Building the Next Nelson

Captain Stephen F. Davis Jr., U.S. Navy

From School to OJT

Five years later, the pendulum swung hard in the opposite direction. Rather than fix the course problem, we threw out both baby and bathwater and eliminated it and related training in toto. Though the compensating efforts at the U.S. Naval Academy and ROTC units today are commendable, the cultural and educational benefits provided by even a flawed SWOS-DOC program are no longer available and far fewer JOs arrive on station ready for call for fire. These neophytes are given instead an error-plagued—though recently improved—and often unpopular 21-module "SWOS-at-Sea" computer-based training program to compensate for the loss of a six-month regimen of dedicated professional education. Numerous JOs with whom I have discussed the computer training have been pointed with their criticism and believe it was given to them as a less expensive alternative to a viable formal training curriculum. The practical result is that responsibility for nearly every facet of junior officer training has de facto devolved to the unit commanding officer.

The elimination of SWOS-DOC, concomitant reductions in underway time, and emphasis on synthetic training, have done a disservice to many aspiring surface warriors and saddled operational ships with additional educational responsibilities for which there is little time. No other first-rate Navy in the world pushes newly commissioned officers out the door and directly to combatants without the benefit of formal training or underway familiarization. Our own naval aviators do not do so because they viscerally appreciate the risk and cost. Recent articles in Proceedings have highlighted, for example, a related loss of shiphandling skills and the righteous skepticism with which many civilian mariners view Navy deck watch officers. In the final analysis, the cancellation of SWOS-DOC made an already difficult situation worse; junior officers often start behind the power curve and stay there.

Even with the introduction of the new computer-based training and training continuum, I have come to believe that there are two important issues still to address: Junior officers frequently do not have the requisite familiarity with even the most basic shiphandling skills, and many do not understand what it means to be a division officer on a commissioned warship. Computer-based lessons do a fine job providing technical background on how gas-turbine engines function, but they do not adequately address the fundamental operational and leadership circumstances officers face the instant they cross the brow for the first time.

Shiphandling training, in particular, poses a unique set of challenges for operational leaders and JOs. Twenty years ago at Officer Candidate School and SWOS-DOC, the small squadron of yard patrol craft homeported at Naval Station Newport allowed warfare-qualified instructors to provide superlative hands-on training and operational experience to aspiring ship drivers. Underway YP training time was the highlight of both curricula. Groups of officer candidates or newly-commissioned officers would take the craft into Narragansett Bay, steam in close quarters formation, give standard commands, and talk on radios—all under the watchful eye of a surface warfare officer and designated craftmaster. Many officers first learned the practical difference between a "turn" and a "corpen" while sailing in YPs off Goat Island during the program. Naval Academy midshipmen had long enjoyed—some more than others—similar experiences and had the benefit of taking the craft to sea for both operational and leadership training.

Despite being welcome additions to the extant YP fleet at Annapolis, the shift of the Newport craft to the Naval Academy had a negative impact on the development of officers from other commissioning sources. During my command tours, it has been intuitively obvious which Naval Academy graduates spent more than perfunctory time on the YPs—they are the most effective shiphandlers and confident deck officers, and often qualify at a pace ahead of their peers.

Good and Bad

Certain aspects of underway operations can, of course, be recreated in computer simulators. For years, the surface Navy has worked with experts at Marine Safety International to provide shiphandling training of respectable fidelity to officers in Newport and in the Norfolk and San Diego fleet concentration areas. Time, class size, availability, funding, and the vagaries of scheduling, however, often limited access to these simulators. Recent initiatives, including the excellent full-mission bridge and basic Conning Officer Virtual Environment trainers at Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport could play an important role in developing shiphandling acumen in the future. Ships that have the privilege of visiting Newport to support SWOS can benefit from dedicated and uninterrupted time with these training devices. For many JOs, the full-mission bridge may be their first and only opportunity to practice the fundamental skills of driving in formation or using maneuvering signals.

Digital simulators are not, however, the best and final answer. Computer programs provide an opportunity to get rudimentary experience or refamiliarization (for more senior officers who perhaps have spent recent time in the Pentagon), but are not of sufficient fidelity to serve as the basis of a qualification program. Driving a computer-based ship-handling trainer will not make a junior officer an Officer of the Deck (Underway) any more than flying a P-51 Mustang in Microsoft's realistic Combat Flight Simulator 3 "Battle for Europe" computer game will make someone a pilot. Much is lost in translation, even with the most sophisticated graphics and subroutines. One learns how to drive a ship at sea—in YPs or on a commissioned warship. Aviators understand this and carefully limit the number of simulator hours pilots can count toward staying operationally current.

The other issue is how to create a level playing field for new ensigns regardless of commissioning source and to focus them on the important aspects of becoming a combat leader. This cannot be done exclusively with PowerPoint presentations or video games. It takes enlightened, experienced, and dedicated leaders, an appreciation of Navy history and traditions, and a dynamic environment in which to discuss the most salient topics.

One Reality

There are myriad ways to approach this challenge. In the USS Vella Gulf (CG-72), we created "Surface Warfare University." For eight weeks during each of the last two summers, newly commissioned officers participated in a series of lectures, discussions, and staff rides dedicated to getting them started on the right foot. Classes ran from 0800 to 1700 each day and were taught exclusively by experienced officers. Students did not stand watch and were temporarily relieved of their division officer responsibilities (which also appealed to the chief petty officers who acted in their stead). The curriculum was focused on critical thinking, tactical relevance, team building, and developing warriors as opposed to checklist slaves or administrators. Instead of sitting through a slide-laden lecture on airborne early-warning aircraft or air-cushion landing craft, the ensigns took a staff ride with a qualified tactical action officer to an E-2C squadron and a special boat unit.

Though there was no homework per se, Surface Warfare University did have deliverables. Each student was required inter alia to hand-over-hand and diagram the firemain system, align an eductor, climb the mast in a safety harness, go to dinner with the commanding officer (much to their chagrin), attend a junior officer financial planning course, and observe a non-judicial punishment hearing. More important, Surface Warfare University provided the entire wardroom an opportunity to brief and discuss naval combat, prominent battles, and noteworthy leaders. Our proximity to the site of the Battle of Hampton Roads was fortuitous in this regard. After discussing the battle and its ramifications at length, we visited the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia, where the USS Monitor 's turret, guns, and carriages reside.

Obviously, Surface Warfare University involved a staggering investment in time and effort. We were fortunate that the ship's schedule supported execution of the plan. Regardless of the window of opportunity, however, we would have carved out sufficient space to do something along these lines. In the absence of other broader efforts (as SWOS-DOC could have been), it became our responsibility to make Surface Warfare University effective. It was that important and has already paid notable dividends.

The last vestige of the division officer course, a three-week post-Officer of the Deck qualification class in Newport, has met with mixed results. Some officers have found the class to be unfocused or even unnecessary; others benefited substantively from the interaction with students and instructors from other ships and ship types. Although there is probably little room for discussion of the topic, it is worth considering that the class may be more beneficial if it were taught before junior officers get to their ships instead of on the verge of earning final SWO qualification. Additionally, if we were to shift some of the YPs back to Newport (or to the Fleet concentration areas) and add dedicated live and synthetic shiphandling to the syllabus, junior officers would have a fighting chance to begin their Navy careers at someplace other than an information deficit.

It is difficult for any afloat wardroom to make a substantive, specific commitment to educating our most junior officers. Operational commitments and emergent schedule changes often make execution of a coherent warrior-focused syllabus problematic. In the absence of a formal training program focused on these new division officers, however, there are few things more essential than doing so.

Captain Davis is commanding officer, USS Vella Gulf (CG-72).
 

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