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Surface Warfare Tackles Persistent Problems as More than Half of JOs Say They Don’t Want Command

Lt.j.g. Shamaal Fletcher sends off his surface warfare officer pin into the Norwegian Sea as part of his pinning ceremony aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), Sept. 20, 2022. US Navy Photo

Over the last year, the Navy surveyed 2,500 officers on the highs and lows of a surface warfare career. The results surprised no one.

“SWOs of every rank take great pride in working with junior sailors. Our wardroom enjoys positive peer relationships, broadly has a strong bond with their commanding officers and appreciates the level of responsibility in their work,” reads the introduction to the survey.
“We also learned that fewer than half of our junior officers desire command. Most officers believe we are not retaining top talent. There is much frustration about our administrative requirements and the number of unqualified junior officers on each ship.”

Anyone familiar with surface warfare knows that frustrations about time away from home, too many JOs and a punishing amount of administrative paperwork are as common as mustard on a hotdog.

In 2021, the Government Accountability Office studied Navy career trends and found since 2004 SWOs had the shortest average careers of the major warfare communities in the Navy and surface warfare had a harder time generating department heads for ships.

“U.S. Navy officials stated that SWO retention to the department head milestone is low and requires them to commission nearly double the number of SWOs every year than needed, to ensure they have enough department heads eight years later,” reads the report.

Guided-missile destroyer USS Delbert D. Black (DDG-119) operates in the Persian Gulf, Dec. 14, 2022. US Navy Photo

The surface navy has polled its force every two years since 1999 and reached similar conclusions. Now, SWO leadership is trying to make better use of its data to make the community more appealing.

“There’s inherently a lot of friction on the ship,” Capt. Andy Koy, director of SURFOR commander’s action group at Naval Surface Warfare and former destroyer commander, told USNI News in an interview. “How can we reduce some of that?”

For example, having a ship full of ensigns competing for time on the bridge discourages SWOs from staying for the long haul, the community has found.

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“Having a lower number of ensigns aboard, or the wardrooms that have a lower density [of officers] tend to have a greater feeling of connected value among junior officers. There’s definitely something to that,” Koy said.

Since the 2017 fatal collisions in the Western Pacific, the Navy has poured billions into training SWO ensigns that also makes better use of their time underway, USNI News reported from an underway aboard USS Halsey (DDG-97).

SURFOR has been on a drive to tie the thousands of data inputs the command gets from each ship to an overall dashboard for the health of the force. In parallel with the survey, analysis over time shows that the surface ship with the lowest density of officers tend to produce more department heads overall.

“We are bringing in 20 percent fewer officers next year – largely in response to this knowing that the ships with the lowest density of officers produce the highest percentage of department heads,” Cmdr. Bill Golden, deputy for the commander’s action group, told USNI News.

To keep the SWO pool healthy, the Navy is also targeting junior grade lieutenant SWOs with two to four years in the service, since the study found they are the most likely to leave.

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“Many officers are likely making the decision to either stay in the Navy or remain a SWO as a LTJG. LTJGs are serving as either 1st or 2nd tour division officers on ships, and their satisfaction is most influenced by administrative burdens, equitable workload and work performance recognition,” reads the report.

In terms of complaints, the survey found that “most JOs are dissatisfied with administrative requirements, workload distribution, and working hours during shipyard availabilities.”

There were also specific reasons that women tended to leave the surface fleet.

“Junior officers were asked which reasons contribute the most to their desire to separate from the Navy. While men and women had similar trends, women expressed a stronger overall desire to separate from the service, with the ability to start a family as the leading reason why they plan to leave the Navy,” reads the survey.

Some JOs said they were reluctant to take the training to be a Weapons Tactic Instructor – a specialized training in a specific warfare area like mine warfare or air and missile defense – due to complications to train as a WTI and also attend graduate school.

An overwhelming number of junior officers wanted specialized career paths that would slot them as ship drivers, engineers or weapons system specialists.

Lt. j. g. Jackson Lanigan, left, and Quartermaster Seaman Kendall Keener, right, man a quartermaster station on the bridge of the guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60) while transiting the Strait of Hormuz, May 19, 2023. US Navy Photo

In line with the findings, SURFOR will hold a junior officer symposium later this summer to gather more input on correcting some of the problems identified.

One innovation in use now is increased automation for tedious tasks like reporting a casualty on a ship.

“You have to go from a piece of equipment being broken to that report leaving the ship,” Golden said.
“We have ships doing that – are doing that in a not-quite-automated fashion. It’s not quite chatGPT. But there, they’re much smoother about getting that from the O1 who’s writing it, who’s through to the O6 to have it released and saving time and allowing [SWOs] to focus on… how to teach their sailors about warfighting and how to get better ship handling.”

The structure of the anonymous survey reinforced one positive for Koy and Golden.

“There was no one looking over their shoulder. They were able to take this survey on their own and they said, ‘Leading sailors and working with the people I am charged to lead is what I find the most valuable’,” Golden said.
“I think that is fundamental to what it means to be a SWO. On the first day you step on a ship, you might not know… what a CASREP even is, but you can help create a team and build that connection from your lowest-ranking sailor throughout that division and make it a place that people look forward to going to work.”