Jon Paris nails it in this piece for Defense One about the need for the U.S. Navy to change its surface warfare officer education system:
I was too polite in my original study. To be clear: our Surface Warfare Officer community killed those sailors. It is not that we should change – we must! It took 17 deaths to get the admirals’ attention. Was that the price of changing the status quo?
In the aftermath, I stayed quiet. Those of us who go to sea know that this is not a Seventh Fleet issue. It is not a forward-deployed issue. It is not a fluke, nor was it unexpected. These tragedies could have happened on any ship in any fleet at any time. The issue is a community built on a foundation of generalism and mediocracy, whose leadership manifests as an anti-body to change, and whose members’ lives depend too much on luck. There are good people in the community. Their success and competency comes from their own dogged determination and in spite of their community’s misplaced priorities. They are the exception, not the rule. Imagine if this was the case in the Naval Aviation or nuclear communities.
It is an old paradox that the U.S. Navy finds navigation so simple that no-one needs to study it thoroughly but at the same time so difficult that they have invented a labyrinth of superfluous workflows for the practice of navigation.
As I showed in my Critical review of lessons from US warship collisions, this leads to errors. Navigators are simply unable to read the signs around them to correctly decipher what is going on.
I sincerely hope that the U.S. Navy follows the advice of Jon Paris to introduce an educational model based on career tracks and specialties. Paris refers to this as the British model where officers have either an engineering or an operations specialty. I would refer to this as the universal model since it is pretty much the agreed upon standard.1
It was heartbreaking to read this report from the court-martial of Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock, Officer of the deck on USS Fitzgerald. Her actions contributed to the deaths of seven sailors on her ship.
Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock cried during her court-martial at the Washington Navy Yard. […] “Not a day goes by where I haven’t thought about what I could have done differently,” she said. “There is nothing I can do now but take responsibility.”
Coppock said her success as an officer of the Navy was through the support of her sailors. “And then, when it mattered, I failed them,” she said through tears. “I made some tremendously bad decisions and they had to pay the price for them.”
Sarah Coppock did not have the necessary education to bear the responsibility she was given. She was told that she was good enough, and how could she know differently. But why does the professional community not protect its members against this? It is a mystery that the Surface Warfare Officer community as a whole has not stood up and demanded a proper education system.
- I struggle to think of any other country that doesn’t have at least two specialized career paths for its naval officers, but there probably is someone out there. ↩