Surface warfare training and career
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It has been nearly nine months since the USS McCain collided with Alnic MC off the coast of Singapore, and almost 11 months since the USS Fitzgerald collided with MV ACX Crystal south of Yokosuka, Japan. While I applaud the U.S. Navy’s efforts to address the root causes of these tragic collisions, I believe more must be done to prevent similar events in the future. This is my third article on this important topic to ensure we do not lose sight of our responsibilities to the sailors who lost their lives.

Experts have outlined extensive lists of contributing factors to the collisions, including lack of training, under-manning, lack of material readiness, and exhaustion. The Navy has completed both the Secretary of the Navy’s Strategic Readiness Review and the Chief of Naval Operation’s Comprehensive Review. Despite the many recommendations put forth in both reports, I believe the surface warfare community has not significantly addressed the way it prepares surface warfare officers for sea. In response, the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act contains provisions that I believe take necessary, measurable steps to protect sailors.


Surface warfare officers are generalists; each surface warfare officer receives essentially the same training throughout his or her 20-plus year career. They can be placed into any billet, on any ship type. Admittedly the ability to quickly adapt to new roles allows surface warfare officers to excel in joint assignments with the other services and go on to larger leadership roles within the Department of Defense. These jacks-of-all-trades with can-do attitudes quickly assimilate and find ways to add utility. However, this lack of specialization also has a cost and can contribute to tragic results.

Surface ships continue to become more complicated as new technologies are integrated into every form of warfare and in every realm – air, surface, undersea, and cyberspace. Every new surface ship design squeezes more first-of-its-kind technologies into every available space, making operations challenging. While aircraft and submarines are advertised as “multi-mission”, when compared to surface ships, their roles seem much more narrowly focused. Yet aviators and submariners receive significantly more training before their first operational assignments, often spending years in specialized schools. Because the complexity of surface warfare has been offset by the comfort level associated with the environment in which ships operate, this complacency has been generally survivable. While submariners and aviators constantly operate in environments more hostile than the ocean surface, in times of war and during complex operations, the threats facing the submariner, aviator, and surface warfare officer are comparable. All three must avoid potentially deadly errors in operation.

The surface community has an extremely challenging range of missions designed into its warships to go along with a nearly impossible training problem. One of the best ways to mitigate the complexity is to specialize. The U.S. Navy is the only major naval force that does not divide career paths for surface warfare officers. The navies of Britain, Canada, and Australia –as well as major commercial vessel operator companies – have established propulsion and auxiliaries engineering as a distinct career path for officers that is separate from operations and seamanship-centric officers. The considerable training and expertise necessary to excel in more technical areas necessitate that professional, educated engineers are given the opportunity to specialize. If the U.S. Navy was to create a separate career track for engineering officers, a significant number of the remaining surface warfare officers would be free to concentrate and specialize in areas outside the engineering plant. The non-engineering officers, or “tactics” officers, could focus on seamanship, navigation, weapons and combat tactics. As globalization and world trade surge, our waterways become more crowded. Safe seamanship and navigation are more difficult in saturated shipping lanes, as shown by the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions. Furthermore, surface warfare tactics are getting more advanced with the advent of hypersonic missiles, directed energy weapons, and unmanned vehicles. These divergent and equal specializations would allow officers to build superior expertise in their chosen functions.

The surface warfare career progression model has remained largely the same since World War II. With a great deal of success, our surface warfare officers won the battles of the Pacific and, for over 70 years, grew into leaders within the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense. To our detriment and because of all this success, the surface navy is generally resistant to change. This generalist practice, however, may no longer be viable because of the sophistication of combat and engineering systems and complexity of the surface warfare environment.

Wittman is chairman of the House Armed Forces Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.