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Navy: Training for Surface Warfare Officers Is Failing Them at Sea

A Surface Warfare Officer's School (SWOS) student navigates a virtual vessel through a number of simulated hazards in the school's full-mission bridge. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason McCammack)
A Surface Warfare Officer's School (SWOS) student navigates a virtual vessel through a number of simulated hazards in the school's full-mission bridge. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason McCammack)

In the space of 12 months, three Navy surface ships have collided with three civilian vessels and one has run aground.

In a sweeping and deeply troubling report released Thursday, Adm. Philip Davidson, head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, found that, among other deficiencies, existing training programs for surface warfare officers simply do not provide the full knowledge needed to operate in high-risk situations, and on-the-job training sometimes doesn't fill the gaps in a timely manner.

The 122-page report is the result of a 60-day review commissioned hours after the destroyer John S. McCain collided with the Liberian-flagged oil tanker MC Alnic on Aug. 21, resulting in the deaths of 10 sailors.

It recommends nearly 60 dramatic changes to Navy operations, taking to task a number of systemic problems, including a "can-do" culture that fails to account for fatigue and mental health factors; inadequate training that leaves crucial skills to be picked up through on-the-job learning; and insufficient attention to operational tempo and other factors that affect forward-deployed ships and crews.

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The report finds that all four major mishaps this year resulted from failure to observe safe navigational practices and failure to take action to avert disaster when it was imminent.

"In each of the four mishaps, the qualification of individuals for specific watch stations did not translate to proficiency to safely execute the mission," the report finds. "... In all four mishaps, there was a gap in watchstander training, their experience, and/or their proficiency, and their ability to conduct the tasks they were assigned to perform."

Surface warfare officer accession training totals 14 weeks of instruction, five weeks of which is offered following the student's first assignment at sea. The review revealed that the Surface Warfare Officer School Basic Division Officer Course, or BDOC, covers about half of "required fundamentals and systems theory."

The remainder of what these junior officers need to know must be learned on the job; however, this learning does not always come soon enough.

"The first major bridge watch station that a new SWO candidate stands is Conning Officer, yet the individual is not arriving to the ship with the foundational knowledge and skills to perform in the duty," the report found.

The conning officer stands in for the ship's captain on the bridge to help direct the ship.

Once SWOs receive assignments, development of proficiency and experience depends on the ship's operations schedule. Lack of synchrony between operating schedules and officer assignments can mean officers are transferring to a second tour just as they begin to gain proficiency at their first ship, the report found.

There is no system to track proficiency for SWOs, or even the time they have spent at sea or on watch.

Davidson and his review team recommended the Navy create a standardized program to assess individual seamanship and navigation skills throughout a surface warfare officer's career.

They also advocated for additional formal seamanship and navigation skills training for SWOs and SWO candidates, and changes to the SWO career path to allow for more time building proficiency at sea.

"Going forward, the Navy must develop and formalize "firebreaks" into our force generation and employment systems to guard against a slide in standards," the review team wrote in the report. "We must continue to build a culture -- from the most junior sailor to the most senior commander -- that values achieving and maintaining high operational and warfighting standards of performance."

Thursday afternoon, Davidson and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson will hold a press conference at the Pentagon about the way forward for the Navy in light of the review's findings.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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