Marketing Surface Warfare at the U.S. Naval Academy

By Ensign Brett Gentile, U.S. Navy

The “best of the best” academically at the Academy. They tended toward the surface community, but not because of their desire to be a surface warfare officer (SWO). Rather, the surface community offered these midshipmen the most flexibility with immediate Naval Academy graduate education programs and an option to get out of the service quickly and apply themselves in a way more aligned with their studies.

Those who didn’t seem to fit in or align with any particular military lifestyle. There are midshipmen who don’t resonate with any community and would feel equally lost serving as an officer in any community. Surface warfare was considered the safest pick and had the lowest time obligation among all the service communities.

Midshipmen who were not necessarily attracted to but rather were placed in the surface warfare community as a last resort. This is the group that ranked lowest in their class. The Naval Academy has set up the surface community as the baseline for service assignment and the default community. This is another reason it has been seen as less desirable by the brigade at large.

Around 2015, the “five and dive” mentality began to fade. The time commitment for other communities became competitive to that five-year mark, and the pay offered by the submarine community couldn’t be matched by the surface community. The new buzzword for the surface community became “options.” This change was spearheaded by PERS-41 in its reimagining of the surface warfare junior officer career path and allowed for more deviation from the “traditional” SWO career path. The flexibility in career choices created the idea that SWOs can have a choose-your-own-adventure-style career. Given the variety of platforms and homeports, the new programs put into place, and the ability to shift some of them around to fit a person’s lifestyle, career goals, and personal goals, this was an incredible change for the surface community. Unfortunately, it did not seem to make a difference in recruiting for the surface community at the Naval Academy.

In the post 9-11 United States, the draw to all the service academies has been the call to arms and a sense of duty. At the Naval Academy, every warfare community took this to its advantage and incorporated it into its pitch to midshipmen to influence their choice of service assignment post-commissioning. The surface community, however, was the last one to take advantage of this motivation. This fact, combined with the inconsistent experiences midshipmen get with the surface fleet, led to an unfavorable view of the surface community.

Surface warfare has two main opportunities to expose midshipmen to the community that no other community has: the third-class midshipman cruise and the seamanship and navigation curriculum. The third-class cruise, called the youngster cruise, is a mandatory summer training evolution and a requirement for commissioning. Third-class midshipmen, in the summer directly following completion of their plebe year, spend approximately four weeks on board a naval warship. During that time, they are assigned an enlisted running mate who is to be their mentor and guide throughout the cruise. With approximately 1,000 midshipmen undergoing this cruise over the summer, however, it is difficult to ensure the same quality cruise for every midshipman.

I talked to two other first-class midshipmen—both Marine selects—about their summer cruise experience and discovered the effect of the cruise on their views of the surface community was vastly different. One of the midshipmen spent time on board a destroyer with a fire control technician running mate. During his cruise, the midshipman felt lost, seeming only to take up space and get in the way. It did provide one perspective of the community, but for so many, that one experience is the first and defining one and colors their opinion toward the entire community. The other midshipman is a prior enlisted Marine, and his experience on youngster cruise created a positive impression where previously there was none.

With so many cruises happening each summer, it is difficult to ensure a quality evolution for everyone. But the problem arises when midshipmen, who would be deemed stellar candidates for the surface community, have a poor experience and develop a negative view of the surface fleet. While summer cruises have room for improvement, there are additional internal factors that can improve the perception of the surface warfare community among midshipmen.

The seamanship and navigation curriculum includes the initial training and orientation of midshipmen over plebe summer. This training is then reinforced by three navigation courses required during a midshipman’s time at the Naval Academy. The curriculum covers basic ship handling, navigation, rules of the road, and training exercises on yard patrol craft. Classes are taught in majority by surface warfare lieutenants, but there also are always higher ranking officers as well as navigators from foreign navies. The curriculum teaches navigation effectively, and it exposes all midshipmen to one aspect of the surface warfare community. However, when the curriculum gets mundane or difficult, it reflects on the community. Midshipmen attracted to other warfare communities reinforce their beliefs by contrasting their desired communities with the seamanship and navigation curriculum. While this comparison is unfair, any negative experiences are tied to the surface warfare community.

Of course, positive experiences also are linked to the community. Another first-class midshipman I talked to discovered a passion for navigation through his experience in the seamanship and navigation curriculum. This passion became a large factor in the midshipman’s ultimate decision for service assignment, and may have never been identified if not for the seamanship and navigation curriculum.

Given the youngster cruise and the seamanship and navigation curriculum, one could argue that the marketing of the surface warfare community to midshipmen is in a good state. However, this greater exposure can be a drawback when compared to that of the other service communities. The exposure to the surface community gives midshipmen a fuller and more accurate feel for the community. This can be an advantage for the other warfare communities. With limited opportunities to introduce midshipmen to their communities, they must make each interaction meaningful to attract midshipman interest. So they share only the highlights and showcase the best their communities have to offer. Because a midshipman’s time at the Academy is short, there is no time to provide the full picture.

What other communities are able to do is show the warfighting aspect that draws in so many of the current generation of midshipmen at the Naval Academy. Midshipmen’s draw to warfighting should be considered in how the surface community presents itself through the seamanship and navigation curriculum. The curriculum could be tailored more to the warfighting principles of the surface fleet to make the community seem less about just finding a way from point to point. The curriculum could do a better job showing the principles of navigation as a prerequisite to surface warfighting.

The surface community faces a challenge at the Naval Academy, and its implications are massive. Recruiting and retaining quality officers is important to the success of any warfare community. The question the surface community leadership must answer moving forward is whether the messaging of the community is correct. Having more midshipmen wanting surface warfare as their first choice is not the answer. Getting the right officers for the community is. Officers who are positive about the surface community and better aligned to its culture will see results in the fleet, in both performance and retention. A good fit with the attitude and culture of a community has more effect on retention than a signing bonus ever will.

Ensign Gentile graduated and was commissioned from the U.S. Naval Academy on 26 May 2017. He will complete a masters degree in computer science at the Naval Postgraduate School before serving on board the USS Michael Murphy (DDG-112).



More on SurfaceWarfare

This Community Isn’t for Runner-Ups

By Ensign Sierra Knoch, U.S. Navy

Surface warfare has long been seen by midshipmen as the community for runners-up—midshipmen who could not medically qualify, who were not selected for a more prestigious community, who were let go by the nuclear power program; basically whoever was left over. The most recent graduating classes at the U.S. Naval Academy, however, have attempted to change that stereotype.

During my plebe year, the first-class midshipmen made going into the surface community sound like the worst decision you could make as a future officer. Naturally and quickly, the class of 2017 turned a blind eye to the surface warfare community. I sure did.

There was one first-class midshipman in my company who received surface warfare on service selection day, and I remember asking her what happened to her first choice. She explained that she would not have been able to meet the mission of the Marine Corps but still wanted the opportunity to lead a division or unit right after graduation. She was the first person I met at the Academy who was proud to be going surface warfare.

Youngster cruise is intended is to give midshipmen an experience of life as an enlisted sailor. We were told that the perfect assignment was a ship in San Diego or Pearl Harbor that never left port, but even as a wannabe Marine, I still tried to appreciate shipboard life. I was lucky to be placed with the Weapons Department on my destroyer. Crew members were requalifying all the weapons on the ship to pass inspections for a port transfer, so I was able to shoot each one. During one of the days in port, the Close-In Weapon System jammed and broke through the feeding belt. My running mate was the head technician on the system, so we spent several hours trying to fix the weapon. This went well into the liberty call, but the gun had to be fixed. The Weapons department head was the first officer to take liberty. Half his department was still working on malfunctioning machinery, but this officer decided he deserved liberty first. I gained two things that day: a simple lesson on something not to do as a commissioned officer and an appreciation for the surface community, especially the enlisted personnel. While the work sailors do is not high speed or “sexy,” it is necessary and requires a dedication beyond what I had expected.

During second-class summer every midshipman spends a week with each community—aviation, Marine, surface, and submarine. This training was the first time I saw my peers truly consider the surface community as a career path. The surface warfare officers involved were straightforward and did not try to compare surface life to grunt life. The perception of surface warfare as less glamorous and less exciting began to change. Those who wanted to go surface warfare were proud of it. Why the change? Maybe it was the fun competition to earn a shirt, the realistic and honest accounts from the junior officers, or simply a maturity issue, but for the first time since arriving at the Academy, I was comfortable saying surface warfare was at least my second choice.

Second semester, summer trainings were being assigned, and I was trying to learn everything about a potential occupation specialty. The more I looked, the more I thought about how much I learned from my youngster cruise and what I would truly contribute to the Marine Corps. Trying to take the emotion out of my decision-making process was not easy, but all the counseling and information suggested I would not fit into the Marine Corps like I could in the surface community. Two weeks before the last round of nuclear power interviews for the semester, I signed up to early select Surface Warfare, Nuclear Option. Two weeks later, I signed the contract to become a surface warfare officer.

This past year was a testament to the altered view of the surface warfare community at the Academy. The Class of 2017 had 176 midshipmen put surface warfare first. With only 175 spots available, this was the first time more people wanted to be a surface warfare officer than there were spots available.

This year ship selection was moved to Alumni Hall, and the turnout was impressive. Most midshipmen had to stand it was so packed. Some of my classmates even expressed jealousy and excitement over the deployments and experiences I am soon to face. Positivity and pride in the surface community are developing within the walls of Bancroft Hall. My class has been vocal and overwhelmingly positive about the surface community to our underclass. First class midshipmen are proud walking on the Yard with their ship hats on Warrior Fridays or a miniature SWO pin on their blues. 1160 is no longer a designator for the runner-ups.

Ensign Knoch graduated and was commissioned from the U.S. Naval Academy on 26 May 2017 and will serve in the USS Lake Erie (CG-70).


It’s A Calling and an Adventure

By Ensign Heidi Zisselman, U.S. Navy

This past summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Ghana, Africa, with a group of midshipmen and professors to study Ghanaian history, Pan-Africanism, and the African slave trade. The trip led me to reflect on my future career in the surface Navy.

One of my most meaningful experiences in Ghana was visiting Elmina Castle, a slave fort built on the Gold Coast of Ghana and a critical outpost of the Atlantic slave trade. I was struck by the dark slave holding cells, the enduring human smells, and the ominously named “room of no return.” But, even more so, I was struck by the ocean. As I watched the waves hit the sand of Elmina beach, I reflected on the ocean itself and the role I would play in the human history that occurs on the oceans.

Less than a week later, I was on the opposite side of the Atlantic, headed to my first-class surface cruise in Norfolk, Virginia. Within a day, I was afloat in the same waters African slaves crossed on ships captained by European sailors, yet now I was on a U.S. Navy ship.

My first-class cruise cemented my desire to become a surface warfare officer because I was so impressed by the camaraderie and work ethic of the crew and the excitement of shipboard life. In addition, I feel called to serve in the surface Navy because of the humanitarian aspects of the service, an element of the Navy’s mission that moved me deeply as I stood on the lookout tower of Elmina Castle.

I am connected to Elmina Castle and Ghana through the slave trade. I gain a sense of security knowing the U.S. Navy will not allow such a tragedy to happen again and that I will join the force that protects my country through humane work. I will report to my first command with a newfound understanding of the ocean, that it can be both a place of suffering and a place to learn and work. I am proud to be a part of the naval force that creates and maintains peace on the world’s seas.

My view of the Atlantic from Ghana gave me a new perspective on the ocean that will continue to inform my thinking about the role of the Navy. Service to my country on the ocean is both a calling and an adventure, and I seek to serve with courage, integrity, and grace under fire.

Ensign Zisselman graduated and was commissioned from the U.S. Naval Academy on 26 May 2017 and will serve on board the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) in Yokosuka, Japan.

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy (Adam R. Cole)



Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

17 January - Book Talk

Thu, 2019-01-17

18 January - Presentation

Fri, 2019-01-18

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership