Back Off, Congress: Don’t Meddle With the US Navy’s Command Philosophy
A proposal to force surface-ship officers to specialize would undermine a conceptual pillar of the world’s dominant naval power.
This week, the full House of Representatives will debate the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, the legislation that, among other things, sets funding levels and priorities for the U.S. Navy. A full treatment of the bill is beyond the scope of this essay; suffice it to say that from the standpoint of one who advocates for American Seapower, there is a lot to like in the bill produced by the House Armed Services Committee. Congress appears to be onboard with growing the Navy and ensuring that it is more lethal, both of which are to be encouraged. Yet the bill does much more than that, and one provision contained within it is worthy of closer examination and ultimately, removal.
Tucked into section 502 of the thousand-plus-page bill is the following provision, under the heading “Surface warfare officers: career paths”: ‘‘Any naval officer who is commissioned as a surface warfare officer on or after January 1, 2021, shall be assigned to one of the following career paths: (1) Ship engineering systems. (2) Ship operations and combat systems.” This seemingly innocuous provision represents a dramatic and unnecessary change to the status quo based on learning the wrong lessons from two tragic collisions last summer. And if it is implemented, the U.S. Navy’s concept of command at sea—a philosophy that has served the world’s dominant naval power well—will be forever altered and diluted.
The language here is aimed at the system used within the U.S. Navy’s surface warfare community career path to prepare officers for command at sea. Currently, surface warfare officers, or SWOs, spend 16 or 17 years moving between sea tours and shore tours before they may be considered for command of a surface ship. To prepare them for this responsibility, the SWO community directs its officers through increasingly complex shipboard jobs, from division officer to department head to executive officer (or second in command). Along the way, an officer is likely to serve in a variety of billets across several “line” departments, including propulsion engineering, combat systems, and operations/navigation. Officers hoping to command must demonstrate mastery of all aspects of ship operations, earning such designations as Engineering Officer of the Watch, Officer of the Deck, and Tactical Action Officer.
This “generalist” approach to career management stands in stark contrast to the Royal Navy (U.K.) and to the worldwide commercial shipping sector. Officers in those fleets are bifurcated into engineering specialists and deck/operations officers, with only the latter eligible for command at sea. The NDAA would force the Navy to follow this model.
Rationale and analysis for this heavy-handed intervention is thin, although Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., tipped his hand at a speech to the Surface Navy Association in January. “I am concerned that as our ships become more technically challenging to operate, our surface warfare community has retained a generalist preference that contributes to the surface warfare malaise,” said Wittman, who leads the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower panel. “I think it is time that we adopt specialists similar to the aviation community and foreign navies…We should require surface warfare officers to specialize in deck or engineering and allow needed junior officers time to develop basic skills.” Given these statements, the language in the NDAA's Section 502 should surprise no one.
Wittman’s comments suggest that the deaths of 17 sailors in the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain tragedies were somehow connected to the fact that their commanding officers rose to that position through the U.S. Navy’s (inferior) generalist approach. Putting aside for the moment the inability to prove or disprove this inference, one must consider that before the 2017 collisions and deaths, no sailor had been killed in a surface-ship collision in decades. Additionally, while the two tragedies were closely spaced in time, they were also “closely” spaced in geography, and if systemic issues are causal, there is at least as much of a case to be made that the conditions in the 7th Fleet were determinative, rather than some flaw in the career path.
Going further, if Rep. Wittman’s logic is sound, then why would Congress stop at requiring specialization in the surface force? The submarine force has an even more “general” path for its officers, one in which every single line officer serving in submarines—irrespective of billet—must qualify as a nuclear propulsion engineer. Surely this requirement dilutes the ability of submarine junior officers to develop their basic warfighting skills? Surely the consequences of diluting the career path of a nuclear engineer with tactics and operations tours lessens overall experience and judgment of those charged with operating nuclear power plants? And if the recent surface accidents are posited as the reason for this switch, why was a spate of submarine accidents in the first decade of the 21st century insufficient to drive specialization in that community?
The U.S. Navy adheres to its generalist approach because adopting another model would force it to change its entire philosophy of command at sea — and that philosophy is the foundation of the Navy’s greatness. The captain of a U.S. warship or submarine is uniquely vested with authority, accountability, and responsibility: unique in the military, unique in American society, and rare among major navies. In order to justly be placed in this position, an officer must have the tools, training, and experience to bear these loads; in the U.S. model, this is the result of a general career path. Were the U.S. Navy to adopt the Royal Navy model, a commanding officer could no longer be held responsible for the safe and effective operation of the ship’s engineering systems. This responsibility would devolve to the lead marine engineer onboard. This diffusion of responsibility would necessarily corrode the current command model, with downstream impact on the judgment and experience of those commanding squadrons, strike groups, and fleets.
Furthermore, arguing that the increasing complexity of ships requires specialization ignores the reality that while the engineering plant, combat system, and navigation systems may be in fact increasingly more complex, they still operate as a system of systems. Casualties to basic engineering functions such as power generation or the provision of adequate cooling, for example, affect the performance of the combat system and its ability to enable advanced operational concepts. Someone must be responsible for the entire system of systems, and that person is the commanding officer. To remove from the career development of that officer the building blocks for systemic mastery to mirror another Navy with an entirely different view of the singularity of command is unwise and unwarranted.
I commanded a guided missile destroyer, arriving there after 17 years of service, the last 15 of which were spent in operations, broadly speaking. However, the first two were spent as an engineer on a relatively simple steam-powered frigate wherein I spent an inordinate amount of time chasing the source of chloride contamination in the feedwater for our two marine boilers. That tour taught me thought processes and reinforced the interrelationship of systems (in this case, between auxiliary hot water systems and main propulsion steam). During my command tour, I drew upon these lessons time and again as I determined the overall fighting trim of my ship and made decisions daily about how to allocate the time available to me to maintain, train and exercise all the various functions of the ship.
This debate—the generalist vs. the specialist—is not new. When I entered the Navy in 1987 it was already an old discussion, and many a pint of grog has been consumed in good-natured debate between U.S. and Royal Navy officers over the superiority of one system over the other. I believe the Royal Navy has a system that works best for its Navy and its missions and responsibilities. I believe the same is true of the U.S. Navy. The world is big enough for differing approaches, and I would rather our Navy not precipitously destroy its philosophy of command by weakening the system for creating its captains. There are numerous improvements that can be made without taking this unnecessary step.