A Comparison of U.S. Navy and Royal Navy Officer Training

By Dr. Anthony Wells

University-style academic training—and the resultant environment of a college campus—is not the mantra at BRNC, except insofar as naval history, engineering, and subjects like celestial navigation, international rules of the road, and communications directly impinge on professional duties. In the 1960s, graduate intakes were just becoming the norm at BRNC. Today, Dartmouth has a 30 weeks basic training course followed by intensive professional training at sea and specialist shore training establishments. This 21st century program recruits directly from universities, with young acting sub-lieutenants having acquired their degree and, in some cases, having been members of their universities’ officer training corps. At sea in the English Channel and on the river Dart, hands-on seamanship training always has been paramount at BRNC, with divisional yachts providing ocean sailing alongside at Sandquay a myriad of small power and sailboats. Small boat training and sailing are mandatory at BRNC from day one and occupy a key part of the daily routine training. Parade training is intense. Officer trainees are taught how to handle a variety of small arms and, for those inclined to aviation, fly small aircraft trainers out of nearby Roborough Field.

By contrast, USNA is a four-year degree-oriented program with academics as a high priority. Annapolis strives for high rankings among U.S. universities, and its students can choose from a wide variety of academic majors. There is, therefore, a strong academic emphasis to the four-year program from day one, sustained by an academic faculty that is both professionally strong and seeking the same academic recognition as in any other U.S. university.

I keep an ocean-going sailboat close to the Naval Academy in Annapolis and have observed for years what goes on from USNA in the Chesapeake Bay. It bears little resemblance to BRNC with, by comparison, minimal seamanship training. Sailing seems to be a sport for some midshipmen rather than a major professional focus for the brigade, despite the large array of sailboats alongside the Academy walls. One of my own crew, a retired U.S. Army colonel, has participated in USNA’s sail-training program in a leadership capacity. He has completed several major sails and is disappointed at the small number of participants in the program.

The Chesapeake Bay is alive with large merchantmen transiting to and from Baltimore. The channel is well marked. I talk continuously on VHF to large cargo ships and oilers as my sailboat transits to and from the Atlantic. I enjoy routine chit-chats with merchant ships, starting typically after a mariner’s greeting with, “What are your intentions?” After a short exchange on the radio, both vessels know exactly what we intend and how we will pass or overtake. Every day on the Chesapeake there is enormous opportunity for USNA midshipmen to become conversant and confident talking to merchant ships and figuring out how to avoid any possibility of a collision. My crewman assures me that USNA yachts from time to time sail the Delmarva—a circumnavigation of the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, and the coastal Atlantic Ocean, typically up to 50 nautical miles offshore. However, these training voyages involve a small minority of midshipmen.

I fear the U.S. Naval Academy sets a trend that may pervade the U.S. Navy. It is possible that a USNA graduate may not be a hands-on seaman upon graduation, and may not be ready to be a junior officer of the watch or divisional officer.

In the 1970s, I first served at sea on exchange from the Royal Navy with the U.S. Third Fleet. Prior to my appointment with the U.S. Navy I had taught as a lieutenant commander at the Royal Naval College Greenwich, including the Lieutenants’ Greenwich Course (LGC). Later, I was responsible at sea in the Dartmouth training ship for the planning of all Royal Navy, Commonwealth, and other foreign navies’ junior officers’ sea training from midshipmen to sub lieutenants, as well as being a senior instructor. In 1977, I was standing on the bridge wing of a U.S. Navy surface ship with Vice Admiral Samuel Gravely, Commander of the U.S. Third Fleet—the first African-American to gain three stars and fleet command and a distinguished World War II veteran. The commanding officer and his crew were being put through various drills, under the watchful eye of the admiral. At one key point, Admiral Gravely turned to me and asked what I thought of a developing situation. I responded that the ship should alter speed and course immediately, and take evasive and emergency action. The admiral was displeased with the commanding officer’s poor seamanship.

A few days later, during the exercise, the admiral summoned me to his cabin. He asked me to be frank about my observations of this ship. This was a delicate conversation, and in hindsight it seems relevant 40 years later. My chief observation was that there seemed to be insufficient connection between the officers and the enlisted crew members. Unlike the Royal Navy, the social environment on board seemed sterile, without the level of camaraderie that I had enjoyed in Her Majesty’s ships. As a result, I assessed that the ship was lacking spirit and the atmosphere was mechanical, with the crewmembers doing their jobs without an “all-of-one-company” attitude. I had spent more time with lookouts, for example, than many of the officers onboard. I had given them instruction, conversed with them regularly, so I got to know them as people. The wardroom atmosphere was routine, with people appearing for meals and disappearing. I explained that in a Royal Navy ship, the social levels in the wardroom, chief petty officers’ and petty officers’ messes, were dramatically different—true social entities with great camaraderie, which I believe is reflected in performance.

Career General List British naval officers (equivalent to career unrestricted line officers in the U.S. Navy) all are trained as “Seaman Officers,” so that they are all “SWOs” irrespective of later specialization. Submariners and aviators will revert back to the surface navy typically after a command as a commander.

Does all this result in seamanship performance differences between the Royal and U.S. navies? One indicator comes from U.S. Navy officers who have served at sea in Royal Navy ships. In 2009, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Mitch McGuffie wrote in Proceedings that his exchange tour with the Royal Navy showed him how much he did not know about seamanship and navigation. My recommendation is for the two navies to learn from each other.

The U.S. Navy has an impeccable warfighting tradition, yet its incidents at sea in 2017 signal underlying problems. As one who graduated from and later served at the BRNC, I know the benefits of its singular focus on seamanship. The U.S. Navy may wish to consider and analyze options for change at USNA and its other officer accession programs, perhaps refocusing the curriculum and training objectives to seamanship training and all the arts and sciences that accompany these key skill sets. In addition, USNA may want to look at its recruitment strategy, with alternatives for recruiting and training graduates as seaman officers first before any specialization, and creating more flexible career paths that permit a wider range of attendees at USNA other than mainly high-school graduates. USNA may wish to review its academic emphasis and the curriculum structure, and even reduce the course length if the emphasis shifts to professional sea and officer warfighting training. If a degree is mandatory, then perhaps the focus should be programs concentrating on professional naval engineering and operations.

Dr. Wells is the author of the recent U.S. Naval Institute Press book, A Tale of Two Navies: Geopolitics, Technology, and Strategy in the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, 1960-2015 . He has served at sea and ashore with the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy, and is believed to be the only living person to have worked for British intelligence as a British citizen and U.S. intelligence as a U.S. citizen.

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