Professionalize the Surface Force

Captain Ted Hontz, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Naval technology and systems complexity have exploded over the past 50 years, while our surface warfare officer (SWO) assignment policies have not changed since World War II—i.e., any surface warfare officer can go into any billet on any ship type. Unlike their submarine and aviation counterparts, the leaders of the surface warfare community have embraced the generalist philosophy to the point of destruction.

In World War II, with the amazingly fast increase in the size of the fleet, the Navy had no other choice. It was a war of attrition. The Navy did not win a surface action in the Pacific until August 1943, when Arleigh Burke came up with new tactics. By that time, the slot through the Solomon Islands was littered with sunken cruisers and destroyers, earning the name Iron Bottom Sound. Our Navy was fighting against the better-equipped and better-trained Imperial Japanese Navy, and, as more than one observer has noted, the United States won in the Pacific because it could build ships faster than the Japanese could build torpedoes.

After the war, with U.S. historical interpretations published in articles and books, the U.S. Navy never changed the generalist philosophy that had driven the surface warfare community. The SWO leadership believed this approach produced the well-rounded flag officers the Navy needed. In reality, the generalist philosophy has sub-optimized the professionalism of Navy SWOs. As a result, the U.S. Navy is the only major naval force that does not employ professionals as chief engineers of its ships. Other navies, and certainly every commercial shipping company, consider main propulsion and auxiliary engineering readiness to be critical enough that career professional and educated engineers are assigned to each ship.

The U.S. Navy also appears to be the only service of its kind in which chief engineers aspire to command. While the very best can do it, the average SWO is challenged to manage a complex and under-resourced engineering plant while standing watch in the command information center (CIC) eight hours a day. The requirement of gaining tactical-action-officer and command qualifications  while providing the leadership necessary to run an engineering department further explains why far more chief engineers are relieved for cause than their counterparts in operations and combat systems.

As for the Aegis combat system, it is significantly more complex than a nuclear-power plant, yet the Navy does not have professionally trained combat-systems officers on its Aegis ships. The brief Aegis training courses that Navy officers attend only scratch the surface by comparison with the professional standards that aviators, submariners, and nuclear-power officers must meet before they are let loose in the fleet. 

After World War II, the British, Canadians, Australians, and other allies operated under severe financial constraints. As a result, they treated every  ship like a capital ship: every ounce of capability was squeezed out of every unit. Today, not only do those navies have professional chief engineers, their most capable ships have real combat-systems engineers assigned along with experienced navigation officers. One need only operate with NATO forces for a short time to appreciate their dramatic professionalism. In the U.S. surface force, in support of generalism, officers’ career progression is all about learning on the fly. As a result, U.S. SWOs too often are second-string tacticians and mariners when compared with many NATO counterparts and the Navy’s other warfare specialties.

For example, compare the average LAMPS officer-in-charge (OIC) of a helicopter detachment on board a cruiser or destroyer with most of the SWOs on the ship. The LAMPS OIC typically boasts six to eight years of flight time in the same airframe when he or she arrives on the ship. The OIC knows his or her systems and tactics at a level that should be the envy of any officer in any community. Most SWOs have no such depth. In fact,  too often SWOs assigned to ships through the rank of lieutenant commander are trainees, learning on their jobs and all too often delegating significant responsibility to senior enlisted and limited-duty officers for day-to-day operations of their departments and divisions. This is especially true for the chief engineers standing tactical watches in the CIC eight hours a day. 

This approach, where significant leadership responsibilities for the operation and maintenance of ship systems have been assumed by senior enlisted personnel and warrant/limited-duty officers, sets up the Navy for the situation it faces today. The surface forces are so fragile professionally that the reduced enlisted manning and training over the past two decades essentially have broken the system and the culture of readiness that characterized the Cold War period. A more professional SWO officer corps could have backstopped and corrected this situation before it became a crisis.   

The Navy needs to be thinking about what will happen tactically with our ingrained mediocrity should the nation go to war before the root causes of the service’s problems have been recognized and corrected. At some point, having chief engineers of capital ships standing TAO watches will be seen as alarmingly shortsighted, because this policy is intentionally sub-optimizing tactical performance and engineering readiness, not to mention safety at sea.

The solution will involve a more serious search for underlying causes than is provided in the “Comprehensive Report . ” The Navy must start now to professionalize the surface warfare community by manning and training to 100 percent of requirements and by demanding the same standards of personnel and material readiness as the rest of the Navy. The service cannot afford the attrition warfare model it has practiced in the past. The nation’s billion-dollar ships and their crews are too dear.

Captain Hontz commanded the USS Princeton (CG-59), USS Briscoe (DD-977), and the Aegis Training Center. 

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Photo caption: The chief engineer and a gas turbine electrician work on a gas turbine engine on board the USS Barry (DDG-52). U.S. Navy photo by Christopher Stoltz. 



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