It's More than a Trade

By Lieutenant Thomas R. Williams II, U.S. Navy

But retention is more than a monetary issue. Specifically, many junior officers today are dissatisfied with their chosen profession because their perception of a "profession" is changing. Individuals in the civilian world change jobs as often as every few years, and may change career paths several times over the course of their lives, requiring widely disparate skills and educational credentials. The long period of time required to become a "professional" naval officer may be an anachronism in today's highly dynamic society.

Recent initiatives aimed at increasing junior officers' educational opportunities, such as tuition assurance and greater access to the Naval War College's nonresident seminars, are indeed an improvement. But however positive these steps may be, they are not enough to reverse the trend toward technical and functional expertise at the expense of the more intangible concepts of what it means to be a professional. Currently, an officer receives a formal curricula dedicated to a "broader view" of the naval profession only at an intermediate service college, at the 12-14 year mark.

The time is ripe to create a "professional development continuum," to include strategic, political, and historical education, that would provide professional broadening much earlier in a naval career. This is not in lieu of current technical and functional training, but to round out junior officers' early education, so that they will regard their chosen profession as more than just preventive maintenance, preflight checks, and inspections.

Military Professionalism and Professional Education

Professionalism is the highest ideal of service for many members of the military, and often it is used to exhort certain types of behaviors and attitudes. Yet professionalism is difficult to define in specific terms. Samuel Huntington addresses the concept in The Soldier and the State by describing attributes that are characteristic of a profession, including:

  • Expertise in some skill
  • A sense of responsibility to something greater than the individual
  • A feeling of "corporateness" among its members

He goes on to say that officers share these attributes. Their expertise is the "management of violence." Their responsibility is to protect the state from external threats. And the limited number of individuals who receive commissions provides the basis for the corporate character of the officers' world.

Central to Huntington's theories is the process of educating an officer in the broader context of his service to society. The evolution of the modern professional officer corps in the mid- 19th century largely was the result of governmental efforts to provide officers with instruction rich in history, politics, and strategy, in addition to the operational art of war. The institutions and educational methods that provided this service were critical to raising military officers up from mercenaries or aristocrats and molding them into a professional corps. Today, similar institutions and processes still play a vital role in creating a professional officer.

The antecedent to our modern system of naval officer professional development was recommended by the Knox, King, Pye Board in 1919. Reporting to the Secretary of the Navy, the board recommended that formal professional education ashore be provided progressively throughout an officer's career, interspersed among shipboard experiences. In essence, a line officer, when not serving on board ship, would be engaged in academic pursuits. The Naval Academy provided indoctrination training for entry-level officers. The General Line School of the Naval Postgraduate School provided a curriculum for junior officers with five to seven years of fleet experience. And the Command and Staff College of the Naval War College provided education for officers making the transition to command grade.

World War II caused a disruption in this educational pattern. Because of the large demand for junior officers in the fleet and the growing technological innovation and sophistication of naval weapon systems and engineering, many officers were commissioned before completing their undergraduate education and served in one specialty or technical field, such as aviation, for their tenure during the war. By 1944, Navy leaders recognized the need to develop a plan for demobilizing the large force of wartime officers that would not degrade the core of career officers. The Secretary of the Navy convened a special advisory board, under the direction of Rear Admiral James L. Holloway Jr., to examine this problem. The 1945 report of the Holloway Board set policies for accession-level institutions and postgraduate programs—such as creating permanent NROTC units and encouraging a wider curriculum at the Naval Academy, akin to a civilian university—that have remained in place until today.

The board's greatest impact was in the area of postgraduate education, where it recommended that the General Line School be used to help broaden educational backgrounds and integrate officers of widely varying wartime experiences. Between 1946 and 1952, a majority of junior officers below the rank of lieutenant commander attended the one-year curriculum (an extra 18 months was added for those officers who did not complete their undergraduate degrees because of the war). With its curriculum in history, politics, government, and the sciences—subjects beyond immediate naval matters—the General Line School was seen as the key to creating a solid corps of professional junior officers that would lead the postwar Navy into the second half of the 20th century.

The beginning of the Cold War and the move away from conventional armed forces to a reliance on nuclear forces during the Eisenhower administration created a change in the Holloway paradigm. Increasingly sophisticated weapon systems and programs required more technically trained officers to participate in research and development and to design, procure, and operate them. Another Secretary of the Navy study, conducted by the Weekly-Daniels Board in the early 1950s, recommended that the Naval Postgraduate School increase its emphasis on the hard sciences to support the Navy's needs for technically trained officers. As a result, the school ended the General Line School curriculum, and in 1959 graduated its first accredited masters of science students. This shift toward academic specialization in the Navy's primary postgraduate institution mirrored a concurrent development in community specialization for naval aviation and nuclear-powered submarines in the fleet.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. naval strategy relied on the capabilities of aircraft carrier striking forces and nuclear submarine forces to counter the Soviet threat. Compared with their pre-World War II counterparts, these highly complex and sophisticated weapon systems required a substantial increase in technical and functional training for those officers who were to man them. As a result, nuclear submarine training and the aviation pipeline added several years to an officer's accession-level training. In addition, the prestige of earning "wings" or "dolphins" provided a measurable esprit de corps among those officers who underwent such rigorous technical training and succeeded. Revisiting Huntington's thesis on military professionalism, these officers were brimming with "expertise." But when the General Line Course was retired, and the Naval Postgraduate School became an accredited degree-granting institution, there was no place for them to broaden their professional military education until reporting to the War College much later in their careers.

There is little doubt that the shift in philosophy for junior officer education toward technical specialization was needed, particularly in the aviation and submarine communities. However, the rise of pilots and later submariners to the upper echelons of fleet leadership influenced attitudes concerning the education of junior officers in the fleet. This is evident in that the surface line, and later the entire surface warfare community, created its post-accession training institutions to emphasize expertise over other aspects of professional education.

Prior to 1976, outside of the aviation or submarine pipelines, there was no formal training to prepare junior officers for shipboard life. When the Secretary of the Navy convened a special board of inquiry in 1965 to investigate continuing problems with junior officer retention in the surface line, it identified this lack of formal schooling as a major culprit. The establishment of a surface combat school, similar to the aviators' or submariners' training, was recommended to provide a basic level of expertise in shipboard operations and weapon systems for all officers in the surface line. Cruiser-Destroyer Squadron Atlantic already had taken a step in this direction in 1961, when it took money from its operating funds to open the Destroyer School in Newport, Rhode Island, on an ad hoc basis. Set up for junior officers en route to department head billets on Atlantic Fleet destroyers, the school borrowed heavily from the methods and curriculum of the submarine school in Croton, Connecticut.

The Destroyer School became the foundation for the Surface Warfare Officers School and the surface warfare officer's pin under the stewardship of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt in the early 1970s. Creating a "community" and a basic school for the surface line was an important step in revitalizing the surface Navy, which had been languishing since the early years of the Cold War. The Surface Warfare Officers School continues to be a critical element in training junior officers to go to sea; however, its educational methods and philosophies also set expertise as the mark of a professional for junior officers, with little thought to balancing their critical early development in the fleet with equal elements of corporateness and responsibility.

Toward a Professional Education Continuum

The nature of and attitude toward junior officer professionalism has changed over the past 50 years. Increasing reliance on highly complex, technologically sophisticated weapon systems has had two effects on Navy officer educational institutions:

  • The Naval Postgraduate School shifted its educational philosophies to support a curriculum that stressed the basic sciences and theory over the broader professional subjects of the General Line Course.
  • The warfare communities developed their own rigorous technical and functional training programs for officers.

As a result, an officer's professional development begins at the U.S. Naval Academy or an NROTC unit with an inculcation of the values of the Navy and a well-balanced approach to the three aspects of professionalism, and is followed by 12-14 years of technical and functional training. Only after an officer enters a service college, such as the Naval War College, will he again be exposed to a broader curriculum, including the study of history and politics.

There are several implications of this pattern of professional development. First, professional achievement and professionalism for junior officers have been simplified, such that warfare qualification now is the centerpiece of their early careers. The educational institutions that teach the technical and functional skills needed to carry out routine fleet operations have altered the junior officer's perceptions of professionalism to mirror the requirements of qualification. A junior officer therefore might now conclude that a "professional" naval officer is one who effectively carries out highly sophisticated but largely routine functional tasks. This is significantly different from the concept of professionalism provided at accession sources and the service colleges.

The young men or women who enter the Navy are heavily influenced and ultimately shaped into junior officers by the accession institutions. Courses and seminars in ethics, leadership, history, strategy, tactics, and politics provide them with the service's core values—Honor Courage, and Commitment—and are the foundation of their conception of professionalism. To again use the Huntington paradigm, these young officers are indoctrinated in a sense of responsibility to society and a feeling of corporateness, of being members of the Navy as an institution. These lessons are not forgotten, but they are heavily overlaid with the technical and functional training in the warfare communities. And although such technical training is required to gain the expertise needed to fulfill Huntington's definition of a professional officer, it has little connection with their previous professional training.

The lessons learned in accession fade, and the warfare communities become the main arbiters of professionalism. Technical and functional expertise overwhelm an officer's sense of responsibility to society, and even the feeling of connection with the corporate institution of the Navy that was developed at the accession source. This imbalance in favor of expertise causes a certain level of dissatisfaction among junior officers, because they are not fulfilling the professional expectations they developed as midshipmen. They become merely expert practitioners of one narrow aspect of naval warfare, disconnected from the broader nature of the profession. The result is a loss of many promising young officers, who decide to seek personal fulfillment in professions outside the military.

To correct this problem, we must recognize the limitations of the current institutions and begin adapting them to meet future needs. Junior officers today may not be realizing their professional expectations during their most formative period—the first five to seven years. We cannot wait until the intermediate service colleges to provide formal professional military education. We must return to something resembling the Holloway paradigm, providing an opportunity for junior officers to remain connected with the broader concepts of our profession.

A professional development continuum would help to fill the gap in junior officers' professional education. Two suggestions follow:

  • Incorporate historical studies of strategy and politics into the leadership continuum for all communities. The Surface Warfare Officers School, for example, has merged the complex concepts of the leadership curriculum with real-life experiences that will be useful to students headed to shipboard assignments. This successful mix could be further enhanced with historical examples that would link the rich heritage of naval leadership to current and future leaders.

For junior officers in the fleet, abbreviated courses could be provided using distance learning tools such as the Internet and video teleconferencing, so that all ensigns being promoted to lieutenant, junior grade, could take a short seminar in strategy or policy while at home port or at sea. This experience would be most enriching if it was considered an integral part of an ensign's regular duties, rather than an addition to. A three to four week period when officers can get away from the ship, boat, or squadron to think about the "bigger picture" would pay huge benefits later in their careers, and be an extraordinary boost to their quality of life.

  • War gaming can be practiced by junior officers in the fleet to raise their tactical and strategic awareness. Several off-the-shelf computer combat simulations could be used—Jane's newest simulation, Fleet Commander, has gotten an enthusiastic response from many junior officers. A version of this program is going to be used at the Naval Academy and the Naval Warfare Development Center to teach tactics and strategy. It also could provide junior officers in all communities a greater connection with the tactical and strategic issues of naval warfare.

These games already are proliferating as a means of recreation for junior officers; why not capitalize on this interest and channel it to a productive output? Future war fighters would be engaged in the fighting aspect of their profession from day one, and such gaming would allow junior officers to retain their sense of corporateness by crossing over community boundaries in fleet combat simulations much earlier than they do in the current fleet educational system.

The Navy is losing its most promising officers to the civilian world because there is a gap between what they expected their profession to be and what they found it really to be. Providing additional education in tactics, strategy, policy, and history to promote higher professional ideals during the most formative years of a junior officer's career will restore some of the sense professionalism lost to the highly technical and functional tasks of the daily routine.

Lieutenant Williams will report this month as operations officer on board the USS Higgins (DDG-76). He earned a master’s degree in international public policy (strategic studies) from Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze school of Advanced International Studies.



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