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Navy Study Finds Junior SWOs Have Major Gaps in Seamanship, Ship Handling Knowledge

USS Farragut (DDG-99) passes under the Great Belt Fixed Link during its transit through the Danish Straits on April 26, 2018. US Navy Photo

A comprehensive test of seamanship skills of 164 junior surface warfare officers found an alarming lack of basic navigation and ship handling knowledge, according to a message sent from the head of U.S. Navy surface forces and obtained by USNI News.

The June 4 message from Vice Adm. Richard Brown to leaders throughout the service outlined the results of a battery of “competency checks” on junior officers who were qualified to stand officer of the deck watch at seven fleet concentration areas. The Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) gave an experience survey, a maritime “rules of the road” written exam and a 35-minute low-to-moderate-traffic navigation scenario graded by former warship commanders.

“The results were sobering,” Brown wrote. “Of the 164 officers assessed, only 27 Completed No Concerns, 108 Completed Some Concerns and 29 had Significant Concerns. In short, this confirms we have work to do.”

Defense News first reported the results of the memo on Tuesday.

Chief among the lapses for OOD-qualified sailors was a lack understanding of the navigation radars on U.S. warships. Failure to understand the radar picture was a key factor in the June 2017 collision of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) off Japan and the 2012 collision between a merchant oiler and USS Porter (DDG-78) in the Strait of Hormuz, according to reports from both collisions.

Following the collisions of Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) last year, the Navy expanded the radar course at the Basic Division Officer Course from two to 11 hours. Based on the results of the surveys, Brown said he intended to further expand radar and automatic radar plotting aid (ARPA) training in all levels of surface officer schools.

The study also found that the practical application of the maritime rules of the road was a deficiency in the junior officers quizzed. While 91 percent passed the written test, “more than half of the officers assessed struggled to correctly apply rules of the road during encounters in the scenario,” Brown wrote.

“I have asked SWOS to take a fresh look at the way that we instruct rules of the road,” Brown wrote. “I again require you to review your officer training and ensure we are not simply training to the test. Instead, talk about and game out actual encounters at sea in order to build critical thinking and decision making skills.”

Vice Adm. Richard A. Brown, commander of Naval Surface Forces/Naval Surface Force U.S. Pacific Fleet on April 12, 2018. US Navy Photo

Lastly, the junior officers struggled with what to do when presented with a near-collision scenario.

“While most of the 164 officers assessed were able to avoid near collision situations, those that found themselves in extremis were often ill-equipped to take immediate action to avoid collision,” Brown wrote.

News of the study comes as the Navy and Congress work competing ideas on how to shore up the problems that led to last year’s collisions in the surface force. Led by Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran, the Navy is working through a list of more than 100 recommendations derived from the two studies undertaken to determine the root causes of the of fatal collisions in the Western Pacific. The Navy has already changed the way it deploys forces in the region and modified sleep schedules to ease tensions aboard warships.

In the Senate, Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a series of legislative measures called the Surface Warfare Enhancement Act of 2018. To address the problem of junior officer training, the legislation called for new officers destined for surface ships to have time underway on Navy Yard Patrol Craft (YP) as part of the training at BDOC.

In the House, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) is calling for some surface Navy officers training to be based 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 told USNI News last month.
“We think that’s important.”

Wittman also wants to create two career paths for surface warfare officers: ship engineering systems, and ship operations and combat systems. The move would be a major change from the generalist path the Navy has used for decades.

For Brown, the study served as a wake-up call for changes the surface community needs to make to rectify the known deficiencies.

“We must be realistic in confronting the systemic shortfalls that they revealed in core proficiencies across the junior qualified members of the force. We as a community can and must tackle our deficiencies and ensure there is meaningful experience behind our qualification letters,” Brown wrote.
“While we have work to do, I am comforted by the exceptional motivation and hunger to learn displayed by the 164 Junior Officers that were assessed, regardless of performance. I have every confidence in our current generation of Junior Officers. We owe them the training and tools necessary to become expert mariners.

  • airider

    Follow the appretince – journeymen – master model. The goal is not expert mariners, the goal is warfighter’s. 1st and 2nd divo tours should be about apprentice to journeymen development (JOOD, OOD, CICWO, etc). DH tours are journeymen and should be about TAO, TAO, and more TAO (yes CHENG, that means you). Master tours are the XO and CO jobs where they are responsible for developing the next generation as well as fighting the ship to its full capacity.

    I’m pretty sure this has been the plan, but it’s pretty obvious the plan and its execution are not aligned. So let’s focus on the execution part please. We dont need more plans.

    DON’T split the SWOs into two specialty tracks….every officer needs to have experience in leading the warfighting capabilities of all aspects(combat, ops, engineering) of the ship. Anything less will continue the trend we’re seeing today.

    • MarlineSpikeMate

      Being an expert mariner to be an expert war fighter is akin to being an expert pilot to be an expert fighter pilot. An expert mariner is not only about the bridge however.

      There is no excuse not to be great mariners, as John Paul Jones once said. Stop trying to re-invent the wheel and look how the European Navies work. They do an outstanding job at training, operating, and maintaining on a smaller budget per sailor than we do! Look into they details on how they operate. They do it well!

  • OldHickory21

    Sad but not surprising findings given that the formerly 16 week Baby SWOS course was severely truncated (and largely supplanted with a DVD) in recent years. With regard to the knowledge deficiency in naval radars, when I went through Baby SWOS in 1979 I distinctly remember a course entitled “Characteristics of Naval Radars and Radar Wave Propagation.” These people were set up to fail. Whatever the Navy decides about how to remedy these incredibly basic deficiencies, nothing will work unless we change the culture of the black shoe Navy that currently and historically will accept suboptimal funding and suboptimal training and gundecking to cover it all up—until something happens! We need leaders who will say (which the COs in DesRon 15 did not): “this ship isn’t leaving the pier until I have qualified people in every critical billet who have trained together as a combat team”—not this cross-decked and fleeted up from wherever BS. It’s time to get real—the Chinese are watching…..(heck, they’re probably reading these posts)….but more importantly, we’ve violated our own standards too long, and a lot of innocent people paid with their lives. Total leadership failure people.

    • proudrino

      It appears the current version of basic SWOS is little more than how to be an effective adminstrator onboard a warship. A far cry from the old SWOS course. It was painful but the coursework on stuff like advesary capability (aka Soviet Sweat) was relevant education. You are right, the current system sets up officers to fail. The results of this study proves the point. A few did well for whatever reason (it woud be interesting to know the percentage of this group had prior fleet experience). A few need their own dayshape to warn other vessels that the warship is a navigation hazard. Most are mediocre at best.

      Particularly telling to me is the comment that “most” officers were able to avoid a near collision. As a standard “most” doesn’t cut it.

      • OldHickory21

        The really sad part is that somewhere there is an admiral, probably retired, possibly at a think tank or on the board of a defense contractor, who probably got an extra Legion of Merit for coming up with the idea to save money by short-changing the training of new surface warfare candidates. That guy is responsible for sending thousands of new officers out into the fleet with inadequate training—-that’s the guy who should be hauled before Congress. It’s just another example of how the culture of the surface Navy eats its young over and over again. It’s been going on for probably a hundred years. It’s got to change, or the surface Navy will just lurch on to the next crisis, and never gain the professionalism that the Air and Submarine communities enjoy.

        • proudrino

          The really sad part is that some of those retired admirals are on the board and/or frequent contributors to Proceedings. Personally, I’d like to see USNI host a panel where these officers defend the decisions they made and explain why, in their view, the system failed. Overly committed and undermanned are factors not the root cause of the problem. I’d like to hear from the architects of failure what went wrong.

          • OldHickory21

            A quote comes to mind: “Unless you can point your finger at the man responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.” Adm Hyman G. Rickover.

    • Curtis Conway

      The very description of ‘Baby SWO’ is an oxymoron. You should be a SWO candidate until you get to your first command afloat. That is where you EARN your SWO designation, and the Commanding Officer is responsible for the safe operation of his/her ship, and the Senior Watch Officer usually runs the program, and certifies the qualifications. No Senior Watch Officers anymore? They assemble and approve the WQSB, and make sure the watch schedule doesn’t have a Nuget on the bridge for UNREPS and a Transit in a straits. Sea & Anchor Detail is a primary training ground, and UNREPS follow at a close second. The OOD/JOOD Team is coordination strong, and eyes on target intensive. Discipline on the Bridge, Standard Words & Phrases are an absolute must, and never broken.

      • Rocco

        Kudos!!

    • wilkinak

      Some of you have seem to have some “Good Ole Days at SWOS” memories that I don’t think have been accurate for a LONG time.

      I was at Baby SWOS not long before it was replaced by SWOS-in-a-box. It wasn’t all that helpful. I never stepped foot on a vessel that wasn’t a museum when I was in Newport. I did see a CV towed from the windows of the school house, does that count as operational training?

      I don’t recall the admin training being all that helpful, either. It wasn’t like I got a division & could immediately write a 2K or casrep without help.

      Compared to the time I spent in the nuke pipeline it was almost useless. They had a PVC steam plant, what more can I say? After having spent 6 months on actual working equipment, SWOS was a bad joke. It was generally considered a paid vacation. That was BEFORE it got really bad.

      It seemed very appropriate somehow that the speaker at the graduation was some admin-weenie admiral who’d never spent any time on a ship.

      I was lucky to have grown up on sail & fishing boats. That taught me a heck of a lot more than SWOS did.

  • James B.

    It sounds like this was the first time the SWO Navy actually bothered to check the skills of OODs in any formal manner. That’s your problem right there.

    Aviators, for example, get an annual NATOPS check specifically for safety, in addition to all the tactical events, which are also evaluated.

    • RDF

      NATOPS is a never ending always refreshing your knowledge exercise. At least a monthly test in addition to annual and instrument checks.

    • Curtis Conway

      The first time I went to a Naval Air Station and went into a stall in the Head, I say a NATOPS manual in a holder on the back of the door, and wondered ‘what that was all about’. There is no equivalent in the Surface Navy. These guys/gals eat/breathe/live NATOPS, and were constantly quizzing each other on it from time to time, as a competition.

      I wonder how many SWOs have no idea what “Points on the bow”, Target Angle, Flight Corpen, is . . . or my favorite . . . how to calculate Effective Fallout Wind? We didn’t wake the CO at night because he needed his sleep, and we could follow our PIM, and beat the SOA, and NEVER break the 5K yard bubble (Captain’s Night Orders) and have to wake’em. THAT, and understanding the capabilities and limitations of the propulsion & Combat Systems, along with Rules of the Road (obviously), is a SWO. Hopefully our young adults today have enough judgement to handle these responsibilities.

      • airider

        There is somewhat of an equivalent in the Surface Navy. OPNAV INSTRUCTION 3120.42C gives the overview. The difference is it only currently applies to LCACs. The ACUs modeled it after NATOPs. That said, I think the Surface Navy would do well to adopt something akin to it by ship class type.

        • Curtis Conway

          Now I know where your name comes from. The LCAC (soon to be SSC) dress (flight suit), and function a lot like aviators in your operational environment. You wear the suit, and restraints when operating. Great work those LCACs perform. Watched them at Camp Pendlton. You are correct, and now that all the urinals are going away aboard ship, perhaps its time to put those bookholders on the backs of the stalls in the Head.

          • DaSaint

            Good catch on airider!

      • Rocco

        What else was written on the stall wall’s?? Lol

        • Curtis Conway

          We are not going into that.

    • Rocco

      Different Navy!!

  • Duane

    Somewhere along the line surface warfare officering became divorced from professional ship handling. At this point it does not matter how or who was at fault, as long as naval surface warfare leaders forcibly change the culture. It can’t be fixed only by a one time shore school – professionalism in ship handling must be ingrained at every level from shore training to qualifying new deck officers to rating and promoting senior division officers, XOs, and COs, and squadron commanders.

  • David C

    VADM Brown, let’s reinvent the wheel! Geeez, why don’t you Look at the Coastguard & see why they aren’t crashing ships.

    • Rocco

      Why don’t you see how many cutters the CG deploys before making a comment!!

      • wilkinak

        A CG cutter was our plane guard during much of the time I spent in the Med. They didn’t hit us.

        CG craft spend a lot of time in traffic & hazardous evolutions; I wouldn’t discount them just because they don’t deploy (as often.)

  • proudrino

    More is needed here than adding simulator training and extra classroom instruction. The SWOS pipeline needs to be examined starting at the ROTC/USNA level. 70 years ago, the current system made sense but with the drawdown of ships in the 1990s, the opportunity to train officers through OJT started to change. SWOS-in-a-Box was a misguided attempt to deal with this change.

    As things stand, a new SWO will end up in the fleet with virtually zero practical experience in seamanship- even after ROTC/USNA and Basic SWOS. The reality is that the Navy needs to look at the Coast Guard, Maritime academies and the processes of other navies to determine best practices. The current approach, while admirable, seems to be doubling down on a system that doesn’t work and sets officers up for failure. And that failure may not be in the initial tour but later when as CO/XO the officer is expected to ensure the crew is proficient in seamanship. How can that expectation be met when the CO/XO isn’t any more proficient than the Ensign.

    • Rocco

      Bingo!!

      • Curtis Conway

        Sea Scouts?

  • b2

    Gee. Surprise, Surrrrprise, surrrrrprise, SGT Carter! All this justified angst..how do fix it? only one way…

    You knuckleheads in charge today better look to the past and re-implement real training, responsibility and accountability across the board like it used to be before the 90’s end of Cold War malaise set in…. Do it now. Some of you may even remember how it was but are afraid of all the effort going into our success then. Doing that will certainly blow up this phony personal self esteem syndrome. Sure- people failed then and that was accepted…We got better NOT accepting weakness and failure. Don’t turn this into a big pot of further BS soup by not really calling this dilemma what it is and mitigating bad outcomes by committee and allusions to “teaming”. Somone please take the reins and be leaders.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Need to cycle every one of these junior officers through a good Merchant Marine or USCG course on seamanship before they’re ever considered qualified to serve as OOD on a USN vessel. If I were a USN sailor’s mother or father, news like this would be keeping me awake at night. Write your Congressman and Senators.

    • proudrino

      With all due respect, we don’t need Congresscritters weighing in on how to train the surface fleet.

      • publius_maximus_III

        Not saying let such critters loose to actually solve a problem. Just let them pass along the pressure they received from concerned parents and other constituents for the USN to get ‘er done, and soon, by making some ADM’s, CNO, SECNAV, etc. uncomfortable in their seats before their respective committees. Oversight, not micromanagement.

    • DaSaint

      Agree. The USCG should assist in this training. And STCW should be applicable.

  • CaptainParker

    However, I am sure that all of these personnel are extremely well-versed in diversity and inclusion, in sexual harassment programs and all of the other “progressive” drivel that has been rammed down the services’ throats for a number of years. The Chinese must be guffawing in their ward rooms.

    • Epictetus

      Can you not do this? I had two commands during the Obama years and the number of hours I spent on your “progressive drivel” I can count on both hands over a 4-year period. It’s certainly your right to not like the initiatives (frankly, I’m not a fan) but it’s silly to act like that somehow led to the degradation of the professional skills we have today in the surface force. Real solutions require real analysis, not politicized drivel. This is the sort of comment I’d expect at the bottom of a Fox or Breitbart article, not a somewhat professional publication.

      • DaSaint

        Well said.

      • proudrino

        Respectfully, I don’t disagree with the sentiment but if you spent less than 10 hours on progressive drivel over a four-year period then you were not doing it right. There is no way the training requirements for these issues did not exceed that time period.

        And, for the record, the Fox Breitbart comment was a cheap shot. Hang out on Obama-friendly partisan sites like MSNBC or the Washington Post and see how much reasoned discourse appears (hint: I can count with no hands how many such posts appear).

  • PolicyWonk

    “Of the 164 officers assessed, only 27 Completed No Concerns, 108 Completed Some Concerns and 29 had Significant Concerns. In short, this confirms we have work to do.”
    ==============================================
    Ya think?

    One might’ve thought that after the first collision and deaths of our sailors, that every captain would’ve taken steps to ensure that his/her officers, the bridge officers especially, would be thoroughly qualified.

    When only 27 out of 164 complete No Concerns, this is a serious problem.

    The USN, with all the funding it gets (which alone is far more than the large majority of nations on the planet have allocated to their total armed forces), should represent the pinnacle of the finest seamanship, and the best trained naval officers, without exception.

    There is simply no excuse.

    • OldHickory21

      Can I have an amen?

      • Curtis Conway

        Amen!

      • East Bound & Down

        Amen!

    • proudrino

      There have been plenty of excuses. Too many commitments. Too few personnel. Sleep cycles. Etc. The excuses always circle around ground truth. While proficiency is lacking, this isn’t a proficiency problem- it is a leadership problem. A problem that isn’t solved by firing a few incumbent flag officers.

      It starts the the leadership at USNA and ROTC units. What are they doing to prepare Midshipmen for the Surface Warfare community. Do they even care? Do they spend more time preparing Midshipmen to become aviators and nukes than they do the surface fleet? In other words, is SWO considered the warfare community of last resort from the very beginning?

      It continues with the leadership at Basic SWOS. How much of the training is about making competent administrators and how much is about seamanship?

      There is also the leadership on warships. Are the CO/XO proficient in seamanship? Do they pay attention to the abilities of the enlisted and officer watchstanders? Do they mentor junior officers and help them become more proficient watchstanders? Do they legitimately sign off on SWO qualification or do they gundeck the approval signature? How is it that SWO qualification used to take a couple years and now a junior officer is a sluggard if not complete within 18 months? I suspect the standards are not nearly as high as they once were.

      I could go on but you get the idea. The system lacks leadership at all levels not just in higher level commands.

      • PolicyWonk

        Did you read the article that came out a month or so ago (I think on this forum), that detailed our forward-deployed ships going to sea without adequate crew, while DDG’s in San Diego are going to sea, leaving more than 30 sailors standing on the pier because they didn’t have room for them? Why aren’t these sailors being flown on the first plane heading for Japan to fill the empty births in the forward deployed fleet?

        Whiskey – Tango – Foxtrot!

        We have all these “littoral combat pier-queens” welded to the docks, delivering no value, when the sailors currently assigned to them could be getting sea-time on forward-based ships that are desperate for crew.

        The USN’s staffing priorities are screwed up, and we’re also reaping the results of lousy decision making. 9 years ago, this nation was suffering: the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, with the economy having lost 6.5M jobs in the previous 6 months, and 800k/month getting their layoff notices; two incompetently managed wars still underway; 40k+ wounded and disabled now entering the VA system, while the previous administration had been systematically reducing the VA budget just as our servicemen/women were going to start coming home. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Spring 2009 Report on Force Readiness to the POTUS concluded that our military was now at its lowest state of readiness since Vietnam.

        Note: none of the above includes enduring the worst string of foreign policy and national security disasters in history, or suffering a massive defeat to Al Qaida in the GWOT.

        Regardless of anything else going on, everyone with more than two brain cells to rub together knew the nation was in serious economic trouble, and that cutbacks were coming. Our armed forces, in keeping with worst practices, ignored the consequences of the past and decided to keep their numbers (fleets, aircraft, etc.) high, while killing budgets for training and maintenance, in hopes the budget issues would be quickly resolved.

        It was lousy gamble; they lost; and now we’re paying the price.

  • James B.

    I readily agree that I benefited from years of formal training that SWOs don’t get, in both general principles and type/model/series-specific topics. I know I would never be evaluated in a simulator or aircraft I hadn’t been trained for. Things were totally stacked against those OODs they put through the evaluation.

    Too bad. Life isn’t fair, and it doesn’t grade on a curve. What happens when a ship gets cross-decked crew from a ship without identical systems? What happens when a “won’t stand watch in hard situations” OOD doesn’t recognize the sneaking risks which turn the mundane dangerous? Sadly, I think we’ve seen what happens in those cases.

    If SWOs need more training, or formalized programs, they do exist. We haven’t been hiding them away, and I expect that aviators, submariners, nukes, SEALs and EOD would all be happy to share ours.

    • Curtis Conway

      There is actually very little similarity of SWO and aviator training due to the requirements of the environment and platform. Equating operational concepts of a 3D artform rarely works well in the 2D envornment, even if it is in S L O W M o t i o n.

  • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

    I like ships. I have always liked ships. I was not interested in flying or sinking. I elected SWO before the pin was invented.

    I always felt, from classmates to active duty encounters with the guys wearing pins, that I was somehow an also ran, not deserving of a training program. After all tin can driving is easy, just follow in the grown ups wake.

    We howled, and wailed, and screamed and got a two bit SWO divo school and a pin and told to get back into our corner.

    The fix? We are a NAVY, ships and all that. Remove the limitation on CVN commands, after all the aviators take a short course and become nuke qualed, with a post command nuke as CHENG. Would a SWO be too stupid than to listen to and trust the CAG and other Aviators? This removes the need to “wet” aviators on other deep draft commands, COs who are ticking the boxes toward a CV. Think they are interested in SWO training or just not breaking anything during their 18 months?

    The SWO community has literally begged for training, full, or near full crews, but no one listened, certainly not non-SWO flag or budget warriors. The savings and do it with less always came out of our posterior.

    Rant, out.

  • jerry

    Things are tough as a 3rd class citizen. An active, functioning, and authoritative surface ship lessons learned program would serve the community well.

  • draeger24

    SWOs…if you have any updated info, it would be interesting….I was a frog by trade, but we had to do manual MO-BOARD, manual NAV, and Manual Celestial NAV in OCS in ’86 (before BUD/S), as well as a lot of time on the YP’s in Newport…..is this not the case any longer? Are they doing YP’s in SWOS anymore? I know the USNA was going to get rid of Celestial NAV – I heard they also brought it back. Do any of you have any current knowledge on this? I’m just curious. We had to do manual NAV (compass, map) even though we had the early GPS units….is there a place for “manual” now? Thanks…GOD Bless.

  • Jeff Bukowski

    Admiral Brown’s plan sounds like a good one. Now the Navy needs to execute it.
    Having served as a junior officer and navigator of a Spruance-class destroyer in
    the late 1980s and early 1990s, I agree with Admiral Brown and your and other comments that there is no substitute for live, underway watch team training. To be most effective it must include qualified trainers (senior division officers, department heads, and XOs and COs, as well as qualified senior enlisted personnel, QMs, SMs, and OSs who also need to train junior watchstanders). Building opportunities for live, underway watch team training into fleet workup schedules is the only way to reach the desired destination.
    A key characteristic of a well-trained underway watch team is understanding–and believing–there is nothing wrong with timely calling the navigator or captain to the bridge, which did not happen in any of the recent collisions. Without adequately trained watch teams, we risk losing more lives and destroying additional valuable (and diminishing) capital ships.
    Realistically accomplishing this objective requires not only a change in mindset, but also a commitment (from DOD and politicians) to rebuild the surface fleet to a sufficient number to allow adequate OJT of junior officer shiphandlers and underway watch teams.
    China has built (and continues to build) a real, blue water navy that it is using to threaten freedom of navigation and project power in the South China Sea and beyond. A strong, well-trained, and well-capitalized U.S. Navy surface fleet is the only effective counter to this growing strategic threat.