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An Interview with Capt. Scott Robertson, USN

Commanding Officer, Surface Warfare Officers School Command

Courtesy of Surface SITREP, published by the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org)

SWOS Mission: To ready sea-bound warriors to serve on surface combatants as officers, enlisted engineers, and enlisted navigation professionals in order to fulfill the Navy’s mission to maintain global maritime superiority.

Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, USN (Ret): Can you give an overview of the scope and magnitude of what your command is doing today here in Newport and throughout the Navy?

Capt. Scott Robertson, USN:   Surface Warfare Officer School today has 12 different geographically-dispersed learning sites all around the world. We’ve got a footprint in Yokosuka; Sasebo; Pearl Harbor; San Diego; Norfolk; the Pacific Northwest; Mayport, Florida; and temporary footprints in Rota and Bahrain where we send mobile training teams to do fire-fighting or ship handling training. Our throughput right now is about 72 thousand students per year. A large number of those students participate in 1- and 2-day general shipboard firefighting.

 

So that would be bringing the guys over from their ship?

Yes, but since with re-lite the Great Lakes Firefighter trainer, the number of Sailors coming from ships to receive the Basic course is starting to drop off because many are getting it prior to A-school. While much of the focus of live firefighting and damage control training is on individual skills, SWOS has been pursuing more shipboard team training. There is an Advanced Firefighting Team Trainer that focuses on shipboard firefighting teams, SWOS wants to implement more of it. . We are a few months away from actually introducing team training for the full shipboard DC organization back at our firefighting facilities. We recognize that as ships progress through their certification through advanced phases, there’s not a lot of opportunity to inject additional training, and ships have to sustain it themselves with onboard duty section fire drills. So we’re trying to implement more opportunities for shipboard team training. As the ship gets closer to deployment, there’s been turnover of ship’s crew since the training that occurred much earlier in the ship’s workup cycle. And our team training will be a lot more than just firefighting. We’re going to have mockups where teams have to combat a fire, and then transition to rigging casualty power through a damaged area. And we’re also going to be injecting some personnel casualties in there that you’re going to have to wrestle with. We’re pretty excited. This is going to be more than putting water on a fire.

The other element that we’re working on now is learning more about how stress levels impact or affect the training of our students. Down in Mayport we’re monitoring the biometric signals of individual student volunteers as they go through basic firefighting to determine when their heart rate really increasing, or their breathing becomes more shallow, or when they actually feel like they’re under stress. We want to create those stressful opportunities, but at the right time and at the right level because individuals learn better and faster and retain information better when they are under a certain amount of stress. We want to find that stress level – and it will be different for each individual – and tailor our training to tap into it. And we’ll apply what we’re learning from firefighting and applying that to ship handling training.

 

Adrenaline helps imprint things.

Absolutely. But you have to be careful, though, because if you go too far and you get to a point where somebody’s starting to panic and gets tunnel vision, learning effectiveness drops off quickly. So were getting smart on those really critical moments in training when we get the stress elevated to the right level, because those are our magical moments of training. If we can inject more or different variations that keep that stress level high we make a bigger impact on our students’ ability to learn and retain critical information. In ship handling, for example, what if we could monitor a junior officer in a scenario with a busy maritime traffic, and see real-time what his or her stress level is. If the individual is really getting stressed, then we know that we probably need to keep the level of scenario intensity where it is, or maybe even back off a little. But if the individual is as cool as a cucumber, then we can start ramping up the interaction with other vessels, and start invoking some casualties to maximize the training experience.

Capt. Scott Robertson

Capt. Scott Robertson, USN, commanding officer, Surface Warfare Officers School Command. U.S. Navy photo

 

So you want your students to suspend that disbelief about being in a trainer, and appeal to all of the senses.

Absolutely. We looked at the Maritime Institute for Technology and Graduate Studies in Seattle, and saw how they inject realistic environmental factors, such as extra noise on the bridge-to-bridge radio, for example. The more senses we can appeal to, the better the learning environment.

 

What do you have out at Great Lakes?

We own all the enlisted engineering training out there, including the A- Schools for damage controlmen, gas turbine engineers, electricians, steam engineers, machinistmates, enginemen, hull technicians, and machinery repair specialists – we own all of the accession-level training out there, and we also have C-Schools out there for us. We have recently reactivated the firefighting trainer at Great Lakes that had not been used for 5 or 6 years. So now all our accession engineers and surface topsiders will not be level 1 certified in General Shipboard Firefighting before they report to their ship. All of our engineers now can go through the basic firefighting at Great Lakes, vice waiting until they report to their ship. That takes a considerable training burden off of the fleet.

 

What about in fleet concentration areas of Norfolk, San Diego and Mayport?

That’s where we have a lot of our subsystem schools and C schools. We do valve maintenance courses, and a lot of the specialty schools and engineering sub systems that you would find on board ships.

 

What about Senior Officer Ship Material Readiness Course (SOSMRC)?

We brought back SOSMRC in 2010. Now we’ve actually expanded SOSMRC – and created a junior SOSMRC – which all of our lieutenant JGs attend as part of the Advanced Division Officer Course. We still do ship rides– SOSMRC includes a full week on the waterfront. And the desire is to actually get underway on a ship for a couple days – either out at Mayport, Norfolk, or San Diego. But if you can’t, you’re at least going and walking through an engineering plant, refreshing all the concepts and all the best practices that we cover during our course of instruction, and really reinforcing all those enabling objectives that we cover in a class environment.

 

Where do you teach senior SOSMRC?

Here in Newport. It’s embedded with our Surface Commander Course – SCC. And that’s the former PXO course. The reason we call it Surface Commander Course is because we have more than just PXOs that go through it. And so we have XO Special Mission folks, people who are going out to be AuxOs on carriers and big deck amphibs, and early command folks going to mine sweeps and PCs. And then of course we have the PXOs heading out to ships.

 

What about SWOS Basic? I went to 18 weeks of SWOS in Coronado, and I couldn’t imagine going to my ship without having had that.

The 16-week SWOS DOC went away in 2003. But we brought it back in sections. Today, when an officer gets commissioned, he or she goes through the Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC), which is 9 weeks in length. The course is taught in in the Norfolk and San Diego Fleet Concentration Areas. And it is really designed to inculcate accession officers in surface warfare–there’s leadership, command management, maritime warfare, navigation, seamanship, and ship handling, which also includes ten sessions with our Conning Officer Virtual Environment ship handling simulator.  We recognized that our focus on ship handling was too much on pier work – coming in to a pier, getting underway from a pier, and Underway Replenishments – and we didn’t cover enough of open water scenarios with interaction with other vessels and traffic separation schemes. It was all really focused mostly on pier work.

 

What about DIVTACS? Do they get any formation steaming?

Yes. So now at BDOC, only 40 percent of their ship handling effort is on actual pier work and UNREPS, and 60 percent is on transiting through busy waterways, interacting with other vessels, talking on the bridge to bridge radio, and DIVTACS.

 

After BDOC, the ensigns go off to their billet specialty training, and then report to their first ship?

Yes. And then in between their first ship and their second ship, they come here to Newport for the Advanced Division Officer Course (ADOC), which is now 5 weeks of instruction. ADOC continues to evolve into a really good course. This is the first time that they get exposure within the SWOS formal career training to classified maritime warfare information, such as weapons capabilities and limitations. And from a ship handling perspective, we’ve shifted the focus to about 25 percent pier work and 75 percent building skill sets for open water interaction with other vessels. The other exciting thing is we are building a war-gaming capability for ADOC, and leveraging a lot of the expertise here at the War College. We’re building our own facility to introduce the cause-and-effect understanding of the power of maneuver for our junior officers so they understand how their ship, at the tactical level, that fits in at the operational level.

Fitzgerald damage

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) sits in Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17 collision with a merchant vessel. This view shows damage above the waterline to the outside skin of the ship. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christian Senyk

 

How about Department Head School?

Department Head School is still 26 weeks of instruction – 3 and a half of those months is dedicated strictly towards tactical training and getting ready to be Tactical Action Officers. We’re looking at getting away from the traditional model of air warfare week, surface warfare week, and anti-submarine warfare week, and moving towards basic integrated warfare where we incorporate all domains of warfare simultaneously, the intermediate integrated warfare, then the advanced level. We are going to try to get away from just blocks with a singular focus on a particular warfare area, because that’s not how we’re going to fight.

 

That gets to the “cross domain integration” theme of the Surface Navy Association Symposium this year.

That’s exactly right. And we are taking that on board to start to modify our curriculum. We have a unique opportunity. We’re looking to kick that off in 2019 – because that’s when we will have ended the generation of “SWOS in the box” students coming through here. The department heads that are still coming through here did not have the advantage of BDOC and ADOC. So, 2019 will be the start of the BDOC and ADOC generation of SWO Department Heads. That’s a critical window for us. We’re going to leverage the investments in training between these two courses now, because those students are going to be coming through here in 2019 and that’s our launch point to take a different approach towards out tactical training.

 

So we have BDOC, ADOC and the Department Head course. What’s the next opportunity that they interact with SWOS?

In between the first and your second department head tours, every surface warfare officer comes up to SWOS to go through the command assessment. The command assessment has three components. There’s a written exam; a tactical assessment; and a ship handling assessment. And you must pass the command assessment to be eligible for command at sea.

 

What’s the pass rate? And is there some remedial if a candidate doesn’t pass the first time?

First pass yield is 40 percent. But you get two shots at it. If you don’t pass the first one, there’s a mandatory 30-day wait period and then after that you’re eligible to come back up and retake the assessment or the portion of the written exam that you failed. If you don’t pass it the second time, if you get screened later on your career for either XO or XO Special Mission, then you’re granted a third opportunity to take it. So that 40 percent is a pretty significant cut. Overall pass rate is 65 percent, and that shows the kind of scrutiny that we have right now in the process. We’ve only been doing this for two years. We had the command qualification evaluation, was a written exam people. Now we’ve added actual assessments where they’re being observed by one of my post command commanders for ship handling and tactics, which has only been going on for a little over two years now.

The next opportunity that we engage with them is the Senior Commanders Course on their way out to their XO/CO Fleet-Up tour. This includes three weeks of SOSMRC plus a one-week ship ride is part of that. There’s ship-handling, there’s maritime warfare, there’s command management, and there’s a lot of mentorship that happens in there. And under the Fleet-Up model, they’ll come back here after their XO tour for three weeks of the PCO course before they go back to their ship to take command. One of the new changes here is that we have just added PCO ship handling assessments. They have to come here and pass a challenging ship handling scenario. There is a remediation option for them – if they don’t pass, they are able to work with their ISSIC and get a second shot.

 

But theoretically, before they had completed their command assessment before going to their XO tour.

We’re developing a series of assessment every step of the way, from ensign all the way to the Major Commander assessment point. That’s one of the things that we don’t have right now that we are building towards. It was recommended in the Comprehensive Review, and we agree completely with that recommendation.

 

What kind of feedback have you received?

The PCO course has gotten some of the most glowing comments. It’s taught by my post command commanders. These are all experienced, destroyer, LPD and LCS commanders. And it’s a lot of mentorship, thought-provoking and critical thinking and decision-making type instruction. There’s not a lot of PowerPoint in this one – this is really trying to get people to shift gears between their role as XO and now their incoming role as a Commanding Officer.  From my perspective in working and mentoring all these folks who are about to go out and take command – is that they truly know the environment – they know the ship well. They know the material history; they know the strengths and weaknesses of the personnel on board; they’re already very familiar with the ship’s policies. So when you step on board as the Commanding Officer having been away now for two or three months, you’re already in a pretty good position to take that ship. When I took command as an O-5, it was not at XO-CO Fleet-Up. I showed up as the commanding officer on a ship that I’d never served, in a class of ship I’d never served on before, on a ship that was already on deployment. For those first few weeks in command, I didn’t know the material history of my ship or the strengths and weaknesses of the personnel on board. I would submit that the difference between a traditional PCO showing up to take command of a ship, and an XO-CO Fleet-Up CO, is pretty significant as far as being mission ready right now to maximize the capabilities of the ship. Can I lead without being a Fleet-up guy? Sure, but I’m not nearly as effective because I don’t know my people and I don’t know my ship that well.

 

One of the drawbacks of the current model is the long time between department head and PXO, but there are many fewer command opportunities than there used to be.

There isn’t that opportunity to mature as an XO and allow leadership to evaluate that XO for command. Today, when he or she goes off to be XO, that determination has already been made. And with the institution of the assessments that we’re working on right now, we’ll add a little bit more rigor to making sure that we have the right people going on to command.

With our Command Assessment Process, we still have an oral board as part of becoming eligible for command screening. It’s conducted by a major commander and two others who are either post or sitting commanders during the second department tour.

Bridge simulator

Students at Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS) train on the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Full Mission Bridge (FMB) simulator. The LCS Full Mission Bridge simulator is a full-sized trainer that uses the same software as the FMB and Conning Officer Virtual Environment (COVE). The LCS trainer has every Navy homeport modeled and allows the student to navigate in and out of designated ports using the highly sophisticated controls of a littoral combat ship. U.S. Navy photo

McCain damage

The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) is loaded on to heavy lift transport MV Treasure. Treasure will transport John S. McCain to Fleet Activities Yokosuka for repairs. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton

 

 

So that’s in addition to the written test?

Correct. We look at an individual’s capabilities, skill sets and the level of knowledge to be eligible for command. It assesses your actual decision-making with complex questions and scenarios – how are you going to handle this situation or that situation. And we have instituted character-type questions, and a unique decision-making verbal scenario.

 

And if they are selected for major command, they come back again.

The Major Commander Course is when they come back prior to going out to major command. Its three weeks in length. They still get the ship handling piece because even if they’re going out at a DESRON or a PHIBRON, though they won’t be driving the ship, recent events have really confirmed the fact that they have got to be up on their game, too. They’ll be doing Nav check rides, and they have to make sure when they conduct their assessments that these XOs who are going to be COs next have the stuff, and our squadron commanders have to have a comfort level in their own ability to be able to assess them. We also get aviators going to major command, and carrier XOs. For many of the aviators, the first ship handling they’ve had is when they go to the SCC. And they have to pass the Command Assessment, too. They do very well on the CA by the way.

 

Why is that?

It tells us that they understand relative motion and how to make decisions. They’ve been ingrained in the 3-dimensional environment, so their ability to think in 2 dimensions and on the surface of water is pretty good. There is a huge quality cut for these guys to even screen for command of a ship. And these are much more senior folks, too. The SWOs going through the command assessment process are second tour department heads, and post squadron command aviators—commanders and captains.

 

Some people have called for bringing back the YPs for shiphandling training. What are your thoughts on that?

YPs are great tool for building initial confidence on the sea, environmental awareness, and understanding the fundamentals of teamwork. YPs are good for that. But we get so much more from the simulators when it comes to emergency response, extreme ship handling and communication and interaction with other vessels in the application of challenging rules of the road. I can give so many more sets and reps to an individual in a simulator environment that’s really hard to create when you’re out there steaming around with a bunch of YPs. And so, there’s pros and cons to both. But I cannot do a lot of advanced ship handling or complex rules-of-the-road scenarios on a YP where a junior officer has to make a rapid decision to keep the ship safe, either to get out of danger or minimize the impact angle. We’re able to do that here with the ship handling trainers vice on YPs.

 

Are you bringing any interesting new technology on board?

We are in the final stages of validating what’s called the “Intelligent Tutor System.” It’s a virtual ship handling coach that is connected to an automated assessment engine that runs on top of our COVE software. And the intent here is that for making pier approaches, getting the ship underway from a pier, and for doing unreps, there are some “cones” of acceptable performance. The Intelligent Tutoring System will make suggestions and give you hints. If you’re coming in at a pier at the wrong angle, the Intelligent Tutor System will tell you. It won’t tell you what to do, but it will tell you “your angle to the pier is too steep;” or “your speed approach to the pier under prevailing circumstances is too fast;” or “The closure rate of your stern is too fast.” We’ve been working and validating it with our master mariners and our students coming through here. Pretty soon we’re going to start sending this out to NROTC units and the Naval Academy to help with our accession level training, and start developing those basic skill sets and the seaman’s eye to be able to develop a much stronger foundation in good ship handling practices. That way, when they come to us, we won’t have to spend so much time on basics and the foundational pieces.

The other exciting program we’ve got right now is an eye-tracking project with Naval Postgraduate School. And what this is trying to do is, again, teach really good fundamental skills. The intent is to use a head-mounted tracking system to follow where a student is focusing his or her attention during an evolution. When you put an ensign, a novice, into a ship handling scenario – like making an approach to a pier – you can see that their eyes are all over the place. There’s no rhythm. They don’t know what to look at or focus their attention on. But a master mariner or somebody who is very comfortable with ship handling will have a more disciplined approach to what they are looking at and will focus their attention on just a couple of very key indicators – rudder angle indicator, speed of advance, and the position of the bow and stern. We want to show the ensigns making an approach to the pier where their eyes were tracking and what they are focusing on, and then compare this with that of an experienced mariner making the same approach to see the difference.

So we think there’s tremendous value in that.

 

You have invested heavily in LCS Training.

Our LCS bridge training is absolutely phenomenal. And the quality of the training has been validated again and again by LCS CO’s in the fleet. Our LCS JOOD is 6 weeks and the LCS OOD course is 8 weeks. The course is heavy on sets and reps, with scenario after scenario of driving the ship in a wide range of situations; using the radar, VMS and all the tools; and developing teamwork to effectively run the bridge.

Bridge simulator 2

Students at Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS) train on the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Full Mission Bridge (FMB) simulator. The LCS Full Mission Bridge simulator is a full-sized trainer that uses the same software as the FMB and Conning Officer Virtual Environment (COVE). The LCS trainer has every Navy homeport modeled and allows the student to navigate in and out of designated ports using the highly sophisticated controls of a littoral combat ship. U.S. Navy photo

 

These the same trainers that they have in San Diego?

Yes, the same ones that they have at the LCS Training Facility, for both variants.

One CO told us that he had an ensign who had just graduated from our JOOD course, shows up on board his ship, and two weeks after reporting on board, brought the ship all the way to pier-side in San Diego on her own, without the assistance of tugs or any intervention by the pilot. The pilot complimented the ensign, and asked her how much time she had had at sea, and he told him that it was her first time underway.

 

That’s because she had done that very same sea detail many times in the simulator.

Absolutely. She had done that same scenario many times in a highly realistic, high fidelity trainer. Is it different than real world? Yes, you don’t feel the 3,500 tons rumbling underneath you. But you are developing your seaman’s eye in a very high fidelity environment, and you understand how your ship works, how it maneuvers in various environments, and you develop confidence. And the reason I’m bringing that up right now is because we are working towards bringing that type of training for all SWOs – for cruisers, destroyers, amphibs, all of them. We’re leveraging what we’ve learned from the LCS model and extending it to all surface ships.   The confidence our students have when they report to their ship is astronomical. In a few months from now we’re going to be reaching out to the ship COs and asking them if they see a difference as a result of the new training.

We’re improving our BDOC COVE training to help students “know your home port.” This is a pre-programmed COVE scenario that has a voice overlay of a pilot from that port. When you are on the bridge of your ship in the simulator, going into port, such as Mayport, for example, the harbor pilot is talking to you. “So here’s the something that you need to watch out for; there’s a cross current that usually happens from north to south in here. So I’m looking at the water coming off that northern jetty to gauge what that cross current is going to be.” And then, “For lining up, I’m looking for the stacks all the way at the end on the other side of the James River Bridge, I’m looking for, you know, where we’re about 5 degrees to port tells me I’m in the center of the channel.”

 

You offer a bridge resource management course.

Our Bridge Resource Management Course is certified by the Coast Guard in accordance with the international “STCW Standards.” It stands for Standards in Training and Certification for Watch-keeping.

 

At the SNA Symposium this year there was some discussion about having surface warfare officers who learned skills as mariners to get some kind of a certification for it.

And we are making some progress towards giving the skills sets for our junior officers that are comparable to what a lot of our merchant marine brothers and sisters have. I don’t think we’re going to get to a point where we’re actually licensing people as third mates because there are a lot of components there that just don’t translate to the Navy, such as cargo handling. But it makes sense that we’re in alignment with industry standards. So we are actively pursuing bringing into our junior officer training – whether it’s going to be at BDOC or the JOOD course. It is yet to be determined. But we’re going to bring in STCW certified courses of instruction for radar operator, ARPA (automatic radar plotting aid) operator, and ECDIS-N (Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems-Navy), which is our electronic charting. Those are going to be three certifications that are in line with industry standards and will be STCW certified courses. They actually get an STCW certification that does count towards the licensing process. These are all pieces leading toward that. And our VMS (voyage management system) training is even better than industry standards for the ECDIS N.

 

One of the things we haven’t talked about is Combat Information Center (CIC). The CR concluded that CIC was not supporting the bridge as it should, and the bridge was not demanding that CIC support them.

That’s one of the things that’s missing right now from our current simulation capability. It’s one of the top priorities from a community and a resourcing perspective: to build the capability so we can truly flex those bridge-to-CIC interactions to make sure that all the tools are available to the CIC, and all the things that they can provide and validate are available as we go through these simulations.

 

You don’t have anything like that now?

We do, but it’s not the true capability we need. We have some workarounds, but it’s not optimal.

 

So where does the junior officer learn how to function in CIC?

In our current model, we deal with all of the sources of information in the Bridge Resource Management course. And CIC is certainly highlighted as one of the inputs that can contribute to safe navigation.

 

But there’s a lot of other things that a surface warfare officer has to know about CIC besides standing watch.

We are working on truly building those warfare coordinator skills in CIC as part of ADOC.

 

Do you have a CIC trainer for that?

We have the MMTT” – the Multi-mission Tactical Trainers. This is a growth area for us as we tackle and produce officers that are better prepared for CIC operations.

 

Do you have anything else you want to add, to wrap up our conversation?

We own part of the responsibility and accountability for those incidents in 2017, and we take that very seriously. We want to instill confidence and competency in every one of our officers at every level, from ensign all the way up to major commander, before they report to their next ship assignment.

We are looking at our current capability and the things that we know we’re doing well, as well as those areas where we can increase the effectiveness of our training. I mentioned earlier how we are changing the focus of the scenarios we’re using for BDOC and ADOC for navigating in busy waterways and applying rules of the road.

You have to have a level of competency to be confident in what you are doing. And your leadership will be effected by a lack of those two. All three are intrinsically tied together.

There is a training component to all of this, but there has to be experience, too. We have to provide that foundation.

By

Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...