The Navy Is Making It Tougher to Earn a Surface-Warfare Officer Pin

The Navy Is Making It Tougher to Earn a Surface-Warfare Officer Pin

27 Jul 2018
By Gina Harkins
In the wake of two deadly collisions, the Navy is cracking down on who can pursue surface-warfare officer qualifications, giving those slated to command ships extra time to hone vital watch skills on the bridge.

The Navy announced sweeping changes to the surface-warfare officer, or SWO, qualification rules this week. The changes are meant to ensure future ship commanding officers are “properly trained and qualified,” Vice Adm. Richard Brown, commander of naval surface forces, said in a release announcing the new policies.

Only those in line to command ships in the future can pursue SWO qualifications, the announcement states. Navy officials did not respond to’s questions or interview requests about the new rules, but Brown told USNI News that limited-duty officers, chief warrant officers and senior enlisted personnel will no longer be eligible to pursue a SWO pin.

“If you have other designators … competing for time in the pilothouse to earn their [officer of the deck] letter – which is the prerequisite for SWO qualifications – then that really goes against what I’m trying to do in the surface force,” Brown told the outlet.

The rules come after 17 sailors aboard two Navy destroyers were killed when their ships collided with other vessels in separate accidents in the Pacific last year. Investigations into the collisions found the accidents were preventable, and that senior officers and sailors standing watch were at fault.

Under the new rules, future ship commanding officers will face less competition for bridge time to practice those skills.

“I really believe that we lost our way in who we allowed to earn those critical qualifications,” Brown told USNI. “Fifteen years from now when you see an officer wearing a SWO pin, you’re going to know that that officer was at one point on track for command at sea. You’ll know it wasn’t a qualification that was obtained because you needed it for a promotion board.”

Those who aren’t in line to command a ship have until Oct. 1 to complete their training and earn a SWO pin.

Going forward, officers pursuing SWO qualifications must be permanently assigned to a commissioned or pre-commissioning Navy ship, the release states. Commanding officers can qualify officers as SWOs only if they are permanently assigned to their ship.

If a SWO officer transfers to another ship, they won’t have to redo all of their qualifications. But they will be required to re-qualify “in all applicable watchstations,” the release states.

An investigation into the guided-missile destroyer McCain’s collision found that several of the sailors on watch leading up to the collision had been temporarily assigned from a Navy cruiser, which has different steering controls. That, investigators found, contributed to the ship making an improper turn.

All ships must now actively manage and maintain Personnel Qualification Standards Plan of Action and Milestones for each officer to ensure they’re on track to meet their SWO qualifications.

SWOs must also keep a logbook of the amount of hours spent on the bridge, which will be used when detailing junior officers to their second-division officer and shore tours, according to the release.

– Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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Am I missing something here? SWO stands for Surface Warfare Officer correct? How will this prevent future occurrences of enlisted people not knowing how the steering stand works?

Also, when did it come to pass that people commissioned in the navy didn’t have the end goal of command in their sights?

Maybe that is the problem, jack of all and master of none. Far better to have competent and engaged specialists doing a good job of what they are trained to do.

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Does every new 3/m desire to become a master?

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I’ve met third mates that don’t desire to sail as second mate but that doesn’t stop them from having the opportunity to advance. I don’t see the two services as analogous though. A third mate can choose to leave whenever they want. Your commission in the Navy is a commitment so if your not seeking command what are you committing to? Carrying a briefcase for an admiral at the pentagon?

Am I correct that in the Navy if you’re not advancing up the ladder you are shown the door? At least before you can fully vest your pension that is? That is not typically the case in the merchant marine. Many career third, second, and Chief mates out there.

Many naval officers don’t make a career of it - less than a fifth serve for 20 years. Of those that do get out, most are right after their initial commitment, 4 or 5 years, depending on commissioning source and designator. Some do their initial sea/operational tours, get a little “payback” on shore duty, and then bounce.

There is an up or out policy (high year tenure), but from Ensign to Lieutenant is essentially automatic promotions based on time in grade. The promotion opportunity to Lt. Commander is around 75%, and they are usually “continued” to 20 years of service if they don’t select for full Commander.

I’m not sold on this new policy, which essentially eliminates limited duty/chief warrant officers (our hawsepipers) from ever standing OOD or get their SWO pins, but it is incorrect to say that every SWO wants command or to make a career of it.

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Beyond the hurt it will cause to the non-comms, do you feel this could cause a deficit in command eligible officers in the future? It sure sounds like it to me.

In the end I suppose I agree with the Navy trying to change something to make an improvement but not having first hand knowledge of the particularities of SWO life makes it hard to see how this helps in the long term

No, because LDOs and CWOs are not command eligible. This does potentially allow for more “stick time” for SWO trainees (“1160s”) to learn their trade and gain proficiency. The biggest factor though to me is that we still have too many 1160s running around - some ships are carrying a dozen or more. There is some well-earned derision of SWOs when you see pictures of our sea-and-anchor details that have two dozen people on the bridge.

Accessions of 1160s is based on the number of department heads that are needed - around 275 a year. If retention is down, they will bring in more 1160s to shore up department head numbers. But I still maintain that if we brought in less 1160s, trained them better, took better care of them and generally improved the SWO quality of life, that many more would stick around naturally. I think that would also improve the average quality of SWOs across the fleet, even though numerically there may be less of them. It’s probably too counter-intuitive for our personnel folks though.

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I read your posts with interest, and appreciate them.

I enlisted in 1965, was commissioned Ensign in 1972, with the next eight years on sea duty. Served DivOff, DeptHd and XO tours from 1972-1987, with one shore tour of three years. Lots of “stick time”. Commander in 1987, but no command screen, so retired in 1993.

Your quote above was just as spot on in the '70s and '80s as it is now, although I think our ship drivers were a good bit better back then. Less electronics to rely on so compasses, parallel rules, charts, bearing circles, alidades, stadimeters and sextants were still tools of the trade.

Making Warrant Officers ineligible is a huge mistake. The Navy should be moving toward making ship maneuvering a specialty like it was in the sailing ship days. The old position of sailing master was a warrant officer position. He (it was all men back then) spent his whole career learning to maneuver ships in all kinds of conditions. The only way the Navy is going to get someone on the bridge with enough experience to navigate in crowded inland waters is to let someone specialize and gain that experience over a many years. Navy officers, even senior officers, just don’t get the sea time necessary to make them proficient ship handlers. They might think they are good at it, but the limited time at sea, the huge number of officers and the small number of large vessels means they are doomed to be semi amateurs for their entire careers. John Paul Jones and Horatio Nelson always had a sailing master to handle the ship in battles, in and out of port, and other tricky situations - and most importantly, to teach the young officers what they needed to know to stand watch. Anyone can look good docking a ship in fair weather with favorable conditions - that’s just practice for docking in the fog or driving rain with a 2 knot current and 40 knots of wind.


“How will this prevent future occurrences of enlisted people not knowing how the steering stand works?”

They know how it works. They will do what they are told to do.

But funny how this all works…and because of the past incidents, some things have changed. I am on a Hybrid Ship now. Navy personnel are no longer allowed to command or be on the bridge while the ship is underway. MSC has total control of the bridge/steering.

Now instead of 100 people on the bridge, there is just the watch, and maybe the Captain and or Navigator.

John Paul Jones, often referred to as the “Founder of the United States Navy” served as the commander of several British merchant ships before coming to America.

Any 3/mate who doesn’t aspire to become a Master can never be a good 3/mate

Please cut the bullshit. This situation has come to pass only because officers and sailors are being loaded with frivolous training to cover all that is politically correct nonsense. Any person working ashore as a firefighter doesn’t have to suffer this.

What the US Navy needs is to focus on the critical skills. That’s all that matters.

Not true, I have sailed with a number of professional 3rds and 2nds (mate and engineer). They knew their jobs well and took care of business. They had absolutely no ambition to go any higher. Perhaps they were all too aware of the Peter Principle. They knew what their level of incompetence was and did not wish to go there.


Agreed. Plenty of career chief (and 2nd) mates out there.

This situation has come to pass only because officers and sailors are being loaded with frivolous training to cover all that is politically correct nonsense.


No, it has come to pass because incompetence based participation trophies have killed 17 sailors, injured more than they will say and cost untold hundreds of millions in damage.