Who has strong feelings about the Navy’s declining emphasis on operational proficiency and training to do important things.
Some better men than me are saying much the same thing. The obsession with “relevancy” and “transformation”-coupled with the “zero defects” mentality of the current Navy; namely that everyone should get fired over everything-has led to bad consequences.
In the wake of two fatal collisions of Navy warships with commercial vessels, current and former senior surface warfare officers are speaking out, saying today’s Navy suffers from a disturbing problem: The SWO community is just not very good at driving ships.
The two collisions — and a total of 17 sailors lost at sea this summer — have raised concerns about whether this generation of surface fleet officers lack the basic core competency of their trade.
The problem is years in the making. Now, the current generation of officers rising into command-level billets lacks the skills, training, education and experience needed to operate effectively and safely at sea, according to current and former officers interviewed by Navy Times.
“There is a systemic cultural wasteland in the SWO community right now, especially at the department head level,” said retired Navy Capt. Rick Hoffman, who commanded the cruiser Hue City and the frigate DeWert and who, after retirement, taught SWOs ship handling in Mayport.
You should read the whole Military Times article-and discuss it with your friends. There is a corollary for aviation, I would submit, but it manifests itself a little bit differently. Nonetheless, this damning indictment of Mother Navy remains:
“We do not put a premium on being good mariners” Hoffman said. “We put a premium on being good inspection takers and admin weenies.”
Add the words, “family friendly Navy” and you have Yahtzee.
Meanwhile, back at the Clark and Rumsfeld residences, a few other chickens have come home to take up residence:
Yet many current and former officers say the problem dates back to 2003, when the Navy made severe cuts to SWO’s initial training under the belief the young officers would just learn their trade at sea.
At the same time, the Navy’s growing reliance on technology has eroded basic seamanship skills, former officers say.
Another factor is the timing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the surface warfare community was hit hard by the demand for individual augmentees to support those ground operations, further robbing these officers of shipboard training and experience.
“There is a growing suspicion among a small circle of current and former COs that chickens may be coming home to roost,” retired Capt. Kevin Eyer, who commanded three Aegis cruisers, wrote in Proceedings Magazine online after the McCain collision.
Long time readers and people who know me, know that I have been vehemently opposed to the IA program since it started. When my deputy let one of my Sailors volunteer for an IA while I was on travel once, I had to issue a written order to the staff, that we would never do such a thing again. Didn’t regret then and don’t regret it now. It was a stupid thing for us-and by extension for Big Navy, to do.
As for the drive to save money with SWOS in a box. Well, to their credit, most SWO’s that I know, thought it was a short-sighted decision. Time has proven them right.
For nearly 30 years, all new surface warfare officers spent their first six months in uniform at the Surface Warfare Officer’s School in Newport, Rhode Island, learning the theory behind driving ships and leading sailors as division officers.
But that changed in 2003. The Navy decided to eliminate the “SWOS Basic” school and simply send surface fleet officers out to sea to learn on the job. The Navy did that mainly to save money, and the fleet has suffered severely for it, said retired Cmdr. Kurt Lippold.
“The Navy has cut training as a budgetary device and they have done it at the expense of our ability to operate safely at sea,” said Lippold, who commanded the destroyer Cole in 2000 when it was attacked by terrorists in Yemen.
After 2003, each young officer was issued a set of 21 CD-ROMs for computer-based training — jokingly called “SWOS in a Box” — to take with them to sea and learn. Young officers were required to complete this instructor-less course in between earning their shipboard qualifications, management of their divisions and collateral duties.
“The elimination of SWOS Basic was the death knell of professional SWO culture in the United States Navy,” Hoffman said. “I’m not suggesting that … the entire surface warfare community is completely barren of professionalism. I’m telling you that there are systemic problems, particularly at the department head level, where they are timid, where they lack resolve and they don’t have the sea time we expect.”
Every community needs an initial school, a right of passage as it were. Aviators have Pensacola and the Training Command. SEALS have BUDS, submariners have Submarine School. Surface Officers needed their school.
But let’s beat up some more on the damage done by Harvey’s hostage program, shall we?
The training of today’s SWOs was further eroded by the Pentagon’s focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before 2010, many Navy officers who were expected to learn on the job were not on ships at all.
During critical times in their professional development, they were taken away from their ships and sent to serve as individual augmentees with soldiers and Marines fighting in land-based operations.
A 2011 study by the Center for Naval Analyses identified SWOs as one of the six hardest hit officer designators by IA requirements. The cost, the study said, was the loss of hundreds of “man-years” in the fleet.
“The Navy did nothing to help them make up for that lost time, professionally. They never gave them the chance to get back what they lost,” Lippold said.
“That year went away and when they came back, they were expected to pick up and move on as if they’d been driving ships the whole time.”
And, because the career milestones were still out there for them, they got screwed out of needed and well-deserved shore duty. I can’t tell you how many cases of folks I knew who had done 2-3 back to back deployments, and then when they got ashore, because they were the new guys, got shipped off to some hell hole to do a job they also were not trained for. Sadly, a few of them did not come back-sacrificed for a war the US should never have started.
Add to that the tremendous social change in the Navy of the last 30 years and here we are. The shift from trying to be more forgiving to “shoot on sight” that occurred in the middle of the 2000’s did not help either.
“Most department heads I had were afraid to go to the captain with anything that might look bad for them — they did everything they did to protect their own reputations and wanted nothing to hamper them from eventually getting in the CO seat themselves,” said former Lt. Jonathan Parin, who served onboard the destroyer James E. Williams.
“We’re fostering an environment that is counter to becoming a competent professional mariner and instead it’s about looking out for yourself,” Parin told Navy Times.
Be careful what you wish for, you may surely get it. The Navy did not set out to wish for this world-but when it stopped worrying about the basics of what makes a good Navy-to include fun and camaraderie-well the rest becomes a foregone conclusion. It will be interesting to see what changes are made. At a minimum, Re-open Newport SWOS.