Plank Owner: Training a Better Sailor
Serving as a crew member during the interval preceding a ship’s commissioning (often referred to as precomm) provides an unparalleled perspective into the complexities of both programmatic and technical systems that allow a ship to function. The ship’s leaders—those who establish the innumerable programs and processes whose intricacies might be taken for granted on an already operational ship—are afforded tremendous insight into the details of Navy programs and policies. Precomm ship leaders relieve no one and receive no pass-down from predecessors as to how their duties should be performed.
The precomm ship leaders must start at the bottom and follow a steep learning curve focused on crew training as they ascend. In addition, the nature of the precomm personnel structure requires that leaders of the same ship communicate across long distances, sometimes navigating fragmented chains of command. While they usually manage to struggle through such impediments, often relying on personal phones and email, the communication process readily could be improved simply by making better use of modern technology such as Web-based collaboration or video-teleconferencing.
The common shipboard operational mantra of “show me the reference” is nowhere truer than in a precomm environment: The only reference at the ship’s disposal is the source document outlining how a given procedure or process is to be conducted. Leaders are not able to adopt programs and processes that already function efficiently—they don’t exist yet!—but they can leave as their legacy an environment in which their reliefs will succeed. The more immediate outcome, however, is the production of smarter and better-versed leaders and crew, who know the details and can lead and manage programs more effectively in the future.
Precomm duty necessitates innovative leadership. As personnel arrive to the command in its early stages, it is imperative that programs and processes start functioning despite the absence of a full crew to run them. Creativity is a must; challenging the status quo is a daily requirement. While statistics and experience-level vary from ship to ship, the William P. Lawrence ’s precomm crew was about one third sailors with previous destroyer experience, another third with sea time on a different platform, and a final third directly from boot camp or accession sources with no sea time under their belts. Blending this disparate group of sailors and training them as a team to operate one of the Navy’s most technologically advanced warships was both challenging and rewarding.
For the deckplate sailor who truly brings the ship to life, extensive professional development comes quickly as a result of early oversight of the ship’s material and equipment installation. Precomm sailors have a front-row seat to the implementation of every system on board and gain unique insights as they work hand-in-hand with the technical experts who build, test, and integrate each component into the systems that make up a modern warship. That access forms an unofficial but integral facet of the complex training process that produces a truly well-rounded sailor having a profound understanding of his or her equipment. Thus, the precomm sailor sees the “big picture”—traversing well beyond the scope of his or her rate.
In addition to the technical education and training opportunities sailors receive as members of a precomm crew, they have the privilege of participating in the actual commissioning ceremony of the warship. That tremendous opportunity exposes the crew to the symbolic process of naming a ship, and thereby the history and heritage of her namesake. The William P. Lawrence , for example, was named for Vice Admiral William Porter Lawrence, a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1951, a naval aviator, and a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Throughout precomm, the ship’s crew built a close relationship with Admiral Lawrence’s former Academy classmates, squadron mates, and his family, and were personally affected by learning firsthand of the heroism and humility of their ship’s namesake.
Best Practices for Managing Training
Early in the precomm process, a detachment is established in the ship’s prospective homeport. It serves as a satellite facility to manage schools and administration for the crew as it arrives in a tiered sequence. Schools are scheduled based on a sailor’s arrival date and expected billet. While some crew have training pipelines lasting a year or more, others are in class for mere weeks. Regardless, a new precomm crew member may find himself in an environment not unlike shore duty, where schools abound and duty is minimal. While underway life and the pace of an operational ship’s schedule is months away—perhaps even years—ship leaders are challenged to quickly implement procedures that instill the urgency of achieving underway watch-team proficiency.
Leaders, on their first day at the detachment, must establish a simple yet critical training objective: Direct training of the crew so when the time comes, your underway and in-port watchbills can be filled by qualified professionals. That goal is not inherent to the process, and it requires real leadership to convert schoolhouse training into practical proficiencies to “stand the watch.”
In the beginning, the efforts to train the crew will center around the acquisition of needed naval enlisted classifications (NECs)—the designated skills acquired through formal classroom training and surface force training manual–required schools. A crew can be manned on paper through predetermined NECs and schools, but to accomplish the highest level of professionalism demanded of an inaugural crew, the ship’s leadership must think outside the box. As such, it is critical that when a new sailor arrives at the command, the leadership must have in mind from day one the specific watch-stations the sailor is capable of filling, and what training must be planned that isn’t already in place to move the sailor toward qualification.
The earlier a leader establishes watchbill frameworks and tailors additional training toward specific watch-stations each sailor will stand on board the ship, the better the chances of getting under way with a proficient crew. In short, the crew will be manned and the on-paper training requirements will be filled, but how the team is organized to support underway operations must be a priority for the ship’s initial leaders.
To support proficient watch-standing for the fast-approaching first day of living on board and first underway day, cross-training sailors to the greatest extent possible is a must. During precomm there will be sizeable gaps in an individual sailor’s established training pipelines. Make every available effort for sailors to have additional training opportunities, both in-rate and beyond. One way to do that is to facilitate a sailor’s ability to acquire additional NECs beyond their assigned billet. That is a win for the sailor and for the strength of the surface force. A sailor formally cross-trained to meet a variety of Fleet requirements supports optimal manning, and that is the only way surface combatants will be able to respond to drawdowns in personnel allotments. The sailor benefits because the diversified skills make him a more dynamic asset to the Fleet. The training the sailor receives and the resultant ability to fill a wider variety of future billets carry significant benefits for potential advancement.
As ship leaders on the William P. Lawrence , we were cautioned early on to show restraint in attaining numerous additional NECs for our personnel. The reasoning? It increased the potential for such sailors to get pulled from our ship to support manning shortfalls on other ships in the future. We ultimately concluded, however, that the pros outweighed the cons; what helps the surface force as a whole will not hurt the ship itself. In addition, deserving sailors must be afforded the opportunity to broaden the scope of their technical abilities, lest we end up pigeonholing our most capable personnel.
Teaming with a Sister Ship
One of the most effective ways to tailor additional training outside of NEC and billet-driven pipelines is to establish a strong sister-ship program. As noted earlier, nearly a third of the crew assigned to the William P. Lawrence had never been under way before, and in other cases the percentage of such first-timers in a commissioning crew has been even higher. Therefore, on a consistent basis, precomm chiefs and first class petty officers must reach out to peers who are on board ships and create opportunities for the unseasoned crew members to get some shipboard training and experience. Likewise precomm leaders should frequently emphasize that a sailor’s first time under way should not be on board his or her own ship.
There is no substitute for at-sea experience in building a team to safely operate the ship. It is critical to manage any cross-deck opportunities by linking watchbill assignments with specific skills that a sailor must acquire while in a sister-ship. If there is ambiguity about the objectives the sailors are working toward while in other ships, that is a strong indication that the command has not yet thought through the details of its own internal processes to support underway operations.
The William P. Lawrence established a philosophy of “Lawrence Warrior” skills, which include weapons qualification, basic damage control, basic maintenance and material management qualification, and basic first aid. Crew proficiency in those skills—expected of every sailor on board—is best gained by at-sea experience early in the precomm pipeline, and thus far has translated into a high rate of success for a now-operational warship.
In the midst of the high tempo required to establish programs and get sailors under way, remain mindful that you can’t do everything. Don’t overlook the fact that operational warships run smoothly because they have been refining practices and procedures for years, even decades. Thus, if you expect to be able to complete every duty of a fully commissioned ship to perfection from the beginning, you undoubtedly will lose sight of those matters that demand the most attention. As operations intensify and the crew moves aboard the ship while preparing for sailaway, be judicious in identifying the priorities. Execute the most important objectives with efficiency and safety, and focus on the ultimate goal of a safe first outing. Everything else must be appropriately ordered so as not to detract attention from the primary objectives.
Paving the Way for DDG-113—and Beyond
The restart of the Aegis destroyer program in lieu of the alternative high-cost Zumwalt -class destroyer program is afoot with the awarding of a contract for the construction of DDG-113 to Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi. The William P. Lawrence ’s recent precomm experience at Ingalls gives credence to Admiral James Stavridis’ assessment of a new ship’s first crew in his 1999 book Command at Sea : “Certainly no single crew will ever play as important a role in establishing the standards, reputation and legacy that will follow the ship throughout her life.”
Indeed, the multibillion dollar investment the Navy and the American people make in a new warship with an intended lifespan of 35-40 years demands that the admiral’s observation be taken to heart. Focusing on quality and supporting infrastructure early in the ship’s life is the best way to maximize the investment in national security.
The current destroyer program, while time-tested, nonetheless could benefit from a few course corrections designed to support the crew and the establishment of the ship’s critical programs, especially training. Such changes would have far-reaching effects on a new ship’s success long after the plank owners have been rung ashore.
Sailors must, immediately on reporting to the command, be ushered into a clear military environment. The housing and support facilities in Pascagoula, Mississippi, designed for those crews manning ships at Huntington Ingalls, are being renovated after years of heavy use. The William P. Lawrence ’s crew and leadership found those facilities to be a challenge, often drawing attention away from critical training time. Even with a strong chain of command, facilities with very little military presence—other than ship’s crew to manage the building—often proved disadvantageous to the precomm process.
Having sailors stay in hotels for months on end, as is the practice in Maine to support ships built at Bath Iron Works, falls short of setting the appropriate tone of a structured, disciplined environment. Establishment and maintenance of a clear chain of command is the responsibility of the ship’s wardroom and chief’s mess, but proper facilities will go a long way in ensuring that environment is created early and effectively.
Focus on the Crew
The precomm crew establishes the tone of a new ship, and as such is the most important asset on which the Navy can—and should—focus resources. Although the Bureau of Personnel ostensibly provides a fully trained and fully manned crew, the crew itself bears enormous responsibility toward actively seeking solutions to manning gaps that arise, lest the ship embark on her maiden voyage undermanned and undertrained. The workload inherent in taking custody of a warship, meeting all certification requirements, and executing with precision all the duties of a fully commissioned ship cannot effectively be achieved unless a full complement of trained crew members is forthcoming in a timely manner.
Concurrently, personnel identified for precomm duty must be rigorously screened after receipt of orders and prior to arrival at the command. Despite the special criteria that exist to assign someone to precommissioning, in truth, many sailors report for duty lacking the requirements for the positions to which they are billeted. There are a host of disqualifiers, including failure to meet physical-fitness standards, legal issues, and disciplinary problems, any of which should have precluded their assignment to the precommissioning unit.
The time and manpower leadership expends in vetting such issues after the personnel arrive is a strain and great distraction from what should be the focus at that time: training to get the ship under way. When such cases arise, it is often too late to engage the Personnel Command at Millington, Tennessee, to find a qualified sailor for a billet. Thus the leadership must make the difficult choice between keeping an unqualified crew member or refusing him or her—thereby leaving the billet empty until long after the ship is commissioned. The window of opportunity available to adequately train a precomm crew already is narrow; unanticipated personnel issues that arise detract from the focus on important training and milestones. Given that the precomm crew is instrumental in determining the long-term success of the ship, resolution of such manpower challenges will ensure that taxpayers receive a full return on their investment.
When sea trials have been completed and the ship is deemed ready for naval service, the final stage of the precomm process is ensuring that the crew has acquired all needed certifications and proficiencies. The ship is required to achieve baseline type commander (TYCOM) standards of proficiency in areas deemed essential to safely operate at sea. But at this stage of integration with TYCOM standards there is an enormous support gap when it comes to making certain that precomm crews are fully aware of what is expected of them and have the necessary resources. Having never been in service, there are many areas in which it is essentially impossible for the ship to meet higher-echelon standards. Thus, navigating the final stages of achieving those levels of proficiency becomes an ambiguous process for the crew. Likewise, the assessors themselves often operate subjectively, realizing that exceptions to Fleet standards must be made. Though the ship will receive recommendations and other forms of “wheel book” or “tribal knowledge” from past precomm crews and training-support centers, there is no unified support system at the TYCOM level to provide answers when questions arise.
To correct that problem, TYCOM should focus on the integration of equivalent training standards for precomm ships. One simple and critical way to achieve that would be creating a position within the Afloat Training Group to be liaison with all precomm ships. That authority would become the expert on the precomm training process, and be able to establish codified procedures and policies for integration with the Fleet. The concept is nothing new; all in-service ships have a training-support liaison within ATG to assist them, but no liaison familiar with the precomm process exists. Ideally this position would be filled by someone with precomm experience. That officer’s goal would be to interact with other Fleet support elements to standardize processes and eliminate the ambiguity that arises in the final months of crew certification—a time when a ship can most benefit from a clear set of standards.
Leading the process to transform a crew from a disparate group of sailors with baseline knowledge to a focused fighting team is a true challenge, but the professional rewards are well worth the effort. Precomm service is a unique forum: Sailors develop individual skills and versatility as a sense of ownership is fostered among the crew.
With careful attention to detail and a bit of creative thinking, training a precommissioning crew yields a high-quality return on investment, providing the American people with a warship ready for decades of service in support of national security.
Lieutenant Coyle is a 2007 graduate of the University of San Diego and the NROTC program there. He earned his surface warfare officer designation in the forward-deployed USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) from 2007–9, before reporting to the precommissioning crew of the William P. Lawrence as training officer in 2010.