Put Naval Officers on the Ground
The counterinsurgency-intensive war in Afghanistan, and until recently in Iraq, is being principally fought on the ground by our brothers and sisters in the Army and Marine Corps. With some notable exceptions (SEALs, explosive-ordnance-disposal personnel, and Seabees), naval officers are mostly absent from the fight. The Navy risks creating a generation of surface warfare officers (SWOs), submariners, and aviators without the kind of combat experience and knowledge necessary to compete with battle-hardened peers from other services for challenging joint assignments.
Individual augmentees (IAs) and global war on terrorism support assignments (GSAs) provide a means by which the Navy can support the ground wars. The service owes it to the officer corps to ensure competitiveness for joint assignments, fellowships, and the like. I am proud of my service at sea, and I do not mean to disparage the experiences and service of my fellow officers; however, service in post-9/11 operations for our generation of officers, much like that in Vietnam, will likely take on considerable significance later. It could serve as a de facto litmus test for officers contending for prestigious assignments.
I am not blind to the fact that increased IAs and GSAs will place a strain on service communities in the Navy. In my case, I was fortunate enough to have a supportive command and straightforward business rules governing the IA process for SWOs. I had to attain the major division-officer milestones (SWO pin, officer-of-the-deck under way, and engineering officer-of-the-watch) before being cleared to volunteer for an IA. Additionally, my command had to endorse my request for an IA and backfill my billet on the ship during my absence.
The GSA process alleviates many of these concerns by detailing officers to orders during their normal rotation dates rather than mid-tour temporary-duty assignments via the IA. Considerable benefits are offered to IA/GSA officers, such as preferred follow-on assignment, detailing preferences, and recognition of their experience through an additional-qualification designation. These perks reward officers for such service and offer incentives to complete an IA/GSA tour.
But time away from the community, unfortunately, is just that. Officers on IA often miss out on gaining qualifications, lose operational time in their communities, and sacrifice graduate-education opportunities. IA/GSA officers are at a competitive disadvantage compared with their more traditionally career-minded peers.
In the surface community, less than 3 percent of officers are on IA/GSA, according to statistics from the SWO Career Planning Brief (September 2009), PERS-41, Navy Personnel Command, Bureau of Naval Personnel. Protections against IA/GSA detailing for officers at the Naval Postgraduate School and officers who have agreed to serve beyond their initial obligation as department heads further solidify the institutional bias against IAs and GSAs. These policies adversely affect the officers’ careers and weaken future competitiveness of the Navy officer corps relative to peers in the other services who have gained considerable combat experience.
It is in the best interest of the Navy and its officers to change course. We need to more effectively promote and reward IA/GSA service and increase the number of these opportunities. Many of the assignments are staff billets that expose officers to limited service. The Navy should avoid these, especially for junior officers, and instead embrace those that provide officers a chance to lead and operate on the ground.
In my own experience, I have served and trained with many naval officers in Civil Affairs IA/GSA positions who are completing the type of service I have outlined. These jobs should be competitive for junior officers and, if the number of positions can support such a measure, ultimately they should be a prerequisite for command.
Naval personnel have been called upon to learn a host of unconventional skills while performing a wide range of missions in the post-9/11 era. The Navy has adapted to the dynamic nature of this environment, but it must continue to adjust to ensure the competitiveness of its officer corps. IAs and GSAs provide the opportunity to serve alongside our fellow Soldiers, Marines, and Airmen on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. Such experiences will position the Navy and its future leaders for relevance and success for years to come.