The crew of MV Sunshine State takes the ship to sea from Pascagoula, Mississippi. The U.S. Navy would benefit from formally adopting civilian mariner certification standards. (Crowley)
Following the 2017 Navy ship collisions in the Pacific, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO) directed the 2017 “Comprehensive Review” (CR) of maritime training, operations, and the state of surface warfare mariner skills. While the subsequent “Secretary of the Navy Strategic Readiness Review” (SRR) offered a strategic look at Navy culture and sought ideas from industry, the CR was a more tactical consideration of how the Navy does business related to training and operations.
The CR research team engaged the merchant maritime community, paying a visit to the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, Maryland, to study their processes. Two important lessons were captured and subsequently addressed in the CR report. The first was that the Navy had not taken advantage of a more mature mariner-skills assessment process—the Navigation Skills Assessment Program established and accepted by several maritime companies to periodically measure individual skill levels with the goal of better identifying mariners who needed refresher training to sharpen specific areas. The CR directed the Navy to implement a similar process as the first of 50 recommendations.
Similarly, the second lesson was the Navy needed to train to a level that meets the U.S. Coast Guard’s licensing criteria based on the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW). The CR report mentions STCW beginning on page 44: “U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officers must be capable of demonstrating seamanship and navigation competence in more stressing and challenging operating environments, from benign situations in which their warship is able to use all available IMO/STCW resources . . .”
Following the release of the CR and SRR reports, the VCNO formally established the Readiness and Reform Oversight Committee to verify that CR and SRR recommended actions would be carried out. Although the CR suggests the Navy consider adopting STCW to align with the training of most professional mariners and many other countries’ navies, it is not listed as an actionable task. The Navy has recognized the value of STCW, and has been making great strides in improving its mariner training. The Building More Capable Mariners initiative expanded the number of STCW-validated courses to include Bridge Resource Management, Electronic Chart Display and Information System-Navy, Radar Observer, and Automated Radar Plotting Aid.
Navy surface warfare officers (SWOs) have much to learn beyond mariner skills in their first tours. SWOs typically begin their shipboard careers by standing watch on the bridge, eventually graduating off the bridge to watch positions that demand competence in weapons and sensor systems. The goal is to move officers to steadily master the many warfare disciplines required to fight at sea in the modern age. Mariner skills are foundational, but they are only the first stage of a complex career path to command at sea and beyond.
The benefits to the Navy of adopting STCW would be numerous. For starters, Navy veterans could transition from active duty with internationally recognized credentials, much as do pilots. Interestingly, the U.S. Army’s mariners are granted Coast Guard licenses during their careers because of the maritime training alignment to STCW, and the U.S. maritime industry hires more soldiers than sailors to drive ships. Additionally, increasing the number of Military Sealift Command and Maritime Administration mariners familiar with Navy operations would improve Merchant Marine–Navy interoperability, an important capability in future campaigns that will require more civilian mariners for logistics support. Hires from the Navy for both these organizations would already have a thorough grasp of concepts such as screening, zigzag plans, and 4-Whiskey grids.
This would also align with and support the ongoing “Military-to-Mariner” (M2M) initiative to revitalize the U.S. merchant marine industry, an effort that began several years ago when congressional support was sought to address strategic sealift crewing shortfalls. In a recent estimate, the U.S. strategic sealift manning deficit was in excess of 1,800 positions, a shortfall that negatively affects U.S. ability to execute several major military contingency plans.
Congressional support increased in 2016 after M2M attracted the attention of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, which helped get this issue captured in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. After the 2017 ship collisions, the House Subcommittee on Seapower and Power Projection recommended the Navy require junior SWOs to earn the Merchant Marine 3rd Mate’s license. This recommendation eventually evolved to requiring the Navy to formally adopt STCW, as reflected in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act language: “Not later than March 1, 2019, the Secretary of the Navy shall submit to the congressional defense committees a report that includes each of the following: A detailed description of the surface warfare officer assessment process; a list of programs that have been approved for credit toward merchant mariner credentials; and a complete gap analysis of the existing surface warfare training curriculum and STCW.”
Short of fully adopting STCW, the Navy could seek to have much of its existing training recognized as STCW-compliant by the Coast Guard National Maritime Center’s credentialing authority. The current process to receive credit for mariner skills requires documentation—which often does not exist for certain career experiences. While the Navy’s recent introduction of the Surface Warfare Mariner Skills Logbook is a great step toward documenting the mariner’s career, the process for earning civilian credentials remains cumbersome.
Navy and Coast Guard leaders should work to maximize SWO training and experience accreditation. Perhaps this subject can be addressed at the next senior Navy–Coast Guard “Cross-talks.” The process of Navy SWOs earning mariner credentials should be streamlined as much as possible.
Many enlisted ratings also would benefit from Coast Guard mariner credentials, including logistics specialist, boatswain’s mate, culinary specialist, hospital corpsman, and most engineering ratings.
STCW applies directly to Navy maritime skill requirements and reads much like Navy personnel qualification standards. There is a minimal requirement in STCW for merchant cargo operations, and this obviously should be omitted for the Navy’s purposes. No curriculum is tailored to address only the education and experience gaps that a Navy veteran may have. However, if a Navy veteran should need the cargo credential in pursuit of a license, at least two U.S. maritime training institutions have stated they could tailor a customized curriculum.
The Navy continues to create and develop impressive mariners and warriors. Helping maritime veterans transfer their skills is good for the Navy and good for the nation—as is enhancing the value of the SWO pin.
Captain Nygaard retired from the Navy in 2014 after more than 30 years as a surface warfare officer. He commanded the USS Paul F. Foster (DD-964), USS Vicksburg (CG-69), and Tactical Training Group Atlantic. He currently works for Crowley Maritime and is a Navy Shiphandling Simulator Trainer instructor at Naval Station Mayport, Florida.