Troubling U.S. Navy review finds widespread shortfalls in basic seamanship

A junior officer stands watch on the bridge aboard the destroyer Carney. The Navy found widespread shortfalls in proficiency among its junior officers during 164 random officer of the deck competency checks. (U.S. Navy photo by MC2 James Turner) A three-month internal review conducted by senior U.S. surface fleet leaders found that nearly 85 percent of its junior officers had either some or significant concerns in ship handling and that many struggled to react decisively to extricate their ship from danger when there was an immediate risk of collision , according to an internal message obtained by Defense News.

Lead by the Surface Warfare Officer School, officer of the deck competency checks were conducted on a random selection of OOD-qualified first-tour division officers (the newest officers in the fleet) in underway bridge navigation simulators fleet-wide between January and March. Of the 164 officers who were evaluated, only 27 passed with “no concerns.” Another 108 completed with “some concerns,” and 29 had “significant concerns,” according to the message, which was released by the Navy’s top surface warfare officer Vice Adm. Richard Brown.

The evaluations raise distressing questions about the level of ship handling training junior officers get both prior to their arrival at their first command and how good the training is when they arrive. In a Tuesday interview with Defense News at the Pentagon, Brown said the checks would be used to inform new training in development for young officers and that changes were already underway that show the Navy is serious about self-assessment and improvement in the wake of the twin disasters that claimed the lives of 17 sailors last summer .

· Officers struggled with operating radars and the associated tools at hand, an issue that emerged in the wake of the Fitzgerald accident.

· Officers had a firm grasp of what the international rules of the road for navigating ships at sea are but struggled to apply them practically during watch standing, especially in low-visibility situations.

· Most officers were able to keep clear of close encounters with other ships in the simulator but those that found themselves in extremis “were often ill-equipped to take immediate action to avoid collisions,” a factor that was a direct contributor to the loss of life in both the John S. McCain and Fitzgerald collisions in 2017.

In his message to the fleet, Brown said the OOD competency reviews should be a call to action for the surface community to get after its shortcomings.

“While the OOD competency checks were a snapshot in time, we must be realistic in confronting the systemic shortfalls that they revealed in core proficiencies across the junior qualified members of the force,” Brown said in the message. “We as a community can and must tackle our deficiencies and ensure there is meaningful experience behind our qualification letters.” The areas of concern listed in the message conjure unsettling reminders of the 2017 accidents. In the case of McCain, confusion and indecision took hold on the bridge a the precise moment […]

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