Wittman Touts Policy for Specialization Among Surface Warfare Officers
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee says the Navy is not doing enough to correct the problems that caused last year’s fatal ship collisions and believes Congress must order it to create specialization among surface warfare officers to provide separate career tracks for ship drivers and for engineering and weapon systems experts.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the full committee passed early May 10, contains language directing that specialization so some surface warfare officers can get more experience handling ships at sea.
In an appearance at the Hudson Institute, Wittman said he believes that direction would still allow the engineer and weapons specialists to have a path to command at sea. But he conceded the committee met opposition from the Navy, which historically has required its surface warriors to be masters of all aspects of their ships.
Although Seapower has not seen the exact language in the NDAA, the policy described by Wittman would appear to create a situation similar to what the Air Force does with separate units for flying its aircraft and for maintaining them. The maintenance specialists never command flying units.
Asked by Seth Cropsey, director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower, if he was satisfied with what the Navy has done in response to the collisions that killed 17 Sailors, Wittman said: “I’m not satisfied. … I think there needs to be wholesale changes in ways that really shake up the status quo.”
He said the committee “put things in this year’s NDAA that the Navy is not happy with. I understand that, but it shouldn’t take away from our determination that those 17 Sailors who lost their lives in those collisions, that their lives were not in vain.
“I believe the surface navy needs to pursue specialization, where you have surface warfare officers who are specialist in the engineering and weapon systems that are on board and those who are also experts in ship navigation and seamanship. Because what happens right now is that officers are forced to know everything but don’t become expert in any of those realms. That takes away from the ability of the fleet to operate the way it should.”
Wittman said another problem was with the training of Sailors and officers before they go to the fleet, which “has atrophied over the years to the point that Sailors going to the fleet have limited experience before they have to stand watch. That’s not acceptable.”
He said there should be some standard of training similar to what is required for commercial mariners.
Asked by Seapower after his appearance if the separate tracks would prevent the mechanical and weapons specialists from commanding ships because they lacked the necessary ship-handling experience, Wittman said he did not think that would be the case because the specialists still would be able to stand bridge watches.
Wittman said there also might need to be changes in the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which requires officers to have a significant amount of joint staff service to be promoted to flag or general officer rank, because it can prevent surface warfare officers from getting the experience at sea needed to be proficient ship handlers.
On other issues, Wittman said he is confident the Navy “will have the capability to counter” a Chinese Navy with the fleet of 415 ships it plans to have in the next decade, with 355 U.S. ships, because of the better systems and crews.
He also said the level of shipbuilding funding authorized by the new NDAA would be enough to keep the Navy on track toward the 355-ship fleet until 2021, when the first of the Columbia-class ballistic nuclear submarines will begin construction. At that point, he said, they would need about $2 billion more a year for shipbuilding.