Surface warfare officers (SWOs) tasked with safely and effectively operating U.S. Navy ships are no longer expert mariners. A lack of standardized, practical training prior to commissioning, changes to post-commissioning instructional courses, and a lack of focus on classic deck officer skills account for SWO shiphandling atrophy.
Following the 2017 ship collisions in the Pacific, the October 2017 “Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents” highlighted a multitude of deficiencies at the ship and fleet level. It recommended corrective action to many facets of early SWO training, but failed to call for a large-scale transformation in training. As a result, action beyond a slight increase to the rigor of Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) has not been taken. It is time expansive change to SWO development programs be made. Anything less is setting our SWOs up for failure.
A History of SWO Training
From 1970 to 2003, all newly commissioned SWO candidates reported first to the Surface Warfare Officer School Division Officer Course (SWOSDOC) based out of Newport, Rhode Island, and, for part of that period, San Diego, California. During an initial course of instruction lasting up to six months, SWO candidates received intensive training on deck officer skills, shiphandling, seamanship, and the basic responsibilities of a division officer.
Responding mainly to budget constraints, the Navy replaced SWOSDOC in 2003 with a new SWOS-At Sea program that promised more affordable and practical, hands-on instruction. SWO candidates reported directly to their ships with a set of CD-ROMS covering the basics of navigation, combat systems, and engineering. The officers were required to complete the computer-based training (CBT) at their own pace while also meeting their division officer responsibilities.
In 2010 the SWOS-At Sea program was modified. The CBT was eliminated and a Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) and Advanced Division Officer Course (ADOC) were implemented. BDOC, an intensive nine-week course, provided SWO candidates with basic knowledge in leading divisions at sea. Until the summer of 2017, approximately 81 BDOC classroom hours were devoted to basic instruction on navigation, seamanship, and shiphandling. An additional 32 hours were devoted to Conning Officer Virtual Environment (COVE) simulator training. ADOC, a course SWOs commonly attend after the first at-sea tour, was designed to build on the principles taught in BDOC. With the implementation of the two courses, as well as the creation of a course at each additional SWO career milestone, the Navy created a training continuum that would span a SWO’s career. This continuum marked the beginning of a shift for SWO instruction back to the classroom.
Assessment of Training
While SWOSDOC was costly to maintain, the program benchmarked all SWO candidates to the same level of competency before reporting to their first ship. The three surface warfare commissioning sources—the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA), Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), and Officer Candidate School (OCS)—produce SWO candidates with a wide range of classroom knowledge and practical experience. Throughout a USNA midshipman’s instruction, classroom lessons in leadership and operations are juxtaposed with hours of practical training, including the operation of yard patrol (YP) craft. Summer training, including underway time on board ships, is required for all midshipmen. OCS is an intensive twelve-week course with the mission of providing a “working knowledge of the Navy,” including brief instruction on seamanship and navigation. NROTC differs greatly from the extremely structured USNA and OCS curricula and relies on a midshipman’s unit to provide proper training. It is not uncommon for the NROTC training experience to vary greatly by unit. Naval Service Training Command attempts to supplement NROTC classroom learning with practical summer cruises as well; however, operational requirements often diminish the effectiveness of this training. Writing on the topic of the 2003 training transformation, then-Lieutenant Commander Marc Drage noted the importance of SWOSDOC as a “leveler,” stating, “No matter how an officer was commissioned, the Division Officer Course provided a necessary fundamental framework in maritime skill.” With the elimination of SWOSDOC, the Navy removed formal maritime education for SWO candidates destined for the bridge, instead relying almost exclusively on underway training.
The SWOS-At Sea strategy showed clear flaws from the outset. It relied heavily on the mentorship of SWO candidates while underway, where there was limited time and personnel resources. This ensured a lack of consistency in instruction from ship to ship. Unlike SWOSDOC, the SWOS-At Sea training plan provided no standard benchmark for SWO candidates.
With the addition of BDOC and ADOC to the training pipeline, surface navy leaders attempted to return a baseline level of knowledge to newly commissioned SWO candidates. Unfortunately, this training model still required SWO candidates first to report to their ship, where they were expected to take on responsibilities such as bridge watchstanding. Furthermore, only a fraction of the classroom curricula at BDOC and ADOC was dedicated to seamanship and shiphandling. BDOC and ADOC showed that surface navy leaders recognized the need to revert to a SWOSDOC-style of introductory training that provided an “educational foundation before entering the fleet.” Unfortunately, this introductory training continued to lack the necessary depth in seamanship, navigation, and shiphandling.
Following the tragic 2017 collisions, surface navy leaders were determined to find and correct training deficiencies. As a result, the first action identified in the Comprehensive Review was to “improve seamanship and navigation individual skills training for SWO candidates, SWOs, Quartermasters and Operations Specialists.” The review highlighted that current BDOC instruction only taught half the basic knowledge SWO candidates were until that point expected to know on the job. Furthermore, SWO candidates arriving to their first ships often did not have the foundational knowledge required to stand their first bridge watch as conning officer, contributing greatly to risks ships were incurring. A SWOS evaluation conducted from January–March 2018 further confirmed these findings: 85 percent of officer-of-the-deck (OOD)–qualified junior officers “struggled to react decisively to extricate their ship from danger when there was an immediate risk of collision.” As a result of these discoveries, on 18 June Vice Admiral Richard Brown, Commander, U.S. Naval Surface Forces, announced a new career path for SWOs. With the overall purpose of “increasing the capability and experience of surface forces commanding officers,” the new strategy included adding a six-week OOD course focused on cultivating basic mariner skills.
Good, But Not Enough
While with the new OOD course the surface Navy has the correct intention, the course’s curriculum focuses heavily on technology rather than traditional mariner skills. The six-months-long SWOSDOC allowed for classroom instruction in basic shiphandling prior to teaching the application of modern systems. The new OOD course, centered on certification and watchkeeping courses in “Radar Operator, Electronic Chart Display and Information System-Navy, and Automated Radar Plotting Aid” neglects to instruct on the basic fundamentals of shiphandling, navigation, and seamanship that mariners have depended on for centuries.
To recreate a true baseline for SWO candidates from all commissioning sources, an extensive period of instruction is necessary. This training should start with traditional skills that do not rely on technology and build slowly to modern warship navigation and shiphandling systems. Cutting corners at the beginning of a SWO candidate’s training is not wise.
Surface Navy leaders also should continually examine the training content each SWO candidate receives prior to being commissioned. More practical, hands-on shiphandling training prior to commissioning is needed. While simulators continue to improve, experienced mariners agree they do not compare to operating an actual vessel at sea. One plausible solution would be to lengthen midshipmen training cruises and increase the focus on watchstanding experience, while decreasing the time spent observing division officer duties. A second would be to increase the availability of YP cruises to all commissioning sources to provide more individual training. A combination of experience operating YPs and more underway experience modeled after the year United States Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen spend at sea would greatly strengthen the navigation, shiphandling, and seamanship knowledge and skill of future surface warfare officers.