In December 2005, the surface force’s leaders decided to transition from a traditional executive officer (XO) and commanding officer (CO) model of separate tours to a fleet-up model where the current XO relieves the CO on the same ship. The transition took eight years to fully implement. In my experience, the XO/CO fleet-up command model has proven to be a wise decision.
Across nearly all facets of readiness and warfighting, the surface navy appeared to be on a trajectory of development that allowed it to move beyond the basic “blocking and tackling” and to focus on the high-end fight potentially on the near-term horizon. But the momentum of that upward trend was interrupted last year after a series of accidents at sea culminated in the tragic and avoidable loss of 17 sailors as a result of two collisions. In addition to formal investigations into the causal factors of each accident, there have been numerous open-source discussions questioning what went wrong on each ship, but also whether or not these accidents point to a larger problem within the surface community. As part of that larger discussion, some have pointed to the XO/CO fleet-up policy as contributing to what went wrong, and what is wrong within the surface community. Those pointing to this policy believe that reverting to the traditional way of assigning XOs and COs would ensure surface ships have better commanding officers.
I applaud the community’s questioning attitude, and the methodical nature exhibited in deconstructing the events of last year, to distill the lessons learned that will improve manning, training, and overall readiness of our surface fleet in 2018 and beyond.
I am convinced, however, as a post-major command commodore with experience with both the traditional assignment model and the current fleet-up model, that the fleet-up construct has helped stabilize the command assignment process, strengthened our COs, and improved our overall warfighting capability. COs are ready to fight the ship from day one in command; they know their ships, their ship’s complex systems, and the complex strike group tactics to employ such systems. XOs fleeting up know their ships and are known quantities having proved their leadership and management capabilities during their XO tours.
I just finished three years at Littoral Combat Squadron One (ComLCSRon One), having served as deputy commodore and commodore. My time there gives me perspective on how well the fleet-up model works.
Iconic leader John Paul Jones said in the 18th century, "Men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship," and his words ring as true today as they did when he was in command of ships.
With the complexity of our ships’ combat systems and engineering plants, and the rapidly changing strike group tactics and procedures, operational effectiveness depends on COs being able to effectively fight their ships the moment they assume command.
Some have argued that there is an excessive amount of time between department head and XO tours, which may lead to an atrophy of one’s mariner skills. I agree any amount of time away from the waterfront leads to degradation. However, our community is working hard to shorten the time away from sea to 4.5-4.7 years. Comparing the 4-year gap between department head and XO with a 3-4 year gap between XO and CO under the old model, I’d submit the comparison is not even close. As a commodore, I’d prefer ships to accept a degradation in mariner skills in their new XO’s, who have 18 months to work on improving their skills, rather than in new CO’s, who have to be ready on day one.
Once the new CO says, “I relieve you sir/ma’am,” that individual must be ready to command. After serving as XO for 18 months, the new commanding officer has an intimate understanding of the command’s material readiness and the crew’s strengths and weaknesses. Whether beginning an extended maintenance availability or deployed to a Fleet Commander’s area of responsibility, the new CO has been entrenched in the day-to-day planning and operations of the ship. The Navy has taken the long view of command with the fleet-up model; we are adding continuity of perspective on past, current, and future maintenance and readiness concerns that impact every command.
In March 2010, when I assumed command of the USS Halsey (DDG-97), the ship had completed its inspection by the Board of Inspection and Survey (known as “InSurv”) four months earlier and just finished the Basic Phase Training Cycle. The strike group was starting detailed tactical preparations for deployment with warfare commander conferences and training events, followed by a Squadron Group Sail, and concluding with deployment certification during the Composite Unit Training Exercise.
We deployed on 11 September 2010. This was roughly six months after I had transitioned from XO to CO, and the ship suffered no loss in readiness or proficiency. In part this was true because I had lived with the ship for 15 months as the XO.
My time as XO enabled me to take the helm immediately. I had been integral in the qualification process for the majority of the key controlling watchstations and possessed an in-depth understanding of the watchstanding and leadership talent on board. In addition, I had a thorough understanding of the material readiness of the Halsey: InSurv and the series of basic phase certifications revealed both the strengths and vulnerabilities of the ship and her crew.
I also have witnessed what happens when there is no transition period between XO and CO. Under the old system, while I was serving as XO on USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60), the new CO reported in March 2005, roughly two months before deployment. The condensed period prior to commencing operations at-sea impacted the CO’s ability to affect the ship’s material condition and impact the tactical proficiency of the crew. The initial few months were the CO’s first opportunity to assess the crew’s performance because he had not been part of the crew as XO. That made a difference.
I certainly benefitted from my XO tour on the Halsey, and the ship and crew were better off for the continuity the fleet-up provided us. As I completed the last two weeks of my major command tour, I considered the benefits of fleet-up during my time at LCSRon One as deputy commodore and commodore.
I had the opportunity to observe 25 executive officers fleet up to command. When each officer took command, I already knew each one and his or her skillsets. I knew what worked, what didn’t, and how best to help them based on our shared time at the command. I am confident that my effectiveness as commodore was enhanced by my experience fleeting up on my previous ships and reinforced while being at this command. I knew each of my COs and XOs, and I knew what they are capable of doing with their respective commands.
The Navy leadership of more than a decade ago knew what they were doing when they approved the fleet-up construct and the intervening years have proven their wisdom. Let us keep the fleet-up model.
Captain Harrison is a career surface warfare officer who has served on a cruiser and multiple destroyers with deployments to the Southern Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea, Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Oman, and Arabian Gulf. He commanded the USS Halsey (DDG-97) and Littoral Combat Ship Squadron One. He is a 1992 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds a master’s of science in operations research from the Naval Postgraduate School. His next assignment will be the Assistant Chief of Staff for Maritime Operations at Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet.
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