Separate But Equal – A Look At Officer Training In The US Navy And Merchant Marine

USS-Fitzgerald-Unrep-MSC-Tanker
Sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) pull in a fuel line on the ship’s forecastle during a fueling-at-sea with Military Sealift Command (MSC) fleet replenishment oiler USNS John Ericsson (T-AO 194). U.S. Navy photo taken in 2014 by Beverly J. Lesonik

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 publication of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings and is republished now in the wake of the recent collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain. 

The Navy needs to focus on line officer specialization now more than ever.

By Captain John K. Hafner – It is a calm, cool evening in a remote stretch of the Mediterranean. Far from busy shipping lanes and scattered fleets of fishing boats, two ships prepare to rendezvous and conduct underway replenishment operations. One is a U.S. Navy destroyer, the other, a large Military Sealift Command (MSC) oiler. Both ships come into visual range, and soon the destroyer is in position on the starboard quarter of the oiler, awaiting the signal to come alongside.

The signal is given, and in short order the commanding officer of the destroyer brings his vessel alongside the oiler, matching her speed and maintaining a prescribed distance off abreast. The crews on both ships are well practiced in this drill and know the choreography required to make the evolution happen quickly and safely.

The decks of both ships are a flurry of activity, as crew members scramble in the glare of artificial light to rig lines and hoses between the two moving vessels. After a few tense minutes, the lines and hoses have been passed, connected, and the operation is under way.

This evolution is familiar to anyone who has gone to sea with the U.S. Navy or MSC, and an outside observer would not be faulted for assuming that these ships have much in common. Both are, after all, steaming side-by-side with a common goal, struggling to maintain the exact same course and speed, and both share a narrow, precarious gap between them. Between these two vessels, however, is a vast metaphorical gap, especially with regard to the organization, training, and experience levels of the officers who man them.

Managers or Specialists?

The destroyer, a powerful, complex warship of the latest design, is of course manned by Navy personnel, a large crew of officers and highly specialized petty officers and chief petty officers whose job it is to operate and maintain the myriad different systems found on board a modern warship. The MSC oiler, also a ship of the latest design, is manned by professional (civilian) mariners and is organized more along the lines of a merchant vessel, with designated deck and engineering officers.

Both vessels have deck and engineering departments that work closely together to keep the ship operating. They are, however, managed very differently from each other. On the destroyer the officers are not specialized seafarers, engineers, weaponeers, etc. and as such are rotated through various departments and jobs in the course of their careers. On the MSC ship there is only vertical movement between jobs, and although there are fewer departments, there is no lateral crossover between them. The officers who work on the bridge have been trained from the beginning of their careers to be deck officers, with the same being true for the engineers. This type of specialization within the officer ranks is typical on merchant vessels, as well as in many foreign navies, and allows the vessel to operate with much smaller officer complements.

The benefits of this type of system are obvious, with the captain generally regarded as the best seaman on the ship — literally a master mariner — and the chief engineer considered the most capable engineer on board and the expert on all things mechanical. This is no hollow boast, as merchant ships don’t have CPOs with expertise in specific areas. The officers on board the MSC oiler have separate career paths but are equal in rank and pay as they move up their respective ladders.

MSC-Chief-Engineer-USNS-Comfort
Specialized Career Path – Unlike their U.S. Navy counterparts, engineering officers in Military Sealift Command have been trained exclusively as engineers from their first days as Merchant Marine cadets. Here, Douglas puritis (left), chief engineer on board the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-Ah-20), shows Admiral James Stavridis, commander of U.S. Southern Command, the ship’s engineering spaces while anchored off the coast of haiti in September 2007.

Officer Comparisons

The CO of our destroyer is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, holds the rank of commander, and has had a typical naval career. He spent his early years after graduation at various schools and at sea qualifying as a surface warfare officer. The ensuing years were spent rotating be- tween sea and shore assignments with the ultimate goal of screening for command. He spent the last six years before taking command of the destroyer in required staff and joint assignments ashore — three years as part of a destroyer/cruiser squadron staff, and three more working at the Pentagon.

Ironically, the demands placed on him to reach this point in his career left him ill-prepared to head directly back to sea or face the unforgiving, fluid decision-making environment into which he was thrust. Instead of relying on experience to guide him, initially, he was completely dependent on the expertise and training of his officers and crew.

Presently, he is at the tail end of an 18-month assignment as CO afloat and is wrapping up a six-month deployment, which took him to the Persian Gulf and various Mediterranean ports in support of U.S. operations in the region. At this point he is becoming comfortable and confident with his position, his ship, and his crew, and with a little bit of luck the trip back to Norfolk will be uneventful. Shortly thereafter he will hand over command to his successor, and a new CO cycle will begin on this ship.

The master (CO) of the MSC oiler is a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, a Coast Guard-licensed master mariner (any gross tons) as well as a commander in the Navy Reserve, and she too has had a pretty typical career for someone in her position. As a cadet, she spent her sea year on board a number of different merchant vessels, as well as an MSC oiler, and went to sea shortly after graduation. Unlike her counterpart on the destroyer, however, who worked in various departments on board different ships and ashore, the master of the oiler has spent her entire career on tankers as a deck officer, with many of those years spent as chief mate (XO) on board the very ship she now commands. The chief engineer of the oiler has also spent his entire career with MSC working in the engine department and is a licensed chief engineer. He, too, has been trained exclusively as an engineer from his first days as a Merchant Marine cadet.

Careerist Focus

Much has been made lately of the perceived lack of basic seamanship and shiphandling skills within the U.S. Navy’s line officer communities. This is not so much a reflection of the quality of people the Navy is attracting as it is an indictment of our system of line officer organization that has been in place for more than a century. Lack of specialization within the Navy’s officer corps is at the root of this problem.

Historically, the Navy has strived to produce line officers who are well-rounded generalists whose ultimate goal is command at sea. This is done by rotating them through many different shipboard and shore assignments to expose them to all aspects of the job/vessel/Navy and, just as important, to get their “ticket punched” to be competitive for promotion. This system does in fact result in a well-rounded officer, albeit one whose primary focus is on career, not on becoming a competent seafarer. As vessels become more complex, though, the issue of officers lacking the requisite seagoing experience to command a vessel at sea becomes more acute.

The reason for this is due in no small measure to the fact that the U.S. Navy is different from the world’s seagoing organizations (military, governmental, or commercial) because we do not have separate, defined career paths for seagoing line officers. As such, instead of producing savvy, competent warfighting seafarers, engineers, or weaponeers, we often end up with the generalist/careerist who is concerned primarily with arriving at a 20-year retirement without any bumps in the road. Command at sea is not always viewed as the attainment of a worthy goal but rather a crapshoot to see if you can go 18 months without a career-ruining mishap.

Our warships are the most complicated vessels afloat, and we are trying to run them with officers brought up in a hopelessly outdated organizational paradigm. Not all engineers, however competent, aspire to command at sea, nor do all (afloat) COs need, or care, to know the minutiae of their propulsion plants. So why are we trying to mold these officers into something they’re not?

This concept of line officer specialization is not new; we need only to look at similar organizations to see how a system with separate career specialties for line officers can work. It works every day in Military Sealift Com- mand, on merchant ships, and in numerous other navies throughout the world.

Commander Hafner is a licensed master mariner, and has sailed with the Merchant Marine for 20 years, the last three as master of a trans- atlantic, liner-service and roll-on/roll-off vessel. He is currently Vice President, Seafarer Manning & Training at International Registries, in affiliation with the Marshall Islands Maritime and Corporate Registries 

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 publication of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings and has been republished with the permission of the author.