USS McCampbell (ddg-85) completes an under way relenishment at sea. U.S. Navy (Sharif Calfee)
Surface warfare officer (SWO) division officer tours currently provide inadequate opportunities to develop and strengthen an officer’s shiphandling skills. Two systemic factors—the division officer’s report date relative to his or her ship’s position within its operational cycle and the number of division officers assigned to each wardroom—influence both the quality and quantity of the professional growth opportunities given to young SWOs. The surface community can adjust these two factors to equalize operational and leadership experience to develop more capable surface warriors.
Tours Are Not Created Equal
A senior officer commented recently that he spent his entire three-year division officer tour standing junior officer of the deck. He attributed his lack of experience—never having reported directly to the commanding officer for safe operation of the ship as officer of the deck—to the laziness of his senior watch officer, who loathed unnecessary changes to the watchbill. Having spent his subsequent tours in the Engineering Department—with the responsibility for plant control during special evolutions—this officer expounded that to his amazement, he continued to be promoted in a profession whose foundational competency is the safe and effective maneuver of a ship at sea, despite having been afforded few opportunities to demonstrate such ability. Fortunately, he served in an exchange program with a foreign navy where his primary duty as a deck officer allowed him the opportunity to accrue a significant amount of watch-standing experience, albeit not on a U.S. Navy ship.
This anecdote calls into question the quantity and quality of actual watch-standing experience afforded SWOs as they move from ensign to commanding officer. While individual ships may differ, most underway deck watches are stood by division officers. Department heads tend to be assigned watch as tactical action officers or in the Combat Information Center and are focused on developing tactical acumen. Executive officers typically are removed from the formal watchbill to focus on evolution safety. Deck watch-standing experience, then, generally must be gained during division officer tours.
Yet not all division officer tours are created equal. During my two division officer tours, for example, I experienced nearly two full dry-docking availabilities with a combined duration of 13 months. While maintenance availabilities are an integral part of a ship’s operational cycle, a SWO’s afloat tours are best spent at sea, particularly because professional viability depends on advanced qualifications.1 All other things being equal, an officer with more underway time is more likely to have achieved advanced qualifications. But promotion and selection boards act as if all officers have had equal opportunities afloat.
Inequalities in experience are exacerbated by the sheer numbers of division officers assigned to surface combatants. An afloat SWO training program seeks to enhance the baseline knowledge learned during the Basic Division Officer Course and help ensigns to achieve their SWO qualification. Nothing is more important to the quality of those qualifications than watch-standing experience, particularly during special evolutions. Given a finite number of special evolutions, large wardrooms result in fewer watchbill assignments per officer. Watchbills either become bloated with under-instruction watch standers—often to the detriment of the watch team’s overall cohesion—or junior officers simply are not given more than a handful of opportunities to directly participate in special evolutions.
Timing Is Everything
Division officer opportunities to participate in special evolutions are driven by timing. A Monte Carlo simulation—conducted to analyze on-board opportunities for division officers—shows that the best time to report to a ship is at the seven-to-nine-month point in the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (O-FRP) cycle, just as the ship is beginning the basic phase. An officer reporting in this range experiences the ship’s preparations for and completion of a full deployment prior to transferring. The mean number of underway time for this officer is approximately 50 weeks, nearly half the afloat tour. This also is the best time to develop professionally for future positions of responsibility and to earn coveted advanced qualifications.
At the other extreme, the analysis shows the worst time to arrive is within the 25-to-27-month range, or immediately after deployment. This officer would experience both the post-deployment sustainment phase and the entire maintenance phase which have significantly less underway time than other phases of the ship’s operational cycle. On average, this officer experiences only 18 weeks of underway time.
Clearly, arriving in the 25-to-27-month range is unfair from a professional perspective, both to the officer and to the surface warfare community. Disadvantaged officers do not gain enough experience or earn advanced qualifications. The community cannot fairly compare these officers’ performance to that of officers who had more opportunities just because of their timing.
A new division officer assigned to an average wardroom can expect to be involved in just three underway replenishments (UNREPs) during his or her tour. An officer reporting during the ideal months can expect to participate in six UNREPs, while an officer reporting during the worst months can expect to participate in two or less. The model does not differentiate between levels of participation; some officers may never be assigned officer of the deck or overall responsibility to the captain for the evolution. It is possible that a serving commanding officer’s first time being in charge of a special evolution will be in command.
The number of SWOs in each wardroom has increased significantly over the past two decades. A Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser in 2003—with the Smart Ship upgrade that reduced overall manning—was billeted just 12 SWO (officers with an 1110 or 1160 designation code) division officers.2 Today, a deployed cruiser has 31 such division officers assigned.3 This represents a more than 200 percent increase over the past 13 years. While this may not be a perfect apples-to-apples comparison—as more division officers are likely to have been assigned than were billeted even in 2003—there is no denying that the number of division officers assigned to each ship has grown significantly.
To make matters worse, 16 of these 31 officers assigned today are not assigned to a division officer billet, such as first lieutenant or electrical officer, but instead are officially detailed as student trainees. For those assigned as student trainees, their important role as a division officer is diminished. As crew size has held steady, the sailor-to-division officer ratio has decreased from nearly 25 to 1 to just under 10 to 1, further diminishing junior officers’ opportunities for development.
The surface community could double the experience of its future commanding officers by reducing the number of division officers assigned to each ship to roughly match the 2003 manning. Division officer participation in special evolutions would be expected to increase substantially. In addition, each officer would receive double the number of simulator hours, sea-and-anchor details, and other special evolutions.
No person is more important in division officer development than the ship’s commanding officer (CO), but the growing number of junior officers afloat has reduced CO involvement in mentorship and development. Over-manning places a ship’s captain in the unenviable position of choosing which division officers to spend their limited time training and mentoring. One of my commanding officers—in a moment of candor—admitted he was forced to focus more of his limited time on the most promising division officers than on those who might not have immediately demonstrated a certain level of talent or enthusiasm.
One might argue that other warfare communities have spread around scarce experience opportunities with no lasting ill effects. Aviation squadrons, for example, often have more than 50 junior officers who all need to earn and maintain proficiency qualifications. Aviators, however, are held to strict performance and certification standards to maintain currency. Every pilot must accrue a requisite number of hours and operational experiences in the cockpit, whether serving as a division officer or squadron commander. No such metrics—outside the oft-abused and easily relaxed Personnel Qualification Standards (PQS)—exist for SWOs. Many surface junior officers are provided only the merest actual experience handling ships under way, and then are expected to be expert shiphandlers when they return as commanding officers.
Longer Tours, Smaller Wardrooms
The first step is to increase initial afloat tours to 36 months and to match them to the OFR-P cycle. This will compensate for the variability in a ship’s underway time, reducing inconsistency in division officer experience opportunities to the inherent minor differences in each ship’s individual operational tempo. When this is not feasible, detailers can prioritize transferring first tour officers to a ship whose schedule reasonably matches the ship from which they are transferring. An officer leaving in month 17 will be assigned if possible to a ship within the 15-to-19-month range to ensure he or she will experience a full operational cycle.
Next, the surface community should become more selective and reduce accessions to ensure all officers assigned afloat are responsible for leading a division. Young SWOs expect to lead a division from their first day on board. They are division officers, not evolution checklist officers, collateral duty officers, special projects officers, or most troubling of all, student trainees. Reduced accessions should be driven by improved screening at the midshipman level prior to entry into the surface warfare community.
Until the supply-and-demand signals are better synched between department head and division officer accessions, lower-performing midshipmen should be offered positions in the Naval Reserve or simply relieved of their military obligations instead of being sent to our overburdened ships. The alternative is to continue producing under-experienced, under-utilized, and, quite frankly, dissatisfied and disillusioned junior SWOs who will either separate from the service or be less than ideally prepared for their department head tours.
Recent talent management initiatives by both the Navy and surface warfare community are positive steps forward. But additional steps are needed to reduce SWO accessions and adjust division officer assignment lengths to ensure most officers have equal opportunities to flourish during their initial afloat tours. The surface community must give commanding officers—who are charged with development of their division officers—the ability to afford every officer the shiphandling opportunities they deserve and the experience to succeed in command at sea.
2. Navy Manpower Analysis Center, CG 47 VLS (SS) Class Final Ship Manpower Document (Sections I and II), (Navy Personnel Command, 2013).
3. Retrieved from Fleet Training Management Planning System (FLTMPS) database information on 28 December 2016.
4. A Monte Carlo simulation is a computerized statistical model for examining various options using probabilistic mathematical methods. This Monte Carlo model was created in Microsoft Excel utilizing the Risk Simulator Add-In to rigorously analyze the opportunities and techniques of trial division officer tours. The model is available for download at www.steady-strain.net/waterunderkeel.xlsx. Based on 1,000 trial division officer tours the expected mean, median, and range of under way weeks afloat, the number of under way replenishments, weeks under way, and involved participation for a division officer were calculated. The two independent variables, report date and number of division officers assigned, were simulated with appropriate probability distributions to output the expected weeks underway and expected “involved participation” in a special evolution. The model assumed a 36-month OFR-P cycle, 24-month division officer tour lengths, and nominal under way times and special evolution events during each phase of the OFR-P cycle. “Involved participation” means an officer has been assigned to one of the three primary deck watch-standing positions. The results of the model confirmed that considerable variability exists in the underway time an officer receives during a tour based on report date and wardroom size.
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