“SWO Life – more like No Life Amirite?”


“A Sailors Life For Me” Part 2

USS INGRAHAM (FFG 61) – “The Last and Finest”

Why can’t the Navy keep its surface warfare officers? (navytimes.com)

Continued from part 1

Big Navy does this because of how many SWOs leave around the eight-year mark of their career, the report states.

While noting that he does not know what current SWOs are enduring, retired SWO Bradley Martin —who spent two-thirds of his 30 years at sea — said that over-commissioning has gone on for a long time to ensure there are enough department heads down the career line.

In other words, “attrition is built into the system,” said Martin, now a senior policy analyst with the Rand Corp. and director of their National Security Supply Chain Institute.

“This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he added. “Poor job satisfaction, diminished training opportunity, big crowds of people on the bridge and in other watch stations pretty much induces attrition.”

Newly minted SWOs can feel like they have been dropped into the middle of the ship with little to no guidance from higher-ranking SWOs dealing with their own deluge of work, according to the lieutenant, who recalled having “a made-up job” on her first ship.

It’s often easier for more seasoned SWOs to just do jobs themselves than take the time to teach a junior officer how to do it.

“We say that SWOs eat their young, and it’s true,” the lieutenant said. “They’re essentially told to figure it out. It’s a double-edged sword of people in the upper chains having no time to train the ensign and then they get mad because they’re not trained.”

Some go-getter ensigns — the type of officer the Navy would want to keep — end up eyeing the exit because of the lack of meaningful work or purpose, she said, while some who are content to do nothing end up sticking around. The lieutenant recalled the situation of one junior officer on another ship who also had no job.

“She was just walking around asking people if they needed help,” the lieutenant said. “She had nothing to do.”

Junior officers also suffer from imposter syndrome, according to the midgrade SWO, who recalled his own early days.

“I felt really dumb,” the SWO said. “I kept getting popped from job to job. You spend so much time trying to cultivate value in yourself.”

A lot of junior officers never get to do the job they thought they were going to do, he added.

“It’s called a surface warfare officer,” he said. “A lot of people go through their entire time as a (division officer) and never encounter that ‘W’ at all. It’s the surface admin officer or the surface PQS officer. When does the rubber meet the road? It never does.”

No Shit Sherlock.  This is absolutely one of my biggest issues.  But it requires a little more background first.

In the army, we had maintenance and training – all services do.  For me, that involved intel school, and hands on training for things like weapons qualifications, NBC gear cleaning and maintenance and *basic* “level 10” maintenance on our S-2 HMMVW in the motorpool.  I know the gun bunnies had more PMCS (Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services) on their 105mms and trucks – heck, the army has a regular comic book series on maintenance (lowest common denominator).

The Navy takes maintenance (Preventative Maintenance System (IIRC) – PMS) to an entirely different level (not getting into aviation-level issues).  A ship is everything once you’re underway.  It’s your barracks, your armory, your weapon systems, your mess hall, your office, etc, etc.  I’m not kidding when I say that literally every valve handwheel is tracked on a maintenance schedule – for testing, lubrication, operation, etc.  And that goes for every single pump, motor, pistol, torpedo tube, radar, antenna, computer server rack, etc.  Thankfully, they’ve decided that some shipboard maintenance (ie. complete disassembly and reassembly at a preset number of hours – normally for generators/pumps/etc) is optional – ie.  Some checks can be rescheduled/pushed right if there’s literally nothing impeding operation and no evident degradation.  This is all tracked in a set of very in-depth manuals and computer programs – that are updated on a quarterly basis.


Radar Maintenance

At the same time, the Navy has a system called PQS (Personnel Qualification System) – that governs *everything* on the ship.  Basic 3M (Maintenance) has several levels of qualification starting with the hands-on level and going up levels into maintaining the maintenance tracking system, writing jobs, ordering parts and approving jobs and maintenance schedules (by the division officers, etc).

But PQS doesn’t stop there.  Literally every single job on the ship has a PQS – that requires verbal verification of knowledge questions and well as standing the watch “under instruction” “x” number of times.  For engineers that includes “Sound and Security” watches – where they roam the ship and check fluid levels, operating temps, etc.  For deck watches, that includes standing the Officer of the Deck watch in port and carrying a weapon on the quarterdeck – and all the responsibilities, communications involved and responses to visitors (wanted and unwanted), etc.  Breaking that down, there’s also a PQS just to safely operate a 9mm pistol – that must be completed before you even go to the range to qualify on it.

* Secondary aside – regarding PQS qualifications – they are very specific by watchstation, ship class, etc – in the case of the USS John S McCain collision, it was determined that several folks qualified on one ship for one watch station were not appropriately qualified on the same system on a different ship due to external factors.  Normally this is a fairly minor point of requalification or recertification, but when it’s ignored or missed or “gun-decked” – the results can be fatal.

A DDG bridge (helmsman in the foreground), Lee Helmsman is the sailor in the center behind the khaki arm – on an FFG, the helmsman is actually seated just in front of the windshield with a wheel about 6 inches across….

Similarly, Basic Damage Control is another critical PQS – but (other than getting to go to the fun “ship on fire simulator” for hose training or the “floating” USS Buttercup simulator – see previous link) that involves sitting down with the damage control enlisted folks to have them go over things and train you – which is easy sometimes when you’re underway, but extremely difficult when you’re in dry dock.  I’d be sitting in the wardroom reading on a duty day, CHENG (Chief Engineer) would walk in ask me how my DC PQS was doing and hint that I should be working on it.  I’d find my paperwork, and wander around the engineering spaces looking for the Duty DC petty officer – until I found him and he told me he was too busy dealing with something to conduct training and maybe to find him the next day…. To fit my experience to the interviewees above, when I checked on board, I had essentially zero guidance from my first department head who was getting ready to transfer.  A few weeks after we went in the dry dock, the XO called me into his office and told me I would be riding another FFG for 2 months of RIMPAC.  An excellent experience all around that I may write about in more detail in the future – but what I didn’t get was any specific training guidance other than vague suggestions for qualifications.  There wasn’t anything concrete like “Complete DC, 3M, SWO Engineering, etc, etc” and have your signatures ready for me when you get back.”  There was no actual discussion of expectations and I still had no idea what was going on in that system based on my previous experiences.  C’est la vie….  In my opinion the lack of clear expectations nearly set me up for failure.

On my first ship – as the ordnance officer, my GQ (General Quarters/Emergency) watch was “Aft Steering Officer”.  That meant I got to sit in one of the spaces farthest aft under the flight deck where I manned the alternate emergency [manual] steering station.  And when I say “manned” – that means I sat there as the officer in charge and supervised the junior sailor assigned Aft Steering Helmsman and the other junior sailor who operated as phone talker and validated that every single rudder command from the bridge was received and echoed by my sailors and that the visual indicators in my space matched what was on the bridge in the case of a possible loss of steering.  In the case of an actual loss of steering – real or exercise, I would validate that my helmsman responded to the verbal commands from the bridge verbatim and that our rudder operated as expected.

Now to get to my central point regarding the Officer PQS ladder.  Aft Steering Officer is one of the first qualifications a SWO will get when they get to a ship – the watch station is manned every time you are in a restricted maneuvering situation – ie. pulling in and out of port, conducting underway replenishments, General Quarters, etc.  From there you will generally go to the Bridge and start Conning Officer.  There’s not normally a PQS for the Conn – it’s just something you do – mainly because you are taking your lead from the Officer of the Deck – or the XO or CO depending who’s up there.  You may make small adjustments on your own – depending on wind and currents if you’ve been given a position to take, but typically you’re following someone else’s guidance.

When I was commissioned, I had about 2-4 weeks of Junior SWO training in Newport right after commissioning and before I went to my ship.  (I think it was 2 weeks of dead time with a bit of simulator work – waiting for the next official class, and then 2 weeks of actual classes with some more simulator time).  I believe they’re back up to two full months of training now, but still not the same as the 6 months plus they used to have in the 90s and early 00s (not to mention the auxiliary yard craft they used to have in the 90s and earlier for actual hands-on ship driving experience – and still use at the Naval Academy).  The simulators weren’t bad, (but most of them *were* a lot simpler than this one since we were only training on Conning initially) particularly when you have the opportunity to focus on a particular platform with their respective engine setups and shafts – very different to conn a Frigate pierside with a single shaft but two Auxiliary propulsion units than an Arleigh Burke DDG with two shafts.  The simulator had a lot of focus on proper voice commands and speaking clearly, which is critical in the role of conn.

The weird disconnect is that after you’ve Conn’d for a while, they want you to alternate somewhat between CIC Watch Officer (CICWO) and Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) – although this is often ship/CO dependent.  They’re both the next steps that you need to get signed off for prior to starting your real OOD qualification.

CICWO is fairly minor position depending on the class of ship.  On the DDG, I don’t think they even stood it up half the time – since there was a LDO/warrant in charge of CIC – maybe just during complex operations when we had to juggle communications with a lot more folks.  On the Frigate it was a station that was always manned by a watchstander for administration/communication purposes.

JOOD is basically OOD (minus).  You’re essentially doing the OOD’s job and being evaluated and overseen by the actual OOD who has the CO’s authority and trust to operate the ship when the CO is not on the bridge.  Obviously, there are a lot of legal implications, which is why the CO’s trust is important.  On my first ship, I think we had just one ensign who never picked up her OOD letter – she was alright, but a little too frantic, had trouble making clear reports to the CO, etc.  (Our CO at the time was a woman too.).  Due to her being an Academy grad, she was able to get an exception and transfer out of SWO life to another billet – they’d put a lot more money in on training her already than say someone like me.

Not an ideal qualification environment

Underway small arms qualifications

My experiences were a little messier.  We got out of the drydocks, but every time we got underway for training, when I needed to be knocking out my CICWO watches, we had gun shoots for qualifications and I felt it was my responsibility (right or wrong – maybe priority issues) to assist the shoots and update my ordnance records.  So even after we finished the entire training cycle and deployed about 1 1/2 years after I got to the ship, I still didn’t have my CICWO, much less my OOD.  Normally (in 2011), you were required to have your OOD in 18 months after arriving at the ship.  I barely got mine at 24 months and left the ship a few months before the end of deployment in order to get my next “basic SWO” class in Newport – attendance of which is a prerequisite to even sitting for a board to get your SWO letter from the CO.  I met the ship in San Diego on the way back from deployment and managed to cram in a [dry run and] official board between San Diego and Everett on the way home.  Again…there’s a lot involved in the timing and attitude of the CO and chain of command regarding your readiness.  It wasn’t the best board ever, and I brain dumped nearly everything afterwards, but the CO passed me.

(Speaking of which, the actual OOD PQS includes an insane amount of material that no single ship will ever actually see during the scope of an 18 month period – barring possibly wartime (not to mention that it’s not class-specific so you need to be able to speak to things you’ve never actually experienced).  It includes everything from routine operations, pierside maneuvering, underway replenishment maneuvering, operating in a channel swept for mines, zero visibility operations, amphibious ops (which you need to know enough to speak about for the SWO board even if you never see it – hell, my first time on a ship with a well deck was this past January), how to respond to emergencies such as fire, flooding, loss of power, loss of communications, weapons operations, formation ops with allied ships, etc, etc, etc).

Get used to driving 80-120m parallel to a larger ship for long periods of time many, many times over the course of a deployment - watch out for that Venturi Effect.

Underway Replenishment aka UNREP

The midgrade SWO attributes a lot of these problems to the diminished fleet size and not having enough ships to accommodate everyone and allow junior officers the chance to really learn.

“We’re in a constant bum rush to deployment … on a sprint to meet all these requirements the fleet doesn’t have the capacity to reasonably meet,” he said. “You’ve got a bunch of junior officers in washed-out jobs that don’t really reflect the kind of opportunity we’d want them to have, on ships that are strung out and undermanned.”

“None of that is a recipe for success.”

Still, the SWO said he is hearing good things about reforms to basic and advanced division officer courses, as well as increased simulator training the Navy stood up following the 2017 collisions.

“If the fleet and fleet manning were different, I think that the training that’s in place, all the simulators, I think we could do a really good job,” he said. “We just don’t have the time and we don’t have the ships. … It’s just this death spiral of personnel and force structure decisions.”

Navy officials told GAO they were aware that “over-commissioning” junior SWOs increases competition aboard ships at sea.

Those officials argued to GAO that such practices can be beneficial, “as it provides additional personnel to conduct ship-board duties while at sea.”

The sea service has expanded the amount of classroom training for junior SWOs, while constructing new simulator-based training facilities and no longer assigning junior SWOs to ships in extended maintenance.

Junior SWOs have also had their first at-sea assignment lengthened from 24 months to 30 months, according to GAO.

“However, these changes may have exacerbated the issue of hindering training opportunities at sea, since they ultimately reduce the number of ships new officers can serve aboard, further increasing the number of new SWOs aboard ships at sea,” the report states.

The midgrade SWO said he thought the Navy would be courting disaster if it started commissioning fewer junior SWOs, because the results would be horrendous if the same number quit down the line, leaving massive holes in the force.

Adding to the glut is the fact that more than 20 percent of newly commissioned SWOs are on a career path that will see them leave the SWO world and transfer into other Navy jobs that don’t accept newly commissioned junior officers, such as intelligence and cryptologic warfare.

The recent GAO findings are not news for the Navy.

After the 2017 fatal ship collisions, the Navy’s Strategic Readiness Review noted that over-commissioning junior SWOs “directly contributed to declining SWO readiness,” according to GAO.

A parallel Comprehensive Review “noted that the U.S. Navy’s practice of over-commissioning SWOs makes it challenging to build proficiency and experience in ship-driving.”

The Navy could better capture the effects of these practices if it pulled data from the Surface Warfare Mariner Skills Logbook, which since 2018 has required SWOs to document their ship-driving and related experience in a handwritten logbook.

But GAO found that to date, the Navy hasn’t analyzed logbook data for insightful trends.


To be concluded.