Building Surface Warriors

By Lieutenant (junior grade) Michele Poole, U.S. Navy

These factors, coupled with an acute shortage of junior officers throughout the fleet, resulted in a dangerous lack of professional training. Full lieutenants filled fewer than one-third of all department head billets on destroyers, and it was not unusual to find lieutenants junior grade) and even ensigns with less than 18 months' shipboard experience serving in these billets. Increasingly, department heads with limited experience trained new junior officers, who became department heads with limited experience, who trained new junior officers. This cycle of deteriorating professionalism lowered both morale and combat readiness.

In 1960, Rear Admiral Charles E. Weakley, Commander Destroyer Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, correctly identified the problem and called for a school similar to the Submarine School in New London. On 1 July 1961, the U.S. Naval Destroyer School was commissioned in Newport, Rhode Island, "to provide the destroyer force, through a system of functional education and training, with officers professionally qualified and motivated to function as effective naval leaders on board ship."

The Destroyer School

The Destroyer School's focus on leadership and professional development had an immediate, positive impact. The organizers drew from the surface Navy's best officers to staff the school, having recognized that the long-term well-being of the community lay in their hands. Former destroyer skippers—all senior commanders—served as course department heads. Officer-instructors had served successfully as executive officers and had qualified for command at sea before coming to teach at Newport.

The course, designed for officers with at least 18 months experience at sea, covered equally engineering, weapons, operations, and executive (administration, personnel, legal, etc.) subjects The core of the curriculum, however, emphasized leadership. The first instructors and course designers realized that "leadership is the most important means to readiness." The instructors taught that the will of the leader moving a team in the right direction was as important to success as proper technical knowledge and sound management skills. These visionaries believed that officers must understand how their ships and squadrons fit in the larger global geopolitical situation. Students were briefed on hot spots, including Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Classes held dinings-in and invited speakers to address these complicated political and military issues.

The curriculum alone, however, was not the key to the Destroyer School's success—success grew from the manner in which it was taught. Students spent more than half of their time in practical learning, either in laboratories or on school ships, and were under way most of the final month of the course in one of the two permanently assigned school ships. In addition to giving written tests, the instructors served as mentors and evaluated students on their initiative and ability to perform under pressure. Shipboard training included weapons exercises, engineering casualty control drills, and, most important, shiphandling.

The school was competitive in every sense. They screened prospective students based on proven ability and success in destroyer billets, fleet officer-of-the-deck qualification, recommendations from their commanding officers, and career motivation. Students selected for the program completed various tests during their check-in, and if they failed, attended remedial classes held outside the normal class hours of 0800 to 1700, Monday through Friday and occasionally on Saturday mornings. Orders to destroyers were issued based on class standing. Those with the best overall written and practical work received the best orders.

What's Missing Today?

The school has changed considerably in the past 35 years. In 1969, it added a prospective commanding officer course, and in 1971, a prospective executive officer course. In 1975, it was redesignated the Surface Warfare Officer Department Head School. And in 1976, senior officers called for sending all SWO trainees to the school for basic training prior to their initial sea tours, regardless of their accession source, to provide an equal footing for all new officers.

The mission statement of the school today is "to provide a continuum of professional education and training in support of Surface Navy requirements that prepares officers to serve at sea." In the eyes of many junior officers and their superiors, the courses at SWOS fall short of accomplishing this mission.

Consider the Surface Warfare Officer School Division Officer Course's (SWOSDOC's) mission:

to prepare newly commissioned ensigns, en route to their first tours as division officers afloat, to stand inport and underway watch, and manage the administrative duties of the division officer afloat.

Leadership and combat skills are not even mentioned. A two-week leadership course is sandwiched between the course's core curriculum and engineering section, but not emphasizing leadership throughout implies that being a leader is a secondary role. SWOSDOC clearly focuses on the division officer's role as a manager.

There is very limited practical training at SWOSDOC. Simulators are worthwhile, but they do not represent accurately the way real ships handle. They do not develop a young officer's ability to make realistic decisions under stress and then see the consequences. In the 36 hours of simulator training included in the curriculum, a student can expect to stand watch as the officer of the deck only briefly (30 minutes) for two or three times and as combat information center watch officer four or five times. This does not meet the mission statement objective of preparing an officer to stand underway watches.

To prepare students for duty as an inport officer of the deck (another element of SWOSDOC's mission statement), the instructors present eight hours of classroom training during the third week of class. Unfortunately, there is no practical application, and the information is lost quickly. Officers and sailors learn how to stand watches by standing watches, not by sitting in a classroom.

It is time to change Navy educational methods as a matter of course. Reading from an instructor's guide or churning through information just to say it was covered is not teaching. Learning must be interactive. Students must understand why they need to learn something, want to learn it, and then be presented with the material in a manner that helps them retain it. Practical application—experience—is the best way. Getting out on the water and driving a ship is the best way to learn shiphandling. Dressing out in an oxygen breathing apparatus and fighting a fire in the trainer is the best way to learn firefighting. Student aviators fly planes, and student submariners operate nuclear plants, but student surface warriors sit in a classroom.

Students must be given the chance to make decisions and mistakes, so they can learn. We need to create an environment where they can practice, understand what happens when things go wrong, and then do it again to get it right. This looks time-consuming and expensive, but the value of this approach to education outweighs the costs. How many months have sailors and officers wasted sitting in classes, listening to data that they had no hope of remembering beyond the test? Hands-on learning gets every member of the class involved—and it is fun.

Just bringing the yard patrol craft back to Newport and using them for practical training in the curriculum would enhance the value of the course immeasurably. In both 1977 and 1997, experienced surface warriors wrote in Proceedings , pleading for the return of the YPs. Using them to complement and exercise subjects taught in the classroom would improve the level of education significantly. A capstone two- to three-week practical cruise at the end of the course would provide ensigns with a final evaluation of their preparation before going out to the fleet. These changes would revive the most successful aspect of the original Destroyer School: experience-based learning.

Students spend limited time reviewing geopolitical threats; instructors merely list the current threat countries and their platforms. Officers must understand the nature of the conflicts around the world and the role that the Navy may play in them. Expanded, this portion of the course could be used to develop an officer's writing and speaking ability. Discussing current political and military situations around the world (e.g., through newspapers and magazine articles) develops a student's ability to think and express ideas clearly. Putting their ideas on paper and receiving thoughtful feedback gives students practice in areas that senior officers often decry—writing skills and the ability to articulate. This requires a flexible curriculum and trust that an instructor will lead quality discussions and provide worthwhile feedback. The present rigid structure of the course does not allow this level of flexibility and development.

Two subjects absent from the SWOSDOC curriculum—and even from the Destroyer School—are history and tactics. Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, when addressing the first Naval War College class in 1885, said, "Now, it must strike anyone who thinks about it as extraordinary that we, members of the profession of arms, should never have undertaken the study of our real business—war." More than a century later, we, as a profession, still have not made much progress in this area. The study of history and tactics must begin at SWOSDOC. The study of history, of war and military theory, helps develop an officer's ability to make rational judgments—to think and to make informed decisions based on a thorough knowledge of the profession. War gaming must be included in this type of training. War gaming provides the opportunity both to teach how the fleet operates and to practice decision making. Officers must come to the table ready to play and report aboard ready to fight.

In addition, SWOSDOC should be more competitive. Nearly all students arrive at the school with orders to their first ships already in hand. There is no question where they are going, and in most cases, what billets they will fill when they graduate. Their academic performance, short of failing and getting rolled back into a later class, has no bearing on future assignments.

Students are assigned to instructor advisors while they are at SWOS, but unless they are failing, most have little interaction with their advisors. Thus they graduate without much meaningful feedback, and with a not-observed fitness report. Requiring that the advisors to become more involved in the education of their students—mentoring them and then writing a fair evaluation of their performance, either as an observed fitness report or in a simpler form—would give students motivation to do more than just pass.

The instructors at SWOSDOC, nearly all fresh from their division officer tours, are only one step ahead of the students they teach. Post-department head officers, those who have been leading division officers in the fleet for at least three years and who presumably have committed to a naval career, would bring more experience and maturity to the program. They have a thorough understanding of what is expected of new division officers and are better equipped to pass on that knowledge.

Make It Better, Not Longer

I do not propose that we lengthen the time spent at SWOS. If anything, we should make it shorter and use the time more wisely. The instructors and curriculum should allow for flexible class times, based on discussion length. Not every class at SWOSDOC takes—or should take—exactly one hour. Additional time is wasted between classes; most classes take only 40-50 minutes, meaning students spend as much as 30% of their time on break. The curriculum for the core course—the first ten weeks of SWOSDOC—calls for 296 class hours. This means that students, the future fleet warriors, spend only 29.6 hours per week in school, their only responsibility.

Consider a similar program in our sister service. The Marine Corps' Basic School (TBS) takes every newly commissioned Marine officer, and in six months, produces officers ready to step into their required duties. TBS:

educate[s] newly commissioned or appointed officers in the high standards of professional knowledge, esprit de corps, and leadership required to prepare them for duty as a company grade officer in the Fleet Marine Force, with particular emphasis on the duties, responsibilities, and warfighting skills required of a rifle platoon commander.

TBS articulates in its mission statement several things missing from SWOSDOC. Developing leadership, professional knowledge, and warfighting skills is listed upfront as a primary goal. Marine Corps officers spend roughly 70 hours per week in practical training. Routinely, the Corps sends its best personnel to teach. By comparison, it appears as if the Navy is not serious about training its leaders.

SWOS needs to become ambitious again, to strive to develop the whole officer. The Navy needs officers who are more than competent. It needs experts to carry it forward into the future by building on the knowledge of its past.

Beyond SWOS

Follow-up training in the fleet is the final ingredient in making naval leaders. Once again, the training must be worthwhile. Recently, the Commandant of the Marine Corps mandated daily "military thinking and decision-making exercises" for every Marine regardless of occupational specialty, duty assignment, or location. The Marines develop these decision-making skills through tactical decision games and discussions about war fighting. They understand that a Marine's ability to make and execute effective decisions under both physical and emotional stress is linked incontrovertibly to combat success. The same theories apply within the Navy. We must practice making decisions on a daily basis and allow our officers the freedom to take risks and, on occasion, fail.

Within a year of its commissioning, the U.S. Naval Destroyer School produced professional and successful naval officers sought after by commanding officers around the fleet. With similar dedication, SWOS can develop a program that meets the changing needs of the fleet without losing the core focus of why we send ships to sea.

Lieutenant Poole , a 1995 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, served as first lieutenant on board The Sullivans (DDG-68). She is en route to the Gettysburg (CG-64) as combat information center officer.

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Tue, 2014-10-14

Please join us for the launch of a new Maritime Security Dialogue series, featuring: Admiral Jonathan Greenert, USN, Chief...

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

2015 WEST Conference

View All

From the Press

Featured Dinner Speaker & Book Signing

Thu, 2014-10-23

Featured Dinner Speaker & Book Signing

Thu, 2014-10-23

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership