Last September, my ship completed the Final Battle Problem. It started on a Thursday. We got under way Friday, tensions rose, and we finished with a three- or four-hour general quarters drill. At the time, I was a first-class petty officer in the second year of a five-year duty as combat systems coordinator. My role during the problem was to maintain the highest level of technical readiness in the ship’s combat systems; understand and explain the tactical impact of any technical casualty; evaluate possible backups and workarounds; recommend the best course of action; maintain the weapons doctrine to defend the ship from incoming threats; prevent any doctrine trips on nonthreatening targets (logic statements allowing the system to determine if/when to automatically fire a missile at an inbound track); and stand by to back up the air warfare coordinator.
I have been in the Navy more than five years and have received no formal training on tactics. The Final Battle Problem was the best training I have received thus far, and it got me thinking: If we can have Battle Stations at boot camp, why not have a stress-inducing training evolution on an actual ship, with a real crew in the roles they will be filling in a future battle?
One of the most pragmatic tests during the general quarters drill was the simulation of “emotionally overwhelmed” watchstanders. Multiple combat watchstanders were pulled from their stations over the course of the drill. The systems test officer walked up to them, one at a time, and said, “You have become overwhelmed by the situation and are no longer able to perform your duties.” They had to be replaced, but we all joked about it because we knew it was not real. In reality, what percentage of sailors will become overwhelmed and no longer be able to perform their duties? How do we account for this in planning?
There is no way to know who will become overwhelmed in a real combat situation, but the Navy can raise the level of stress in training situations. No, the service cannot physically harm sailors during a training simulation; it cannot fire real missiles at its ships. It can, however, bring down equipment, or turn off noncritical ventilation. The heat may rise literally as well as figuratively. In his book On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman states, “Sleep deprivation is the best way to physically predispose yourself to become a stress casualty.” Lack of sleep takes a toll on a person. At first, the adrenaline will keep sailors going. As soon as there is a lull in the fight, however, we will start seeing the effects of sleep deprivation.
Everyone has some form of stress in their lives, and everyone has a stress threshold—a point at which they can no longer cope without some aspect of their life suffering. For some, they may be at this point when battle begins. For others, the battle may push them over the threshold. If a sailor already is near his or her stress threshold when the battle starts, it is unlikely they will be able to handle additional stress. Sailors deserve better than the assumption that everyone does their job well under pressure. It is unrealistic to believe everyone will be 100 percent focused when the enemy strikes, or when an accident occurs.
My vision is simple: Take the Final Battle Problem and turn it up to 11. Allow the four-day buildup. Start general quarters at 0100—when the majority of the crew is sleeping—and let it go on for 36 hours. Perhaps even let sailors know the training will begin in the middle of the night. Let them roll out of their racks to rush to defend the ship. Whether a sailor knows it is a drill or not, being woken up to general quarters bells will raise heart rates.
Once general quarters is set, continue as usual during the drill—loss of power, fires, loss of equipment, incoming missiles, and incoming small boats. Let the brightest tactical minds play the enemy in the fight. Throw in some unexpected casualties, threats, or mishaps. Have the enemy play in the gray area, and see if we can identify other tactically creative minds on the ship. Those sailors can be sent to further training and have their natural tactical thinking cultivated. Meals ready to eat (MREs) can be distributed at random times—no one starves, but maybe everyone misses a meal, and food is not distributed until eight or nine hours after the drill starts—and see how people perform when hungry and stressed. At what point do sailors begin breaking down? How do their peers react when they break down? Shut off nonvital ventilation to simulate an AC casualty, and stick with mission priorities. Turn up the heat, both literally and figuratively. The stressors will come. People will yell, people will freeze up, people will panic.
These simulations can even be based on historical scenarios. How many instances of collisions, drone hits, missile hits, small-boat attacks, bombings, etc., does the Navy have data from? How many firsthand accounts are locked away in the Navy archives? Planners can draw from true stories to build realistic training scenarios. Injuries can still be faked, but we can start to see something closer to the reality of sailors getting overwhelmed. What better way to test the Navy’s training pipeline than to induce stress in a controlled environment?
At the end of the drill, let sailors rest. Let them, with a clear mind, debrief what happened and what they would change. Do this in small groups of people who were in the same space or on the same communications circuit, then start training to that. People are their own worst critics. We know what we were thinking; others know only what we did. Let sailors identify their strengths and weaknesses and discover ways to work with them.
Not only will this help sailors as individuals, but it can also help the Navy as a whole. Gather data on each ship: What was the average percentage of people who were overwhelmed? How many of them had outside stressors? Use that information to update general quarters watch bills. Where can the Navy build redundancy? What positions can be combined if pieces need to move around? Each compartment can have contingency plans prior to a crisis.
A crisis situation is not the time to form the backup plan; it is the time to employ a well-rehearsed backup plan. No, we cannot plan for everything, but should we not at least do what we can?