By Capt. Scott Robertson
Commanding officer, Surface Warfare Officers School Command
In the wake of the 2017 fatal collisions involving USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) and USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62), now is the time to assess surface warfare officers’ individual training and certifications to ensure we have it right, adjust as necessary and identify areas that will make us better surface warriors. As the surface warfare community works diligently to implement the recommendations from the Strategic Readiness Review and Comprehensive Review, Surface Warfare Officers School is reviewing how we train our officers and collecting information on their navigation, seamanship and shiphandling skills sets. One way we are gathering this data is through the officer of the deck (OOD) competency checks.
Two weeks ago in San Diego, Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet partnered with Surface Warfare Officer School and Navigation, Seamanship and Ship Handling Training (NSST) San Diego to carry out the first set of OOD checks. A SWOS post-command assessor conducted checks on 40 officers representing 10 different ships and four ship classes. The checks focused on OOD-qualified first tour division officers, randomly selected from ships in port. Over the next couple months, SWOS will continue to work with the type commanders and NSSTs to conduct checks in other fleet concentration areas.
Let me attempt to answer a couple questions that came up during a discussion I had with major commanders in San Diego:
What do these checks provide for the SWO community?
First and foremost, the OOD checks will give us a sizeable dataset (~200 officers) by assessing mariner skills proficiency across all fleet concentration areas and multiple ship classes. The dataset, which is roughly 10 percent of the fleet’s inventory of OODs, will allow us to identify fleet-wide strengths and weaknesses in watch standing performance and in mariner skills training. We believe the data will identify community-wide training effectiveness and isolate how we can deliver better training to future SWOs. These competency checks will give our community the line of position and, when coupled with the results of the Bridge Resource Management workshops, Ready for Sea Assessments and several other ongoing initiatives will inform course changes for our community in 2018 and beyond.
While collecting this data, I would be remiss if I did not inform the individual officer and their ship’s commanding officer of personal and ship-wide respective performance. Each officer is provided an on-station debrief at the conclusion of the scenario, and the ship’s CO is provided an end-of-day report that details their officers’ performance during the checks. I expect the results will help COs to focus their wardroom navigation, seamanship and shiphandling training as well as target individual training. With just one week of experience under our belt, the overwhelming feedback from the first tour DIVOs who have executed the competency check has been that the process is extremely valuable in helping identify their personal strengths and weaknesses as an OOD.
What do the OOD checks look like?
The OOD checks consist of an experience survey, a written test and a simulator scenario. The scenario places the officer in a realistic low-traffic density environment with two dedicated bridge watchstanders (a conning officer and a junior officer of the deck) as part of their team. The scenario is markedly different from shiphandling scenarios SWOS has used in the past as it incorporates intra-scenario knowledge checks and the collection of multiple objective data points that cover several skill sets. The unique scenario gives us the opportunity to collect data related to practical application of Rules of the Road, internal and external communications, bridge team management, resource employment and expertise, in addition to several other skill sets in a scenario that spans, on average, about 35 minutes. The OOD check scenario is not a cake walk. It is a challenging, yet realistic scenario that provides a candid snapshot of an officer’s abilities. The checks have inherent rigor, but I feel strongly that our community has a growing appetite for rigor in the wake of the recent mishaps. An openness to rigorous and accurate assessment must become ingrained in our culture as we move forward.
What happens if an officer does not do well on the OOD competency check?
This is a non-punitive process with no “Pass/Fail” grading criteria like we have with other SWOS assessments such as the Command Qualification Shiphandling Assessment. The three outcomes of the checks delivered to ship CO are: 1) completed no concerns, 2) completed with some concerns (areas of concern provided), or 3) significant problems (areas of concern provided). What a CO does with the results of the OOD checks are at his/her discretion – I trust our commanding officers to implement change where needed. Again, these checks are designed to help us chart a path to more consistently build competent and confident mariners.
Less than two years ago, I had the privilege of commanding a cruiser, so I get it—as SWOs, new initiatives like the OOD competency checks test the outer boundaries of our comfort zone and add to an already overflowing requirements list. The idea of an unknown entity running “my” junior officers through an unknown scenario with unknown ramifications is bound to meet some initial resistance. To that concern, I would say SWOS is not an unknown and I am hoping this blog will clear up some of the ambiguity and start a healthy dialogue about the competency checks and where we, as a community, go from here. I encourage every SWO out there to consider the potential end result of these checks:
- Individual officers becoming more aware of their bridge watchstanding strengths and weaknesses.
- COs being provided an outside set of eyes on their ship’s OODs to aid in training and risk management.
- Our community, as a whole, is better informed on shortfalls and gaps – helping us adjust our training, as necessary.
These competency checks are new, something we have never done before in the surface fleet. The time is right to collect the data, identify the trends (performance-to-training and experience-based), and take action. This is all about making us better as an entire community in competency, confidence and culture.
None of us should fool ourselves in thinking that the mistakes which lead to the collisions rest solely with OODs in the SWO community. We owe it to the Navy and the Sailors we command to be proactive and diligent in assessing how best to train all of our surface warriors.
Sail safe, sail boldly – Robertson out.