In in his Proceedings Today series "Back to Driving Ships” Parts I and II, Lieutenant Commander Toy Andrews lays out a comprehensive and compelling case for bringing the Navy's yard patrol (YP) craft back to the waterfront, providing true maritime training to the Navy’s newest junior officers, increasing the return on investment by spreading them among fleet concentration areas, and even a template for the manning and training syllabus to gainfully employ these unique Navy assets. Elaborating on Andrews’s idea, the Navy should consider a faster, more flexible, and potentially more cost-effective solution: privatize the YP "schoolhouse."
Every year experienced and capable mariners and maintainers retire or leave the Navy, Coast Guard, and Military Sealift Command and move on to other work, leaving years of expertise on the shelf. This pool of experts, who the government has already trained and certified, could be leveraged to take over the maintenance and operation of the YPs, as well as much of the seamanship training, from the active-duty force. This approach has several potential benefits:
1. Speed to the task. Assuming the Navy’s ability to redistribute the YPs, (a proposed laydown plan is provided in Part I), a private contractor could hire the appropriate staff, complete a short qualification program, and assume "ownership" of some or all of the craft in a matter of months. Compare this to the several-year process of buying billets and conducting homeport shifts that would be required to man the YPs with active-duty Navy personnel.
2. Manning relief. While an assignment to a YP could, as Lieutenant Commander Andrews suggests, be a great learning tour for a fleet lieutenant, they would not get tactical warfighting experience and could be disadvantaged at a future promotion board. Enlisted billets to man a fleet of YPs would compete with frontline ships, creating more of the gaps that the “Comprehensive Review of Surface Fleet Incidents” pointed to as significant factors in last year's ship collisions. Hiring civilians could streamline the process and return sailors to the fleet. Perhaps some officers from the afloat training group or Basic Division Officer Course could be assigned as officer-in-charge of individual YPs to supervise the contractors in providing operations and maintenance. They could sail with the ships to provide training, but as a part—not the full focus—of their tours. Another option would be to leverage a reserve unit or military sealift command to complement the contractors in maintenance and operations and create a chance for sailors to contribute and learn their trade.
3. Reduced cost. The cost of a contractor has been favorably compared with that of a government civilian employee (GS) or a sailor in many past studies. A contractor does not incur the lifetime "maintenance plan" of a military person in terms of retirement, health care, and other costs that continue adding. In addition to conducting training, maintenance and parts can be worked into the contract on a cost basis comparable to the Navy system, so overall a cost savings could be realized in the long term. With proper supervision and a rigorous inspection program from the Navy, a reasonable balance could be developed, most likely at a lower cost than keeping YPs under direct Navy control and manned by sailors.
4. Flexibility and consistency. One of the unique thing about being a contractors is that the Navy pays them to train on whatever they tell them to. If the training syllabus is approved by the Navy, changes are easy and quick, and if an individual is not working out, it is easier to let them go. In addition, the Navy could ensure true consistency across a variety of homeports and coordinate with the Bridge Resource Management (BRM) process to avoid different processes in different homeports. Placing the contract under Surface Warfare Officer School Command would ensure true alignment with and complement other facets of junior officer seamanship training, much of which is under development.
5. Expertise and learning environment. By requiring specific types and durations of sea experience and U.S. Coast Guard licensing in the contract, the Navy could ensure that the individuals maintaining the YPs and training the officers are true mariners. The YPs are not training AEGIS-qualified tactical action officers; they are training basic ship handlers who understand the rules of the road, use of rudders and engines, and communications between the bridge and combat information center (CIC). Most importantly, the students can make mistakes, bump into things, and scrape paint with no impact on their careers.
Some practical aspects of this process would have to be ironed out, and clear lines of ownership and responsibility established, before such a plan could be put in place. Perhaps the YPs would need to return to Navy oversight for major maintenance periods, and a plan established for the eventual damage that will occur to vessels operated in a training environment, but these are all achievable. The aviation model, where the training aircraft are maintained by private companies, could serve as a template and be leveraged for lessons and procedures; perhaps the fact that this model is already in place serves as evidence that it might be a good idea.
Some may see this idea as a competition for advances in ship-handling simulators; I disagree. Andrews makes a great case that there is room in the training space for both, and that the final sum is likely to be greater than the parts. There is a great line in my all-time favorite Navy Movie, "Down Periscope" where the young officer touts her experience and high scores in the dive simulator, to which her Commanding Officer retorts, with irony, "Ah yes, history is replete with the tall tales of daring men and their simulators." Simulators are an excellent tool, and with increasing fidelity they can add immense value. The reality of a stiff breeze, an unexpected current, and the occasional steering or engine failure on a real vessel with real consequences, however, is difficult to duplicate. Adding YPs to the mix in fleet concentration areas, accessible for both pipeline training and shipboard sailors as well, would be a perfect complement to, not competition for, simulators.
The recent courts-martial of several junior bridge and CIC personnel after last year’s collisions is a sobering reminder of the immense responsibility placed on the shoulders of our young officers. A year after the collisions that changed the Navy, many changes have been implemented but there still is a long way to go to create a tailored pipeline to give junior officers the best training before they arrive on their ships. Lieutenant Commander Andrews has done some great initial homework and his plan is solid. Contractors could accelerate getting the YPs to sea so they can start providing critical ship-handling and rules-of-the-road training to future surface warfare officers.
Captain Cordle retired from the Navy in 2013 after 30 years of service. His active-duty assignments included director of manpower and personnel for Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic, and command of the USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) and USS San Jacinto (CG-56). He is the 2010 recipient of the U.S. Navy League’s Captain John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership. Thanks to Lieutenant Commander Toy Andrews for the original series and for his assistance in framing this next iteration.