief (PBED) process is an excellent example of harnessing the value in lessons learned. During each event in a SWATT underway period, WTIs lead the crew through a deliberate process where they learn tactics and emphasize the importance of critical self-assessment. Some of the best learning experiences these crews have had are during debriefs where the execution at times was less than optimal. Through advanced playback technology, WTIs can show the “ground truth” of an event and use voice circuit recordings, chat logs, and input from the watch team to review where execution could improve. The crew then plans for a more advanced scenario and attempts to apply those lessons from the previous event’s debrief. Each crew goes through dozens of PBED cycles during SWATT with the goal of the crew assuming a lead role in that process from the WTIs. This way, the crew can continue to grow and improve without SMWDC’s direct involvement.

Internally, SMWDC emphasizes critical assessment of the SWATT process, the WTI COI, and TTP development. All of these interconnected elements have the overarching goal of increasing the tactical proficiency of the surface fleet. As new systems or platforms come online, new potential adversary technology or tactics change, or national security concerns evolve, SMWDC constantly assesses if we are providing the right tactical training to the right people at the right time. In this era of great power competition, we need to remain a step ahead and anticipate the next fight, not just react to it.

Two great examples of this are LFWAP and TTP validation, which occur in conjunction with an underway SWATT. LFWAP not only increases the confidence of our crews in their capabilities and the system they are operating, but each event provides valuable information about our weapon systems for improvement during follow-on assessments. Likewise, when we draft a new TTP, we build it into SWATT scenarios to test and validate the TTP, which keeps crews involved in the innovative force development process and provides efficacy of the new TTP.

Pacific Ocean (April 27, 2018) A Standard Missile (SM) 2 launches from USS Spruance (DDG 111) during a Live Fire With a Purpose (LFWAP) event during an underway Cruiser-Destroyer (CRUDES) Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercise. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jeffrey Southerland/released)

How can WTI culture and education become more mainstream across the Surface Navy? Could there come a time where all SWOs receive this kind of instruction?

Our goal remains to increase the tactical proficiency and lethality of the Navy, and the best way to do it is by spreading the education and culture of WTIs through our current and future initiatives. WTI culture and education becomes more mainstream each year across the Surface Navy as we see more WTIs in Department Head, Executive Officer, and Commanding Officer positions.

In order to improve the tactical proficiency of the fleet we need to produce more WTIs and fill the follow-on production tours. Those two ingredients, WTI COI and a production tour, are needed to produce a cadre of officers whose “Day-Job” is to think critically about how we should tactically employ our weapons systems. By filling production tour billets we also increase the number of times a ship and crew interact with WTIs as they move through the phases of training. These interactions are where the cultural shift we seek comes to fruition. The WTIs help the crews see the right way of doing things and the tactical advantages in maintaining that standard when the WTIs are not embarked. The combination of WTIs in at-sea leadership billets and increased fleet interactions with WTIs through training events is leading a cultural change for the better.

The training investment in each WTI is extensive and not likely to be replicated across all SWOs. However, the WTI investment and the improved use of metrics previously discussed will very likely drive improvements in the broader SWO training pipelines for various tours, resulting in sustained combat proficiency as the fleet reaches new and higher standards. WTI production, SWCTC, and SMWDC are all part of that long-term drive toward a higher standard in the tactical performance of the Surface Force.

Rear Admiral Christopher Alexander, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, assumed the role of Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center in May 2021. Alexander commanded USS Sampson (DDG 102), USS Princeton (CG 59), and the Surface Warfare Schools Command.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org

Featured Image: NORFOLK (Oct. 15, 2021) The guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage (DDG 61) sits pierside next to the Navy’s newest guided-missile destroyer, the future USS Daniel Inouye (DDG 118), at Naval Station Norfolk. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeremy Lemmon Jr.)

2 thoughts on “RDML Christopher Alexander On Accelerating Surface Navy Tactical Excellence”

  1. Excellent article. Of particular interest is the mention of increased challenges resulting from the integration of Information Warfare (IW) and in addressing the DMO concept.

    The DMO tenet of being Hard-to-Find suggests the necessity for Navy to clarify the relationship of the SMWDC and NIWDC with respect to the functions of denying, deceiving, and disrupting enemy ISR which is the crux of the Hard-to-Find DMO tenet. Which community is responsible for these functions and the development of TTPs, and WTIs?

    The integration of SMWDC and NIWDC efforts makes great sense. The SWO and IW officers in the fleet are on the same team. Their training and tactics have to be compatible and comprehensive, leaving no elements in the too hard pile.

    1. While new innovative thinking is in progress at SMWDC for SWOs and surface warfare and has value, I wonder if (1) we have taken our eyes of hard-nosed warfare and tactical development in ASW, IAMD, ASUW, STK, LOG, etc., where tactics and ops reside day to day and (2) by putting all the pizzazz into WTIs, have we forgotten that more rigorous and better training for second tour DIVOFFs, DHs, XOs, COs could have wider and broader impact across the surface force than a handful of WTIs?

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