The frustration on both ends is extraordinarily high. After reporting on board, ensigns often ask, "Why didn't they teach me this?" And the ships' officers ask, "Why don't they know this?" The motivation is there, but so much enthusiasm and focus are lost in the months between commissioning and reporting for duty that it's a struggle to get them headed fair again.
Here are some suggestions:
- Acknowledge that the best place for seagoing officers to learn is at sea, not in the classroom. Lessons learned at sea are transformational —they change the way officers look at themselves and their profession. Lessons learned in the classroom are informational —another block of data to be forgotten as soon as the grades come back from the last test.
- Assign a non-vertical launch system Spruance (DD-963)-class destroyer scheduled for early decommissioning to Newport as a school ship. Create a curriculum and a community where the students live, work, and study on the ship. Permanently lay up the engines to avoid the cost associated with keeping the ship alive, but leave as much equipment operational as possible. The students then man 24-hour quarterdeck watches, do damage control maintenance, complete system tracings, run fire drills, and the other myriad things that division officers need to understand and have a sense of how to do before going to sea. They could even berth on board, with a duty section of instructors to provide ongoing, real-time leadership and mentoring. (Imagine the Commanding Officer of SWOS-DOC working out of his sea cabin!)
- Bring back the yard patrol craft (YPs). Most Naval Academy graduates spend as little time as possible in the YPs in Annapolis, and OCS/ROTC graduates are not even afforded such underway opportunities. It is all but impossible to instill ship-driving skills in young officers without maneuvering ships in formation, an increasingly rare event in the fleet. Those Naval Academy graduates who do spend time in YPs are often the best shiphandlers when they get to the fleet, and retain forever the signal book, communication, and shiphandling lessons they learned when steaming in the Chesapeake Bay. We need an aggressive curriculum of standard orders, formation steaming, flag-hoists, piloting, and radio drills that supplement going to sea in the YPs.
Assign instructors who are career-oriented (read: competitive for executive officer ) post-department head officers who have already led ensigns at sea. It is unreasonable to expect junior officers who have just finished division officer tours themselves to have the perspective, expertise, or maturity to teach those who are essentially their peers. For this proposal to work, however, the training community must be seen as a place for the upwardly mobile, like Top Gun is for the aviators. What is the message we send to our officer corps if we don't give them the best teachers possible?
- Amend the standard post-commissioning training track. Ensigns should report to Newport for four weeks of an intensive operationally oriented curriculum. Upon completion of that training, send them directly to an operational ship for four months to work on personnel qualification standards, standing watches, and completing an extensive professional reading program. After the operational stint, students return to San Diego or Newport for a week of debriefs, lessons learned, and preparations for specialty training on the way to their first ships to serve as division officers.
One reason junior officer retention is low is because so many feel like they've been taught to be administrators, not warriors, and are dismayed at the perfunctory approach to the training they are required to receive. Our attitudes about educating junior officers are reflected in their motivation and desire to continue in the service. We owe it to ourselves, our service, and to the ensigns to take the time and make the commitment to do it right.
Commander Davis is the Executive Officer of The Sullivans (DDG-68).