Archive for the 'Training & Education' Category
While catching up on USNI posts from the past few months, the recurring themes of professionalism, education, and the need for more ideas and thoughts to move us forward jumped out from my monitor. It seemed appropriate to be reading about such topics upon emerging from the black hole of preparing for and—hallelujah—finally passing my PhD comprehensive exams. I failed my first attempt last September, so over the fall and winter I entered into full-blown hermit mode to pass it this second and last attempt. We are only allowed two attempts; failing twice kicks you out of the program, a somewhat common occurrence.
Given recent posts by Will Beasley and LT Misso and LTJG O’Keefe, this experience seems particularly relevant. My initial failure and subsequent furious hibernation would not be worth noting on a public site except for one thing: in my program, military members seem to struggle to pass the comprehensive exams while our civilian academic peers have not struggled to the same degree. Certainly civilian students fail at times, but their rate of failure is significantly lower than ours in my cohort. Anecdotally, servicemembers going through comparable PhD programs at separate institutions have experienced similar problems.
I was not surprised strictly by our failures; I was surprised by why we each failed. We didn’t fail due to comprehension or writing ability. Instead, uniformly, we each failed because we did not thoroughly own the literature. We did not question it at its depth and tear it apart to its roots. We did not question in it ways that existed outside of our comfort zones. Each of us fully absorbed the stuff and spit it back out along with some tepid critiques, but we fell far short of the standard expected along the way. Something about the way we learned and processed information in the services created a mindset that was fundamentally different from what was expected of us by our professors, kind of like “academics are from Mars, the military is from Venus.” While all students have to reset their way of thinking and start digging deeper inside their own brains to reach a different level, doing that as a 24-year-old right out of college is different than doing it as a 45-year-old post-command O6 who has been hard-wired to process information in a completely different manner.
One of my military peers at school thinks it’s not that we think differently, it’s that we have had to view the world as it is instead of how it is theorized to be, but I don’t buy that. Many of us began to study International Relations to understand more of the world as it is versus what we saw of it, and to that end this education has been quite a ride. Instead, I think we struggle because from day one in the military, we are expected to process large amounts of information and to live by that information. Seriously challenging convention is not something we regularly include in that process. Thinking critically, independently, and “outside the box” is given lip service (often only during PME studies), but at no point do I see it being actively, comprehensively encouraged through all aspects of our careers. The level of creativity currently desired is rarely hard to summon.
My worry is not that we are doomed to struggle to pass big exams, it’s what that signifies for how we as a force encourage thought, education, and analysis, and what this means for the future of the military. At no point in my career—ever—have I been expected to think, question, or analyze to the degree that I am now in school. When I checked into my first squadron, I was handed a stack of pubs. Over the next few months, I slept with those babies under my pillow at times, trying to absorb the information they contained into my puny brain. I wasn’t trying to learn it in order to improve upon it, challenge it, or turn it all on its head. I was trying to memorize it as quickly as possible so that I could advance in the squadron and do my job quickly and competently. I learned this mentality and applied it rigorously throughout the following years, which eventually brought me around to my comprehensive exam last fall, which I then failed. I failed the exam because my brain did not grasp where it truly needed to go.
That failure is a failure for so many of us, and I believe it indicates a failure for the military at large. Do we steer away from critical thought? Why, how, and at what point do we stop encouraging it? Is it unconscious? Automatic? And what can we do about it? Why did officers in my program struggle so uniformly? Is this because by the time we reach the ten-year mark or more, we have largely been trained to think and process info in similar ways? In the execution of our duties, do we soak in information as fast as we can, hit the pertinent parts with a highlighter, and move on? That’s what each of us did on the comprehensive exam: we took the key points, made bland yet reasonable arguments with them, and thought we had done well. Rereading my answers from this past exam, I saw no glaring problems at first. I had answered the questions on the surface. But those answers weren’t enough. I had to question the basic accepted standards of each theory, each hypothesis, and each assumption. I had to make a convincing argument that master theoreticians were wrong in ways I had never thought possible, and I was wholly unprepared to do so.
Training our brains to think in a new way is not impossible, but it’s tough when you’ve trained for years to think differently, sometimes under life-or-death stakes. Yet more than ever before, we need challenging thinkers and writers in the services at every level. The level of comprehension and analysis I needed to develop to pass my comp was far beyond anything I’ve attempted before, and nothing in the past two decades prepared me for it. However, it has been surprisingly fun and liberating, and it is making me better in other aspects of my life too. It’s changing the way I look at everything. I wish I’d started this program years earlier.
Given the complexities of our world, the need for stronger civil-military integration, and the budget realities we face, we need people who are not afraid to look at a problem upside down and see a new solution or a new path. Can we encourage and teach this in the military? PME schools can make a dent in developing how we think, but don’t approach the amount of “immersion” and reaction to established theory that the group in my program needed to summon.* Resident programs don’t reach enough people, non-resident programs aren’t intense enough to produce deep changes in the ways we think, and programs targeting senior officers and enlisted are too little too late. While we have existing programs to send servicemembers to higher education, I wish we did a much better job of encouraging younger Marines and Sailors to dig into the world from the start instead of waiting twenty years. We should encourage and want everyone to not just comprehend a problem, but to find its shortcomings, pick apart its vulnerabilities, and imagine other options. We don’t all need to graduate from Princeton and redefine counterinsurgency, but we should encourage creative thinking and new perspectives from the beginning. How? I haven’t figured that one out yet, but pushing critical thought via the written word is a start. I do wonder how the last 14 years would have looked with a more questioning, challenging military.
*It would be great to hear from anyone associated with a PME school here. Do you see similar problems among students? Different ones? Opposite experience?
Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) based out of Djibouti is playing the long game with the nations of east Africa, our allies, governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, and other concerned parties to not only help build a better future for the nations in that corner of the continent, but to ensure the security of the American homeland.
Our guest to discuss their role and more will be Major General Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., United States Army – Commander CJTF-HOA.
Due to scheduling issues, the interview with MG Grigsby was recorded earlier.
“Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”
-President John Adams
If John Adams were a junior officer in the Navy today, his admonition to his fellow officers might read something like this:
Let us [not] dare to read [lest my own beliefs be challenged], think [lest my perceived truths be shown as falsehoods] , speak [lest my commanding officer notice me], and write [lest my FITREP result in an MP].
As junior officers, we recognize this attitude in ourselves, our peers, and our superiors. Yet if today’s junior officer is to have any lasting legacy on the Navy or Marine Corps, it will be by recognizing and acting upon an essential truth:
The health of the service is more important than your career.
We need junior officers willing to stick their necks out and write. Our service and our country are dealing with serious challenges, many of which may have non-traditional solutions. This generation of junior officers will be judged for our courage to stand up and work to solve those problems. The nation can no longer afford our silence.
At the turn of the 20th century, a young naval gunnery officer couldn’t get anybody to listen to his revolutionary ideas on gunnery. Unwilling to be silenced, he stuck his neck out. In what he later termed “the rankest kind of insubordination,” he wrote a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt. This young officer, William Sims, would later use the pages of Proceedings to challenge his peers to be wary of the dangers of a lack of innovation or honest introspection, asking, “which of us will be quoted in the future as example of dangerous conservatism?”
In 1894, another author wrote scathingly about the lack of introspection in the British Empire’s naval culture. The parallels to today are striking: the world’s dominant maritime power for three generations, unchallenged in might but facing an increasingly complex and globalized world. Entitled “The Children of Nelson” and reprinted in the pages of Proceedings, the article lambasts British naval leadership, saying:
“The Admiralty … sternly refuses to permit junior officers to write or speak on questions of speculative strategy and other subjects which involve neither criticism of things that are, nor betrayal of official secrets. Junior officers are thus restrained in their usefulness and discouraged in their legitimate professional ambitions; and the impression has taken root amongst them that the man who endeavors to elbow his way out of the crowd, to bring forward a new theory, or to do any kind of serviceable work beyond the minimum which his position requires of him, is a fool for his pains… Thus discouraged on all hands, the British naval officer, with a few brilliant exceptions, resigns himself to living and moving in deep and well-worn grooves. He thinks little; he speculates less; he almost fails to realize, save in a dull and general way, that some day the storm of battle will again rage around him, and that he will be expected, by an unreasonable country, to repeat the triumphs of his ancestors.”
One hundred years later, the US Navy seems to have institutionalized and incentivized intellectual conformity in both strategy and policy through a culture that discourages professional intellectual dissent in favor of promotability. Navy Captain Jay Avella said it best in 1997 when he wrote, again in Proceedings, that the problem, “is about the culture change that seems to be pervading the sea service—a change that says, ‘don’t rock the boat, it will cost you your career.’”
The US Navy is in a perplexing situation: we pay lip service to buzzwords such as “innovation” and “transformation,” but will only act if ideas don’t upset entrenched interests or institutional inertia. Nevertheless, junior officers today are the scions of generations of transformative men and women who came before us—those like Mahan, Sims, and countless others. These officers never accepted the status quo just because “it’s the way we’ve always done things.”
As organizations such as naval aviation’s Tailhook Association prepare to name 2015 the “Year of the Junior Officer,” it is important for the thousands of junior officers in the Navy and Marine Corps to engage in some serious introspection. What will be our enduring mark on our service?
From a rank and file perspective, junior officers can drive change in their divisions and departments, and if lucky with supportive commanding officers, within their ships, submarines and squadrons. But what ultimately set Sims apart from many junior officers who have driven innovation on the deckplates was that he wrote about it. Had Sims not put pen to paper, unrelentingly, institutional change might never have happened. Today, we must pick up our tablets and laptops, just as those before picked up their pens and typewriters, and write, regardless of the pressures on our careers.
There is a disturbing trend among some that equates intellectual dissent with outright insubordination and disrespect. One recent Proceedings article went so far as to suggest that today’s millennial generation is derelict in their adherence to time-honored naval customs and courtesies, simply for asking “Why?” This belief blithely ignores examples like William Sims, that show us one of the most time-honored naval traditions is that of innovation driven by the junior officer ranks challenging the status quo.
Again, this sentiment is not new; one need only consult Alfred Thayer Mahan’s FITREPs to appreciate its longevity. CDR Rich LeBron, Commanding Officer of the USS Benfold, put it this way: “In this vertically stratified setting, the boss can find isolation behind the closed door of authority and good ideas can be transmuted, crushed, or simply dismissed on their way to the top as spirits and morale are driven into the ground.” Today’s navy, facing a staggering array of complex geopolitical, fiscal and technical challenges, cannot afford to keep thinking that all the answers reside with senior leadership.
Yet we cannot wholly blame a cessation of intellectual development on this entrenched culture; fault lies within the junior officer corps as well. Writing is hard, and quite often, after a long day aboard ship or in a cockpit, the last thing we wish to embark on is a quest to articulate on paper a problem and solution that we would simply prefer to move past. It forces us to defend our ideas, to take a stand, and perhaps even to be wrong. But it is a duty that lies squarely on our shoulders, and we must rise to the occasion.
At the junior officer level, we have a responsibility not just to put complaints to paper, but to constructively identify issues or highlight positives, defend our views and promulgate solutions. This improves our professional knowledge, and enables senior leadership to take their pens to paper to engage in dialogue where we can actually leverage and learn from their experience. Simultaneously, it is particularly important for naval leadership to closely examine the quality and content of their own writing, because we as junior officers look to them to provide for both context and inspiration.
Some junior officers are already making positive contributions to our great naval debates. Through projects such as the Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum (DEF), Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), and CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), junior officers write, share ideas, and set the tone on issues from future ship design and innovative apps to geopolitics and strategy. Yet more is required — we must fight to forge a culture of writing without trepidation, establishing a groundswell of professional discussion in our service.
Furthermore, we do not simply need more people writing – we need more people writing about the issues that matter. Somewhere along the line, much of naval writing, even in the pages of Proceedings, has devolved to a bland party line. Writing must incorporate substance.
Importantly, we should not solely focus on writing the “next big article,” but also on inscribing in record the grassroots innovation and effective procedures observed and implemented in our divisions and squadrons. We have nearly ceased discussion of the important, often mundane issues and ideas of daily naval life: strategy, operations, tactics, and procedures. Glancing through the pages of Proceedings and similar journals, a majority of material comes from senior officers who have long since moved beyond the realities of division level maintenance and deckplate challenges. Junior officers should remember our roots and reclaim proclivity in this arena, promulgating instructive tips for our brethren and observations on daily naval operations. In the same Proceedings issue as “The Children of Nelson,” there was also an article on the relationship between barometric pressures and ocean currents, a discussion of rustless coatings, and articles on naval reform. By recording these conversations in printed word, junior officers were able to share solutions from around the fleet.
Ultimately, the Navy must be led by the constant ingenuity and engagement of its junior officers and driven by the strategic thought and innovative perseverance of its seniors. Therefore, officers of all levels must write substantive pieces of all types: the mundane but useful, the transformative, the well-founded, the controversial pieces, and we must write without fear for our careers. The currency of institutional change available to the junior officer today, just as with William Sims and Alfred Mahan, is in writing. And so, regardless of the barriers we face, write we must.
Much has been written about the institutionalized pressure on junior officers to “get on board, or get out.” This is manifested in discussions, both in print and in individual counseling sessions, about the narrow, cookie-cutter paths to commanding officer; junior officers that deviate even slightly from “the pipeline” risk abandonment.
Many factors play into the issues of junior officer retention, and for some, the pressures to leave the service are strong. Not surprisingly, few officers want to remain in a service where “ducks pick ducks.” Success in our service often seems to be determined by how well an officer’s career mirrors the prescribed path, while intellectual curiosity gets one a pat on the head or maybe even an adverse FITREP.
Yet these challenges to us as individuals are not insurmountable. It doesn’t matter what we face: we need officers willing to stick their necks out. So what if it’s frowned upon to challenge entrenched ideas that can be improved? So what if your career may be shortened? Most of us joined to sacrifice to serve our country. Perhaps some of us may need to sacrifice our perfect FITREP for the greater good.
The kind of change needed cannot be driven from outside the service. Paradoxically, though we may feel that getting out is best for our individual careers, it is harmful to the service overall. The future of the Navy and Marine Corps will be driven by the strength of the positive insurgency forming in the junior ranks today. We must dare to think, write, and speak–and also to stay in the service, despite the financial and psychological benefits of the private sector. We must join our thoughts and words with the courage required to forge the type of leadership our Navy and Marine Corps deserve.
To be sure, there is a time and a place for opinions and disagreement. Respect must continue to be the rule of the day: respect for rank, experience, and naval culture. Junior officers must continue to master their craft, get qualified, and above all, care for their Sailors and Marines.
Likewise, our generation cannot solve these problems simply by shifting our verbal complaints to paper. We must write with substance, bring forward ideas–even contentious ones–and help each other through the writing process. How and when junior officers write is also important; even William Sims acknowledged the inappropriateness of his letter to the President. Thankfully, the commander-in-chief was able to see past Sims’ youthful follies and identify the intellectual substance present behind his actions.
But these requirements should not preclude junior officers from actively engaging in discussions on the tactics, operations, and strategies they will be called upon to execute, on the culture of the institution that we love, in support of the country that we serve. We should not wait to attend the War College or Postgraduate School to consider who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and why. We should not allow discouraging leadership and administrative burdens to choke our Navy and muddle our Marine Corps.
Many of our brothers and sisters in arms today and in decades past have paid the ultimate price for protecting our freedoms. They sacrificed their lives in defense of this nation. We can only hope to match their dedication by being willing to put our careers on the line, to “stick our necks out,” to make the service and this country better.
By Mark Tempest
13 years into the long war, what have we learned, relearned, mastered, forgotten, and retained for future use? What have we learned about ourselves, the nature of our latest enemy, and the role of our nation? What have those who have served learned about their nation, their world, and themselves?
Iraq, Afghanistan, the Islamic State, and the ever changing global national security ecosystem, where are we now, and where are we going?
Our guest for the full hour to discuss this and more will be returning guest John Nagl, LTC US Army (Ret.) D.Phl, using his most recent book Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice as the starting point for our discussion.
Dr. Nagl is the Ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School. Prior to assuming responsibility for the School in July 2013, he was the inaugural Minerva Research Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was previously the President of the Center for a New American Security. He graduated from the United States Military Academy Class in 1988 and served as an armor officer for 20 years. Dr. Nagl taught at West Point and Georgetown University, and served as a Military Assistant to two Deputy Secretaries of Defense. He earned his Master of the Military Arts and Sciences Degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and his doctorate from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.
Dr. Nagl is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam and was on the team that produced the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
The STEM bias towards officer education is long documented, defended, and argued – but on balance the pro-STEM argument holds the high ground in our Navy. Good people can argue both sides, but it is clear that the Mahanian ideal of the intellectual training of an officer has been out of favor for a very long time.
Is this technical bias simply a habit born or archaic assumptions towards intellectual development as out of touch with the needs of the 21st Century as Mad Men is toward gender roles in the workplace? Are the greatest challenges in our wardrooms, staffs, and intellectual debates 85% technical in nature? Are the challenges our nation and our military are facing that threaten our national security best addressed by people who made it through thermodynamics and mumble DiffyQ in their sleep?
Why would some of the most successful technical civilian organizations value a liberal arts education? Those with an extreme pro-STEM bias (CNO, I’m blogg’n to you) should take some times to digest what Elizabeth Segran over at FastCompany recently wrote on the topic,
So how exactly do the humanities translate into positive results for tech companies? Steve Yi, CEO of web advertising platform MediaAlpha, says that the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white. “In the dynamic environment of the technology sector, there is not typically one right answer when you make decisions,” he says. “There are just different shades of how correct you might be,” he says.
Yi says his interdisciplinary degree in East Asian Studies at Harvard taught him to see every issue from multiple perspectives: in college, he studied Asian literature in one class, then Asian politics or economics in the next. “It’s awfully similar to viewing our organization and our marketplace from different points of view, quickly shifting gears from sales to technology to marketing,” he says. “I need to synthesize these perspectives to decide where we need to go as a company.”
Danielle Sheer, a vice president at Carbonite, a cloud backup service, feels similarly. She studied existential philosophy at George Washington University, which sets her apart from her technically trained colleagues. She tells me that her academic background gives her an edge at a company where employees are trained to assume there is always a correct solution. “I don’t believe there is one answer for anything,” she tells me. “That makes me a very unusual member of the team. I always consider a plethora of different options and outcomes in every situation.”
Look again at what the critical thinking skills a well rounded education gave Yi and Sheer, and ask yourself – are these skills we value and need?
If so, why do we actively discourage them?
Yes, we are time shifting for this coming episode of Midrats to 6:30pm on Sunday, 26 October for a 90 minute adventure in national security and spin-off topics as we offer up Episode 251: DEF2014 wrapup and the budding question of veteran entitlement:
A special time and format this week with two different topics and guests.
Moving for just this week to a 6:30pm Eastern start time, our guest for the first 30-minutes will be Lieutenant Ben Kohlmann, USN – Founder of Disruptive Thinkers, F/A-18 pilot, member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell, and Co-Founder Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. He will be on to give us an overview of DEF2014 that ends this weekend.
For the following hour our, guest will be Major Carl “Skin” Forsling, USMC. He will be on to discuss some of the broader issues he raises in his article earlier this month, Unpacking The Veteran Entitlement Spectrum, and perhaps some more as well.
Skin is a Marine MV-22B pilot and former CH-46E pilot. He has deployed with and been an instructor in both platforms. He has also served as a military advisor to an Afghan Border Police battalion. He is currently Executive Officer at Marine Medium Tiltrotor Training Squadron 204, training Osprey pilots and aircrew for the Marine Corps and Air Force. He earned his batchelor’s degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and his master’s from Boston University. His writing has appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette, USNI Proceedings, Small Wars Journal, and Approach, among others (available at carlforsling.tumblr.com). Follow him on Twitter @carlforsling.
Tiago Alexandre Fernandes Maurício, associate editor for our Forgotten Naval Strategists Week, joins us from Tokyo to discuss Fernando Oliveira and our other Forgotten Naval strategists – as well as how these strategists become “forgotten.” There’s a bit of Peloponnesian War thrown in too… just because.
Note: Thanks to Sam LaGrone for the kickin’ new tunes.
By Jon Paris
In both Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I compared various naval counterparts – laying the groundwork for discussing what the U.S. Navy’s Surface Warfare Officer community is getting right, and what areas could use improvement. It is easy to complain. Surface Warfare Officers are notorious for it. I am infamous for it, as my peers and superiors alike will attest. Combine our penchant for complaining and our ingrained inferiority complex and it is no wonder that so many SWOs think that everyone else is “doing it better.” This time, though, it is not typical-SWO wanking: they aredoing it better, and we must pull our heads out of the sand and catch up. Royal Navy Warfare Officers, U.S. Naval Aviators and nuclear trained officers are specialists and are unmatched masters of their trade. They must train endlessly and they feverishly adhere to standards written in blood to remain at the top of their respective callings. They are role-models and could teach us a thing or two about being the best. As for Surface Warfare Officers – weare good, and that is the problem.
It appears that there is nothing wrong here. As a Surface Warfare Officer myself, I can get onboard with most of the above. There is a seedy underbelly to all of this, though. It thrives on a couple of points: that our greatness has not been tested by an opponent in decades, and that the perspective of greatness is naturally skewed from the top down. If not by desire, doctrine, or intent – then surely through practice – the Surface Warfare Officer community accepts mediocracy.Surface Warfare Officers – and the ships we drive, fight, and lead – guarantee the free flow of commerce across the world. We deliver critical readiness to the Geographic Combatant Commanders and we send a powerful message to both overt and would-be enemies. What we do, works. Our ships deploy and our navy projects unparalleled power around the globe. As an inherently expeditionary force, we ply the world’s oceans, go where we please, and influence international events as a matter of course. We conduct prompt and sustained combat operations like no other nation can. Our ships are leaving port and returning safely, they complete the widest variety of operational tasking of any military community, our personnel are advancing, and finally, as one senior community leader put it to me, “We are pretty damn good… I would take our top 50% Department Heads and put them against the top 10% of PWO (RN, Principle Warfare Officers) or Snipes (engineers) and bet on our people.”
Tom Skerritt’s Viper stood in front of a room filled with the elite – “the best of the best,” and told them deadpan: “we’ll make you better.” In this fictional portrayal, which is representative of the real-life attitudes found in the previously featured communities, good enough, wasn’t. Surface Warfare Officers are undoubtedly the best in our business. Unfortunately, context matters, as the same can be said when a Major League club steps into a Little League park. We need to be better. We have ill-defined core-competencies, which leads us to becoming Jacks-of-all-Trades. Our habit of recoiling in horror at the thought of specialization causes us to become plug-and-play officers; ultimately figure-heads and placeholders with little value added to a respective sub-unit. Finally, we do not deliver professionals to the Fleet. One Surface Warfare Officer with multiple commands under his belt conceded, “We should be more deliberate. Success and mastery occur by happenstance.” Another community leader said, “We have good tacticians, but that is mostly by personal choice, and a little bit about your ship’s schedule and how interested your Commanding Officer was in tactics.” This series is not about career advancement. It is about a profession. It is about war. It is about winning! Our nation does not deserve victory by happenstance. It deserves an ocean-roiling, awe-inspiring, burned-into-the-history-books slam of Thor’s hammer upon our enemies. I do not think we are there yet.
Getting there is not simple. It is not as easy as adopting all of the policies and culture of the Royal Navy or Naval Aviators or nukes. Surface Warfare Officers should be the best because we train to be the best, not because we happen to be a part of the American Navy. We should be the best because we retain the best, not simply because our kit is better than everyone else’s. Under some fantastic leaders, the community is getting the right idea. The introduction of the Basic Division Officer Course, the Advanced Division Officer Course, the Surface Navigator’s Course, the Command Qualification Exam, and rigor added to the Department Head Course are all aimed at developing professionals. Weapons Tactics Instructors – previously a rice-bowl of the aviation community – will invigorate tactical awareness and proficiency throughout the Fleet. The SWO Clock concept – another idea poached from Naval Aviators – which gets “beached SWOs” back to the waterfront, shows a tilt towards valuing production in the upwardly-mobile. We are making good efforts to improve our community in an environment that naturally builds anti-bodies to culture change. That said, we are not doing enough; our profession, our competencies, our reputation, and our retention suffer due to this slow trod down the middle-of-the-channel. As is evidenced by both the Naval Aviation and nuclear communities, it really comes down to what a community accepts in, and for, itself. Do we continue to accept mediocracy, or do we stand up and say that “good enough” is not good enough?
One admiral opined, “I think it is good we SWOs have this institutional ‘inferiority complex,’ as it keeps us from getting complacent…like naval aviation did in Vietnam and later years.” I am not nearly the first to question the level of professionalism in our force. In a 2009 Proceedings article, LT Mitch McGuffie discussed his shock at how much more professional Royal Navy Warfare Officers were than SWOs. This topic and topics like it pop up on Sailor Bob – the definitive forum for SWO discussion – all the time. We do have a questioning attitude and that does make us better. While I readily acknowledge that we are the best Surface Warriors on the block, I am not satisfied with a 10:1 or 50:1 advantage. Like Viper and his pals, and real-life naval professionals who recognize that “there are no points for second place,” I am not satisfied with us being the best – I want us to be the best of the best.
To be the best of the best, we must deliver professionals to the Fleet at all levels. To measure one’s professionalism, we must establish community-recognized core competencies. We must define what it means to be a SWO and prove that our pin is worth more than the money we pay for it. For the sake of brevity, I propose that our core competency be ship-driving. Imagine, if you will, a room full of mid-grade Hornet pilots: 20% of them openly admit to each other that they have no clue how to fly Hornets, and another 30% who are less open about their weakness demonstrate their ineptitude in the simulator. The remaining 50% range from barely capable to superstars. While quality spreads are a reality in any group, this scenario is un-imaginable. Naval Aviators with more than 8 years of service that do not know how to fly? Rubbish! This is a reality for Surface Warfare Officers, though. Lieutenants that do not know how to drive ships are commonplace. They exist because they were never trained, nor tested, much less held to a standard, in the first place. They were never trained, tested, or held to a standard because ship-driving – again, if not due to desire, doctrine, or intent, then through practice – is not recognized as a core-competency of the U.S. Navy’s ship drivers. As is demonstrated in the excellent film, Speed and Angels, Naval Aviators consider carrier operations to be a core-competency – if a student pilot cannot land on the boat, then he will not become a Naval Aviator. Why can’t Surface Warfare Officers take the same approach to our profession?
We need a flight school for Surface Warfare Officers. The name is not important at this point – rather, the purpose ought to be the focus: building ship drivers. We must stop accepting mediocracy in this venue! While the Basic Division Officer course is a fantastic concept meant to bolster our young ensigns, it lacks focus and does not zero in on core-competencies. The lessons taught in the Basic Division Officer course are important – being an effective small-unit leader is vital, and I do not propose that we scrap the current construct. Rather, I propose – nay, I implore – that we first recognize ship-driving as a core-competency, and second, require our officers to be competent ship drivers.
SEALs do not accept sub-par. Neither do Naval Aviators, nor nuclear-trained officers, or Marines. While I applaud our most recent Commander, Naval Surface Forces for his outstanding efforts to instill meaningful training, we are still accepting sub-par, and are using the re-creation of half-way schooling as a security blanket. Under our current system, young SWO candidates are flooded onto ships in an effort to make future retention goals – an indictment of our culture’s impact on retention. They then fiercely compete for time on the bridge to gain experience – and hopefully competency – as ship drivers. On most ships, this is not a recipe for success. The Professional Qualification Standard books, which drive progression, are signed with unpredictable integrity, imparting sometimes-dubious knowledge on young minds. To cap it off, Officer of the Deck and Surface Warfare Officer qualifications, granted by Commanding Officers, are determined using two-hundred some different standards. Some candidates sit for gut-wrenching, rigorous tests of their skills and knowledge, and others chat with their Commanding Officers at local watering holes after a command event. The evidence of the disparity in knowledge is on display in Newport, Rhode Island – home of Surface Warfare Officers School – where junior officers return for the Advanced Division Officer Course, and later, the Department Head Course. Some officers were obviously put to the test during their professional development, and others were obviously not.
I propose that we start a Deck Watch Officer School – our flight school - in Newport, which all ensigns will attend, and must pass, prior to reporting to BDOC and ultimately, the Fleet. As with aviators, this school would not be a second thought or a 60% solution, but rather would be a proving ground for our nation’s future ship drivers. The length of this notional school can be figured out later; what is important is that SWO candidates shall qualify;ashore. We must have one standard, one organization responsible for enforcing that standard, and must require those desiring entrance into our community to meet it – otherwise, seek life elsewhere. We should not be ashamed of upholding a standard and of telling some people that they are not cut out for this business. At this school, candidates would receive in-depth, hands-on instruction in seamanship and navigation, basic-through-advanced ship handling, meteorology, bridge resource management, and a variety of other skills required for the competent mariner.
Integral to this process would be the move of the Yard Patrol Craft fleet – the U.S. Navy’s only training ships – from Annapolis to Newport for the exclusive use of the Surface Warfare Officers School. During the pipeline, ensigns would log hours and prove their skills in simulators and on the water. They would complete classwork, learn from case studies, and would be continually tested, remediated, and attrited, as required. If they successfully made it to the end of this program, they would sit for a SWOS-run and community-sanctioned Officer-of-the-Deck board, ensuring that all ensigns are held to the same standard. Earning one’s OOD letter – like the pilots and their wings – would be a culminating event, and those unable to meet the mark would not be sent to the Basic Division Officer Course or the Fleet. If we could implement this plan, we would then send Captains competent, qualified ship drivers, immediately useful to their commands. Like in the Royal Navy, newly reported officers would then complete their platform endorsement, signifying both their grasp of their new ship and the trust their Commanding Officers have in them.
To be the best of the best, we must be good at our jobs. If Surface Warfare Officers are going to continue to be both professional watch standers, and small unit leaders, we must stop accepting the notion that plug-and-play is an effective way of doing business. Imagine a Naval Aviator spending his junior officer tours flying F/A-18’s, his department head tour in a P-8 squadron, and finally, growing up to command an MH-60 squadron. This progression would never happen in the aviation community because they are not plug-and-play pilots. Yet, a Surface Warfare Officer may indeed spend a tour in Weapons Department, followed by Operations Department, followed by Engineering Department, followed by eventual command. The issue as I see it is that the community views this as a positive – exposing officers to a variety of shipboard functions – but in reality, it ensures that we never become truly good at our jobs. We become personnel and administrative gurus, irrespective of our assigned department, perched to jump into a different role at a moment’s notice.
Instead of our current system, I propose that U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officers matriculate into the community with a billet specialty: engineering, operations, or combat systems. Anathema! Rather than wandering from department to department as figure-heads, I want us to have a vested interest, and subject matter expertise, in the Sailors we lead and the systems we are responsible for. An Infantry Officer leads infantry units. Armor Officers lead armor units. F/A-18 pilots fly Hornets. Today, a Surface Warfare Officer can become a Weapons Officer, and in theory, an Engineer Officer, without prior experience in those respective departments. Imagine, though, the benefits of the following: a new officer enters the community as a Surface Warfare Officer-Engineering, graduates the OOD School and BDOC, completes basic engineer training, serves two division officer tours in Engineering Department, completes shore duty, graduates Department Head School, and returns to the Fleet as an Engineer Officer. This officer has received specialized training along the way and has walked the walk and talked the talk at sea prior to stepping foot into what is acknowledged as the most challenging tour of a SWO’s career. They are no longer a figure-head, but rather: they are an engineer. Or a Combat Systems Officer. Or an Operations Officer. Their title means something. They are good at their job. To ensure preparation for command and to keep some semblance of well-roundedness, Surface Warfare Officers of all flavors would continue to earn the qualifications and stand the watches that the community currently holds dear: on the bridge, in the Combat-Information-Center, and in the engineering plant. Finally, the XO/CO fleet-up model would ensure that specialists are appropriately rounded-out before taking command.
I want Surface Warfare Officers to push ourselves “right to the edge of the envelope.” I want us to be proud of our community. I want our Surface Warfare Officer pin to mean something – to the military, to the service, and most important of all, to us. I want us to be professional watch standers and experts in our respective jobs. The Surface Warfare Officer community is known for being the dumping ground of Unrestricted Line Officers who could not hack it, and this happens because we do not establish, much less uphold, standards. No more! We should honor our heritage, establish a role in our force that is both respected and admired, and strictly and unabashedly police ourselves as consummate professionals who accept nothing less than the best of the best.
On March 7, 2014, a self-directed study was emailed to Vice Admiral Bill Moran, the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Personnel. Titled “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study”, the paper provided Vice Admiral Moran with a canary in the coal mine, describing a looming retention downturn using historical data and, perhaps most importantly, timely and relevant information based on primary source interviews with hundreds of U.S. Navy Sailors.
Within days, the paper leaked from the Navy’s Personnel Command and made its way throughout the Navy. The message resonated with Sailors at the deck plates — officer and enlisted alike — and caught the attention of senior leaders throughout the U.S. Government. To their immense credit, Vice Admiral Moran and other senior Navy leaders have responded to decreasing retention indicators with personnel changes designed to improve morale and a Sailor’s ‘quality of service’. These changes provide commanding officers with greater flexibility to prescribe uniform wear, increase sea pay for Sailors on extended deployments, and reduce general military training requirements on commands, just to name a few.
Larger initiatives are in the works although they have not been publicly announced. Some initiatives, like expansion of the Career Intermission Pilot Program, require Congressional approval. There is also a desire to better understand the current retention downturn before acting. This is understandable. The Navy is a large, diverse, and dispersed organization and more information is required to ensure the next round of changes provide the greatest return on investment. However, the time to act is now.
So, how do you determine the right course of action to provide the greatest return on investment?
Senior decision makers are asking important questions. First, is there really a retention problem? Is it possible we are retaining the right quality of Sailor, just in fewer numbers? Are previously cited retention factors — an improving economy, significant operational tempo, perceived reductions in quality of life, among others — truly impacting our Sailor’s “stay/go” decisions? If so, in what ways?
The desire to further expound on the tenets of the paper — in a thoughtful and deliberate way intended to benefit senior leaders — led to the creation of an independent 2014 Navy Retention Study Team in March 2014. The team is comprised of a volunteer group of high-performing active duty Sailors and select civilians who have dedicated their off-duty time to create a first of its kind retention survey — created by Sailors for Sailors. All of our members are upwardly mobile, highly-placed individuals who want to measurably contribute to the continued success of the U.S. Navy. The success of this initiative is due largely to their sense of ownership for the Navy and their correspondingly impressive efforts.
This report details the results of this year’s survey, including a broad analysis of factors which are assessed to affect retention and additional recommendations to avoid the shoal waters of a multi-year retention shortfall for several communities. Further, it is important to provide relatively unfettered access to the survey data (as appendices in this report) with more raw data to be made available throughout Fall 2014.
While our analysis of the data is presented for your use, I suggest you don’t take our word for it — read and assess the data for yourself. Then read widely, think deeply, write passionately, and act decisively to help retain our most talented Sailors in uniform.
We must continue to cultivate a strong sense of ownership within the U.S. Navy. Reassuringly, many Sailors have stepped forward with innovative ideas to improve processes and policies, whether as a Yeoman, a Lieutenant in the F/A-18 community, or as a pre-major command surface warfare officer. In the end, no matter your rank or position, it’s about asking ourselves what type of Navy we want to dedicate some portion of our lives to … and what type of Navy we want to leave for those that join 5, 10, 15 years into the future and beyond. It’s easy to lay problems at the feet of our senior leaders, however it’s incumbent upon all of us to take part in solving this issue.
At the end of the day, the Navy cannot directly hire uniformed personnel into positions of responsibility, nor can it surge leadership, trust, and confidence. Instead, we must explore changes to legal statutes and internal policies in order to retain our very best, brightest, and most talented — the continued success of the U.S. Navy depends on nothing less.
The 2014 Navy Retention Study report may be downloaded at: www.dodretention.org/results beginning Sept 1, 2014.
How does policy shape, limit, or empower the effectiveness of command at the unit level? Which policies are a net positive, and which ones are counter productive? Are there things we can do to better balance larger Navy goals with the requirement to give leaders the room they need to be effective leaders?
In times of austere budgets, can you both reduce end-strength while at the same time retain your best personnel? Are we a learning institution that can adjust policy that answers the bell from DC in shaping tomorrow’s Fleet, yet does not break trust with Shipmates?
To discuss this and more we will have as our returning guest, Vice Admiral Bill Moran, USN. Chief of Naval Personnel. A P-3 pilot by trade, he held commanded at the squadron, wing and group levels. As Chief of Naval Personnel, he oversees the recruiting, personnel management, training, and development of Navy personnel. Since taking over a year ago he has focused on improving communication between Navy leadership and Sailors in the Fleet.
Join us live if you can or pick the show up later by clicking here.
U.S. Navy photo by MC3 Margaret Keith