The surface fleet is changing rapidly. Most changes are designed to make surface warfare officers (SWOs) better mariners and increase crew training and resilience, all with the intention of making ships more combat ready. To support these changes and gain maximum benefit from them, the organizational structure of a ship needs to change—but not by much. A small change in how ships are organized can drive a paradigm shift that will result in an immediate and visible increase in readiness. The USS Pinckney (DDG-91) tested a new model in 2017, with positive results.
What Is Not Working
Consider the organizational structure of a destroyer under way, which can be used as a case study that applies to most surface ships. There are two separate and distinct organizational structures. One is the division, comprising sailors with matched skills responsible for maintaining ship’s equipment that falls within the skill group. The other is the underway watch team, responsible for executing the ship’s mission. While both are necessary for the ship to function, the complete separation of these two structures creates inefficiencies that diminish readiness.
Most ships treat writing the watch bills for at-sea operations as an economics problem: Watches needing to be filled are the “demand” and divisions the “supply.” The chiefs or leading petty officers from 18 different divisions provide inputs to the senior watch officer and the senior enlisted watch bill coordinator, who write the underway watch bill, filling each spot with a qualified sailor. This sounds reasonable, until you look more closely to see the problem: Each division supplies its own inputs to the watch bill from its own stovepipe, without any consideration for how those affect the rest of the ship, leaving it to the senior watch officer and watch bill coordinator to figure out.
As a result, special details—such as small boat operations; Condition II damage control (DC); low visibility; visit, board, search, and seizure; flight quarters; and underway replenishment (UnRep)—often conflict with the Condition III watch bill.1 It is nearly impossible to set one special detail without creating a conflict with the normal underway watch.
For example, in some emergencies, the at-sea fire party (or “flying squad”) is called away to respond. If a larger damage control party is required, the engineering officer of the watch (EOOW) or officer of the deck (OOD) may call away an entire repair locker (Condition II DC). However, if many repair locker personnel are on watch when Condition II DC is set, fewer people would respond than required. This especially affects Repair 2 (forward below decks) and Repair 5 (engineering), which typically are manned by the Deck Division and Engineering Department, respectively. Both have a large number of people on watch at any given time.
It is a stretch to say that there is an underway watch “team” at all—the bridge might be in a four-section watch, engineering in six, and some operations specialists in the combat information center (CIC) in two. As a result, one bridge team might stand each watch with different CIC, combat systems maintenance central, and engineering teams. During the course of a deployment the same OOD, tactical action officer (TAO), and EOOW might stand watch together only a few times. This is no way for the leaders at each controlling station to develop a rhythm with each other. It may be called a watch “team,” but it is not truly a team. Writing the bill is like herding cats, and it is impossible to ensure the right mix of people are on watch together or that individuals are progressing toward more senior qualifications.
There are division-level problems as well. Consider the deck division (OD). OD has a division officer whose direct report is a chief petty officer, whose direct report is a leading petty officer, who oversees a work center supervisor (WCS), who typically supervises about 20 sailors. Think about that: The most senior leader in a division has only one direct report while the most junior leader—usually a second class petty officer—is responsible for 20 people, on top of scheduling and executing the maintenance on all the division’s equipment. This structure can quickly burn out that WCS and reduce the material condition of the ship.
Going inside the Matrix
But these watch bill problems do not happen in port. Why not?
An in-port duty section has a command duty officer (CDO), generally the section’s senior officer, and a section leader, usually the section’s senior chief. These two are responsible to the ship’s captain for coordinating and executing all the routine operations that happen during their duty day. This structure is self-sustaining, requiring very little input from the divisions to fill all watch bill positions or respond to emergencies; indeed, it must be this way because, after working hours or on a weekend or holiday, the duty section is the only group on board the ship. The section knows it has a defined set of people assigned to it—about 100 sailors, representing each division—has a handle on their strengths and weaknesses, and uses this knowledge to write the best watch bill for its duty day.2 Most issues that arise are handled within the section among the CDO, section leader, and duty section watch bill coordinator.
There could be several reasons underway watch teams have more problems than in-port ones. Maybe the demand in port is not quite as high. Or perhaps in port fewer activities have to happen. But a big reason could be that the duty section is entirely self-contained. It is more of a true team, with its own roster, its own watch bills, and its own people qualifying for the watches it needs. Can this same idea be applied under way?
Doing so will require a shift in thinking. The ship’s administrative chain of command—divisions—is the central organizational unit for ensuring the ship is “ready to go.” The division keeps equipment working, orders parts, manages leave, gets people to medical appointments, and addresses discipline issues. But the ship’s operational chain of command—sections—is the central organizational unit for making sure the ship is “ready to fight” through cohesive watch teams that work together to operate and fight the ship. In this way, at all times there really are two primary organizations for the ship, each with its own responsibilities.
A ship is a hierarchical organization with a commanding officer (CO) at the top, six departments underneath, and two to four divisions under each department. But it also is a matrix organization, made up of both 18 divisions and 3 sections simultaneously, each carrying out its own responsibilities, pierside or at sea.
Seeing the ship as a matrix organization opens the possibility that the operational and administrative chains of command can operate under a modified “rule of three” in port or under way.
A battle-proven version of this already exists: U.S. Marine Corps infantry is organized around the rule of three. The battalion commander has three companies; the company commander has three platoons; the platoon commander has three squads; the squad leader has three fire teams; and the fire-team leader has three fire-team members. This greatly reduces “cat herding” because any one person has only three direct reports. This makes Marine infantry units extremely flexible and responsive. Building a stable operational chain of command—an actual “team”—will make the surface navy more flexible and responsive, just like its Marine Corps counterparts.
In the modified naval version, the CO would oversee three sections, each with a TAO. Each TAO would have three controlling stations under three “officers of the watch.” Each controlling station would have three or four areas or spaces under its cognizance (e.g., the CIC weapons officer has combat systems maintenance central, surface, air, and electronic warfare). And at the division level, the WCS can have an assistant WCS in each section, each with five or six sailors under his or her charge.
Building a New Condition III Structure
The Pinckney put theory into practice while deployed to Fifth Fleet and Seventh Fleet in 2017, adding a circadian watch rotation and supporting changes to the ship’s routine for good measure. We saw a marked increase in personnel and equipment readiness across the board.
Here is how we did it:
• Assume each of three duty sections has a roughly equal mix of experienced and inexperienced personnel and a roughly equal mix of junior and senior personnel from each division.
• If true, then the level of qualification for all in-port and underway watches is roughly equal among duty sections.
• If that is true, then it holds that a full Condition III watch section can be manned from the people assigned to one duty section, with plenty left over.
Each in-port duty section has roughly 100 people assigned. About 16 of those are from the supply department, 1 from medical, and 3 from admin, leaving about 80 who could stand underway watch. But since there are only about 45 positions to fill for one underway Condition III watch, then the duty section has about 35 extra people. In other words, the in-port duty section and the underway watch team can draw from the same group of people. This is what we called the Section (with a capital “S”).
Think of the Section as a roster for your baseball team and the watch bill as today’s starting lineup. With 100 people on your team, 20 will perform service functions (supply, medical, and admin); 45 will stand watch; and 35 will be your bench. Tomorrow, you can use the bench players to write a different starting lineup, one that balances rest and proficiency for different members. Based on strengths and weaknesses, you can trade personnel within and among Sections to make all teams better. And the CDO/TAO and the Section watch bill coordinator will make those decisions, not the senior watch officer. This has the distinct advantage of making a smaller group that is easier to manage and gives each chief and lieutenant ownership over their Sections.
But everyone knows that three-section watches under way can be terrible, circadian or not. So, to make a better watch rotation, take some “substitutes” from sections 1, 2, and 3 to build a “Section 4” for operating under way. This would allow the ship to operate in a three-hours-on/nine-off, or other circadian rotation. While it is true that Section 4 only exists under way—and thus deviates modestly from the principles outlined—the other three sections do align with those principles, and you will see the advantages.
That takes care of Condition III.
The Devil Is in the Special Details
Now for the special details. The supply and administrative rates normally do not stand watch. Thus, they can be used to man the low-visibility detail, for example. If the fog rolls in when Section 2 is on watch and you call away the low-visibility detail, Section 2’s supply and administrative sailors respond. Also, when you need extra lookouts (as the Pinckney often did when operating in the Fifth Fleet area) you again can call away that detail rather than rely on an already undermanned deck division.
If there is roughly equal distribution of seniority and qualification level across Sections, then there must be a roughly equal distribution of damage-control qualifications. If so, the ship should be able to fully man one repair locker from the Section roster. In other words, build the General Quarters (GQ, or Condition I) watch bill such that Section 1 will man Repair 5, Section 2 will man Repair 2, and Section 3 will man Repair 3. And here is where synergy enters: The Section 1 in-port emergency team (IET) now comprises the same people for Repair 5 at Condition II DC and for Repair 5 at GQ. So, every time Section 1 IET runs a drill, Condition II DC Repair 5 and Condition I Repair 5 are also drilling because they are the same people. This effectively triples the “reps and sets” that each repair locker team gets.
Taking this even further, several special details can be called away during at-sea conditions that supplement the Condition III watch to perform certain functions (e.g., small boat operations, flying squad, flight quarters, etc.). If each Section has half the people needed to man a special detail fully, then, no matter which Section is standing watch at the time, the ship can always pull together a fully manned special detail without affecting the watchstanders. (That is, if Section 1 is on watch when the flying squad gets called away, then Sections 2 and 3—both off watch—will each provide half the people for the flying squad). By writing special-detail watch bills to 150 percent of required manning, with each Section supplying 50 percent, 100 percent manning for a special detail is guaranteed. This maximizes the resilience of the special team, while minimizing impact on the endurance of the watch teams.
Take it further still. If the ship is under way and Section 2 needs to perform gun qualifications, it is certain they will all be available whenever Section 2 is not on watch. There will never be a conflict between duty section training requirements and underway watch requirements. And the people who stand watch together in port will be the same people standing watch together under way, so the ship gains the added benefit of being able to use in-port training time for underway operational topics.
Imagine the sense of ownership that can develop in teams that stand watch together, train, do PT, share lessons and best practices, and even generate friendly competition. Imagine the new opportunities for junior sailors to lead within their Sections and divisions. And imagine the leadership that junior officers will develop within their Sections when they see it as their “company” or “platoon” rather than an ad hoc group thrown together to fill a watch bill. Small-team leadership can change everything about how you run your ship, starting today, at no financial cost. Sometimes, you just need to see a new way of using the tools you already have. We did it on the Pinckney; you can, too.
1. Condition II is modified general quarters, in which some—but not all—battle stations are manned. Condition III is wartime cruising, in which all key stations necessary for defending the ship are manned.
2. This assumes a three-section in-port rotation, typical for destroyers when deployed overseas. While in their home ports, ships typically will split the duty sections to support a six-section rotation.