3 years after the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions, the Navy’s surface warfare community shows few signs of change
Three years after two of the most shocking peacetime accidents in the history of the U.S. military, the surface community has seen little substantive change, and surface warfare officers still lack the formal training required of professional mariners
Editor's Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
The day after the USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker in the Singapore Strait in August of 2017, I began a course at the Navy’s Surface Warfare Officers School, a training hub for naval officers in Newport, Rhode Island. The school’s commanding officer, then-Capt. Scott Robertson, gathered all students and staff into the auditorium to address the elephant in the room: just two months after the USS Fitzgerald collision claimed the lives of seven sailors, ten more from the McCain were dead in a similar tragedy.
“Something is not right in our community,” the captain told us, “something needs to change. We need to shift the rudder.”
Yet today, three years after two of the most shocking peacetime accidents in the history of the U.S. military, the surface community has seen little substantive change, and surface warfare officers still lack the formal training required of professional mariners. Without serious overhaul of the surface officer corps, the fleet remains in peril.
What is a surface warfare officer, anyway? When I stepped aboard my first ship five years ago, I quickly learned that “SWOs” didn’t quite have a job description. Their role as managers varies immensely: they are in charge of engineers, technicians, or quartermasters; they oversee ships’ legal, cryptographic, or environmental programs; out to sea, they drive and navigate from the bridge, serve as tacticians in the combat information center, and oversee the engineering plant. They are versatile yet interchangeable leaders, potentially responsible for any aspect of the management of surface vessels.
But ever since the dismantling of initial SWO training in Newport in 2003, naval officers have been pushed out to ships without formal training, instead relying on a system of on-the-job training and shipboard qualifications to learn their craft as leaders and mariners. Until last year, surface officers underwent only eight weeks at a basic division officer course, a hodgepodge of PowerPoint-led classes and a few sessions in virtual reality simulators, before they reported to their first ship to lead divisions and stand watch on the bridge. SWOs, it is well understood by sailors, are made onboard ships, not in the schoolhouse.
It’s no secret in Navy circles that this system hasn’t proven the most efficient way to create a professional officer corps. After nearly two decades of eroding training and qualification standards, the requisite knowledge and skills to competently take ships out to sea are noticeably lacking among surface warfare officers. Instead, the U.S. Navy adheres to the “generalist” concept: surface officers, as they advance in rank and eventually become commanding officers of ships, are better off knowing a little about everything than specializing in any one profession, be it engineer, mariner, or tactician. Given the highly specialized nature of modern warships and their increased demand for technical and professional know-how, this construct is failing sailors. In trying to be knowledgeable about everything, SWOs end up being experts at nothing.
When I began the course in Newport in the aftermath of the McCain collision, one of my instructors, a Navy lieutenant, asked a potent question: are we mariners who happen to drive warships, or are we warfighters who happen to work on ships? In their reports on the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions and the subsequent comprehensive review of the incidents, Navy leaders blamed everything from culture to fleet readiness to the ships’ crews themselves. Yet if we examine the decade-long string of collisions and groundings in the surface force, a conspicuous culprit emerges: the ability of the officers who drive ships from the bridge. The Fitzgerald and McCain tragedies were the result, more than anything else, of officers’ lack of knowledge about navigation and shipborne systems.
The Navy’s response to these incidents, however, has been muted at best. The resulting ready for sea assessments, which I experienced as navigator on the USS Coronado, proved a rehash of surface ships' existing navigation assessments. Fleets issued bridge watch logbooks to surface officers, without any clear plan of how they would be used. A slew of new instructions and administrative burdens were introduced. Meanwhile, the haphazard system of shipboard training and qualification for bridge watchstanders remains untouched. The only notable change has been the addition of a four-week mariner skills course, which teaches newly-commissioned ensigns basic ship-driving and bridge resource management before reporting to their first ship.
The new mariner skills course is a welcome development, but it doesn’t solve the crisis of declining training and professional standards facing the SWO community. Even the officer of the deck on the USS Fitzgerald, before she ran headfirst into a 30,000-ton cargo ship, was a second-tour division officer with hundreds of hours of bridge watch under her belt. And when the USS Porter collided with a vessel outside the Strait of Hormuz in 2012, both a lieutenant department head and the commanding officer were present on the bridge. Four weeks of simulator sessions won’t change the fact that SWOs aren’t formally-trained mariners.
How can the surface Navy climb out of its recent malaise? There is an obvious path: end the generalist culture among surface warfare officers. For one, it takes the focus away from being actual mariners. If a brand new ensign is expected to oversee gas turbine technicians, manage crucial engineering programs, and serve as the ship’s legal officer all at once, that doesn’t leave much time to learn, as mariners call it, the art and science of navigation. Additionally, the generalist view of surface officers relegates their role to that of low-level manager, rather than leader. Officers onboard naval vessels are not subject matter experts and are not treated as such by their sailors. Instead, they occupy their time with the Navy’s vast administrative requirements and leave the technical questions to their senior enlisted counterparts.
It’s time to divide surface warfare officers into specialties and train them accordingly. Engineers shouldn’t drive ships, and mariners shouldn’t manage engineers. The aviation and submarine communities are already doing this, as officers in both fields undergo rigorous training before reporting to their first duty stations. Britain’s Royal Navy, meanwhile, specializes their surface officers as engineers or warfare officers who spend at least thirty weeks learning naval fundamentals at the Royal Naval College before months at sea honing their skills to take on a leadership role onboard a ship. A map for radically improving the SWO community, then, exists in other military communities and foreign navies.
Retired Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the former head of the Navy’s seventh fleet who was forced out following the McCain collision, issued a sobering analysis of the surface force in 2018. Aucoin had warned his superiors for years before the 2017 tragedies that the fleet was overworked and undertrained, and that the demand for putting more ships out to sea would come at the cost of sailors’ readiness.
“I think the main culprit for these collisions,” he wrote, “was that we allowed the training of our surface warriors to atrophy.” He questioned, ultimately, whether “we truly have the resolve to fix these issues for our surface warriors.”
The collisions of 2017 should have convinced the Navy that surface officer training requires as much attention as that of pilots and submariners. Officers, when they take the watch on the bridge of a warship, assume responsibility for the lives of every sailor onboard. At the very least, Navy leaders owe it to those sailors to do better.