Home » Budget Industry » Rep. Wittman Pushing Trio of U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Community Reforms


Rep. Wittman Pushing Trio of U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Community Reforms

Students at Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS) train on the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Full Mission Bridge (FMB) simulator in 2016. US Navy Photo

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) is pushing a trio of legislative reform efforts to professionalize surface warfare officer training and simplify command and control for forward forces in an effort to prevent avoidable mishaps like the two fatal collisions the U.S. Navy suffered in 2017.

While the Navy has promised reforms – in the form of more than 100 recommendations that came out of a pair of internal reviews conducted after the accidents – Wittman said there should be a greater role for Congress in how those reforms manifest themselves at sea and on the waterfront.

“What the Congress has done in the past when the Navy has had certain truths in its history, where events have happened that have led to wholesale changes – whether it’s submarines that had operational issues that led to massive failures; whether it was naval aviation, where you had crashes and unexceptionable operational elements that occurred at those times – there were wholesale and significant changes in the whole operational structure of what happened within naval aviation, within the submarine community, and they were, I would say, groundbreaking organizational changes,” Wittman said in an interview with USNI News last week.

The language is included in the House Armed Services Committee mark of the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that will be presented to the full House for a vote this week. On the Senate side, Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have added their own proposals for surface warfare reform, which they laid out in a bill put forth in February.

Wittman, the chair of the HASC subcommittee on seapower and projection forces, wants surface warfare officers’ and enlisted sailors’ navigation and ship handling training to align more to international standards used by merchant mariners.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) is pictured while chairing the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. DoD Photo

“There are a lot of comparable standards in those civilian certifications in where we believe the certification process needs to be with the Navy,” he said.
“We know some of them aren’t applicable, but what our effort says is that we want to make sure that those elements in the commercial or civilian certifications are reflected in what the Navy requires of their junior officers as they are certified to be junior officers of the deck.”

Now, before a surface warfare officer arrives at their first ship, the officer undergoes an eight-week course ashore that provides an overview of basic navigation at sea. Wittman’s proposal would, where applicable, base some of that training on the civilian International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).

“We want there to be a comparable standard there,” he said.
“We think that’s important.”

To emphasize the importance of the roles of navigation and ship handling, Wittman also issued legislation that would create two different career paths for surface warfare officers: ship engineering systems, and ship operations and combat systems.

The plan would look like the surface warfare officer arrangement of the U.K. Royal Navy that splits its officers into engineers and deck officers.

Wittman said the benefits for the Navy would include not only safer ship handling but also, in the long-term, the benefit of seeding senior ranks with subject matter experts.

Ens. Andrea Pietras looks on from the bridge of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) as the ship departs Aqaba, Jordan. US Navy Photo

“Whether it’s on how to best operate the ships in the fleet, how to best manage the ships in the fleet, how to best make decisions on acquisition in the fleet, they know these issues backwards and forwards. And they know it with enough expertise to where they will make better and more informed decisions than they would otherwise,” Wittman said.
“This is not in any way shape or form a weakness of the officer, it’s only an element that being a generalist – there’s only so much that you could know in depth about each of these areas. I argue that having folks that are experts in these areas make them better decision-makers as they progress in their career, and the Navy benefits from that. So I think that if you do it right that the cost would be minimal, and that’s where I think the Navy needs to look at this.”

As the NDAA has progressed, the Navy’s legislative outreach has suggested Congress keep specific reforms to the surface warfare to a minimum and allow the service to work reforms internally where they can, several legislative sources have told USNI News in the last several months. For its part, the Navy has been candid and open with Congress and the press on the progress of implementing recommendations from both internal reviews, with regular briefings from Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran and Navy Undersecretary Thomas Modly.

While Wittman said he appreciates the Navy’s effort, he noted the service’s inability to implement meaningful change to the fleet after a collision in 2012 between a destroyer and a merchant tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

“I understand the human nature of saying, ‘Hey, don’t worry. We’ve got this.’ But I point back to what happened with USS Porter, and the report that came out after the Porter incident,” he said.
“The recommendations that were made there, and what happened subsequent to that, and what we saw was that literally none of those recommendations got operationalized in the long term.”

While the Navy and Wittman are split on specific reforms to surface training, they are in agreement on one major topic.

He is pushing legislation that would create a single East Coast-based command that would man, train and equip the fleet and do away with the special arrangement in which forward-stationed Pacific forces operate in their own readiness system.

The system was established by the so-called Inouye Amendment, named for the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), that established in law a separate chain of responsibility for ships in the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Wittman and others have argued that different standards were contributing factor to the collisions in the Western Pacific.

“We understand what we have to do to train the sailors as they move from ship to ship, and have some kind of overarching effort for that because if not it becomes fragmented and bifurcated in this sense between Atlantic and Pacific,” he said.
“That’s why striking the Inouye amendment, I believe, is extraordinarily important, because it has a unified command under Fleet Forces to say this is how we are going to man, train, and equip [the fleet].”

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) toured Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson in January 2017. Wittman photo.

Wittman cited findings of the investigation of the collision between USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) in which sailors who were cross-decked from USS Antietam (CG-54) and were running the bridge during the collision weren’t familiar with the different helm controls on the ship. He said a single command and control structure would do a better job of ensuring training standards would be applied across the fleet.

“Having a single point of command that says, ‘Here’s the policy across the fleet. If you’re on a Flight I destroyer and there’s a helms system upgrade, we’re gonna make sure we do that all at one time and then we’re going to bring every one of those sailors in that’s a whatever it is, a boatswain’s mate or whoever’s there at the helm, and says all of them are coming in for training at one time instead of saying we’ll just catch as catch can.’”
“The three-stars would come back to, in my mind, come back to Fleet Forces Command where they would be in charge of looking at the Navy as a whole and saying, ‘Okay. What are we doing with the manning elements for our DDGs?” And understanding that there are Flight Is, Flight IIs, Flight IIAs, and soon to be Flight III … and all those ships are different, so how are we making sure that the sailors that are on there are getting the proper training’?”

Unlike the surface training efforts, Navy leaders are largely in agreement with Wittman on the command and control initiative.

“The way that this amendment was structured allows really two standards to emerge. We need to have one single standard of excellence,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in January.
“This Inouye Amendment, as it was called, is just one I would say artificial seam that inhibits us from establishing that single standard.”

  • D. Jones

    “Wittman cited findings of the investigation of the collision between USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) in which sailors who were cross-decked from USS Antietam (CG-54) and were running the bridge during the collision weren’t familiar with the different helm controls on the ship. He said a single command and control structure would do a better job of ensuring training standards would be applied across the fleet.”

    Maybe having a watch posted in crowded sea lanes would help…

    • proudrino

      Wittman is wrong on one point here. At the end of the day, the CO and leadership of the McCain were responsible for ensuring that the watch standers were able to carry out their duties. It does not take a single command and control structure to fulfill this responsibility. In fact, part of the reason why McCain caused that collision was the assumption that cross-decked sailors were capable of operating the ship because they were already qualified on another DDG.

    • WayneLLewis

      The Chief’s Mess. Where were they? Remember “At Dawn We Slept”?

  • Ed L

    The distinguished gentleman from Virginia needs to go to SEA for month or two. Cross decking would have not been a problem for people from a CG with similar bridge layout to a Spruance DDG But to a Burke class DDG with a completely different bridge layout and that is unacceptable. The Burke class DDG was underman and did not have a proper underway watch set. Back in the my time when qualifying season new people on board the systems difference between a gator and a supply ship were few. US Merchant Marine Officers upon graduating have the same skill sets as a US Naval Academy graduate.

    • MarlineSpikeMate

      “US Merchant Marine Officers upon graduating have the same skill sets as a US Naval Academy graduate.”

      HA! What a joke. Not even close to being true. US Naval Academy graduates have no where near the technical training US Merchant Marine Officers have in regards to anything dealing with a ship (haze grey or not)!

      • proudrino

        I’m not sure the snowflakes at the academy could handle the professional rigor found at the Merchant Marine academies. I’ve often wondered why USNA midshipmen are not more integrated into the Navy during their course of study. Summer cruise is not the same thing as going onboard a Naval vessel for an extended period of time to learn by OJT.

        • Captt Bob

          MarlineSpikeMate and proudrino may have something… why not institute a five-year Co-op program for the USNA, USCGA and all the Merchant Marine Academies similar to many of the civilian engineering schools? Academics would be split equally between time underway and their respective school studies. This more closely resembles the way it was done in the “sail” Navy which historically produced very competent leaders and officers for all of our sea services.

          • USNVO

            Besides the obvious issue of the majority of Naval Academy Graduates not becoming Surface Warfare Officers, I would point out that the CO of the USS Porter was a graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy and overruled his OOD (who wasn’t) not once but twice, to cross in front of two tankers and place his ship in a position to collide with the VLCC.

          • disqus_7UQo4wYvLe

            Yeah he was an engineer… nice try though.

          • USNVO

            So you are saying only some of King’s Point graduates are trained in Seamanship?

          • disqus_7UQo4wYvLe

            Looks like he was saying the CO was an engineer from KP and thus did not have training in seamanship.. …..

          • USNVO

            Do you do you always refer to yourself in the third person?

          • MarlineSpikeMate

            Hey USNVO, he is right. That CO was a KP engineer. The only seamanship training he got was from the Navy.

      • Ed L

        Of course they both end up with Bachelor of Science degrees. But the Merchant Marine graduates have the option of serving in branches of armed forces. And from what I have read MM grads also get more underway training. What is happening is the lack of proper training that cascade through the entire command structure. Plus captain not being able to say no we can’t. without repercussions to career. I remember a captain telling the commodore No and the group commander no we cannot get underway Engineering issues prevent us getting underway. But nothing happen cause the new Navsurlant 3 Star happen to be visiting while the boilers were being lit. One boiler suffered ruptured tubes and pieces of boiler brick came up the stack and ended up showering the deck. We did not get underway. Instead we got 2 dozen workers from the shipyard to repair our boiler and fix minor issues with the other boiler.

    • wilkinak

      Whether the guy was cross-decked or not, the bigger question is “Why was he qualified to stand the watch if he couldn’t transfer steering?”

      The guy’s qual card and board must have been more or less gun decked for him to be standing the watch.

      The CO wasn’t cross decked and HE couldn’t transfer steering w/o mucking it up. That is a bigger problem than a poorly qual’d bosun mate.

  • Curtis Conway

    One set of rules & standard. One Fleet rule, no exceptions. Compromise on that . . . and what are you saying?

    “That’s why striking the Inouye amendment, I believe, is extraordinarily important, because it has a unified command under Fleet Forces to say this is how we are going to man, train, and equip [the fleet].”

    The shipset for the Integrated Navigation and Bridge System should be a standard. Any changes/improvements should be incremental, and not so dramatic that previous training is irrelevant, and any changes retrofitted ASAP in a plug-and-play fashion. That way it can be put into effect rapidly (overnight).

  • Western

    In other news, US Navy Chiefs have recommended that all members of Congress attend a mandatory eight week training program on the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers. Chief Poindexter was quoted as saying, “With all the recent significant mishaps in Washington, DC, we desperately need consistent and standardized training for all elected officials who are responsible for making laws in this country.”

    • wilkinak

      Chiefs need to fix themselves before they point the finger at anyone else.

  • proudrino

    “To emphasize the importance of the roles of navigation and ship handling, Wittman also issued legislation that would create two different career paths for surface warfare officers: ship engineering systems, and ship operations and combat systems.”

    I don’t see how this would work. Congressman Wittman needs to go all the way if he wants to propose this. Have two career paths but don’t call them all surface warfare officers. Otherwise you end up with engineering-track officers in command of ships with no real deck experience. Make the engineering track into a restricted line community with its own major milestones and “due course” career path considerations that do not include command at sea. Alternatively, expand the EDO community to include this new organization.

    • James B.

      A restricted SWO-Eng community doesn’t sound like it’d be very appealing. I can’t imagine many command billets, and they wouldn’t be any good.

      I would prefer a split-track SWO community, akin to the Pilot/NFO split in the aviation community. One community of SWOs would specialize in weapons and tactical action, the other in engineering. Both groups would still stand OOD and drive the ship, but they’d have more focus and career continuity, so senior officers would be no-BS experts in their field, and standards in general would be higher.

      Right now, the SWO community is stuck with the bottom of the barrel that the aviation and submarine communities refused to take. There are good officers who go SWO, but they are overloaded trying to compensate for some of the others.

      • proudrino

        That would work too. The only thing that won’t work, for sure, is maintaining the status quo.

    • M Yates

      Actually, this is how it’s done in most (if not all) of the other navy’s. I’ve dealt with the British and Australian navy’s and it works well. Back in the cold war days an Australian officer explained it made our officers better at the “big picture” of operating BGs, but the allies were better at single ship or squadron operations.

  • Duane

    Congress must stop micromanaging the Navy. The Inouye Amendment is the poster child of Congressional micromanagement of the Navy … so simply deep six it. Replacing Inouye with another form of micro management – ordering two tracks for SWOs – is just more of the same BS.

    BTW – single tracking submarine officers has never been a problem, and nuke school and prototype training is far more demanding and rigorous than any officer training for non-nuke powerplants. All sub officers other than supply officers are nuke trained and qualified. Only the ship’s Engineer gets a more rigorous engineering training and quals regime than do the rest of the ship’s nuke officers.

    Having good navigation, contact management, and deck officer performance is not degraded in the least by engineering knowledge.

  • Mr. Speaker

    I like this, “professionalize surface warfare officer training”.

    It started to become unprofessional and utlimately corporate in the early 90’s. What we have seen of late is the culmination of a corporate commissioned culture where the Navy was used as a stepping stone to lucrative second jobs/careers. The climate was to move up as fast as you can and the personal motto was “I can’t look good unless I make you look bad”. Whoever would have thought the Navy was an actual profession? Certainly not most of those who got their butter bars in the past 30 years.

  • Marc Apter

    Just what we need, a Congress full of non-vets, or maybe Army or AF vets, telling the Navy how to organize and run their ships. Do we have big problems, yes! Do we know how to solve the problems, probably, if we listen to those with experience, and not the ticket-punchers.

    • wilkinak

      How is life in Oz? If the Navy had listened to voices of reason in the ranks, they wouldn’t be where they are.

      The problems they are having were foreseen by many; those who spoke up found their careers in the toilet. You think those that survived can fix this?

      • Marc Apter

        I agree with you, the Navy seemed to completely stop listening to the voices of reason in the ranks right after Gulf I. It was like they won that war, so retire them, or if still around ignore them. As to your last comment, the Navy today is by the chain-of-command, even if it hurts the Navy.

    • M Yates

      Today’s navy has been 20-30 years in the making and the Admirals have made many poor decisions; from closing SWOS, to save a few million $, to the LCS, a $750 million gun boat. The service navy has incrementally become a hot mess. I have no problem with congress stepping in and mandating some of the recommendations available from the many studies that have been done. It’s obvious the past and recent leadership moves on with their priorities and solutions don’t get enacted.

  • robert richard

    The Navy and congress need to get together with themselves and create a rational strategy for the future, bigger than just these subjects. When the Navy prepared to fight during the Cold War, refresher training consisted of six to eight weeks of intense damage control, tactical combat vignettes, shiphandling evolutions, and other readiness assessments. The length of time was determined by the performance of the ship’s crew, not an arbitrary date to meet a schedule line item. If a crew performed well, it could complete refresher training in six weeks. If not, the crew stayed until they got it right.
    But again that’s the tip of the ice bergs.
    We have no Arctic strategy that includes ships. One old broken down Coast Guard ice breaker isn’t cutting it now. Russia has more than 40 ice breakers of various sizes and purposes including offensive. China is pissed because so far they’re shut out with the Arctic Council but their all in down in the Antarctic waiting for the Treaty to sunset.
    World wide there are roughly 235 SSKs, 114 SSNs, and 44 SSBNs, for a total of 393 submarines, we own the bulk of the SSNs & SSBNs. We build awesome submarines, but our ne’er-peer competition have a mix of subs with lots of nonnuclear. The SSKs work great our last one retired in 1996 and it was commissioned in 1958. Not only could I buy 6 SSKs for the price of a SSN, they see countries with shallow coastal waters on a continental shelf (such as China) face strong incentives to develop smaller subs.
    Aircraft carriers – we used to build super carriers for super airplanes, nuclear bombers so we needed 150 extra feet of deck for the A-3s & the A-5s to land, and bigger maintenance decks for bigger aircraft. I can build 7 Essex (CV-9) size carriers for the cost of one Ford.
    Frigates the majority of the world has frigates, China builds a new one every 6 weeks, we sink our and discuss now ones. Let’s license one of the awesome frigates out there and build a bunch.
    Let’s talk jobs! I saw an economic projection for just 6 SSKs in Australia was worth 40,000 Jobs! Want to guess how many jobs for an aircraft carrier? I’ve already shown 6 SSKs for one SSN, and 7 CVsfor the cost of one CVN.
    And the best part real competition more ship yards could build conventional subs and ships.

    We need to get real on a number of issues.

  • vincedc

    If congress has the authority to make changes, they should also assume the responsibility for all that goes wrong.

    • proudrino

      Congress has oversight authority. Responsibility for making the changes has to remain with the Navy. What Congressman Wittman is doing here is called meddling. He is well-intentioned and I think he is on the right path. Nevertheless, Congress can’t solve the Navy’s significant problems with the surface fleet because it involves more than just resources or policy. For that matter the solution can’t be fixed by adding another school into the SWO pipeline and adding layers of bureaucracy- that’s Navy’s way of showing that it is doing something without necessarily fixing the problem.

      The fix for the Navy surface fleet requires a cultural shift and an emphasis on professional seamanship that has been absent from the fleet for at least two decades. The statements from the watchstanders involved in the McCain, Fitzgerald, and Antietam debacles demonstrate just how much effort it will take to fix the problem of those pushing SWOS in a Box and continually lowering the standards in terms of personnel and readiness. We have far too many surface warfare officers that don’t deserve to be called SWOs or, for that matter, officers.

  • publius_maximus_III

    “Now suppose you were a Congressman, and suppose you were an idiot. But I repeat myself.” These words of Mark Twain definitely do -not- apply to this particular Congressman. This Virginian seems to understand the real needs of the USN and its surface fleet, and is working with them to meet each one with solid, workable solutions.

    • Marc Apter

      This Congressman supports more LCS ships, over replacing our expendable weapons. More LCS Ships make the shipbuilders happy.

      • publius_maximus_III

        Please contact me about a change of address.

  • publius_maximus_III

    One more comment: I’ll admit I’m an old dinosaur, and as such am also a bit of a male chauvinist. But that snapshot of the young lady above, eyeing the edge of a shoreline and keying a mic as her ship slips out of port, instills a new confidence in women aboard ships. They offer a different perspective on things, and maybe offer different solutions to problems, which can mean a lot when a centuries-old service gets tunnel vision (like this old faht…)

  • Ed L

    CO of Harpers Ferry fired after a year in command Wonder what she complained about.

  • wilkinak

    “Now, before a surface warfare officer arrives at their first ship, the officer undergoes an eight-week course ashore that provides an overview of basic navigation at sea. ”

    Ya’ think that maybe the problem is that they get 8 weeks of training to be a SWO?

    It’s almost like a Sally Struthers International Correspondence School Commercial:
    In just 8 short weeks, you too can be a ship driver!

    Apparently the captain not in the Navy is Captain Obvious.

    • MarlineSpikeMate

      Now think about this. They are just now implementing this 8 week course. . .

  • wilkinak

    You’re splitting hairs to sound informed. It’s reasonable to call an officer with an 1165 designator a SWO for the purposes of the training discussion. That is their intended career path. Nukes are nukes before they qualify; pilots & NFOs go to flight school knowing their intended destination.

    By your logic, no ensign should attend “Surface Warfare Officer’ School before getting a pin, b/c they aren’t a SWO yet.

  • WayneLLewis

    Surface Warfare School- What happened to it?