In a time of tight budgets and rapidly evolving operational concepts, today’s surface Navy is seeking new ways of doing business. It is time to look beyond the “do more with less” mentality and revisit history for a lesson in “doing more with more!”
For nearly 200 years U.S. naval and merchant marine officers were so indistinguishable that their careers were almost interchangeable. In times of conflict, mariners manned warships in support of U.S. war efforts, and in times of peace sailors sought work on merchantmen to help pay the bills. The Navy’s birth was based on arming the Continental merchant fleet when mariners such as John Paul Jones and John Barry traded their cargo booms for cannons.
These close ties persisted after the Revolutionary War and are codified in law to this day. Federal law (46 U.S. Code Subtitle V) requires that the Merchant Marine serve as a naval auxiliary in times of crisis and that the Navy train mariners in naval operations. However, somewhere over the past two to three decades, because of increased regulation of the maritime industry on one side and increased naval bureaucracy on the other, these two seafaring communities diverged. Naval officers are finding it increasingly difficult to earn a U.S. Coast Guard license based on the educational and training requirements set forth by the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). Likewise, a mariner’s civil credentials mean little in terms of naval qualifications.
The two communities now are so distinct that they no longer recognize one another. Misconceptions and false beliefs on both sides have driven the two communities to hold each other in disdain. Sailors believe most merchant mariners are asleep at the helm, blindly droning along in their simple hulks to their next port, while mariners believe Navy warships are driven by a team of incompetent rookies, recklessly hazarding everything afloat. The mariners believe, “Anything Gray = Stay Away.”
The stereotypes are many, but both misconceptions are incorrect and persist because of a lack of crosspollination. Reuniting these seafarers offers incredible opportunities for both the Navy and the maritime industry and may be one of the best ways to advance surface warfare. Moreover, the Navy already has a line officer community within the Navy Reserves capable of doing just that.
In their January 2015 Proceedings article “Distributed Lethality,” Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden and Rear Admirals Peter Gumataotao and Peter Fanta describe the future of surface warfare, focusing on small groups of ships conducting offensive operations over large areas. Central to this concept is reliance on dispersed expeditionary operations and offensive firepower across many types of vessels, including logistical support ships. Distributed lethality will test the Military Sealift Command (MSC) in terms of the logistical reach required to support a less concentrated force. It also will blur the lines between combatant and auxiliary, integrating MSC ships into offensive combat roles.
With the introduction of the USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB-3) afloat forward staging base and the Spearhead-class joint high speed vessel, MSC is taking on new missions and roles more commonly associated with surface warfare. As a result, the Navy’s surface warfare community will be required to consider how to “fight” these ships. The conventional solution might be to reintroduce surface warfare officers (SWOs) to MSC ships, but there is a better way. Most of these ships already are manned by line officers belonging to the Navy’s strategic sealift officer (SSO) community. Why not train them to integrate their ships into the combat fleet?
Already recognized as experts in sea-based logistics by the U.S. Transportation Command, Military Sealift Command, and the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, officers in the Navy’s SSO program (SSOP) formerly were known as the Navy’s Merchant Marine Reserve. They were once often found serving on board warships, filling all manner of emergency manpower needs until the 1980s. The SSOP had an added benefit of providing opportunities for crosspollination between the Navy and Merchant Marine. For reasons likely linked to the formalization of personnel management practices, SSOs fell off the Navy surface warfare detailer’s scope and now are used almost entirely to support MSC missions.
In the fall of 2014, MSC and Navy Reserve Forces Command teamed with the USS Cowpens (CG-63) to close the gap between the SWO and SSO communities by integrating SSOs into the Cowpens’ wardroom over a one-year period. Initially a way to get extra marine engineering talent through two-week reserve training periods, the program expanded to fill gapped SWO division officer billets with full-time SSOs. By the end of the first year, 22 SSOs had served on board the Cowpens, four as full-time division officers, filling the navigator, first lieutenant, repair officer, and assistant chief engineer billets.
The SSOs assigned to Cowpens ranged in rank from ensign to captain, with steam, diesel, and gas turbine engineering licenses ranging from third assistant to chief engineer and unlimited deck officers ranging from third mate to master. In addition to their U.S. Coast Guard credentials, these officers brought civilian employment experience in areas such as deep-sea shipping, off shore oil exploration, shipyard management, and civilian nuclear power.
The experience gave the Cowpens’ SWOs a deep appreciation for the skills inherent in the maritime industry and an understanding of the professional qualifications of our civilian counterparts. The SSOs gained an appreciation for the complexities of modern surface warfare. The Cowpens became more self-sufficient in the process. Her crew was exposed to conditions-based maintenance, basic welding and brazing techniques, and bending sheet metal to fix the ship—not just for damage control, but in daily maintenance. The machine shop began to buzz with production of parts and fittings that otherwise would have been contracted out simply because it is easier to write a job order than fix the ship. Bridge watchstander training took on a different appearance as well, with a new focus on navigation and seamanship. Not all the new practices were adopted, but both the Cowpens’ crew and the SSOs benefited from the exposure.
Three Examples of Crosspollination
An SSO’s first exposure to surface warfare. During bridge watchstander training, an SSO who had been sailing with MSC for several years commented that the Navy watchstanders during underway replenishments appeared more focused on maintaining an arbitrary schedule of events than on the safety of the task at hand. From his perspective, warships tended to focus on safety only during their certification process prior to deployment. After that, safety gave way to the hurried practices he saw every day in the Western Pacific. He explained that during several replenishments at sea (RAS), his rig crews became so frustrated with what they interpreted as reckless behavior that they intentionally slowed the pace to emphasize safety and protest the warships’ pushy behavior. Upon hearing this, the instructor set up an opposed RAS exercise and taught the SSO his first lesson in tactics. After a few runs, his whole demeanor changed. In ten years of sailing, no one had ever explained the tactics behind the mission he was supporting every day.
An SSO’s first exposure to naval mentorship. An SSO assigned to the Cowpens had been sailing for 26 years, mostly as a chief engineer for several MSC contract companies. His assignment to the Cowpens was his first to a warship. Despite the immense size of the merchant ships he had served on, their average crew complement typically was less than 25. He was amazed to learn how much time a Navy commanding officer dedicates to mentorship of the crew. His initial observation was that this was a distraction from the ship’s mission. This belief gave way over time to an intense study of leadership practices that could be leveraged for his company’s benefit. There are few provisions in the merchant fleet for on-the-job training or professional development under way. In his words, “you either work out, or you don’t.” When problems arise due to professional competency or personal conduct, the crewmember typically is fired or not invited back for the next voyage. On board the Cowpens this SSO attended career development boards and disciplinary review boards and sat through enlisted evaluation and officer fitness report debriefs. He estimated his company could save significantly if it instituted its own mentorship program to develop employees rather than firing them.
Sailors learn about the bottom line. An SSO was tasked with assisting the ship’s force in repairing a failed steam valve. After updating the current ship’s maintenance project and writing a casualty report, the SSO grew frustrated that the process would take several days and cost more than $10,000. So he visited a peer on a nearby MSC tugboat to borrow a torch and a cheater bar made from pipe stock. Within 30 minutes he removed the valve in front of a crowd of sailors who were as impressed to see a lieutenant drenched in sweat as they were with his basic machine shop skills. The SSO explained that he would have been fired for spending that kind of company money to perform such an easy task. Many Navy sailors have just as much skill, but they too often lack any concept of the fiscal bottom line.
Crosspollination between SWOs and SSOs has many benefits and few costs. Injecting a dose of industry best practices into the surface Navy will benefit any wardroom. Likewise, SSOs can benefit from understanding the tactical reasons for which the Navy developed along a different path. In the end, both are improved, with a better appreciation of the other’s responsibilities. Furthermore, as the Navy moves toward distributed lethality and asks more of its civilian mariners, it is imperative that the Merchant Marine be trained to operate as part of the combatant fleet.
Add a full-time SSO billet to the Naval Service Training Command. This SSO should be assigned to manage the Navy’s interests in the education and professional development of the more than 1,000 Navy SSO midshipmen enrolled at the Merchant Marine Academy and state maritime academies. He or she would take an active role in ensuring that the training curricula leading to a Navy commission meet the department’s needs to the same degree as all other naval officer accession sources.
Redesignate the Department of Naval Science (DNS) at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) as a full NROTC unit. USMMA provides more than 75 percent of the Navy’s SSO accessions and is the largest source of civilian mariners for MSC. However, DNS serves as an adjunct department at the Academy, headed by a Navy commander officer-in-charge and with a much smaller staff than an NROTC unit. The DNS should be headed by a fleet-up command captain alternating between SWO and SSO. The increased staff would include several SSOs to manage midshipman training across the SSO enterprise, including USMMA and all six state maritime academies.
Increase SSO midshipmen fleet exposure. The SSO program is the only four-year Navy commissioning program that does not require some sort of fleet exposure prior to commissioning. Currently, training on warships and Coast Guard cutters is optional and directed only toward those interested in serving on active duty. This means most SSOs serving in the Navy have never stepped foot on a warship. All SSO midshipmen should be required to spend at least two weeks on board a Navy warship as part of their at-sea training. Doing so would have positive effects for the Merchant Marine as well. Exposing licensed mariners to the complexities of naval operations would aid greatly in U.S.-flagged integration during crisis.
Harmonize qualifications. The Navy is partnering with the Maritime Administration and industry to translate Navy qualifications into language that the international maritime industry can understand to help former Navy personnel find jobs in the Merchant Marine. That translation needs to go both ways. MSC, in coordination with Naval Surface Forces, should break down professional maritime credentials into Navy additional qualification designators (AQDs) that the surface community is familiar with. For example, an SSO with an unlimited third mate’s license and one year of sea time should automatically qualify for a Navy fleet officer of the deck AQD. A third assistant engineer with a year’s worth of sea time should qualify for an appropriate engineering officer of the watch AQD. Nothing would diminish the commanding officer’s authority to qualify an individual to stand watch, but at least the Navy would have the option to use skills our SSOs already possess.
Update Naval Science for the Merchant Marine Officer. The Navy’s current version of this publication was published in 2005 and does not reflect the roles and responsibilities of the current SSO community.
Develop an SSO basic tactics course. SSOs make up a significant portion of the U.S.-flagged fleet, and in times of emergency will form the bulk of the crews called on to man MSC and the Ready Reserve Force. To ensure that these ships operate with the increased responsibilities envisioned by Commander, Naval Surface Forces, SSOs should be exposed to relevant surface warfare tactics and naval operations. No significant tactical training has existed for SSOs outside naval control of shipping and convoy management. The Navy’s Surface Warfare Officers School should develop a two-week tactics course specifically designed to integrate mid-level SSOs into the fleet.
The Navy and Merchant Marine have their own customs, traditions, and ways of doing business. While relatively recent divisions have made it more difficult to speak the same language, our common lineage goes back to the founding of our Navy. Reuniting SWOs and SSOs presents an opportunity for the future. Informal opportunities such as those on board the Cowpens are plentiful, but for the Navy to bring distributed lethality to fruition, it should formalize the relationship between SWOs and SSOs.
FitReps: We Are What We Measure
By Captain Jim Raimondo, U.S. Navy
For more than 200 years the U.S. Navy has assessed its personnel using a variety of different forms and formats—seeking to find the best option for the challenges of the day. Yet, despite assertions from the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) that today’s operating environment is the most complex and chaotic ever, reports on the fitness of officers (FitReps) are essentially the same as FitReps from the early 1900s – and largely unchanged since 1996. This is startling.
In A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, CNO Admiral John Richardson challenges us to “make our best initial assessment of the environment, formulate a way ahead, and move out” and to “reinvigorate an assessment culture and processes.” So regarding how we evaluate, assess, and measure our personnel, what are we waiting for? Based on eight years of research and conversations with hundreds of Navy officers, I found officer FitReps are widely held to be unsatisfying at best, useless at worst. FitReps still cannot be completed online, are not searchable, are reverse engineered in most cases, and do not measure the attributes that supposedly are being assessed. It is similarly understood that the Navy lacks substantive insights on the competence, skills, and talents of its personnel.
It is time to transform how we understand and manage our personnel. Because FitReps are governed solely by the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BuPers)—and not by Congress—the Navy can make the changes needed for them to be a valuable personnel management tool. Navy Regulations, Article 1129, states, “The preparation of [FitReps] shall be regarded by superiors and commanding officers as one of their most important and responsible duties.” Updating the system now will allow Navy leaders to fulfill this duty and produce officers better able to perform in today’s dynamic security environment.
Take Me Back
In 1818, as prescribed by Rules, Regulations and Instructions for the Naval Service, commanding officers were charged with making a narrative report on the character and conduct of each officer serving under them. Over the next century, similar reports using varied formats were written for Navy officers. These reports, however, were not used to determine the best individuals to lead the Navy. The seniority “system,” where time in service was the only factor (besides death or illness) in determining the promotion of officers, prevailed.
With legislation signed on 29 August 1916, the Navy’s promotion system shifted from seniority-based to performance-based, from “selection out” to “selection up”–and the fitness report began to serve as the basis for promotions.1 Despite this shift, it took decades for the full impact to be felt. Constant tinkering with the system through the years—and the resulting angst that Navy personnel have with FitReps—demonstrates the built-in difficulty in measuring our personnel.
World War II FitReps were written with relative candor and were trusted to provide a true measure of the Navy’s officers. Admiral Raymond Spruance, for example, was highly regarded throughout the fleet and in June 1942 proved his reputation and mettle in combat, as Task Force 16, under his command, triumphed at the Battle of Midway. However, Spruance did not receive a perfect FitRep. He was given a grade of 3.7 (out of 4.0) in “Ability to Command” from then-Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher.2
Only a decade later, many flag officers had come to believe FitReps were hopelessly inflated and almost worthless, despite the Navy’s attempts to fix the system and increase fairness. Lack of confidence in FitReps was one of the key motivations for Admiral Hyman Rickover’s decision to conduct personal interviews with every candidate for the Navy’s nuclear power program. Rickover’s alternate selection scheme and controversial rejections of some senior officers with extraordinary FitReps reportedly were “necessitated by the poor condition of the officer reporting system of the post-war period.”
Discuss Among Yourselves
As we strive to evaluate the effectiveness of our strategies and technologies, we must do the same for our personnel systems and policies. Despite the importance of FITREPs and their almost singular significance in promotion and screen boards, there has been little analysis of their validity. We must break from a personnel system still locked in Cold War processes and transition to better assessment methods that match the capabilities and talents of Navy personnel with the competencies required. While other industries use significantly more complex evaluation tools, we remain beholden to 7 traits and 18 lines of text, generally provided once a year. As we attempt to promote innovation, how do we know if we have any innovators, or where they might be, since innovation is not an attribute the Navy assesses? How do we imbue a culture of risk taking when what is highlighted and celebrated as a measure of fitness is perfection? Even the smallest blemish can have a profoundly negative impact at a promotion or selection board.
Changing the FitRep system will require significant community adjustments and cultural shifts, as well as institutional boldness and foresight. As career paths become less structured and opportunities outside the Navy—such as tours with industry and advanced studies at civilian institutions—become more prevalent, we must capture the benefits of these experiences, and avoid casting them as negative deviations from traditional career paths. Many of these relatively new tours currently are measured with a “Not Observed” FitRep, so they often can be career-enders. Although board precepts espouse such broadening assignments, officers often are punished for doing what the Navy says it needs them to do to acquire abilities the Navy says it needs.
Pushing institutional change is hard. The Navy has not had the combat imperative to change for a long time. But as now Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bill Moran argued almost two years ago, “The moment for change has ripened. Demographic and resource limitations demand that we find different ways to assess, identify, and manage the Navy’s talent.”
While the FitRep should remain the baseline for assessing and grading Navy officers, the format, accessibility, periodicity, and content should be overhauled to better encompass core Navy and joint competencies and ensure an officer’s unique knowledge, skills, attributes, and abilities are measured and chronicled. Specifically:
Make FitReps fully available and fillable online, and conduct evaluations twice a year.
Increase the number of measured attributes to allow for a more robust statistical analysis and to better match attributes listed in board precepts and Navy and joint competencies. Start with honor, courage, commitment, include A Design for Maritime Superiority’s four core attributes of integrity, accountability, initiative, toughness. Other attributes might include leadership, character, professional expertise, mission accomplishment, performance, intellectual curiosity, and innovation.
Create different FitReps for logical rank groupings. The Navy should be measuring people differently at different times during their careers. One option would be to have three different FitReps with particular levels of focus (O1 through O3—tactical, O4 through O5—operational, O6 through O10—strategic).
Collaborate with industry, other services, performance appraisal experts, and academia to analyze and review the underpinnings of the FitRep to ensure it provides valid statistical and assessment measures.
Provide a separate section to address potential, which is not mentioned on the current FitRep. This would better differentiate between current performance and future promise, as these aspects are not always mutually reinforcing and often are conflated.
Ensure the evaluated officer receives a thorough, in-person debrief.
Require reporting seniors, not a proxy, to complete and submit the online FitRep.
Establish a statistically significant threshold or mean for officer performance—and reject and return to reporting seniors FitReps with inflated averages.
Include an upper level review of all FitReps, to assist in maintaining better consistency and institutional understanding.
Changes to the FitRep form itself should be only the first step. Other means of measurement and evaluation also must be considered, including human performance, gaming, and virtual reality. Industry is experimenting with flexible assessment tools that include key stakeholder inputs that are tied to organizational requirements, and that do not pit team members against each other. Non-cognitive tools and alternative ways to measure traits such as resilience and adaptability should be examined. Multi-rater assessments, as well as other peer review and self-assessment tools, should be considered. As the Navy continues to expand the full and inclusive review (FAIR) program, it is worth determining if aspects of FAIR could be used in conjunction with FitReps.
As we strive to fulfill A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, there is an imperative to improve how we measure our people, yet the tool we have to assess our leaders—the FitRep—is woefully inadequate. It has not been adapted to the rigors of current and future operating environments, a fully connected world, or unconventional threats. With the understanding that “you are what you measure,” the Navy must take a comprehensive look at its personnel processes, specifically its fitness reports, to ensure it is identifying, assessing, managing, and promoting its best talent.
1. Donald Chisholm, Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes: Origins and Development of the U.S. Navy’s Officer Personnel System, 1793-1941 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 381.
2. From Admiral Raymond Spruance’s personal papers, 1945 Fitness Report.
3. Mark Hagerott, “Commanding Men and Machines: Admiralship, Technology, and Ideology in the 20th Century U.S. Navy” (Dissertation, University of Maryland-College Park, 2008), 41-47.