My views here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Navy.
The only folly here is the attitude that machine operators can’t be replaced by automation. It happened to switchboard operators, it’s happening to fast food cashiers, it’ll happen to taxi drivers, and it will happen to us.
Make no mistake, I love the sea. I love being at sea, and in my heart I may believe that there is a level of nuance that can’t be replicated by sensors and technology. But the machines will do “good enough”, and whatever effectiveness is lost by automation will be made up for by the costs savings of paying for all of us.
If man is to be useful in the automation age then he will have to be the ones directing the machines, not operating them. That is what I believe the future of war at sea will be. So for today, we absolutely need to fix our seamanship problem, but it won’t be a “problem” forever…
Technology does not preclude seamanship. Seamanship is ever advancing with technology. JPJ had advances in technology (that might not be obvious to us today) that his predecessors could have only hoped for and this changed what it meant to be a good mariner even in his day (by his quote).
Actually, I would say that the requirement has increased in many ways. The scope of what needs to be considered seamanship has changed and the abilities provided by new technology enable operations that would not have been attempted with previous generations of technology. The decision-making loop runs at a higher rate now, regardless of vessel size and speed. A poorly trained officer will spend too much time attempting to understand a situation he or she is faced with and never identify if the new technology is leading them down the wrong path or discrete danger signals are ignored. Without a well trained and competent operator that is not suffering from fatigue and allowed to focus on whats required for a safe and successful operation, we will continue to have incidents, fatalities, and disasters.
To me it’s like a fighter pilot. They don’t call themselves air warriors. They are pilots first and foremost and build upon that. Somehow the Navy SWO has become a quote on quote “sea warrior” and deminished everything else and have suffered the consequences.
It has to be true that something is lost with specialization into deck and eng on the merchant side.
Even as SWOs try to be the jack of all trades, serious knowledge gaps exist as they only stand 4 different shipboard jobs before reaching XO. Not every SWO does an engineering tour, etc and these tours are very short coupled with long shore tours… you are left with a very mixed bag. Were looking for sharp SWOs and we get a bag of wet mice.
Pilots and SWOs are not an apples to apples comparison, not least of which because the pilot is singularly responsible for keeping their aircraft airborne, while SWOs do shiftwork. Good dogfighting skills can keep a pilot alive, but it doesn’t matter how good you are at COLREGs and DIVTACs when you’re staring down a salvo of Sunburns. Pilots can also showcase their skills at airshows, while SWOs do their dirty work far away from the eyes of the public.
The average SWO is doing seven years of sea duty before becoming an XO - 4 as a Division Officer (2 x 24 mos) and 3 and a Department Head (2 x 18 mos). Would things be better if these tours were combined into single, longer tours? I don’t know. I do know that after 18 months of being a DH you are ready for a change though. There was an MSC thread recently where people were complaining about the prospect of two year stints on ships. The longer shore tours are helpful for work/life balance, and the introduction of “SWO Clock” jobs are meant to keep people on the XO/CO track from losing touch with the waterfront.
Who is “we”? Big Navy isn’t looking for sharp SWOs, or if they are they aren’t doing a good job of finding them. SWO is in competition for the best talent from aviation, submarines, and special warfare. In terms of raw academic potential and tenacity, those communities are getting the lion’s share of talent. SWO standards are the baseline standards, and SWOs have the shortest minimum service commitment, leading to the phrase “SWO and Go” for those looking to simply meet their payback requirements for their USNA or ROTC scholarships.
SWOs also bleed talent to other communities such as Supply, JAG, Public Affairs, etc. Usually it is the most talented JOs who are able to lateral transfer out. We bring in about 1,200 SWOs a year to graduate 275 Department Heads - a 75% attrition rate. DH Screening has always been more of a pump than a filter.
I wish that SWO wasn’t the default URL community that the unmotivated or unqualified got dumped into. I wish we didn’t have to have a dozen 1160s on every ship just to meet our DH numbers. I wish that SWOs got rewarded for their sacrifices at sea instead of looking at HR officers fat dumb and happy on shore duty drawing the same benefits and wondering who had this whole Navy thing figured out. I think if we recruited more highly motivated officers that our attrition rate would drop, the officers that remained would be better trained, and maybe we would sail safer too.
That’s one of the problems. The SWO community is not taken seriously enough, even by members of the community. If they want to be taken seriously, it’s time for them to consider the art and science of seamanship as the foundation for a good warfighter.