USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60) returns to Pearl Harbor from a BMD deployment that lasted over 9 months

USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60) returns to Pearl Harbor from a BMD deployment that lasted over 9 months

Of all the missions the Surface Navy does, Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) might be the least sexy. It involves sitting in a small box in the middle of the ocean for weeks, usually far away from land or even any commercial shipping traffic. Ships on station need to be in a specific engineering and combat systems configuration at all times so they can track or engage a target at a moments notice. This means there aren’t many opportunities for training, ship handling, gun shoots, swim calls, and other evolutions. Sometimes, a poor middle-of-the-ocean satellite uplink makes the internet unusable, and “River City” could be set (meaning the internet is turned off completely) for bandwidth constraints or upholding Operational Security (OPSEC) due to mission sensitivities. Depending on the ship’s heading and location, TV-DTS (the Navy’s satellite TV connection) could go down as well. Hopefully the seas aren’t rough, because there’s little chance to get a modified location (MODLOC) to divert for better weather. If it’s a nice day, fishing from the fantail seems to be the most exciting thing to do; although there never seems to be much luck in getting a catch (it seems most fish know how to avoid the BMD box at all costs). Forget port calls, but even when ships aren’t on station, they could still be on a formal or informal “tether” which prevents them from going anywhere too far away from the BMD Theater (yes that means no Australia!).

Crew morale takes a huge hit, but it’s not just from the things that the ship can’t do; Sailors become frustrated because there are no tangible benefits and success is very hard to quantify. There’s no submarine to track, no target to shoot at, no aircrafts to launch, no vessels to board, no drugs to seize, etc. Our Navy’s Sailors can accomplish all sorts of unimaginable feats, but they still need ongoing satisfaction to know that their job has a meaningful purpose contributing to the overall mission – this is what real morale boils down to! Unfortunately, shipboard leadership doesn’t have a truly effective tool to demonstrate this. During one long BMD deployment, I had a Commanding Officer who would even go on the 1MC every night and tell the crew how important the mission was and they all played an essential role. It was good leadership but it simply wasn’t enough to make every Sailor a believer. Moreover, the tedious and seemingly fruitless duty has caused BMD to be seen as a stigma, and many Sailors are given advice to stay far away from the BMD mission, despite the invaluable experience one may gain in an up-and-coming warfare area.

The irony is that although it may never seem like it from the deckplates, the BMD mission is very vital – and quickly becoming one of the most vital missions. Rogue states like North Korea and Iran have to understand that their brinkmanship doesn’t match up against America’s ability and willingness to shoot down a threatening missile with our proven Aegis BMD System (ABMD). This credibility all starts with the Sailor – whether it’s Ship’s Servicemen restocking the vending machines, Culinary Specialists cooking quality meals, engineers finding quick and innovative ways to fix casualties, or the Fire Controlman at the Missile Systems Supervisor Console (MSS) staying alert in order to launch a Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) at a moment’s notice.

What is needed is a real way to recognize BMD service to the fleet, starting with the most junior Sailor. In fact, we need to do more than recognize it; we need to make it prestigious among the Surface Warfare community. One platform with a comparable mission is the Strategic Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBNs). Besides the fact that SSBN patrols are much more predictable in terms of deployment schedule, their missions are similar. Like BMD ships, they go on patrol for several weeks at a time, in a small box, at a secret location in the ocean, waiting for an order to shoot a missile that most likely will not come. However, because the Navy have taken basic steps to appreciate them in their past, the importance of their deterrence mission, as an integral part of the nuclear triad, is without question. SSBN Sailors are awarded a special uniform device, called the SSBN Deterrent Patrol Insignia (more popularly known as the “Boomer Pin”). This device is the only of its kind in the Navy and can be worn even in addition to their submarine warfare devices on all their uniforms.

SSBN Deterrent Patrol insignia

SSBN Deterrent Patrol Insignia

To add to that, in 2012, every single Sailor assigned to a SSBN or SSBN supporting command any time after 2007 was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation (MUC). Compare this to BMD Ships that have very little in terms of recognition to show for their BMD service – even long BMD deployers to 5th Fleet seldom get any type of unit award or citation. Ribbons and awards mean something different to everyone; as cheesy and trivial some may say the “Boomer Pin” or a “Blanket MUC” is to some, it’s a matter of pride to many junior Sailors. Moreover, it’s a material way to show appreciation to a special mission and duty.

I believe BMD is worthy of having its own special uniform device like the Boomer Pin, but creating a new BMD Service Ribbon is more realistic since it would probably require less red tape to be implemented. Similar to the eligibilities of other service ribbons, one award of the BMD Service Ribbon could be given to all personnel who are on station for 30 consecutive or 60 non-consecutive days over the span of one deployment or every one year if forward-deployed. We shouldn’t stop there. As a special type of duty, enlisted personnel successfully completing a tour on eligible BMD ships should be given one extra point to be factored into their promotion point calculation. Extra points can already be given for other special duties, such as completing an Individual Augmentee tour, or in past cases, being assigned to certain Military Sealift Command ships or recruiting duty. As an additional incentive, both enlisted and officers should be given special preference or priority points by their detailers when selecting future orders.

There is no doubt that the implementation of a few simple measures like the abovementioned proposals will set a very positive outlook for the future of BMD. Sailors will be able to say with pride that they serve in a BMD Ship and serving in one may even become a rite-of-passage. As the perception starts to change, so will unit cohesiveness and morale, and along with it, battle readiness, efficiency, and personnel retainment!

Posted by LTJG Zachary Howitt in Hard Power, Innovation, Maritime Security, Navy, Training & Education
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  • Matthew Hipple

    I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but to be fair there are lots of long, boring, or constrained patrols out there that don’t get a service ribbon. If we used “painful but important” morale-ribbon logic, we might justify a ribbon for everything from INSURV to painting. I am wary to think the solution to our problem is generating a new ribbon. I feel like that kind of attitude led to the eval positive-language arms race that made them useless and the massive inflation on NAMs. I do, however, think the preferential treatment on next orders or an extra point might be a good idea. I think sailors prefer opportunity over attaboys. BMD ships might also be selected for first-pick on new MWR gear, from TV’s to gym equipment to college courses underway. If the advantage is free time, we should find ways to leverage that in ways to keep sailors engaged.

    • Guest

      Thanks for your comments, Matthew. I don’t particularly think that using an appeal to tradition and the “why don’t we have a ribbon for this and that” slippery slope is a counter-argument with substance – eg: many who are against the ribbon idea are so because “we have too many ribbons already”. Nevertheless, a ribbon or device is just one possible solution and most seem to agree that some sort of BMD recognition is necessary.

    • Zack Howitt

      Thanks for your comments, Matthew. I don’t particularly think that using an appeal to tradition and the “why don’t we have a ribbon for this and that” slippery slope is a counter-argument with substance – eg: many who are against the ribbon idea are so because “we have too many ribbons already”. Nevertheless, a ribbon or device is just one possible solution and most seem to agree that some sort of BMD recognition is necessary.

      • Paul Gibbs

        Ya know, LT, your idea was probably not too bad…right up to the point where you started talking about the lack of swim-call’s and lack of internet. If *I* were on the receiving end of that “initiative”, it would have gone in the round-file then and there, followed by a muttered “Whiner”.

  • Jay Standring

    I admit – my initial reaction to this is – “River City”? We used to call life at sea without the Internet simply – “underway”. I think life on the surface is much nicer than the SSBN life – and it isn’t necessary to make every crew member “a believer”. I am not a fan of an(other) attendance prize ribbon, however – perhaps a BMD pin has some merit. A pin won’t solve the issues you raise, it might not even mitigate them. Interesting idea, however.

  • ridx

    I was going to make a smartass comment about how rough it must be to be at sea without internet and satellite TV, but I won’t pile on ;).

    • ridx

      The truth is that unsexy missions like this are a special kind of leadership challenge, and require a constant and sincere communication of high-order strategic concepts that ultimately don’t do much good on the deckplate. Unfortunately, the unsexy missions are (and always have been) what the Navy really is all about.

  • Andrew Carlson

    Herein lies the problem, Zack. The only people who bother to post comments on your entry seem out of touch with current modern naval operations (internet is required nowadays) or are strictly naysayers from the long-standing tradition of pooh-poohing someone else’s potential good deal. These comments are dripping with ego and nostalgic bravado because “in my day” things were different. I hope to validate your opinions:
    There is a real problem with BMD capable ships in the inventory versus demand, and we leverage successes in this critical mission area on the backs of our Sailors and families who find themselves assigned to a BMD-capable ship. The Global Force Management demand for BMD missions simply does not afford to give Sailors the adequate time even in-between their 9-10 month deployments in order to provide a modicum of work-life balance for their livelihood and time ashore.
    Yes, there needs to be engaged leadership. As with any global mission there needs to be operational level commanders who routinely and effectively communicate strategic level importance to the tactical operators to help bolster commitment on the long, tedious, but so critical deployments. It is not dissimilar from the pre-midwatch motivations given to the rifleman on the fenceline in Cuba or Korea. Articulating purpose is the realm of the senior leadership.
    The methods our Navy has traditionally highlighted importance is either through time off (inviolate dwell cycling), money incentives (SDIP, sea pay), or personal/unit recognition (sea service deployment ribbon, deterrent patrol insignia).
    Part of the challenge lies in your adequate description of your BMD-capable destroyers: they are not one-trick ponies, but multi-mission platforms designed and built to fight in so many different mission areas. The BMD capability is the current attraction, and the main driver for the deployment cycles experienced by the BMD fleet. But eventually as BMD becomes prolific throughout the fleet as one of the missions that many ships share, it necessarily must also be less of a distinguishing characteristic from other ships of the fleet. Compared to SSBNs, who have a singular mission with many others added on, the BMD-capable DDG has many PRIMARs that have become less influential in deployment scheduling than the BMD mission.
    Nevertheless, Zack, your idea has merit, regardless what the sideliners and peanut galleries throw your way. Continue to seek recognition for the BMD Sailors charged with execution of a mission that rarely is evidenced by active missile launches and kinetic activity, but gladly so. Stay with it, shipmate. And thanks for making those patrols. Deterrence is hard to measure, until it fails. And we cannot afford to fail in the BMD arena.

  • Homey

    Hate to be a nitpick but MODLOC does not stand for modified location…

    • Fakename12345

      He would know that if he ever made it to his SWO board.,,

  • Ryan Hilger

    I served on an SSBN as a division officer and transferred to shore duty about a year and a half ago. The pains the surface navy is now feeling with these BMD patrols will fall on deaf ears with any submariner who has served on an SSBN. I could go on a rant about the lack of amenities we have compared to even a DDG, but that would not be useful. The point is, though, that the surface navy could learn a lot from the SSBN force and how we have overcome all of the pains you discuss. It is challenging to explain to sailors why we are out there, why their job matters, and to keep them motivated. In my experience, most sailors know they are there to do a specific job. A reactor operator would do the same thing on an SSN as an SSBN, and likely has little detailed knowledge of the ship’s mission at any given moment. He only cares that he is out there. Most do not look too greatly into the ship’s mission; put they take pride in helping the ship do the best that it can.

    The officers, on the other hand, are the harder ones to deal with, in my opinion. I had originally wanted to go to an SSN for my first tour; I joined the submarine force to be on the tip of the spear, launch Tomahawks, and do ISR. But I was sent to an SSBN. As officers, we have to put everything into the job at hand, and on a strategic asset, that means embracing the mission and the boredom that comes with it. There is nothing glamorous or sexy about what we do, or what BMD ships do. But it is a mission that must be done. The ship must continue to train for their other warfare areas as well. Bemoaning the lack of training opportunities while you are the alert BMD ship does not serve you or your crew well. You and the rest of your wardroom must find ways to continually train and hone your craft, regardless of what the ship is tasked to do. We can run every single casualty drill while alert that we could while conducting local ops. It’s a matter of understanding where drill monitor interventions must be to ensure that no crewman actually takes an action that jeopardizes the ship’s readiness to launch. Believe me, there is no shortage of training opportunities to be had when the traditional ones “go away.”

    I don’t think a pin or ribbon is the answer. I believe most of my sailors could have cared less about getting the boomer pin. It was simply something that came with the job, a holdover from a different era. If they did away with it, I think only the older sailors would complain. In time, the BMD force will adapt to this new way of life and accept it as just another mission that they have to do sometimes. Remember, it could always be worse!

  • David

    I agree with Ryan except that I feel something needs to be said about the lack of amenities on submarines, specifically fast attacks. SSN sailors (especially enlisted) routinely put up with conditions that those in the rest of the Navy would never put up with. For example, there are only 70ish racks for sometimes as many as 140 men, that means up to first class and the occasional junior chief/divo are hot racking (three guys share two racks). Guys share a rack pan 4″ deep for all thier belongs for a deployment, there are no foot lockers. There is no such thing as the internet or TV. On mission you can’t send off an email for 30+ days. Most men will go 2-3 months without seeing even the sun. There are no swim calls. The only privacy you have is the coffin-sized rack you sleep in until the next guy kicks you out. Fast attack missions can be just as boring as any SSBN or BMD patrol. We don’t get a ribbon or a preferential ranking for that and nor do we want one.

    Forgive me if I come off as jaded and jealous of what life may be like on the surface but complaining about lack of internet or TV in the first paragraph of your post makes it difficult to focus on what ever merit might be in the rest of it. I’m not angry about how your life is more comfortable than mine, I’m angry that you’re complaining about what you do have and what to be preferentially ranked above your peers just because you do some job that’s boring

    Shipmate, most of the jobs in this military are exceedingly boring, we can’t all be Navy seals or fighter pilots. Every minute of every day people do their jobs with little or no recognition. The fact that you feel you deserve more recognition for the job you do and get paid for is disgusting.