There’s been some talk for many years about making officers specialists in a single field, much as many foreign navies do. Rep. Rob Wittman, chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Force Projection Subcommittee, is among the latest to broach the idea. I agree. For instance, an engineer would remain an engineer for his whole career, and would truly master the operation and upkeep of propulsion and auxiliary technology.
This isn’t some far-fetched idea. Enlisted folk—including chief petty officers, rightly described as the backbone of any ship’s crew—already do specialize. So do “warrant” and “limited-duty” officers, enlisted superstars granted their commissions. There is no reason the surface navy couldn’t apply that logic to division officers, handing over the administrative and technical functions now heaped on newly commissioned officers to these longtimers. Make experienced hands division officers.
Ensigns and junior lieutenants thus freed from administrative duty could rotate among departments and posts, putting in the time to learn every pipe and valve in the propulsion plant, every procedure and safeguard in the ship’s weapons suite, and every way to calculate the ship’s position, speed, and direction relative to land and other vessels. Heck, they might even find time for professional reading about tactics, strategy, and the lore of the sea. That would be a refreshing change.
In short, let’s concentrate junior officers’ time and effort on professional development rather than disperse it among myriad chores that salty mariners can perform better anyway. And when the time comes for surface-warfare officers to move into senior posts as department heads, executive officers and captains, then we can worry about schooling them in administrative work. Far better to field a cohort of skilled seamen who are mediocre at paperwork than the reverse.
And the opportunity costs of such a move? Minimal. Let’s be frank: few shipboard divisions—of electricians, fire-control technicians, or what have you—really need a newcomer from NROTC, the Naval Academy, or Officer Candidate School to execute their missions with efficiency and aplomb. Assign divisions the requisite enlisted and ex-enlisted leadership and watch them flourish. Make seamanship and tactics the main purpose for newly commissioned officers and watch them flourish.
And then watch the ship flourish—as a team of specialists. Let’s break past modes and orders—and put in place a foundry for combat excellence.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. His bio, publications, and personal blog are at https://navaldiplomat.com. The views voiced here are his alone.