Stars and Stripes – Navy struggles to hold back surface warfare officers, surveillance report examining collisions at sea says

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A Sailor receives his Surface Officer badge during a ceremony aboard the littoral combat ship USS Freedom January 15, 2014 (Donnie W. Ryan / US Navy)

WASHINGTON – Naval officers who focus on the safety of surface vessel operations change jobs or leave the military at higher rates than other duty officers in similar positions, according to a report by government surveillance released Thursday.

The Government Accountability Office report also found that only 12% of female surface warfare officers remain in office, compared to 39% of male SWOs. Overall, 33% of SWOs remain in office compared to 45% of officers who hold similar jobs in the Navy.

Although Naval Surface Forces Command tracks rates of separation of surface warfare officers by gender, it has not developed a plan to improve retention rates, according to the report titled “Navy Readiness: Actions Needed.” to assess and improve the career path of surface warfare officers ”.

The GAO report is part of an ongoing response to two collisions at sea that killed 17 sailors in 2017. This spring, the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a merchant ship off the coast of Japan, resulting in the deaths of seven United States sailors.

Later that year, the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain was struck by a chemical tanker off the coasts of Singapore and Malaysia. Ten American sailors died as a result of the accident.

Some changes came after two internal root cause investigations of the 2017 crashes revealed issues with training, qualifications and postings as officers progressed throughout their careers, according to the report from the GAO.

The Navy has taken small steps to improve officer career paths, such as extending training and service periods to allow more time to gain qualifications, but it has not fundamentally changed the career paths of officers. career for more than a century, GAO said.

Representative Rob Wittman, R-Va., Told a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing Thursday that the “lack of leadership” among surface warfare officers “continues to haunt him.” Thursday was the fourth anniversary of the USS Fitzgerald crash.

During the hearing, Wittman lobbied Vice Admiral James Kilby, the Navy’s deputy chief of naval operations for combat needs and capabilities, the results of the GAO report and how the Navy addresses ongoing issues with surface warfare officers.

Specifically, Wittman pointed to a statistic in the report that, by a factor of four to one, surface warfare officers believe specialized career paths would prepare them better for their jobs than the current generalized career path.

“Without periodic assessments of current approaches, including alternative career paths, and the use of these assessments, the US Navy could miss an opportunity to develop and retain competent SWOs,” the GAO wrote.

Surface warfare officers “cry for change,” Wittman said at the House Subcommittee on Maritime Power and Projection Forces hearing to discuss the Navy’s budget proposal for the exercise 2022.

Kilby said he couldn’t speak to the specific study data released after the hearing ended.

However, he said: “We have done a lot of work, we believe, to professionalize and increase our training in seafaring skills. Some of these investments are still ongoing in Norfolk [Va.] and San Diego and will prove to be sufficient.

Surface warfare officers are trained to serve in all departments and all types of ships. This training offers a generalist career path covering disciplines such as ship handling, engineering and combat systems. But other Navy officers specialize in specific areas of the ships department.

“According to the Commander of Naval Surface Forces, a generalist approach is the best career path for SWOs because commanders must know how to drive, fight and lead on their ship, and SWOs with specialized career paths are less prepared. to this responsibility that are SWOs with a generalist career path, ”according to the GAO report.

However, the GAO has found that a majority of surface warfare officers want a specialized career path. It is estimated that 65% of surface warfare officers want a specialized track, compared to 16% who think a generalist model is the best.

The GAO recommended that the Navy develop a plan to improve retention, including female retention rates, and regularly evaluate its approach to officer training. The assessment will then serve as a means of improving career options. The Navy agreed with the seven recommendations.

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Twitter: @sarahjcamm

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