The Navy warfighting machine is recovering from costly mishaps and years of inconsistent readiness that are the result of years of fiscal unpredictability and high operational tempo.1 At the same time, the new dynamic force employment concept is putting pressure on the service and individual crews to “bank” readiness and make sea-going presence unpredictable.2 This important moment is an opportunity for the Navy to codify policies that put warfighting first.3
Unit training resource limitations have an insidious effect: They lead to idleness. Leaders tend to fill the idle time with administrative functions, endless PowerPoint briefings, and other administrivia, creating a disconnect between individual units and senior leaders’ “warfighting first” mantra. This erodes organizational trust with consequences for morale, retention, readiness, and the warfighting spirit.4
A powerful move to focus leaders and normalize proficiency at each career milestone would be to require periodic mission “check rides” across the fleet.
Too Big to Fail
Current evaluation methods rely too heavily on workup-cycle events and mission commander syllabi to assess proficiency. This limits opportunities to instill performance evaluation “firebreaks” at each individual career milestone.5 Worse, these events do not use objective scoring methods, resulting in inconsistent performance evaluation not only of each operator and but also of readiness assessment throughout the fleet.
These unempirical performance/readiness metrics are a proximate cause of the proverbial “rubber stamp” that equates exposure and previously earned qualifications with proficiency.6 Current methods make it difficult if not impossible to capture individual performance or provide effective feedback for improvement.
Current readiness evaluation is relegated to an emotionally and resource-intensive workup cycle that dramatically pressurizes evaluation and makes the cost of failure too high—and the present system “too big to fail.”
Learn from the Past and Others
Implementation of the Naval Air Training and Operations Procedures (NATOPs) program to standardize aviation safety and operating procedures dramatically reduced mishaps and inspired a safety culture across naval aviation. One of the most important innovations of NATOPs was the annual “check ride,” periodic normal operating procedure and emergency test in the aircraft or simulator that includes written and oral components. Though individual check pilots might vary to some degree in their evaluations, the process led to a remarkable improvement in standardization. A similar tactical check-ride policy should be implemented across the fleet.
The Air Force is already doing something similar in every aviation community. Air Force mission evaluations test aviators systematically in their current qualification level “on the last day of the 17th month following” the month aircrew attain that qualification. These tests use codified performance metrics to evaluate aviator proficiency “in the accomplishment of the unit’s operational or Designated Operational Capability (DOC) statements mission(s).” The Navy can learn from and mirror this “warfighting first” policy in every warfighting community—not just aviation.7
The Basic Framework
Uniformity. To normalize fleet proficiency and bank readiness the Navy must apply the periodic check-ride policy to every Navy warfighting community. No single community is immune from a slide in tactical proficiency.
Periodicity. A 15- to 18-month interval will normalize proficiency and provide evaluation flexibility without overburdening units. More importantly, periodicity removes the “lifetime qualification” mindset.8 (For example, a benchmark qualification such as officer-of-the-deck underway is not normally reviewed or recertified once earned.)
Standardization. Standardizing scenarios and metrics that correspond to each qualification level will increase evaluation fairness and coalesce human-machine weapon system capability in each community.
Codify performance metrics to depressurize evaluation. Removing the emotion and subjectivity that plagues current performance evaluation will improve outcomes and identify genuine areas in need of improvement.
Accountability. Check-ride failure must have tangible consequences for the individual and the unit. Failure should result in the loss of current tactical qualification, be reflected on fitness report evaluations, and turn a unit readiness box red. Conceptually this is not a breakthrough; however, current application is inconsistent, at best.
Reward warfighting leadership. Individual and unit proficiency should become a hallmark of the fitness reporting system and consequent career advancement. This will help statutory boards better assess leaders’ ability to execute the Navy’s core mission—warfighting.
Grade the ability to “lead to lethality.” It is not good enough that individuals can perform; we must hold leaders accountable by evaluating their ability to increase collective lethality. This means that division officers, department heads, and commanding officers (and above) should have their fitness reports reflect the tactical performance of those they lead. This will make clear that the entire chain of command must be accountable for warfighting excellence.
Incentivize performance. The incentive pay structure should be tied to qualification(s) and proficiency.9 The Navy is making strides on this front, however, there is room to grow. It must craft legal language that empowers leaders to turn incentive pay on or off based on attainment or loss of qualifications. Such a modern and fiscally responsible policy will incentivize focus on performance standards, providing the proverbial win-win for the individual, the naval service, and taxpayers.
To bring this policy to life, senior service leaders need to direct Fleet Weapon Schools to codify evaluation instructions and develop empirical, community-wide performance metrics for each qualification level.10 A fleet-wide effort for individual performance evaluation will lay the foundation for a holistic model of readiness generation and evaluation for strike groups and fleet-sized units.11
Next, this plan will require creatively increasing training accessibility—independent of an individual or unit’s position along the workup cycle. This requires improved access to low-cost training options and products to practice fundamental skills.12 At the same time Weapon Schools must serve as clearinghouses for standardized “turn-key” training and evaluation products/scenarios to alleviate training resource burdens on individuals and units across the fleet.
Most important, gathering empirical data—with automated data collection tools—will evaluate performance measurement more efficiently and effectively. This will further remove subjectivity, reduce evaluation resource requirements, and bolster the veracity of qualifications.
Time and again, service members across the military have said that they want a focus on “warfighting first.” Developing objective, performance-based, and frequent tactical check rides will reinvigorate the Navy’s competitive warrior culture, normalize readiness, and engender organizational trust.13
Editor’s Note: This article has been signed by principal author Lieutenant Commander DePaolis, as well as the following Growler tactics instructors:
- CDR Brian W. Graves, Commanding Officer, Electronic Attack Weapons School
- CDR Brett A. Stevenson - Department Head, HAVOC
- CDR Jeff Bruner, Executive Officer, Electronic Attack Weapons School
- CDR Larry Mahan, Electronic Attack Weapons School Director
- LCDR Jon-Michael Chombeau, EAWS
- LCDR Reid Smith, VAQ-133
- LCDR Robert Spence, VAQ-140
- LT Justin Brown, HAVOC
- LT Chris Burke, HAVOC
- LT Mike Charlton, HAVOC
- LT Chris Compton, EAWS
- LT Andrew Ginnetti, EAWS
- LT Brian Hartwig, EAWS
- LT Jake Hentges, HAVOC
- LT Jeff Holmes, HAVOC
- LT Jake Johnson, EAWS
- LT David A. Keller II, EAWS
- LT Paul M. Lietzan, EAWS
- LT James R. Penn, EAWS
- LT Per Rychecky, EAWS
- LT Ryan Sweetser, HAVOC
- LT Robert Taylor, HAVOC
- LT Josh Witt, HAVOC
1. SFC Jose Ibarra, USA, “Continuing Resolutions, Budget Uncertainty Harm Readiness, Service Secretaries Say,” 21 March 2018.
5. ADM P. S. Davidson, USN, “Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents,” 27 October 2017, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, 10.
6. Hope Hodge Seck, “Navy: Training for Surface Warfare Officers Is Failing Them at Sea,” military.com, 2 November 2017, "In each of the four mishaps, the qualification of individuals for specific watch stations did not translate to proficiency to safely execute the mission. . . ." the report finds. "In all four mishaps, there was a gap in watchstanders' training, experience, and/or proficiency, and their ability to conduct the tasks they were assigned to perform.”
7. The USAF also uses “QUAL” and “INSTM” evaluations akin to NATOPs and instrument check-rides. “Aircrew Standardization and Evaluation Program,” AFI 11-202, Volume 2, Chapter 5.2, 13 September 2010, Change 1, 18 October 2012.
8. Davidson, “Comprehensive Review,” 48–55.
9. The policy should provide for differentiation in DIFOP and operational orders to account for opportunities to train and maintain proficiency, irrespective of orders.
10. U.S. Air Force, “Flying Operations, F-16—Pilot Training.” AFI 11-2F-16V1 (20 APRIL 2015).
11. LT Renato A. DePaolis II, USN, “A High Velocity Learning Approach to Maintain Maritime Superiority,” June 2017, EAWS training document.
13. Davidson, “Comprehensive Review,” 10.