We Can Fix the SWO Career Path

By Admirals Michael Mullen and Robert Natter, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The Career Path

Manning the fleet with the right number of department heads (DHs) has been a major driver of the SWO career path for decades. These days that number is 273 per year at sea, growing to 298 in the next few years. The Navy has endeavored to have prospective DHs arrive at Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) for the DH course between the seven- and eight-year points to remain “on time” for subsequent career milestones. The number of DHs determines the new ensigns the Navy accesses into the SWO community each year. The Navy also seeks some degree of selectivity, as not every ensign will—or should—meet the professional standards to be a SWO DH. And some simply might not be interested in the commitment required for life as a seagoing Navy officer. In addition, the SWO community for many years sought a quality balance between the cruiser-destroyer (CruDes) and the amphibious (Amphib) forces, in part by split-touring division officers from CruDes to Amphibs and vice versa between the first two division officer tours, at about the 24-month point. Thus, SWO division officers generally could serve two tours, one in CruDes and one in Amphibs, with the expectation/requirement that every junior officer (JO) would achieve an officer-of-the-deck (OOD) qualification and receive a SWO qualification/pin by the end of the first tour.

The SWO qualification, which historically has been a significant professional achievement, seems in too many cases to have evolved into a rubber-stamp process. Pressure from leaders to “qualify them all” (including officers for whom there is no expectation they will become DHs or commanding officers [COs]) has removed or limited severely the most important judgment factor, that of the CO. The commanding officer must be the decisive point in determining whether a prospective SWO demonstrates the demanding professional competencies and gains the trust to allow that officer to be responsible for the lives of his or her crew and the safe operation and employment of our nation’s ships and combat systems. Today’s practices differ from those of the past, where the CO had the authority to “non-qual” or “non-attain” an officer who was never going to make it as a SWO. The non-qual officer could be transferred off the ship to a staff supporting position, a decision that was never easy but was and still is in the best interest of the officer, the ship, and the community.

XO/CO Fleet Up

This concept is a bad idea! This idea was first discussed/reviewed when we were on active duty. We should have killed it. As a result, we bear some responsibility here. The main factor driving implementation of this concept in the SWO community was the increased requirements squeezed into an officer’s career with implementation in 1986 of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. This mandated joint duty and education requirements for any military officer to be eligible for promotion to flag/general officer rank. Specifically, the act required completion of a two- to three-year joint-duty assignment and joint-duty education to meet promotion requirements.

The SWO executive officer (XO) fleet-up to CO concept, similar to the practice used in the naval aviation community, created an additional career assignment space of 18–24 months. The SWO community also added Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) completion as a requirement to screen for O-5 command. What we did not figure out in advance, to our discredit, was how much the fleet-up concept was counter to the SWO culture. In addition, while this career progression works great in naval aviation, it takes far too much time away from sea duty between a surface officer’s second department head tour and an XO tour—a minimum of five years—during which seagoing skills atrophy and the professional currency required to command a ship at sea dilutes.

Too Many Junior Officers

For some years the Navy has had too many ensigns arrive at ships’ quarterdecks for duty. This was done in part because of excess officer accessions and to feed DH requirements—the rotation plan—and finally to support significant lateral transfers to other communities such as the supply, intelligence, and public affairs communities. (The November 2017 board approved 78 lateral transfers.) This large number of ensign arrivals has caused ships to “create” jobs for JOs, while decreasing the opportunity for meaningful training and multiple hands-on involvement in seagoing operational evolutions.

This practice does a disservice to the newest leaders in the fleet, significantly increasing their difficulty in achieving meaningful qualifications as OODs and as SWOs. This negatively affects a young officer’s job satisfaction, further hurting the retention of the best officers and those required for department head and future command at sea. How can the Navy expect to keep its best officers if it does not provide them with the greatest opportunities for professional success from day one? The cumulative effect of all of this has been to create a “minimal” level of SWO qualification driven by an implied requirement to “qualify them all.”

Seagoing Skills Top Priority

The Secretary of the Navy and CNO reviews accurately laid out where and how the SWO community must be a warfighting entity. The Navy has lost its way in terms of who the officers are as professionals by giving equal priority to the wrong requirements. SWOs used to be skilled seamen and war-fighters first and foremost. That is no longer the case.

The Navy recently reinstituted the underpinning shore-based training requirements, including world-class ship-handling simulators, which is a big step in the right direction. What the Navy has not done is make seagoing skills among SWOs its top priority, which in turn then supports warfighting skills. Think about it: Why does the Navy exist? Why do citizens fund these expensive ships and amazing weapon systems? SWO professionals must earn and sustain the trust of the nation by demanding of themselves professionalism at sea as the highest priority.

Warfighting Skills

For the 21st century, the threats and U.S. weapon systems have grown much more complex and demanding. As missions in Navy ships have expanded in number and complexity, so have the demands on developing those war-fighters who must fight the ships. The CNO’s review lays out this requirement. Examples are the growing requirements in missile defense, long-range strike, cyber, etc. How to best use the ships’ systems is a growing challenge. No matter the answer to this question, the Navy must sustain the warfighting skills of the men and women at sea at the highest possible level.

Gradually, over the past four decades during which the Navy has introduced the Aegis weapon system as well as other complex weapon systems on its ships, the most seasoned warfighters (often DHs) have been pulled off the bridge. Thus, far too often, second-tour division officers assume the vacated role of seamanship and watchstanding officers and instructors on the bridge—a noble calling, but there simply is not enough seasoned experience in this group. This was one of the root causes of the late 1990s’ collision between the USS Leyte Gulf (CG-65) and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), and we believe it also was one of the significant contributing factors to our most recent groundings and collisions. All of this is to say that the SWO community, like no other, must develop and sustain seagoing and warfighting skills to a breadth and depth that can be achieved only by focusing on them above all else in career development.

The Sixth Sense

So, what does the target set look like? It is to develop that “sixth sense” in going to sea. If you have it, you know it. If you do not have it, it is very hard to explain.

The sixth sense recognizes danger, uncertainty, and confusion early. It is that sense that gets you out of the rack at 0200 to go to the bridge, doze for hours in the CO’s chair (that is why it is there), and observe what is happening early enough to avoid disaster. It is a version of that sense that causes the OOD to find you, as the CO, and get you to the bridge in a timely enough manner to ensure that you avoid a collision or a grounding. It is a version of that sense that causes that same OOD to make the right decision in the absence of the CO to avoid that same collision. This is not a theory; it is very real. But it is only known to those who experience it, cherish it, nourish it, and develop it in their young officers of the deck and conning officers. Finally, it can only be gained and nourished by one thing—operating at sea and training rigorously.

What To Do?

While there are many issues to be addressed and changes to be made, the following steps must be taken in the seagoing aspect of the SWO community. The ashore-based training is on its way to being fixed. It should continue to improve and be institutionalized as foundational to the SWO community’s success. The fundamental ship at-sea training (early in our professional lives we called it refresher training, and it was a killer) needs to be more rigorous than it has been recently. We also believe it would be foolish to believe that recent ship issues reside only in the Western Pacific. We need to get back to basics and develop our seagoing skills to a world-class level: ship-handling, sea detail navigation, bridge watchstanding, formation steaming, and open-ocean transits. Every bridge evolution/team needs to be supported by an equally good team in the combat information center (CIC). Surface warfare officers need more time at sea.

Need More Time At Sea

To do this, the following steps are necessary:

• Eliminate the XO/CO fleet-up program. It is countercultural, prioritizes the wrong objectives, and causes far too large a gap between seagoing tours.

• Eliminate the split-division officer tour rotation, or worse yet the division officer ship tour followed by an afloat staff tour. Keep JOs on their first ship for two tours for a three- or four-year period.

• Detail officers to the executive officer assignment for a single one-and-a-half to two-year tour using the same timing as was done prior to the XO/CO fleet-up change. Do not screen these officers for command until they are in or have completed their XO rides. Consider some form of operational seamanship and tactical proficiency refresher and exams in the prospective CO pipeline.

• Require department heads to be in the bridge watch bill rotation, rotating among the bridge, engineering officers of the watch, and CIC.

• Remove from the SWO community the opportunity to laterally transfer except in the rarest of circumstances. Reduce the number of JOs in the SWO community and in ship wardrooms.

• Create a system of harsh and accurate after-action assessments similar to that used by Navy air wing landing signal officers.

• Align assignments and rotation to be fixed for each ship, nominally for 6–12 months prior to deployment, through the end of a deployment.

• From a career milestone perspective, incentivize and reward going to sea and performance at sea. For us “old salts,” it was why we stayed in the SWO community—nothing else would have retained us. It was also fun.

• Empower COs and hold them accountable for the development of young officers. COs are the best professional resource, and they should be given the freedom and authority to assess and take the risks in wardrooms.

• Eliminate the “qualify everyone” phenomenon.

Assign JOs in ships to specific jobs—eliminate or severely limit the made-up job phenomenon. This is essential to job satisfaction and retention.

• Eliminate the zero-defect mentality. Zero-defect mentality = zero risk taking = zero delegation. JOs cannot learn to become great (sixth sense) shiphandlers if the “A Team” conducts all difficult evolutions.

The SWO community needs to get back to basics. There is no community in the world that prides itself more on going to sea. The community needs to create the career path that allows for the development of the seagoing skills that have been lost and prioritize them above all else. Finally, promote accordingly. The above recommendations would generate about nine to ten years of sea time prior to taking command at the O-5 level. That gives an officer that “sixth sense.” The career milestone assignments also would be spaced at effective intervals to develop the skills required. These changes would go a long way to acknowledging failures while recognizing and remembering those heroic shipmates who were lost. As much as is humanly possible, together we must ensure we do not lose any more sailors needlessly.


Admiral Mullen, a surface warfare officer, was CNO, 2005–07, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2007–11.

Admiral Natter, a surface warfare officer, was Commander, Seventh Fleet, 1996–98, and Commander, U.S. Atlantic Fleet/Fleet Forces Command, 2000–2003.

 

 

 
 

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