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New Surface Warfare Officer Career Path Stresses Fundamentals; More Training Before First Ship, More Time At Sea

Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer observes training in the littoral combat ship simulator during a visit to Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS) Command June 12, 2018. US Navy Photo

The U.S. Navy is retooling the career path for surface warfare officers in the aftermath of last year’s fatal guided-missile destroyer collisions. The plan requires more school for new officers before they report to their first ships, institutes a new testing regime through major commands and shapes the career path so SWOs spend more time at sea.

The announcement of the new career path comes a few weeks after an evaluation of 164 qualified officers of the deck throughout the fleet that found only 29 of those tested passed with no concerns.

“The intent of this career path is to develop the absolute best commanding officers who are proficient mariners, experienced warfighters and leaders of character,” Vice Adm. Richard Brown, commander of U.S. Naval Surface Forces, wrote in a June 18 message obtained by USNI News.

The goal of the new plan is to increase the capability and experience of surface forces commanding officers.

“The way to do that is primarily through increasing our officers’ experience at sea in ships,” SURFOR spokesman Cmdr. Patrick Evans told USNI News.
“The changes span all SWO ranks – from first-tour division officers to commanding Officers – in order to increase readiness, proficiency, and competency across the fleet. The revised SWO career path and training continuum helps us continue to develop commanding officers who prepare their teams to sail over the horizon and face any challenge, win, and return home safely. That is the gold standard.”

The focus of early SWO training is built around ”two courses to prepare them to drive ships and lead sailors,” according to Brown’s message. The largest changes put an emphasis on basic mariner skills earlier in the career path.

In addition to the current basic officer course, new ensigns will attend a six-week officer of the deck course that will include “International Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) courses in Radar Operator, Electronic Chart Display and Information System-Navy (ECDIS-N), Automated Radar Plotting Aid (ARPA), and more than 100 hours of simulator training,” the message reads. The Navy will roll out a four-week OOD course next year and the full course by 2021.

“Following successful completion of these two courses, an ensign will report to their first warship, where their focus will be to qualify as OOD and surface warfare officer,” the message reads. “A junior officer can complete either a 30-month tour followed by a second 18-month sea tour or one single longer tour of 48 months.”

Following a junior SWOs first division officer tour, they will report to a second newly developed officer of the deck course that emphasizes managing the bridge. The SWOs will be tested again before heading to a second division officer tour.

For the division head tours, the service eliminated afloat staff tours as an option, thereby pushing SWOs into operational jobs on ships. For executive officers, the plan adds an additional ship handling evaluation before XOs can move on to command.

What the plan doesn’t change is the XO ship commander “fleet-up” structure that has executive officers become the next commanding officer of a ship when the CO moves on. The fleet-up program, instituted in 2006, has been criticized following the Western Pacific collisions, and internal Navy studies have shown the program has had a mixed record of success.

In his message, Brown stood behind the fleet-up concept.

Ensign Nathan Bailey stands watch on the bridge of the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG-59). US Navy Photo

“The CO will build upon their XO tour on the same ship; will know their ship and crew; and will have the competency, character and leadership to effectively command on day one,” he wrote.

The emphasis on seamanship training ashore is a move away from a previous generation of thought in which SWOs were expected to learn their craft while underway and juggling the responsibilities of a junior officer.

In the early 2000s, the Navy eliminated the 16-week Surface Warfare Officer School Division Officers Course in favor of computer-based instruction and practical training for junior SWOs underway. The so-called SWOS-in-a-box regime was eliminated in 2012 in favor of an eight-week course ashore before SWOs reported to their new ships. Still, the two reviews the Navy conducted after last summer’s fatal collisions of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) found that basic ship handling and navigation proficiency was lacking. That understanding was reinforced by Brown’s study of OOD qualified surface sailors.

“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 in his June 6 message.

Former U.S. Surface Forces commander Vice Adm. Tom Copeman told USNI News that the new SWO career path is reminiscent of the division officer training and career path in the early 1980s. That was before an explosion of missions, tasks and more complex technology required of the surface fleets. While Copeman approved of the direction of the new career path and the additional training time and assessments, he told USNI News the proposed training regime is still more modest in time and money than the training for aviators or submarine officers.

“It costs money to train and to provide the experiences needed to be a seagoing professional,” Copeman said.

  • Duane

    These are good moves. Implement, monitor, and adjust as necessary.

    If leadership insists on retaining the XO fleet up process then there will need to be increased evaluation by third parties before allowing an XO to succeed his/her CO to ensure that any deficiencies in the COs abilities and practices are not transmitted to the succeeding commander. Perhaps institute an external review board evaluation of each CO-XO pair prior to change of command.

    I still think it is best to not fleet up an XO who has served under a potentially substandard CO with the result that substandard performance gets perpetuated. We saw the COs and XOs of each of the collision and grounding ships get relieved and then blamed for poor practices. It seems rather obvious that a poor commander is more likely to negatively influence a junior than that the junior will positively influence a senior.

    • old guy

      Great, glad to see you return to your expertise.

  • MarlineSpikeMate

    It is so surprising that this is just now becoming a thing… and very eye opening about the state and mentality that currently resides in the SWO community.

    After talking with many SWOs, its very easy to see that being a mariner is not on their radar. It is not why they joined the Navy. It is at best an unsavory collateral that gets in the way of leading a division. They care more for the minutia of writing a EVAL, or the details of building the perfect power point or POAM than the ins and outs of a ship. “Its what we have enlisted for after all” is what they will say. Yet even the enlisted have put non-sensical collaterals ahead of their primary rated skill in order to advance. Even A-schools do not teach the rate skills very well any more, just ask any HT or MR. A naval aviator is an expert pilot, yet a SWO is a subpar mariner. A collateral of voting affairs officer or public affairs officer is usually held in the highest regards and esteem, and will take more of their day to day time then studying anything related to seamanship. This is why they joined the Navy, not to be a decent mariner and until this mentality changes, the current degraded, bureaucratic, inefficient state of the Navy will continue to exist.

    • stephen king

      You are 1000% right.

    • Duane

      I don’t necessarily doubt that what you say may be true about the mindset of today’s SWOs. But it still seems incredible if true. Everything the Navy traditions are built upon has to do with sailing ships into harm’s way. How can maritime operations not be central to naval careers?

      The Navy leadership needs to get a handle on what it is selling to recruits, and make damned sure that every naval officer is first and foremost, if not always, a sailor.

      As the Marines say, “Every Marine a rifleman”. And they mean it and walk the walk. “Every Navy man and woman a sailor” would be a good basis for rebuilding the sailorman’s culture.

    • publius_maximus_III

      “A naval aviator is an expert pilot, yet a SWO is a subpar mariner.”

      Wish I’d said that.

    • JohnRW

      Baloney. I became a Surface Warfare Officer to drive ships, operate their systems, lead sailors and fight when called upon to do so. Collateral and administrative duties were a necessary distraction from what I joined the Navy to do. With probably a few rare exceptions today’s SWOs are no different. My fear, however, is that mandatory 48-month division officer sea tours will drive many out of the Navy and hinder officer recruitment. Those young men and women are at an age where they’re also getting married and starting families, and 48 months of sea duty and the time away that involves will be very tough on those young families, creating pressure to leave the service.

      • plkatk

        48 months of sea duty is not 48 months deployed. Don’t get hysterical over this. The Navy is a war fighting organization. Nobody gets into it expecting a 9-5 five day per week job.

        • JohnRW

          Well that’s a news flash for me after a career as a Surface Warfare Officer. And here I was, after numerous deployments, including for two wars, I always thought it was a 9-5, five days a week job, and we were a yacht club not a war fighting organization. Silly me. And I guess I was just misinformed as I saw JO after JO leave the Navy after their first 36-month sea tours.

          • jetcal1

            “The CO will build upon their XO tour on the same ship; will know their ship and crew; and will have the competency, character and leadership to effectively command on day one,”….

            Prior to Tailhook it was assumed that character was integral to competency and leadership.

            Now it has to be listed as a desirable trait?

            Maybe these JO’s left because they were tired of working in an environment that didn’t focus on what they joined the Navy to do and fostered an environment that winked at Fat Leonard?

          • Curtis Conway

            If ever there was an indicator of just what it is we are getting out of society, and ‘starting with’ in development of our warriors, this is it. Recent generations by and large have less staying power. ‘One develops Character by dealing with Adversity’, not by avoiding it.

      • Masau80

        Out of that 48 months of sea duty, at most there will be two six month deployments. How is that any different from other warfare areas? Aviators now have 36-42 month first tours – and that is after a 2-3 year training pipeline. The SWOs that will get out because of a more rewarding 48 month tour are the same SWOs now that are the “5 and dive” crowd. Much ado about nothing. The good news here is that once these Ensigns finally get to their ship, they will be much better prepared to learn how to be a professional surface warrior.

      • Ed L

        It takes a very special person to marry someone in the military and realize the sacrifice the spouse must endure in supporting their spouse in uniform. I saw many a marriages fall apart in the service. But on the other hand I meet a lot of marvelous spouses who stood by their sailors no matter. Even with the separations of duty days, Monday through Friday cruises and deployments

    • Curtis Conway

      Being a competent mariner is a Core Value, and necessary requirement for ever Surface Warfare Officer. If they can’t get a handle on that . . . they need to join the Air Force.

    • Refguy

      Is being a mariner not on their radar because they don’t want to be one, or because that’s not how they’re evaluated for promotion? Tell me what you measure and I’ll concentrate on doing that well. No different from asking the teacher “will this be on the exam?”.

      • MarlineSpikeMate

        Just take a look at any FITREP example and you will see how important any of that is.. community service and abstract “leadership” is what counts.

        • Refguy

          Confirms my suspicions.

      • Curtis Conway

        No different from asking the teacher “will this be on the exam?”. NOT TRUE!

        If the teachers wants to walk, knock yourself out and get out of there. Hard to do that aboard ship, particularly when you underway. Of course if you can ‘walk on water’, then I guess you won’t have to worry about drowning, or having anything in said water EAT YOU. Haven’t seen any students do that . . . at least lately in the Western World… cannibalize the teacher that is.

    • Ed L

      I was enlisted served on 5 ships and was a divisional LPO on 3 different ships. Being enlisted at times I was invisible. Heard many a XO and CO tell a young ensign that following the OPNAV 3100 instruction and with good enlisted leadership that as a division Officer you will do well. Saw just a few officers going the micromanagement route. It did not end well for them. Saw 2 decided that the Navy wasn’t for them and resigned there commissions. Back then getting the covenant Surface Warfare Officer Gold Pin was the primary task for a new Officer. I was proud to serve many fine officers who wore the SWO Pin

    • old guy

      You forgot Ballet dancing and cocktail preperation!!!

    • old guy

      From yor mind to SECNAV’S and CNO’s ears. Very astute. I’m crying along with you. However, you left out P.C. ballet, Congressional coddling.and cocktail preparation. ADMs Halsey and Nimitz must be weeping.

  • Ed L

    What about the training of the enlisted underway watchstanders? It’s called a bridge team for a reason.

  • RisingSunSailor

    My fundamental issue is the answer seems to be (primarily) to add assessments. No mention of reduction of afloat requirements (despite SECNAV’s comments last year) in order to allow more time to focus on applying these fundamentals that are now being assessed. The OOD course is good, and so is the removal of staff billets (hopefully those billets end up being killed off entirely rather than fill them with worn out post-Divo and post-DH personnel).

  • James B.

    In all this new training, how many SWO candidates does the Navy expect to fail, and have they planned ahead for that attrition? If there isn’t flex built in for washouts and roll-backs, the Navy will be stuck trying for a 100% pass rate, even for candidates who will never be good SWOs.

  • GrumpyOldMan10

    About time. Excellent. I was a nuclear MM and later a SWO. As a nuc, received a superb 12 months of training after A school. And worked 12 hour days until qualified. Preparation for SWO was nothing by comparison. Sailors deserve better prepared leaders.

    • proudrino

      About time? The old SWOS had its faults but it did all the stuff that the Navy is rolling out as an improvement. It is only an improvement because a bunch of flag officers killed SWOS for financial reasons (training is expensive).

      • GrumpyOldMan10

        Agree completely. The person making the decision was ADM Clark.

        The idea that you can get rid of good schools and not have focused refresher training is crazy. I deal with comm systems now (as a senior engineer) and can say that the quality of training is terrible. If you try to do shipboard training during in-port time, people are constantly getting called away and the senior PO’s are not paying attention.

  • Masau80

    A recent Navy IG report on COs relieved of command found that 56% of those involved inappropriate relationships or adultery. If this new emphasis on professional competency on warships succeeds at all levels, it need to somehow needs to instill a mantra – “you can’t screw the help!”

  • Pete Novick

    If you were commissioned in the mid-1970’s in the Surface Warfare Officer track this was your career path:

    Surface Warfare Officer Basic Course – 4 months

    Subject-specific school (Commo, DCA, MPA, ASW, etc.) – 2 months (average)

    Division Officer sea tour: 36 months. Note: exceptional officers, who completed SWO qualification early, could request to cross deck to another ship type and thereby complete one 24 month tour followed by an 18 month tour. Note: exceptional officers could request immediate assignment to Department Head course from either track above. (These officers made up about 5-7% of Department Head classes during this time.) Whatever the track, primary goal was Department Head selection.

    First shore tour: 24 months. NPGS or other graduate school, training command, shore staff, overseas tour.

    Department Head School: 6 months

    First Department Head sea tour: 18 months

    Second Department Head sea tour: 18 months (different billet, different ship type).** Primary goal during second Department Head sea tour was to qualify for command at sea. (Per OPNAV instruction)

    Second shore tour: 24 months. NPGS, Afloat or ashore staff, JPME or joint staff tour. Screen for XO afloat

    PXO Course: 2 months

    XO Afloat sea tour: 18 months. Qualify for command at sea if not yet completed.

    Post-XO sea or shore tour: 24-36 months: Joint staff, ashore staff, afloat staff, Pentagon, Systems Command, etc. Screen for Commander command.

    PCO Course: 6 months

    CO Afloat: 27 months

    Post CO shore tour: 36 months. Selection to Captain.

    We won the Cold War with that career path. Vice Admiral Brown was there, too.

    CDR, USN (Ret.)

    ** By the early 1980’s, too many SWO second tour department heads were being detached for cause. The three senior SWO’s, (all VADM’s and that should tell you something), told my Department Head class that we could count on having the same job on both department head tours, provided we were successful during the first one. Consequently, I was a 1200# CHENG on a FF and then a DDG. Good clean fun.

  • Franken

    Finally the error of the late 90s-early 2000s comes in focus. A few suggestions– 1) More single-longer DH tours and an emphasis on officers standing watches during qualifications, such as EOOW. 2) Next, let’s look at the CPO progression. Lots of people won’t like this, but do we really need so many CMC billets? With the advent of instant communications ashore, a plethora of shore support activities, a daunting percentage of the budget relegated to family and life/career/advancement assistance programs, we took our best master chiefs out of their career path and work centers to, what? Monitor? I don’t recall needing an E-9 with today’s CMC traits…but I did a master chief to run the chief’s mess, all stop. 3) The single mistake in the shore establishment support to the fleet was the abolishment of the READRONs. During the training cycle, it was that one time when O-5 COs and their ships were assessed, across the board, and graded against their peers to an established standard. The TACDESRONs cannot do this with the fleeting staff they possess and the disparate op cycles of their ships. 4} Next, look at our detailing and the sea-shore rotation…and the types of jobs sailors can do to stay in their expertise. The list goes on…but the SWO community, and its supporting cast, is regaining track.

    • old guy

      Great, incisive comments. No one could raise a counter to what you say.

  • gonavy81

    How long is the CDR Command tour?

  • draeger24

    so, I read the message – no manual paper training, no MO-BOARD, celestial navigation manually, etc. Everything, still, is relying back to tech. They should have never dropped basic SWOS. Geez, it wasn’t broken before, so bring back the basics. The “good idea” “money savers” are as much as responsible for this as well.

    • notaluvvie

      I always have the “experts” question how I could take star sights while under water. I was the navigator, while keeping my watches in rotation, in a submarine which was without GPS, well SatNav really, as she was next into refit. I became very proficient at both normal sextant and artificial horizon periscope sextant sights. Once you have the basics then use the tech.

      • draeger24

        ABSOLUTELY!

      • old guy

        Spoken like a true undersea mariner.

  • proudrino

    “Following a junior SWOs first division officer tour, they will report to
    a second newly developed officer of the deck course that emphasizes
    managing the bridge.”

    “Managing the bridge” used to be implicit with the idea that one was SWO qualified. You didn’t get the qualification until you could “manage the bridge.” Now you get the qualification first and a course in “bridge management” later.

    • notaluvvie

      I agree, I thought that very odd. Although from a different Navy (with very British traditions), I had to qualify as an Officer of the Watch in surface ships and then I could specialise. Seemed to work, as I later passed the RN’s Submarine Commanding Officer Qualifying course.

  • Kelly J

    JOs may not know the Rules of the Road. But I bet they can regurgitate the Diversity Policy verbatim.
    The Navy trains for what they think is important.

    • proudrino

      That’s not the fault of the JOs. The Navy “leadership,” particularly under Obama and Ray Mabus, put more value behind diversity training than military readiness. Both, violated that very basic part of the oath they took to defend the nation. They were abetted by political admirals who were more concerned about getting the next star than standing up to Obama when he insisted that disrupting the military with social engineering initiatives was more important than keeping Americans safe.

  • xman_11530

    Sounds like the Navy needs more USMMA graduates. They study this stuff for 4 years and actually have to pass a USCG license exam before they are put on the bridge.

    Acta non verba!

    • Clint Harris

      Daughter is a plebe candidate right now for this very purpose!

      • xman_11530

        Great school. Graduated many years ago.

  • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

    Question. How long is USMC basic school? 6 months I think.
    Second question. How long is Army Infantry Officer School?
    Both before first assignment. The basics of each service, infantry, is well and truly taught before letting them loose on our most important asset; our enlisted men.

    I was commissioned in June 1971, via ROTC. I arrived at my first ship about 1 July 1971. My non-SWO class mates went to some pipe line or another.

    My receiving CO was very upset at a particular JO. So upset that he held his promotion to JG. There were three new ensigns arriving that summer. He (the CO) did not schedule any of us for div O schools (gunnery, MPA, CIC etc.) Instead, he was waiting for the first one to show up to be assigned to replace the bad performer. T’was I. None of us got to traditional pre-arrival schools for over 9 months after arrival. The situation was corrected by new CO/XO team. Result? The then common practice of division rotation was ruined.

    This lack of training took two tours for recovery. Luckily, for me at least, I really like ships and sailoring.

    The Navy always treat SWOs as guy who could not get into Aviation or Nuke School, as if that were everyone’s first choice. We were treated as the left overs. Cynic that I am, I think the current fuss and bother will not survive the next budget fight between good training and a new airplane.

  • John A Barnes

    Step 1A: Adopt portions of USMMA Curriculum at USNA to teach all students how to be a Mariner.
    Step 1B: For OCS/NROTC – Revamp SWO School to teach how to be a Mariner.
    Step 1C: Bring back the YP’s, with extensive training in USNA, OCS, or NROTC Summers.
    Step 2: Pass the USCG Unlimited License Exam.
    Step 3: Get on Board a Ship and Prove Your Competence in handling the Bridge.
    Then… “Here’s your water wings”.

    In the Marine Corps, all Marines are Infantry trained. Why not have all Navy personnel be Mariner’s first? Including the fly boys/girls.