Seek command “Early and Often,” the surface community advises its junior officers.1 Yet the surface Navy’s reliance on expensive, sophisticated, multimission platforms has left it with few opportunities for early command. Only 24 hulls—13 coastal patrol ships (PCs) and 11 mine countermeasures ships (MCMs)—with commanding officers (COs) below the rank of O-5. In addition to being few in number, these commands are only earlier, not early. Eligibility is limited to a narrow window of post-department head senior lieutenants and junior lieutenant commanders usually 10 to 15 years into their careers.
Compare this to President John F. Kennedy, who took command of PT-109 as a lieutenant (junior grade) in April 1943; to Lieutenant Katie Spira, who assumed command of the USCGC Haddock (WPB-87347) as an O-2 in 2014; or to Admiral Chester Nimitz, who held command seven times before his eighth year of service.2
Our Marine Corps and Coast Guard brethren excel at providing their core line officers with opportunities for small-unit leadership early in their careers. By the time Marine infantry officers are mid-grade majors, many have held the role of commander four times: twice at the platoon level and twice as company commanders. Likewise, the Coast Guard has more than 100 hulls available for junior officers to command, including the 87-foot Marine Protector, the 110-foot Island, and the 154-foot Sentinel-classes.3
Captain Wyatt Chidester, the former CO of the USS Hue City (CG-66), recently explained how command experience is the best instructor and, if done right, “builds a culture where ALL subordinate officers aspire to command. The more often an officer gets the chance to command . . . the better off our Navy will be.” Despite this sage wisdom, the current surface Navy model implies the challenges of being a division officer or department head and the responsibility of standing officer of the deck or tactical action officer provide adequate preparations for command. The record number of naval commanders relieved in recent years—a number disproportionate to our sister services—says otherwise. These non-command milestones are valuable but pale in comparison to the benefits of early command.
For individuals serving in roles such as division officer or department head, the navigator, executive officer, or captain provides a lifeline during the toughest situations. Regardless of the platform, the pinnacle of leadership is when those lifelines are unavailable, leaving the decision and responsibility ultimately to rest with you as the commander.
Allowing junior officers (JOs) to tackle the challenges that come with early command of an independent platform sharpens their ability with each iteration. Providing them with platforms that progress in lethality, complexity, and expense moderates the gamble senior commanders take in providing that unique opportunity and the risk that first-time commanders might jeopardize major assets.
Then-Vice Admiral Bill Moran wrote in December 2014, “What unites successful leaders across generations is trust.”4 Failure to extend the special trust and confidence of command from career officers to their JOs weakens the profession. Emphasis on small-unit leadership can shore up those bonds, validating and reinforcing trust through a chain of commanders who must demonstrate competence and a sense of unity in their common mission. Giving JOs a place in that chain inextricably links the success of seniors and juniors, strengthening it each time the other succeeds in command. It grows perhaps more when mistakes give seniors the occasion to counsel a junior over common trials, and then return him or her to the chair a wiser, more mature officer.
Small-unit leadership also has a unique impact on personal growth and satisfaction by giving JOs the “autonomy, opportunity, and trust where it matters most.”5 When it comes to COs being relieved, many reports highlight personal misconduct as a root cause. Numerous pitfalls and temptations await commanders each time they take charge. Testing JOs against these obstacles early in their careers is best for them and even better for the Navy. Those who choose wisely (or learn sufficiently) from dealing with these pitfalls—having been tested tactically, physically, and morally—are stronger for it and have proved worthy of greater responsibility. Conversely, the Navy has the chance to identify and remove those officers who are unfit or lack the personal judgment to command capital assets.
More positively, command is intensely rewarding. The commanders with whom I have served, from second lieutenant to commodore, routinely have commented that one’s worst days in command often are better than one’s best days elsewhere. It may not be easy, or always enjoyable (particularly in combat units), but no one has ever said he did not find it fulfilling. Early command should offer another great reason why being a naval officer beats out jobs on Wall Street or Main Street.
Early command of a surface combatant may epitomize small-unit leadership in the Navy, but its precepts apply across all communities. The aviation and civil engineer communities give their officers ample opportunities for early, independent leadership prior to O-5 command. Consider these examples of JOs responsible for a discrete element sent away from their parent unit to accomplish an assigned mission:
During a Hellfire air-training missile mission, Lieutenant James Angel, an MH-60S pilot, experienced a noncritical hydraulic failure in his aircraft. He decided as the helicopter aircraft commander (HAC) to abort and return to base. Poor weather in conjunction with the hydraulic failure led him to declare an emergency to receive priority attention from the airfield’s control tower. After weighing the options, Lieutenant Angel was confident in his crew’s ability to make an instrumented approach and began ascending into the weather. As an alternative, his crew chief recommended using the available fuel to maintain a holding area below the cloud level to give the weather a chance to clear. “He was absolutely right,” Lieutenant Angel said. “Sure enough, we waited, the clouds parted, and we were able to fly it home without going into the clouds.”
No senior officers were there to direct the decision-making, nor were they needed. Lieutenant Emily Lapp, an MH-60R pilot, summed up the independence of an HAC: “When you are flying in a hairy situation, there’s no captain you can call on to come help you out.” The principles emphasized by the aviation community (procedures, judgment, and cockpit resource management), combined with the trust and authority to make the decision, are exactly the kinds of small-unit conditions that develop the experience needed in future commanding officers.
The Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps (Seabees) places immense trust and responsibility in its junior officers to lead small units. Besides unit-billeted platoon and company commander positions, JOs also are frequently leaders of detachments deployed to accomplish their own projects. While with Navy Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 4, Lieutenant Allison Clarke led a detachment of 25 Seabees in paving a $1.2 million extension to the runway in Camp Simba, Kenya. Her headquarters element was 4,000 miles away, in Spain. Although headquarters was available for reach-back, Lieutenant Clarke was the authority on-scene and responsible for the detail’s personnel, equipment, and successful mission accomplishment—a de facto manifestation of the essence of command.
Leadership at all levels comes down to balancing mission accomplishment and troop welfare. A naval special warfare (NSW) JO highlighted three traits he believes are explicitly developed through his community’s repeated small-unit leadership opportunities: humility, enabling others, and understanding the context of one’s own unit in the larger mission. All leaders must balance troop welfare and mission accomplishment, but early command opportunities produce leaders who are experienced in looking out for their troops while getting the job done.
The benefit of expanding small-unit opportunities extends to the chiefs’ mess and our enlisted sailors, as well. The more independent leadership billets we provide to JOs, the more places there are for chiefs to hit the deckplates in senior enlisted leader positions. Likewise, even the junior-most individuals in small units (such as helicopter crew chiefs) are vested with more responsibility than they would be in a larger unit. The success of a small unit demands every member contribute; initiative, discipline, esprit de corps, and teamwork are indispensable.
Chief Electronics Technician Nick Howell, who served in Riverine Squadron 3, explained the challenges are unique from larger, better-supported ships in that “more often than not, the answer to your current predicament cannot be found in a manual,” that is why “small units require the best of its sailors. Not the best sailor, but the best from its sailors.” This small-unit dynamic strengthens the continuum of trust and helps develop our force from top to bottom, sharpening the technical prowess and leadership of officers and enlisted alike.
Incentivize Small-Unit Leadership
Some opportunities are available for small-unit leadership, but their number and value within the Navy can be improved. Expanding the development and acquisition of medium-size patrol craft is an obvious answer for surface-warfare officers (SWOs). Any new program, however, involves budget considerations and a potentially long timeline. In the interim, increasing and incentivizing those billets that require small-unit leadership or are “command-like” in nature costs nothing. Coastal riverine squadrons, for example, have three or four company-command billets plus six to eight platoon commanders. The challenge of leading an independently deployable boat detachment, particularly in the well-armed and highly maneuverable riverine platoons, offers an exceptional opportunity to grow as a leader and warrior. Add to this the coastal command boat and follow-on Mark VI patrol craft, which also can be be commanded by a junior officer. Even the recent incident with Iran presents a valuable, albeit regrettable, leadership lesson for our junior officers and a gut-check for the Navy on how we are developing them.
Rather than being encouraged as challenging leadership opportunities, these small-unit billets are eschewed by the active surface line and viewed as an expeditionary aside to the SWO career path. Seeking the rigors of small-unit leadership early and often should never be merely tolerated; it should be encouraged and used to develop the future of our service. Incentivizing billets like these is a step toward bringing back the Navy’s capacity for early command.
We can broaden the scope further by taking a page from our chiefs’ book and emphasizing the importance of leading sailors at every opportunity. Our officer corps comprises many professionals, including mariners, aviators, lawyers, intelligence experts, doctors, and more. Each of these professions has an analog in the civilian community, but we chose to include them as part of the Navy. In doing so, we chose to be first and foremost naval officers. Communities not already emphasizing early command-like leadership should decide how they can best incorporate it into their career progression and reward those officers who seek out and succeed in the challenge of leading sailors.
Only a pervasive aversion to risk stands in our way. Royal Navy Commander John Craig, in the February 2014 Proceedings, warned that “COs are avoiding opportunities to develop individual and unit skills as they attempt instead to minimize higher-level scrutiny.”6 As a result, too many professional environments across our Navy are choked by excessive caution. Regardless of community, a lack of trust and aversion to risk undermine our ability to lead effectively, particularly when we are leading sailors into harm’s way.
Trusting junior officers with early command is a risk. Youth, intemperance, and inexperience are dangerous if not molded by disciplined authority (as the Farsi Island incident demonstrated). Our Navy’s rich history of accepting risk to instill trust, however, has allowed it to send commanders on expeditions to be diplomat, explorer, and warfighter. This spirit must be reinvigorated. The best way to build effective combat leaders is to challenge them to repeatedly in command—early and often.
1. RADM Harley Cope, USN, Command at Sea, New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1943. LCDR Ted Pledger, USN, “Surface Warfare Officers Should Command Early and Often,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 139, no 10 (October 2013), 12.
2. Mark J. Denger, “Fleet Admiral Chester A. Nimitz: A Five Star Submariner,” Military Museum, www.militarymuseum.org/Nimitz.html.
3. U.S. Coast Guard, “Aircraft, Boats, and Cutters”, 23 May 2014, www.uscg.mil/datasheet/#cutters.
4. VADM Bill Moran, USN, “Once Again . . . A Moment Ripe for Change,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 12 (December 2014), 18–23.
6. CDR John Craig, RN, “In Defense of Taking Risks,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 2 (February 2014), 60–64.