“SWO Life – more like No Life Amirite?”
“A Sailors Life For Me” Part 1
Between this article and a handful of other articles and reports I’ve come across in the past few weeks (links to come), I thought it was time for a squid to enlighten you land lubbers on how the real Navy works. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash (don’t get me excited), etc.
Note: the original GAO report referenced in this article and others is worth a read if you want a detailed deep dive on the numbers. The PDF is about 180 pages, but the primary report is only the first 60 pages and includes a lot of white space and graphics.
For the record, I got permission to break my Army reserve contract to apply for Navy OCS (Officer Candidate School) in late 2008/early 2009 – and attended OCS in Oct 2009. I originally only planned on applying for Intel (my Army specialty) and Information Warfare (a slightly different specialty in the Navy than in the Army Reserve Information Ops unit I was in at the time) aka Crypto stuff – but my recruiter asked me if I wanted a 3rd option on my application and I figured – what the hell, why not Surface Warfare – they drive the ships, shoot the guns, etc. I’m not joking when I say that I did less research on picking SWO and going to Navy OCS (aka Hell in Rhode Island – esp in winter) than I did to buy a new audio receiver or region free DVD player. The board cycle for selections (at the time) was about every 2 months for SWO vice every 6 months for almost all other specialties – so guess which came up first?
Although according to some reports (see above) I’ve read now, there’s apparently no longer a direct OCS commission for Intel or IW – but they have to go through 3 years of SWO life first.
For one Navy lieutenant, there are certain aspects of life as a surface warfare officer, or SWO, that can’t be beat, such as globe-spanning deployments and pulling into exotic ports.
“People join the Navy to see the world,” the O-3 with eight years under her belt told Navy Times. “But that’s only nine months of your entire cycle on the ship.”
For SWOs at her level, even those nine months [ed. note – 9-10 month underway deployments are becoming more common – esp in the era of COVID – also fewer port visits, although the “standard” is still 6 months – which is what my experiences were] deployed are full of endless paperwork, assorted busywork and zero sleep, in addition to the manning shortfalls and frenzied operations tempo that plague surface fleet sailors of all ranks.
“It’s a shitty job, to be honest,” said the lieutenant, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak about her experience. “You see these pilots who get to fly, and they love flying. [ed. note – Pilots also get mandatory “crew rest” where they are “off duty” for long periods of time – which does not apply to *anyone* else on the ship.] (Commanding officers) love driving the ship. But me, as a middle manager on the ship, I don’t sleep. And the CO sleeps less than that.”
SWOs are the backbone of the Navy’s surface fleet. But the sea service is struggling to retain them at the end of their contracts, and women are leaving at especially high rates, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
That report found that the SWO retention issue has several causes, with some facets appearing more fixable than others, but it remains unclear whether Big Navy will be amenable to altering the SWO career path, which has steamed along largely unchanged for more than 100 years.
SWOs leave the community earlier in their careers and at a higher rate than those in other type communities, such as the submarine and aviation sectors, the report states.
To be fair, per the GAO report, the difference is 9.8 times more likely for SWO vice 9.6 for Subs (pretty close actually).
All told, just 33 percent of SWOs remain in the community after a decade of service, around their first major career milestone, compared to 45 percent of officers in other Navy communities, according to the GAO.
Generally the first career milestone has historically been considered the mark between 4 and 7 years – not 10. At 4 years after commissioning, you’re on the edge of finishing your first 2 sea tours, gotten promoted to LT (O-3) and are about to hit your first shore tour. 6-7 years is towards the end of your shore tour when you’re deciding whether you want to go back to sea or not. 10 years comes after your second set of 3 years afloat (2 separate 1 1/2 year department head tours).
However…the real big bonus comes if you decide to do those 3 years to make it to 10. Back in 2016, if you committed to do those 3 years as a department head, the bonus was something like $100,000-110,000 paid out over those 3 years (IIRC, the upper end is if you actually committed to it before you went to your shore tour – a very difficult choice under the circumstances). As you may have picked up from some of my previous posts over the years – I didn’t volunteer for that. I had seen the stress and anxiety and personnel management stuff – just didn’t seem like something I was cut out for (plus some other personal issues). Then I sat down and talked with my shore tour CO at the time, and he explained to me that I had basically already been playing a department head role as a junior LT in our training command. I decided to give it a shot – but I’d already submitted my resignation paperwork. All my supervisors assured me there’d be no issues with pulling my resignation and staying in – ‘they never turn down SWOs’……except it turned out my year group (2010 – my commissioning group) was the one year that was *actually* overmanned because that was when they thought they’d need 3x as many SWOs to man Department Head billets on all the forthcoming LCSs – and look how that turned out….so no-go on staying in and getting a hefty chunk of cash (and stress).
At the same time, just 12 percent of female SWOs remain in the community after that time, compared with 39 percent of male SWOs, according to the report.
Navy officials told GAO they would like to improve SWO retention beyond the mandatory service requirement, and that other initiatives are at various stages of implementation, but the watchdog questions the sea service’s efforts.
“U.S. Navy officials are aware of the SWO communities’ high separation rates but have not used existing information to develop a plan with clearly defined goals, performance measures that identify specific retention rates or determine if initiatives to improve retention are working as planned,” the report states. “Doing so would better position the U.S. Navy to more effectively meet its personnel needs, capitalize on the significant investments made in training SWOs, and retain a more diverse and combat-ready force.”
In order to get more junior SWOs ship-driving time and keep them in the force, the Navy has in recent years revamped career paths while increasing retention bonuses at the critical career juncture when a SWO heads off to department head school around the eight-year mark, according to Rear Adm. Derek Trinque, a career SWO now serving as the assistant commander for career management at Navy Personnel Command.
Bonuses have been restructured so that SWOs who are more highly qualified for department head school get bigger bucks, Trinque told Navy Times.
Career path changes also ensure that division officer and department head tours involve being part of a ship’s force as opposed to serving on an afloat staff, he added.
“We’re always looking to keep our talented officers,” Trinque said. “I think this is the same across all our communities.”
Too many ensigns
Part of the Navy’s SWO retention issue has to do with a glut of junior officers, according to the GAO.
The Navy, on average, commissions nearly twice as many SWOs each year as it needs to fill junior SWO positions on ships, leaving these newbies to compete for ship driving time or other hands-on experience needed to be a good surface warfare officer, according to both the GAO and several SWOs who spoke to Navy Times.
“This is taking limited underway training opportunities and spreading them thinner than can be sustained,” one SWO told GAO investigators. “This is a huge problem that no one wants to address because SWO retention is so difficult.”
When a bunch of junior officers are all crammed into the same job, it’s hard to convince them that what they’re doing is worthwhile, according to one midgrade SWO, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak.
“What kind of rewarding opportunity do you have in the surface fleet if there’s three ensigns to a single billet?” the SWO asked. “If three ensigns are all (auxiliary officer) at the same time, all three of those ensigns feel stupid,” he said. “None of them are actually AUXO.”
From fiscal 2017 to 2021, GAO found that the Navy commissioned an average of 946 SWO ensigns a year, exceeding the number of required ensigns by about 85 percent.
For example, the destroyer Mustin averaged 18 SWO trainees aboard the ship when it only required six during the first quarter of 2020, while the cruiser Monterey averaged 21 such trainees when it only had eight slots, according to GAO.
This seems absolutely nuts to me – and as I’ve mentioned my year was overmanned already. I think we had 1 extra Ensign on my first ship (an Oliver Hazard Perry class Frigate – 2010-2012) – she got to play “CE Division Officer” (Combat Electronics – radar techs, etc) – where the Division Officer was normally a prior service LDO (Limited Duty Officer or Warrant Officer) – the EMO (Electronics Maintenance Officer). To be fair, that did free him up a bit – since as a more experienced, prior-enlisted junior officer, he was given lots of other collateral duties – particularly when we went in for maintenance, etc.
On my second ship (an Aegis Destroyer – DDG, 2012-2014), we may have had as many as 2 or 3 surplus ensigns at one point – but I can’t recall interacting with that many – I wasn’t in competition with the Ensigns for ship driving time or anything else at that point. My responsibility was in the Combat Information Center (CIC).
The numbers mentioned above are absolutely nuts – and I would attribute it to a couple things.
SWO billets, especially at the Ensign level are extremely limited by ships. The Frigates are gone, and other than Cruisers and Destroyers, I can’t think of too many ships that have SWO positions for Ensigns. Aircraft Carriers have a lot of officer billets but extremely few SWO positions. Amphibious ships have a few more….but that depends on the specific class and billet. A lot of it also comes down to the rotation periods – OCS commissions officers year-round, the Academies and ROTC only put them out around the end of the school year. I was commissioned in Feb and had a pretty big slate of ships to choose from – along with the other officers in my group. I can’t imagine trying to compete for slots at the end of May/June.
Historically (when I was in at least, I think it’s tweaked a bit since then), your first tour was 2 1/2 years (30 months), followed by a second tour of 18 months (it sounds like that was changed to 24/24 – I think in 2014-ish, and now back to 30/18). Sometimes you could do back-to-back tours on the same ship – but those opportunities were pretty limited – normally there are only a few “2nd Tour” jobs on most ships, ie, Navigator, Training Officer, Fire Control Officer (my job) on an Aegis platform. *If* the stars aligned on your rotation schedule (and the XO/CO liked you), you might have the opportunity to “Fleet Up” and move up to a 2nd Tour billet on the same ship rather than transfer to another ship.
My timing wasn’t as good as I would have liked, so I didn’t even get to stay in the same port. Big Navy decided it was worth their $$$ to ship me (and my car) to Hawaii for an 18 month tour – even though I would be deployed for 6 months of that period.
To be continued….