A Solution to the U.S. Navy’s Training Problem

UNREP aboard USNS Tippecanoe, Sea Year 2015 (David Domine / USMMA)

By Captain Deatra Thompson 2018-01-31 15:52:00

Recent collisions involving the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald have revealed deeply concerning facts: the U.S. Navy has a training problem.

As a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a former Navy surface warfare officer and a current captain on a U.S.-flagged merchant vessel, I am concerned that electronic and simulation based training is now seen as an acceptable alternative to real world, at-sea experience. 

It’s hard to believe, but many of the officers reporting on-board Navy vessels today have highly limited at-sea experience, and insufficient training to perform their duties. The at-sea training experience is largely limited to short-lived “summer cruises” that emphasize softer-skills like etiquette and leadership, over the technical and ship handling skills that should be required.

For young midshipmen, career path isn’t finalized until the final semester of their senior year, and additional extensive specialized training has always been required after graduation. That’s why, upon commissioning, I was assigned to Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS), for an intensive course that taught vital watch and deck officer skills—skills that I otherwise would never have learned.

However, in an attempt to cut costs and reduce the timeline from commissioning to boots on deck, the Navy closed the SWOS program. The Navy has since become increasingly reliant on on-the-job training to fill the gap, but as a current captain I can tell you this is highly impracticable.  It is unrealistic to expect operating ships, to deliver the instruction previously requiring a 6 month, 40 hour per week course. Without specialized training programs like SWOS, newly commissioned Ensigns arrive for their first sea assignment with minimal training and often less than 2 months at sea experience.    

As a captain on a merchant vessel, the safety of my crew is a paramount concern. Frankly, I don’t want a new mate on my ship who has never been to sea before. The bottom line is that operating an ocean-going vessel can’t be learned solely in a classroom, or with an electronic simulation that’s closer to an X-box game than an accurate representation of the challenges faced at sea. All the book learning in the world does no good without some salt on your shoes. 

But the current Navy system is not the only option. 

U. S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) Midshipmen have different training requirements than others. Located in Kings Point, New York, this smaller, lesser known federal academy requires its students to spend a full year of their undergraduate education at sea on an operational ship. 

The Sea Year is structured, rigorous, and designed to give its Midshipmen real-world experience. In addition to working a minimum of eight hours per day, including four hours of bridge watch at sea, these Midshipmen must complete a 22-credit graded “Sea Project”. Comprised of navigation, Rules of the Road, seamanship, engineering, etc., this project provides a framework for learning that requires the hands-on application of coursework. Midshipmen are supervised by senior officers and given as much authority and experience as their trainer determines they are ready to accept, with the understanding that, one day, they will need to be able to do it alone. The Sea Year is, in many ways, a fully tested, sea-based version of SWOS.

Events like the recent collisions make clear that there is no substitute for real world, at-sea training. The Navy can, and must, overcome their training problems. Bring back the intensive SWOS for the newly commissioned ensigns and extend ”summer cruises” to something approaching the Kings Point Sea Year. The “Sea Project” is already in use at a federal academy and could be adapted to Navy purposes.

Change will be time consuming and expensive, but the lives on board every single sea-going vessel depend on it.

Captain Deatra Thompson is a 1994 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. She presently sails as a master on various U.S. Flag merchant marine ships and is studying history at Oxford.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.