ARLINGTON, Va. – The Navy is taking a serious look at its Surface Warfare Officer candidate training, with the hopes of creating more proficient officers before assigning them to ship crews, the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command said today.
Adm. Phil Davidson said that, after leading a 60-day effort to compile the Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Forces Incidents after several surface ship collisions last year, he is dedicated to adding more rigor to individual and unit-level assessments – with a particular eye on the seamanship and navigation training and assessments for SWO candidates.
“If you don’t have the underpinning foundation across the board – SWO candidates, your qualified SWOs on the ship, department head, [executive officer], [commanding officer] – then you’re short of an element of the team,” Davidson told reporters after giving a keynote speech at the annual Surface Navy Association symposium.
“My assessment of the team assessment, and SWO candidate training especially, it’s not sufficient enough when it comes to seamanship and navigation. You end up with conning officers and JOODs (junior officers of the deck) who [don’t] have sufficient depth to be part of the team from the outset, and that’s what we want to get to. JOOD is a role, conning officer is a role. They have to be competent in those roles when they step aboard a ship, and to have them be students aboard those ships is too much of a burden.”
This need for young officers to be proficient from their first day on an operational ship’s crew was highlighted by the fatal collision between destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and a merchant ship last summer. At the time of the collision, Davidson said during his speech, “there were only two ranks on watch: the CO, and ensigns.”
As a result, Davidson said SWO candidate training would be lengthened and would include more rigorous training and assessment on seamanship and navigation, damage control, risk assessment and other fundamentals.
He also called for a correction of the number of SWO candidates in the fleet. On the one hand, the Navy’s need for qualified SWOs is going up: due to dual-crewing of Littoral Combat Ships and other factors, the Navy needs more SWOs to serve as department heads, and as a result “there are a lot of people in the officer SWO candidate category aboard our destroyers now.” However, Davidson said some destroyers have nearly 40 SWO candidates in the crew, compared to about two dozen in the 1990s, and “that’s going to mean SWO candidates without jobs, and it’s competing for qualification time, it’s competing for time on the bridge.”
In addition to the length of training and the number of officers being trained, Davidson said there’s some talk about how to train the officers, whether at sea or using high-fidelity simulators. The Comprehensive Review goes into detail about the need for better simulators to train and assess SWOs throughout their careers – from SWO candidate training to an assessment ahead of a CO assignment – and a recent junior officer of the deck course that was created relies heavily on giving young officers reps and sets on a simulator.
Still, there are some things an officer can only learn by being at sea on a warship. On Jan. 10 at the SNA event, House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) suggested that no young officer should be assigned to a crew until he or she had significant at sea experience – much the way some foreign navies handle their new officer training.
“I think that ensigns should have to spend a year on a merchant ship and obtain their third mate’s license before reporting to a U.S. warship,” he said.
Davidson said he planned to talk to Wittman in the coming weeks about this idea – which Wittman acknowledged might not be feasible but could provide food for thought as the Navy considers how to better train its newest officers.
Hedid say he would be willing to give the Surface Warfare Officer’s School (SWOS) some fleet ships to train on, if requested. Operational aircraft carriers often take time from their own training schedules to conduct carrier landing training and qualifications for student pilots in T-45C Goshawks, and Davidson said something comparable for the surface navy would be worth considering.
“We’ve had that happen in the past – as a CO I provided the school a ship, as a [prospective CO] I’ve been on a ship for a week doing that kind of stuff, and I’d like to get back to it,” he said.