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Navy Stands Up Development Command to Breed Elite Surface Warfare Officers

Rear Adm. Jim Kilby during an April training exercise in conjunction with the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. NSMWDC Photo

Rear Adm. Jim Kilby during an April training exercise in conjunction with the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. NSMWDC Photo

The Navy is in the midst of a surface warfare renaissance after 15 years of lower-end tasks in the backgrounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to beefing up its weapons and material readiness to wage a high-end fight, the surface community is also borrowing lessons from the naval aviation to train a new cadre of elite surface warfare officers (SWOs).

Formally stood up on Tuesday in San Diego, Calif. ceremony, the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (NSMWDC, pronounced: Smi-Dik) seeks to pluck high preforming junior officer SWOs for intensive training in either amphibious warfare, integrated air and missile defense (IAMD) or a combined course in anti-submarine and surface warfare (ASW/SuW).

Retired Vice Adm. Tom Copeman — then commander of U.S. Surface Forces — outlined the idea in 2014 in a piece in Proceedings.

“At a rough level there are going to be three school houses — these are going to be the top SWOs — that create warfare tactics instructors in three discipline areas,” NSMWDC commander Rear Adm. Jim Kilby told USNI News on Monday.

Graduates — like those from the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center’s “Top Gun” predecessor (Naval Fighter Weapons School) — will be peppered throughout the fleet as warfare tactics instructors (WTIs) bound for ships and classrooms as a resident “patch wearer” class of SWOs.

Three Intergrated Air and Missile Defense Warfare Tactics Instructors (WTIs) displaying their WTI patches during an April exercise. US Navy Photo

Three Intergrated Air and Missile Defense Warfare Tactics Instructors (WTIs) displaying their WTI patches during an April exercise. US Navy Photo

“That means we’re purposely building these warfare tactics instructors and detailing them to specific locations where they can teach a standardized method for all of those warfare areas assigned,” Kilby said.

Surface Navy leaders have long bemoaned the steady atrophy of high-end warfare skills as demands of Iraq and Afghanistan called mostly for lobbing Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) at land targets and ballistic missile defense (BMD) and not coordinating a multifaceted and complex air, surface and anti-submarine war against a sophisticated enemy.

“Due to the nature of the conflicts since the end of the Cold War, the Navy, and the surface fleet specifically, have valued strike warfare over other mission areas. As a result, surface force sea control programs, skills, and capabilities have diminished and, in some cases, were eliminated,” wrote current U.S. Surface Forces commander Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden in 2014 when he was the Office of Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) director of surface warfare (N96).
“As we rebalance to the Pacific, we must properly prioritize procurement and training to firmly establish our preeminence in war-at-sea capabilities, specifically so we can persistently execute these missions in any maritime environment where our access might be challenged.”
In the last six months the surface force has made calls for increasing the power of surface ships, accelerating new weapons and positioning its fleet toward more complicated engagements in a move to increase SuW specifcally dubbed, distributed lethality.

Part of that effort is material but often overlooked is the personnel needed to execute the ideas.

“I see [WTIs] becoming a huge part of distributed lethality,” Kilby said.
“We’re very persistent and obvious on Vice Adm. Rowden’s radar. As an example we have folks involved in the distributed lethality organizing principle, how we’re going to flesh that out and what that means.”

Eventually, NSMWDC hopes to graduate 110 WTIs a year — 40 IAMD, 40 ASW/SuW and 30 amphibious warfare — with a goal of having either an IAMD or ASW/SuW WTI on each surface ship and an amphibious WTI on every amphibious ship.

“Ultimately our goal is to send these folks to a baseline course that’s roughly five weeks long and then they’ll go to those three locations to get their specialized training in those discipline areas,” Kilby said.

NSMWDC will be headquartered at Naval Station San Diego, Calif. with the three schoolhouses spread between California (ASW/SuW), Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, Md. (IAMD) and a planned amphibious WTI effort to with a location to be determined.

The IAMD portion is the most mature and is currently in its fifth class of training WTIs with graduates already in the fleet.

In addition to the WTI development, NSMWDC is also spinning up a training regime for the surface fleet called Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT, pronounced: Swat).

In April, NSMWDC conducted a pilot SWATT program at sea to test the concept.

“The SWATT piece is a different pillar in increasing tactical proficiency and that’s taking ships to sea after they go through their basic training in their home ports but before they go and conduct a strike group wide composite unit training exercise,” Kilby said.
“That will also be taught by WTIs and other experts but it’s really different than the WTI curriculum.”

Eventually there will be a SWATT presence on both coasts, he said.

  • RecoveringSWO

    Smi-Dik. Like Smithwick’s? Okay, I can support this.

  • Zac George

    Why don’t we just have “warfare officers” like the Royal Navy. I feel we are already going down the path to one day have branched officers.

  • mustard_gun

    “Elite” and “Surface Warfare Officer” should probably never be used in same sentence.

    Maybe this program will produce “Somewhat Less Incompetent” SWOs”… but that’s about it.

    The problem is that the SWO community:
    a. Is populated with folks who couldn’t qualify for aviation, submarines, etc.
    b. Doesn’t have a basic training scheme (SWOS)

    • Mr. Speaker

      c. Filled with JO’s “doing their time” after USNA or NROTC
      d. Too reliant on Aegis
      e. No tactical mindset
      f. O’s who only get “stateroom” training from senior enlisted in order to pass their SWO board.

      • ed2291

        While I disagree with a. and c. (SWOs are not populated by rejects from other communities. They constitute only a tiny minority.), Mr. Speaker is absolutely right in that there are basic problems with the SWO community not present in the aviation or submariner community.

        -Getting rid of a standard school curriculum (SWOS) was a major mistake resulting in wildly uneven training in surface ships which are very different. Some never got SWO or OOD rated because of lack of opportunity and a hostile attitude. (SWOs eat their own.) On the other hand one female ensign got her SWO pin while TAD on a ship for three weeks between Yokosuka, Japan and the Philippines.

        -Lack of sleep seems to be all SWOs brag about. While it is true, you can’t build a community this way. One reason I left active duty is it looked like LCDRs on other communities looked fresh in their late twenties while LCDR SWOs looked like they had already served many years when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This is a self perpetuating practice as much work is “make do” and not really necessary in running a ship.

        -There seems to be a plot to keep any elitism out of the SWO ranks. I remember for awhile qualified SWOs were allowed to wear special sweaters while at sea. That changed to also allowing chiefs and anybody else to wear them.

        -Micromanagement. Nobody micromanages as it is done by and to SWOs. A captain of a ship is supposed to be the height of one’s career. Looking at the admin traffic and seemingly infinite restrictions put on a ship captain, it does not seem like such a great job. Ditto XO and department head. Contrast with the aviation and submariner community.

        -One is judged primarily by paperwork completion. There are, of course, other exciting and worthwhile activities, but day in and day out a surface officer is a glorified secretary and is judged as such.

        • mustard_gun

          “I remember for a while that qualified SWOs were allowed to wear special sweaters while at sea.”

          Nothing symbolizes that elite warrior spirit better than a “special sweater!” 🙂

          • ed2291

            LOL! Well, it was something.

          • old guy

            VOSS ISS DOT? Only vee U-boat ceptins cood vair svetters. Vot’s di metta? diden you see “DAS BOOT?”

    • James Bowen

      I strongly disagree with your point a., and I am a submarine officer myself. Most SWOs I know opted for it as their first choice, and some have nuclear power training. I’ve known a few who didn’t get into aviation because of various reasons (such as physical disqualification), which is not a big deal. In nuclear power school, those who did not make it through (there really weren’t that many who didn’t) would often go to a restricted line or a staff designator or aviation. Surface warfare officers have much tougher leadership challenges that submariners, since enlisted submariners are primarily in highly technical ratings and therefore heavily vetted. The day-to-day shiphandling challenges of surface warfare are tougher as well since submariners usually have that third dimension to work with.

      I agree with your point b. though. There used to be a SWOS division officer course, but it was foolishly discontinued around 2002. The problem with the surface fleet is not personnel, it is that since the 1950’s surface ships have primarily been relegated to defensive escort missions, namely AAW & ASW, and only minimal offensive capabilities. Those minimal offensive capabilities have been neglected for the last 15 years, and ASW was neglected after the Cold War ended. This is in stark contrast to the Soviets/Russians and the Chinese, whose surface ships have teeth.

      • mustard_gun

        I’ve met very few SWOs who say they opted for surface warfare as their first choice. I’d wager that there are quite SWOs who either didn’t have the academics, aptitude or the physical qualifications for their designator of first choice.

        A lot of the surface warfare “leadership challenges” are largely self-inflicted. When compared to other communities (sub and aviation) the surface community has:
        – high workload (self-imposed);
        – low sleep;
        – a fairly pretty dull job;
        – focus on minutia and admistrivia;
        – poor camaraderie in the wardroom

        The end result is that the community doesn’t necessarily retain the ‘best and brightest’ for its O-5 command billets. It’s more of an endurance contest. If you can put up with the pain…

        • James Bowen

          All communities have problems retaining good officers for command. That is a much larger issue than problems specific to surface warfare, and has more to do with the personnel system. I can’t speak for aviation, but I can say that the submarine fleet has comaraderie issues too.

          Maybe others have a better perspective, but most SWOs I have known were there by choice. Surface ships have more personnel than submarines with a broader spectrum of skill sets and personal issues, and that provides SWOs with leadership development opportunities that other officer communities don’t get.

          I do not deny that there are problems with how the surface fleet is run.

      • PolicyWonk

        Those minimal offensive capabilities have been neglected for the last 15 years, and ASW was neglected after the Cold War ended. This is in stark contrast to the Soviets/Russians and the Chinese, whose surface ships have teeth.

        And it continues unabated, because the LCS/SSC/FF, which was implied to be intended to fight in the littorals (as was indicated by the name) are about as toothless as they come.

        Then Adm. Greenert admitted in an interview in Breaking Defense, that the Littoral Combat Ship was never intended to venture into the littorals to fight.

        Hence – while the Chinese and Russians have always built ships to fight, we’re building them for purposes other than fighting.

        • James Bowen

          Very interesting, thanks.

        • Mr. Speaker

          The LCS (a.k.a. Little Crappy Ship) program has only had one purpose………to keep the two shipyards employed.

          • PolicyWonk

            Sadly, despite the US Navy’s Inspector General report concluding that LCS wouldn’t likely survive the missions commanders were likely to send it on, the LCS project office was ordered to reassess whether LCS should be replaced with a “small surface combatant” (SSC).

            To no one’s surprise, these clowns went and chose a slightly modified LCS, that DOT&E, in a subsequent report, announced would only be a “marginal improvement”. These “marginal improvements” put the price of LCS well above that of our allies high-end frigates, except we get neither the survivability, armaments, or versatility. According to Ray Mabus, the designation “LCS” “confused people”, so they redesignated it “FF” for “Fast Frigate” (I was confused, because I stupidly thought Littoral Combat Ship implied the ship was intended to go into the littorals to fight – but according to Adm. Grennert – I was wrong).

            The navy also admitted (in Defense Industry Daily) that no version of LCS meets or will meet the navy’s minimum survivability standard (Level 1).

            The navy could’ve opted instead for the HII Legend-class NSC’s currently on the slipways being built for the USCG, which are proven seaworthy (even in arctic climates, unlike LCS). An up-armed/armored version was offered to the navy by HII, but they turned it down.

            Hence – the only conclusion that I can come up with is that LCS/SSC/FF is a poorly disguised corporate welfare program, that delivers maximum profits at a maximum price to the taxpayers, with minimum ROI.

          • old guy

            or as I have called it THE SWIPE* program’


    • old guy

      SILLY! SILLY! SILLY. Same kind of goofy thinking that personifies people with a strong need to prove (to themselves, mostly) that they are somehow superior. Goes to the old saying,
      ” Prejudice is being down on, what you aint up on.”

    • CBCalif

      An AMCM, who retired with 30 years in 1967, told me (his son) when I was a young Naval Officer, several times, that while most Naval Aviators loved flying – they were pilots, they most certainly were not competent Naval Officers. They had no idea (or interest in) what it took to be a successful Division / Department Head and were not XO or CO material.

      Surface Officers, on the other hand, actually are Naval Officers. They spend their at sea 4 hour (or longer) watch as assigned – hopefully on the
      Bridge, but the rest of their time is spent doing the necessary duties of a Naval Officer – administering one’s division or department, dealing with personnel matters, insuring that the weapons and search systems, engine and propulsion systems, and / or other systems and supplies are performing adequately or in excellent shape and quantity, etc. A ship doesn’t function well otherwise. It is what mature officers do.

      You might remember, it is the Carriers’s desk bound Air Boss, Ops Officer and XO, its Airdale Navigator, etc, that have the highest probability for O-6 selection – not the Officer who loves flying.

      The mature, competent and capable Naval Officer understands ships / subs are the Navy; and understands the importance of administration,
      leadership, keeping the ship and its systems performing well comes before
      shooting the breeze and drinking at the O’Club. The Chiefs know of what they speak.

  • Mark Murphy

    There is another component of this that needs to be included prior to anyone walking through the schoolhouse doors. All selectees should required to read T.R. Fehrenbach’s account of the navy at Guadalcanal “Neptunes inferno,” S.E Morrison’s “A Two Ocean War,” and “The Battle of the Atlantic” in order to gain a better appreciation for similar challenges and lessons learned that the navy and our country paid for in blood during WW2.

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  • old guy

    I have a modest suggestion for all instruction for O-4 and above.
    The order of IMPORTANCE is:
    We seemed to have reversed that somewhat.
    ALL Officers are loyal, patriotic and courageous. The problem is that as we move up, the SOCIAL graces seem to move to the fore, especially during mostly peaceful times.