15 March 2018

Preventing the Titanic Syndrome: Monitoring Surface Warfare Experience at Sea

The kind of accident any organization should worry about is the one that seems impossible. In 2017, the U.S. Navy was rocked with two collisions at sea, first the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) on June 17, then the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) on August 21. These tragedies resulted in the combined deaths of 17 sailors. Both collisions occurred with vessels managed in the Seventh Fleet operating area—the Pacific and Indian Oceans—causing the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson to force an operational pause for the entire surface fleet. 

Their goal was to expeditiously find any potential systemic problems on how Seventh Fleet manages its surface naval force. While both collisions were under different circumstances, and in-depth investigations remain ongoing, these events have triggered a service-wide review of the demands placed on surface warfare officers, including manning, sleep deprivation, and rising operational tempos. This article examines the way in which the Navy assigns officers to its surface vessels, and suggests improvements that could mitigate future collisions at sea.

The USS John S. McCain after a collision, in Singapore waters, Aug. 21, 2017. (Reuters)

The mission of the personnel command for surface warfare officers, called PERS-41, is to match the talent from the pool of available officers to the needs of the fleet.[1] There are five to six major time frames when officers are assigned to ships in their 20-year career period: two division officer tours, two department head tours, and one to two executive officer and command-at-sea tours. Every time an officer advances in the ship selection process, he or she gains more responsibility. Officers begin their careers with responsibility for a division within a department, then progress to lead a major department on a ship. An officer’s career will often culminate in serving as a commanding officer responsible for overseeing the entirety of a ship's departments and crew. The only time officers get the opportunity to choose their ship is before their first tour as a newly graduated officer. The ranking system for this first tour ship selection is based on the officer’s overall order of merit of academic, military, and physical standings.[2] After this point in a surface officer’s career, Navy Personnel Command makes all other ship selections.

Navy Personnel Command detailers look at three major factors when selecting ships for their officers throughout their career: personal preferences, career needs, and the needs of the Navy, so as to, “deliver the right skills, at the right ship, for the right time.”[3] For personal preferences, Navy Personnel Command takes into consideration the officer’s preference as to homeport, ship type, family needs, and graduate education opportunities.[4] For career needs, detailers will take into consideration major surface naval qualifications—like engineering officer of the watch and tactical action officer—assignment diversity, career progression, and timing for screening in order for advancement to the next major officer pay grade, or rank.[5] Currently, detailers don’t monitor experiential metrics like time and experience at sea, and it is not given sufficient priority during the ship assignment process.

Good surface warfare officers might spend all their careers building up to command-at-sea on ships that do not make major deployments, or spend the majority of their sea time on ships in major maintenance phases. Consequently these officers do not receive sufficient experience getting a ship underway, anchoring, conducting replenishments at sea, or navigating through heavy merchant traffic. This deficiency in experience can leave good officers unprepared to command a naval warship, through no fault of their own, furthering the risk of the sort of tragic mishaps that have occurred in recent months that killed 17 sailors on two naval warships.

RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912. (F.G.O. Stuart/Wikimedia)

The Navy is an adaptive organization, but due to the recent events of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain collisions it is reactive in setting standards. To use a famous maritime example, on April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic, hubristically called unsinkable, collided with an iceberg during her first underway voyage from Southampton, United Kingdom, to New York City.[6] The vessel departed without a sufficient number of lifeboats and life jackets for the crew and passengers, resulting in more than 1,500 deaths.[7] The international community responded accordingly, and as a result there are mandated safety, lifeboat, and life-jacket requirements to mitigate the consequences when such events occur. This experience has relevance for surface warfare officers’ ship selection and their experience levels at sea. The Navy is sending some department heads, executive, and commanding officers into experiences at sea they are not adequately prepared for, while enabling the prideful overestimation of their skill and competence. This practice—call it the Titanic Syndrome—endangers all aboard.[9] Another pause in fleet service operations could be a hard pill to swallow in the event there is another string of collisions at sea and lives lost.

For the Navy to avoid the Titanic Syndrome, a number of cost-effective options could be put in place to prepare every surface warfare officer to be an adequate ship driver. One recommendation made by retired navy Captain Robert Bodvake is that all surface naval officers keep personal logbooks of all their experiences at sea. Bodvake claims, “We should measure things that matter, and use the data appropriately. The numbers of unreps [underway replenishments] or pier landings should…help quantify a SWO’s relevant experience.”[10] Each surface naval officer would maintain a logbook, thus allowing commanding officers to evaluate each officer for ship driving experience and special evolutions.[11] The surface community attempted a similar program in 2009, “SWO Pro Book,” that distributed handbooks to officers, but the program ultimately failed due to a lack of accountability. When maintaining logbooks, even when required under the SWO Pro Book Program in 2009, commanding officers were not required examine them as a means to determine watchbills (the method for determining who stands watch and when) for underway steaming and special evolutions. This solution also does not address the problem of ship selection and the off chance of an officer spending three to four years on back-to-back ships that do not conduct any significant operational deployments or sea time.

A more pragmatic recommendation would be for Navy Personnel Command to consider each surface warfare officers’ experience at sea when determining his or her next ship selection. If an officer spent one sea tour on a ship that neither deployed nor experienced much time at sea, this should play a factor in the next sea tour and the officer should go to a ship that will deploy. However, an officer who spent one sea tour deployed operationally for over nine months could gain experience on the other side by going to a ship that will not leave port because of maintenance requirements. Similar to Captain Bodvake’s recommendation, time at sea should not be a factor in promotion, but it could help improve each surface officer’s experience as a mariner.[12]

The Navy can implement this recommendation by electronically monitoring each officer’s time by one of the watchstanders in the pilothouse, the enclosed structure from which a ship can be navigated. In the pilothouse, the quartermaster is a position that is constantly manned while at sea, and specializes in navigation. One extra duty that could be added for the quartermaster is to electronically compile the hours for every surface warfare watchstander. At the end of a watch or special evolution, the off-going officer would have to electronically sign data compiled by the quartermaster for his or her watch, e.g. Lieutenant Smith stood officer of the deck for five hours, or Ensign Patel stood conning officer during a replenishment at sea for two-and-one-half hours. The accumulation of time, watchstanding position stood, and special evolutions conducted would be compiled in a database. Navy Personnel Command could use this data when considering an officer’s next ship selection.

Each officer’s level of experience at sea could also be sent to the Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS), which trains all surface warfare officers in various aspects of navigation and shiphandling to ensure the Navy’s mission to maintain surface naval superiority.[13] The Surface Warfare Officer School has a blanket program that every officer must accomplish in order to graduate throughout their careers. With access to every officer’s experience at sea on-hand, instructors could tailor the classroom session to address lack of experience and develop and refine the core competencies required of a surface warfare officer. More targeted training, though simulated, could help better prepare each officer in the real world.


When Admiral Richardson addressed Congress in November 2017 as Chief of Naval Operations, he took responsibility for what he called “systemic issues” that contributed to the fatal collisions of USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain.[14] Since this address, the surface community has made numerous changes to make ships more prepared for operations at sea. These incremental improvements are a step in the right direction to reduce collisions at sea. However, a greater step towards improving the matter more would be to ensure that each officer is prepared, qualified, and sufficiently experienced to navigate a warship. The best way to achieve this goal is for U.S. Navy detailers to have an accurate record of every officer’s experience at sea, so as to put the right officer, in the right ship, at the right time.

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