Capstone Essay Contest Winner—Surface
“See the world! Lead from day one! The opportunities and options are limitless!”
That sounds like a good sales pitch for a job, one that would attract people on a job-search website. In fact, these are the selling points used by the surface warfare community at the U.S. Naval Academy. And while those pitches sound appealing, the reality is far from that. Of all of the communities available to midshipmen to select, surface warfare tends to fall last on the list of choices. During my time at the Academy, I heard pitches from each community on why it is the best and why I should join. And while I did select the surface community, and it was my first choice, the marketing of the community as a whole has created a disconnect and lack of desirability among the Brigade of Midshipmen.
Since I arrived at the Academy in 2013, the overarching selling point given by the officers in the surface community has evolved. At first, surface warfare was designated the “five and dive” community—meaning fulfill the minimum service obligation to the Navy and get out—which attracted three distinct groups of people:
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).