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The Navy’s surface fleet warfighters unfortunately aren’t mariners

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The U.S. Navy has been shaken by two devastating collisions over the last few months between Japan-based destroyers, the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain, and larger merchant ships in busy sea lanes near Tokyo and Singapore. Seventeen sailors are dead. An incredulous public wants to know how such tragedy could befall modern warships equipped with the best technology. So does Congress; the House Readiness and Seapower subcommittees are holding hearings on the mishaps. Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, has directed a fleet-wide “operational pause” for units to focus on safety and fundamentals, and an investigation into factors behind ship mishaps over the past decade, including how officers are trained in seamanship and navigation. 

In the aftermath of these collisions, fleet readiness issues have come to the public fore: a Navy stretched thin by operational requirements that grew after 9/11 while the fleet itself shrank by nearly one-fifth; maintenance dollars that shrank even faster, even as the ships were worked harder; crew exhaustion; and longer and more frequent deployments that cannibalized time for pre-deployment training. But beneath these issues are more long-standing factors that have left the surface fleet’s officer corps proficient as warfighters, but lacking in skill as professional mariners.

{mosads}The U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is undoubtedly the most combat-capable in world, a goal enshrined in its official “warfighting first” principles. However, mastering the complex operations unique to the Navy’s combat mission often comes at the expense of seamanship training. In my own career, I received over six months of intense training on the technical operation and tactical utilization of some of the Navy’s most advanced radars and weapons systems, but only three weeks of formal instruction on seamanship when it was my primary watchstanding duty — the term sailors use for their daily shift at one of a ship’s controlling stations like the bridge, combat center, or engineering plant.

Seeking fiscal efficiencies, the Navy eliminated the months of schooling prospective surface officers used to receive before embarking their first ship in 2003. Instead, officers arriving in the surface fleet in the mid-2000s like me received a packet of CDs full of self-paced lessons. Our experience came “on-the-job”, but it was unmoored from rigorous training in seamanship fundamentals.

Any opportunity to interact with a high-end peer navy usually confirmed any suspicion that our own skills as mariners were wanting. When I deployed with a NATO squadron as my ship’s navigator I was quickly embarrassed by the gulf in knowledge between me and many of my European counterparts. 

I certainly wasn’t alone. In 2009, toward the end of my tour as navigator, another junior officer detailed his experience spending two years as an exchange officer on a British warship in a professional magazine for the U.S. sea services. In the U.S. Navy, he was among the best trained and most experienced bridge watchstanders in his peer group. In the Royal Navy, he realized that he was a comparative amateur who was now being held to a much higher standard, and advocated for an overhaul of junior officer training in the U.S. surface fleet.

The Navy realized its training model was unsatisfactory and restored some formal schooling for new surface officers, as well a much more rigorous navigator’s course than the two weeks of largely administrative instruction my peers and I received. But the junior officers on the Fitzgerald and McCain, as well as on two cruisers involved in earlier mishaps this year, were all the beneficiaries of these new courses, begging the question of whether they are sufficient.

Furthermore, the record suggests the problem is not limited to a few years of gapped junior officer training in the mid-2000s. The Navy has experienced at least one major shiphandling mishap nearly every year since 2000, when the USS La Moure County ran aground off Chile because its officers didn’t understand how their GPS worked. In many of these incidents the ships’ captains were on the bridge, not just junior officers.

A contributing factor is that the Navy dilutes seamanship proficiency by requiring surface officers to be “generalists” with knowledge across engineering, combat systems, and tactics and operations. This stands in contrast to most advanced navies, where surface officers specialize in a single professional discipline. As a consequence, many captains don’t have much more practical ship-driving experience than the junior officers serving under them. Most have only spent two or three years in their early 20s where their primary watchstanding responsibility was practicing seamanship on the bridge of a ship.

If it isn’t already, the CNO-directed review must re-evaluate the surface fleet’s “generalist” model of surface officer development. The U.S. Navy has resisted moving towards a specialization model, believing that officers are most effective if proficient in all areas. The generalist model also helps the Navy solve a human resources problem; it is far easier to manage a single population of ostensibly interchangeable officers than several stove-piped ones that aren’t. It also ensures a sufficient pool of officers eligible for command, rather than risk, for example, having a surplus of officers to run the engine rooms but too few captains to command the ships.

Of course, the Navy operates hundreds of ships each day without incident, and most officers, most days, in most circumstances, are good enough mariners to keep their ships safe. Nonetheless, these mishaps demonstrate that what currently constitutes “good enough” in practice is inadequate in those situations where knowledge and skill count most, and the consequences are greatest.

The debate over dividing surface officers into specialist communities has percolated in ships’ wardrooms and Navy professional forums for years, but that debate must now turn into reform. Poor seamanship has left 17 sailors dead and two of the Navy’s premier warships out of action (probably for years, if previous mishaps are any guide) at a time rife with anxiety about the size of the U.S. fleet and China’s growing one.

The biggest hurdle to reform may have been captured by that junior officer who had to spend two years with the Royal Navy to find out how much he didn’t know about his profession. The senior captains and admirals charged with investigating the fleet’s pattern of mishaps must confront the possibility that they too may not know just how much they don’t know about seamanship, and that the Navy may need to look outside itself — to the Coast Guard, civilian masters, even foreign navies — for the knowledge and training models needed to fill its deficits.

Steven Stashwick is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He spent ten years as an active duty Surface Warfare Officer, was a seamanship and navigation instructor, and deployed several times to the Western Pacific. He is presently an independent Asian security analyst in New York. The views expressed are his own.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags John Richardson Navy Seamanship United States Naval Academy

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