It didn't take me long to discover that I was not the seasoned and accomplished bridge watchkeeper I had once thought. I was now being held to a much higher standard, serving alongside Royal Navy officers who had endured years of training and had been certified by the International Maritime Organization's Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW). My new peers could recite rules 1 through 19 of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, more commonly known as "Rules of the Road," verbatim, navigate the ship in close proximity to land with little or no supervision, and instinctively apply the Radian Rule to determine how far left or right of track they were when using a headmark or sternmark. They could also operate the ship in some of the busiest waterways in the world with little oversight from senior leadership. These were just the most junior bridge watchkeepers, each of whom had been assessed and certified by the Royal Navy's Training Command but had not yet attended any of the notoriously difficult navigator courses.
Frankly, I was embarrassed at my lack of maritime knowledge and skills for the first few months of my exchange. My first 90-minute-long written Rules of the Road exam was a disgrace. I was accustomed to the U.S. Navy's 50-question multiple-choice exams, and now I was being harshly critiqued on whether I mistakenly wrote a "shall" in place of a "should." During one of my under-instruction bridge watches I made a shipping report to the captain and told him what my maneuvering intentions were. I followed by saying I was going to hail the other vessel on bridge - to - bridge radio to confirm her intentions, which is common procedure on U.S. ships.
Within 30 seconds the captain was on the bridge, and I will never forget what he told me. "In the Royal Navy we abide by the Rules [of the Road] and we assume other vessels will do the same. If you truly understand the Rules and abide by them you should only have to use the radio in an emergency situation." I never again hailed another vessel to ask for maneuvering intentions. During my previous tour I had been responsible for the navigational safety of one of the most advanced warships ever constructed, and now it was becoming evident that my computer-based training had not been as good as I thought.
Approximately one year into my exchange, the commanding officer decided to send me to the Royal Navy's Provisional Navigating Officer's (PNO) course. I gladly accepted this opportunity, knowing it would give me something to which I could compare my U.S. Navy navigation training, although passing this four-week course would only qualify me to be navigator of a small ship. I thought to myself, how hard could this be? Four sleepless weeks later I emerged from one of the most educationally and professionally rewarding experiences of my naval career.
I spent three weeks in the classroom learning, studying, and preparing to take the Royal Navy Command Exams. To qualify for command of a small ship, officers in the Royal Navy must pass seven standardized command exams and an oral command qualification board. These exams (Astro and Tides, Rules of the Road, Shiphandling, General Navigation, Chartwork, Seamanship, and Meteorology) range from 60 to 90 minutes each. We were allowed to take five of the exams, the final two being reserved for the six-week-long Frigate Navigator's Course. I spent the final week of the PNO course in the bridge simulator. We worked eight hours a day being assessed by Specialist Navigators on our chartwork, planning, execution, and technique. I walked away with the confidence that I had evolved into a true mariner, capable of carrying out my duties as a navigator and providing sound advice to my captain.
What We Can Learn from the Brits
Standardize Training. The Royal Navy has developed a training program for junior surface warfare officers that effectively blends sea time with shore-based training. What makes their training pipeline so successful is the level of standardization throughout. From the way Rules of the Road are taught to the rigorous curriculum used for their Junior Warfare Officer Course and navigation courses, everything is standardized. Just like the Brits and many other communities in the U.S. Navy, we need to standardize the way we train surface warfare officers. Aviators, submariners, SEALs, and virtually every other branch in the Navy spends countless months undergoing such training and evaluation - all with the exception of SWOs.
Although every boot ensign receives the same computer-based training program, each ship ultimately decides on how best to implement the training plan. If you look at it this way, at any one time we have more than 200 different SWO training programs in the Fleet, some much better than others. The most effective way to standardize is to send everyone through one location with one curriculum. Why do all aviators spend time in Pensacola? Why do all SEALs spend time in Coronado? Why do all submariners spend time in Charleston? We need to reestablish a centralized training center for all junior surface warfare officers.
Officers must be the ones upholding the standards of the Fleet whether it is with regard to preventive maintenance, firefighting, or watchkeeping. But over the past few years officers have lost this ability because they have depended on their subordinates to teach them virtually everything they know. In today's surface Navy, a junior seaman or seaman recruit has more formalized naval training when reporting on board his first ship than the average junior ensign. Obviously some skills are best learned on the job, but we cannot expect the operators of the Fleet to bear the burden of training junior officers from the ground up, especially given the operational tempo of today's Navy. We must teach officers the skills needed to successfully run a division, lead a repair party, or safely navigate a ship before they are actually asked to do so.
Standardize Assessment. When a Royal Navy warfare officer reports on board a ship to begin his first complementary job, the commanding officer knows that the newest member of the wardroom is a competent mariner. An officer will arrive with a standardized IMO-recognized Navigational Watch Certificate (NWC), meaning that he has completed 600 hours of under-instruction bridge time, passed a series of maritime competency exams, and been assessed by specialized navigators before ever reporting on board.
Commanding officers are still required to provide the final signature before an officer is allowed to operate the ship unsupervised. This approval, referred to as a Platform Endorsement (PE), is achieved in a matter of weeks after an officer learns the nuances and propulsion capabilities of that specific class of ship. The U.S. Navy has one of the easiest certification processes of any navy. We should establish a centralized authority that certifies all bridge watchkeepers.
Accept Attrition as a Reality. At every turn in the Royal Navy training pipeline, attrition is a reality. From Britannia Royal Naval College to the Frigate Navigator's Course, the prospect of attrition serves as a natural motivator, and success translates to a real sense of accomplishment. In today's surface community attrition is not an option, and the only individuals who understand the concept are those who come to surface warfare after washing out of flight school, SEAL training, or nuclear-power school. When the reality of attrition is introduced into any environment, the quality of officers produced will increase. Just like every other community, we should raise the bar in the training of surface warfare officers, and instead of trying to fill a billet with a body, we should strive to fill it with a capable mariner and officer. We should not establish a "failure quota" for surface warfare training, but it is critical to understand that a program or organization without attrition is a clear indicator that a minimum standard does not exist.
Empower the Junior Officer. One of the most rewarding aspects about my time with the Royal Navy was the amount of trust and responsibility placed in me as an officer. Bridge watchkeepers in the Royal Navy are allowed to operate ships in close proximity to land and in busy shipping lanes with little supervision. In the U.S. Navy a bridge will be filled with personnel when a ship enters within five miles of land. In the Royal Navy such a situation is seen as a good training opportunity, exposing junior bridge watchkeepers to increased amounts of shipping and allowing for more visual fixing opportunities. Additionally, it is normal practice on U.S. ships to have three officers on the bridge supported by a team of up to seven personnel during normal underway steaming, while in the Royal Navy one officer and a support team of two are left with the responsibilities of chartwork, running the ship's routine, steering the vessel, and monitoring the radar picture. This increased responsibility in the Royal Navy translates into increased stress, but this is outweighed by strong feelings of professional accomplishment.
By establishing a rigorous and standardized training pipeline for surface warfare officers built around a centralized certifying authority, we too can increase the amount of responsibility placed in bridge watchkeepers and division officers and, in turn, provide officers with an even more rewarding experience. To facilitate an environment of increased trust at the ship level, we must create a training program and certification process that convinces all commanding officers that the Navy is providing them with officers well versed in the principles of shiphandling, navigation, basic seamanship, and weather.
A Way Ahead
It is important to note that unlike the structure of our Navy, Royal Navy surface warfare officers specialize in either engineering or warfare shortly after they are commissioned. It is also important to understand the size disparity between the two services, although this relationship is somewhat proportional to our spending habits as well. We send approximately 1,800 surface warfare officers through training each year, which is almost one quarter of the entire Royal Navy officer corps. These differences must be taken into account if we are to try to somewhat imitate the Royal Navy training pipeline. Here is a five-phase plan that attempts to blend lessons learned from the Royal Navy while maintaining our generalist training mentality.
Phase 1 —Initial Training
On graduation from the Naval Academy or Officer Candidate School, all surface warfare officers would report to initial training in Newport for three to four months. Although this is different from the Royal Navy pipeline, in which officers head straight to sea on graduation from their Naval College, it should be noted that all officers attend the one-year course at Dartmouth, where they learn about the navy and the maritime profession. We must create an incentive for both active and retired commanders and captains to return to Newport to teach a rigorous curriculum covering seamanship, navigation, shiphandling, meteorology, damage control, and leadership to the next generation of surface warfare officers. Students would spend an extensive amount of time in a simulator environment gaining a better understanding of shiphandling techniques and basic navigational skills.
Phase 2 —Sea Training
Upon completion of Phase 1, officers would report to an operational ship for approximately six to eight months where they would be tasked with qualifying in all the core areas. They would also be required to accumulate a specific number of documented bridge watchkeeping hours (under instruction). No divisional responsibilities would be assigned during this time. Once all core objectives have been met the commanding officer and the department heads would evaluate each officer and recommend or reject the officer for Phase 3 training, the standardized watchkeeping certification and surface warfare officer qualification process.
Phase 3 —Assessment, Certification, and Follow-on Training
Officers would return to Newport for a 12-week certification process. They would spend the first month qualifying for their standardized watchkeeping certificate. The first two weeks would be filled with specialized instruction to prepare them for the following week of proficiency exams in shiphandling, meteorology, seamanship, navigation, chartwork, and Rules of the Road. The fourth week would be filled with formal simulator assessments by post-command O-5- and O-6-level officers. The candidates would be required to demonstrate their ability to plan and execute pilotage, take station on another ship, conduct an underway replenishment, and safely apply the Rules of the Road. On successful demonstration of these skills, each officer would be awarded a standardized merchant qualification.
The second portion of Phase 3 would consist of four weeks dedicated to the surface warfare officer qualification process. Similar to the first month of phase 3, officers would sit through formal instruction followed by a series of exams testing their knowledge of big picture Navy and basic warfare tactics. During the final week of the surface warfare qualification process, officers would be evaluated during a formal interview administered by a panel of officers ranging from the O-4 to O-6 level. Those who pass the exams and are recommended by the board would be awarded their surface warfare qualification along with their warfare device.
The final month of Phase 3 would be concluded by attending any training courses required before assuming divisional responsibilities (i.e., Communications Officer School, DDG-51 Engineering Class, etc.).
Phase 4 —Complement Officer
Once certified, officers would report to the ships they were detailed to and assume a complementary role both as watchstanders and division officers.
The Money Question
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead stated in his keynote address at the January 2008 Surface Navy Symposium:
For the Navy, we must exercise appetite suppression and we must scrupulously separate needs from wants. We do not have the budget to operate any other way. I expect Navy leaders to take a disciplined approach in determining our needs. An approach based in the Maritime Strategy that strives to balance among the six core capabilities, linking each purchase to a capability or capabilities will be the test that I will apply.
The transformation of our surface warfare training pipeline is a "need," not a "want." The proficiency and professionalism of our SWOs is directly proportional to our ability to operate and fight our ships. My proposal will require the allocation of more resources; however, in today's Navy, where the advancement of technology has increased our capabilities while allowing us to reduce manpower, we have an obvious trade-off. When the surface Navy looked to trim costs a few years ago, they decided to reduce the amount of formalized training instead of cutting personnel. The Royal Navy took a much different approach when asked to do the same, by reducing personnel instead of training; in fact they even improved their training to compensate. The Royal Navy has been asked to do more with less, and their success with this is directly related to the quality of training provided to those who are being asked to do more.
The U.S. Navy evolved from a group of disorganized patriotic privateers into the most powerful Navy in the world by adopting and refining many of the Royal Navy's techniques, tactics, and principles. But after spending 24 months with the Royal Navy, I am confident we can become even more powerful and productive by training our junior officers better. Admiral Roughead clearly stated in his 2007-2008 CNO Guidance Message that his goal is to "attract, recruit and retain a diverse, high-performing, competency-based and mission-focused force." My limited perspective, having spent my division officer years equally divided between the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy, has given me reason to believe that we can make great strides toward realizing this goal solely by transforming the way we train.
What we face today is not a leadership problem at the commanding officer level, but a competency problem at the junior officer level. The root of the problem is that we are not providing our commanding officers, but more important our Sailors, with the properly trained junior officers they deserve. In no way do I profess that my proposal is the perfect solution to adequately prepare ensigns for their first tours at sea, but I do think it is a step in the right direction.