Monday, February 1, 2021

The Value Of Small Vessel Command

There is a school of thought that suggests that the US Navy emphasis on large ships to the near exclusion of small ships robs junior officers of small ship command experience.  This experience would lead to better developed officers more ready for eventual large ship command, according to the thinking.


Is this true or is this yet another idea that is appealing, in concept, but fails in application?


Let’s take a look at one historical example of widespread small ship command:  the Jefferson Gunboats.  Around 200 such ships were built, thereby providing lots of command opportunities for officers in the fledgling Navy of the time.  What was their experience?


In his book, The Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy, author Spencer Tucker offers this thought,


The gunboats were a naval school for young officers such as James Lawrence, James Biddle, …  The record here is mixed, however.  Most senior officers felt that the best place for junior officers to learn officership was on medium or large seagoing vessels under experienced commanders.  Gunboat service did provide command experience for junior officers, but it could not produce the skills acquired and needed in the larger vessels.  Gunboats spent most of their time in harbors and coastal shoal waters, and this precluded learning seamanship.  Their commanders were often poor role models for novice officers, and because there was usually only one officer on board a gunboat, this worked against creating the professionalism that developed best where many officers served together. (1)



Tucker’s assessment raises several good points.


Mentorship – Though Tucker does not use the term ‘mentor’, he is clearly referring to the concept when he discusses the grouping of officers in larger ships which leads to the education and development of younger officers by being exposed to, and learning from, the examples of other officers.  This education via example, or mentorship, if you wish, is unavailable in smaller, isolated commands.


Professionalism – Closely related to mentorship, the development of a professional atmosphere and professionalism is clearly facilitated by groupings of officers as opposed to isolated command.  Officers can discuss professional aspects of their job both on watch and in the wardroom and junior officers can learn from the professionalism of their seniors.  Junior officers can acquire a sense of what ‘professional’ means.


Command Exposure – Without a doubt, early small vessel command provides valuable exposure to the requirements of command albeit without any mentor or example to learn the proper lessons from.  Thus, the young officer is exposed to command but lacks the resources to properly master that command.  Some officers will find their own, successful, mode of command and some will fail, drawing the wrong lessons.  This undoubtedly is the reason for Tucker’s assessment of ‘mixed’ results.


Correction and Discipline – Closely tied to the above, an isolated small vessel commander has little opportunity for correction and learning from more knowledgeable officers.  The na├»ve young officer may well come to believe that he has figured out the best method to command and may fail to receive corrections that may produce better command techniques.  In the extreme, he may take his flawed views along with him to higher command.


Environment – As Tucker noted, small vessels may well not routinely sail where larger ships do and, as a result, the young officer may not acquire the ocean going skills and seamanship required for larger ships. 



Clearly, there are arguments both for and against junior officer small vessel command.  For some additional insight, let’s consider the Navy’s most recent and relevant example of small vessel command:


Iranian Riverine Boat Seizure – This was a classic case of an officer in command of small craft being completely bereft of professionalism and competence.  Not only did he fail on a personal level but his failure to train, motivate, and discipline his crew(s) led to total failure by the crew as individuals and a group, including a crystal clear case of mutiny which the Navy, much to their everlasting shame, opted not to prosecute. 


The officer in command not only failed individually but his command-wide failings resulted in damage to his crew’s professional development and achievement , his squadron’s reputation, and the Navy’s reputation.


The officer in command was clearly in over his head and lacked any effective support system to correct, guide, mentor, and, if necessary, remove him from the Navy if he was found to be irredeemably incapable.

US Riverine Boats Seized By Iran


Let’s consider another example:


MCM Grounding – In 2013, the minesweeper (MCM) USS Guardian ran aground near the Philippines.  The Navy’s investigation showed that the commanding officer, a Lieutenant Commander (O-4, junior officer), made a multitude of mistakes and exercised incredibly bad judgment which led directly to the grounding and loss of the vessel.  See, “A Harsh Mistress”.


USS Guardian Aground

Those were two glaring examples of failures of junior officers in small vessel commands.  Do those two examples condemn the entire concept?  Of course not.  Unfortunately, the reverse side of the issue, examples where junior officers flourished in small vessel command are not readily available.  The riverine boat and MCM grounding examples are simply meant to illustrate that junior officer small vessel command is not automatically beneficial and positive.  Whether it is systematically beneficial or detrimental is an open question.  Certainly, the Navy appears to place no value on the concept but given the Navy’s track record of badly flawed decisions about … well … everything, the Navy’s opinion can’t be given much credence.


I suspect that the benefit of junior officer small vessel command is like most other ventures.  If properly run, closely supervised, and supplemented with additional professional education, experience, and exposure it would likely produce generally positive results.  Lacking any of those elements, the concept is likely to produce detrimental outcomes.


For our Navy today, it’s obvious that none of those elements are present and, therefore, junior officer small vessel command is a bad idea.





(1)The Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy, Spencer C. Tucker, University of South Carolina Press, 1993, ISBN 0-87249-849-2


  1. Regarding the Iranian boat seizure, I am convinced that there is some major piece of this story that has not been disclosed, and probably never will be. The story that we are presented makes no sense, unless every single member of both boat crews was brutally incompetent, in which case why were they entrusted with the assignment?

    1. "unless every single member of both boat crews was brutally incompetent, in which case why were they entrusted with the assignment?"

      Because whoever was in charge was just as incompetent, if not worse?

    2. "unless every single member of both boat crews was brutally incompetent,"

      You've seen the endless stream of incompetence that the Navy has exhibited and yet you think this one was unlikely????

      The MCM CO plotted his own grounding and yet you think this one was unlikely????

      The Navy opted to use up front line fighter aircraft doing tanking and yet you think this one was unlikely????

      The Navy installed non-functional catapults, arresting gear, and weapon elevators on a carrier and then commissioned that carrier and yet you think this one was unlikely????

      The Navy sailed not just one but two destroyers into giant cargo ships and yet you think this one was unlikely????

      That Navy ran an Aegis cruiser aground off Hawaii in broad daylight in well mapped waters and yet you think this one is unlikely????

      The Navy built the Zumwalt without its main weapon and yet you think this one is unlikely????

      Seriously, how many of these do I have to list before you accept the extent of incompetency? Because … I can list these all night!

    3. @CDR Chip: I'm given to understand that the problem with the boats was that, from the institutional standpoint, the harbor security crowd took over the riverine patrol boats and kept the peacetime harbor security mindset, despite the fact that there were no longer operating in the permissive environment that is harbor security.

    4. I've heard all the excuses. I've sailed the Gulf. You don't go where they allegedly were without screwing up the navigation monumentally and repeatedly for hours. There is no logical reason to be anywhere even remotely near where they were alleged to be. None. If they were truly there, then everybody in the chain's head needs to roll. And if they weren't--well, that's another story.

    5. "If they were truly there, then everybody in the chain's head needs to roll. And if they weren't--well, that's another story."

      I don't know what kind of conspiracy theory you're into on this but the only believable scenario is total incompetence. They were a bunch of low level sailors attempting a navigation that they weren't qualified to do and the results were predictable. READ THE REPORT!

      It wasn't like they were a bunch of SEALs trying to sneak in somewhere to carry out some world saving mission. They were a bunch of incompetents. And, yes, a LOT of heads should have rolled but the Navy opted to cover it up as best they could.

    6. LCDR, junior officer or not, is not a low level that should be incompetent. And this was not a navigation exercise much more taxing than taking your ski boat across the lake to fill up with gasoline. You could at least possibly become confused about how far north or south along the coastline you were. But being confused about how far you were offshore is simply unbelievable.

      Look, there are still disputes about whether USS Pueblo was in Korean or international waters. I don't think it takes a conspiracy theory to be uncertain whether these boats were actually in Iranian territorial waters. And admission by the Navy does not mean that they actually were. My guess is that we will never know.

    7. "uncertain whether these boats were actually in Iranian territorial waters."

      ??????? Now you're just making stuff up. The Navy confirmed it with an extensive investigation and report. The boat crews confirmed that they immediately broke from their navigation plan when they got underway to try to make up time. The Iranians confirmed the location. The Iranian boats were very small, one or two man boats not open waters boats. Seriously, you're the only person I've encountered who has the slightest doubt about where the boats were.

      Don't make up your own theories, read the report!

      "My guess is that we will never know."

      My guess is you don't want to believe the extent of the incompetence and refuse to acknowledge reality. That's your choice but come on, ... really?

    8. "LCDR, junior officer or not, is not a low level that should be incompetent."

      Do I really need to repeat the litany of incompetence from high level commanders? If high level commanders are that incompetent, why do you find it so hard to believe lower level commanders would also be incompetent?

    9. You're reaching a level of denial that, if you're not careful, will land you on the Marine Commandant's staff.

    10. I think you are misinterpreting my point, and probably not worth clarifying at this point, so just drop it.

    11. "I think you are misinterpreting my point"

      There's that clarity of writing issue again.

    12. "My guess is you don't want to believe the extent of the incompetence and refuse to acknowledge reality. That's your choice but come on, ... really?"

      Well, that guess would be wrong, and that's what I mean about misinterpreting my point. You are reading part and guessing part. And the guessing part is what you are getting wrong.

      The Navy is incompetent enough for this to have happened. We don't disagree there. The Navy is also dishonest enough, and this story is unbelievable enough, for me to wonder if this isn't some kind of cover story for an even worse set of facts. That's all I am saying, not disagreeing with your point in any way.

    13. You can delve into conspiracy theories, if you wish, but you would do well to bear in mind the old adage that the simplest explanation that fits the facts is, invariably, the correct one.

      The simplest explanation is that an incompetent group of sailors led by an incompetent officer got lost and then surrendered rather than fight. The evidence is ironclad. There isn't even a shred of evidence that indicates otherwise. To see another explanation is to make up stories with no facts. Do so if you wish.

      The simplest explanation ...

    14. But it isn't the simplest explanation because it is absolutely nonsensical. They were taking a "short cut" so they entered Iranian waters? That's like saying we were driving from Chicago to New York and we decided to take a "short cut" through Miami.

      I have no problem believing that "an incompetent group of sailors led by an incompetent officer got lost and then surrendered rather than fight."

      My question is WTH were they doing there in the first place. Why was that "mission" even attempted? What was so important that a couple of river patrol boats were sent without being accompanied? Is that kind of stupidity a routine occurrence? Why give people a chance to screw up that badly? It's just mind-bogglingly insane that they were out there in the first place.

      Don't give people a chance to screw up that badly.

    15. READ THE REPORT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It answers all your questions.

    16. "READ THE REPORT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It answers all your questions."

      If you assume that the Navy is telling the truth in the report. Which--given the fairly well-documented cases you cite--is suspect.

      All I'm saying is that the "official" version 1) is nonsensical beyond even the limits of incompetence, and 2) fails to explain why in the devil they had to sail two patrol boats unaccompanied from Kuwait to Bahrain in the first place.

      I'd find it more believable that they drifted into Iranian waters because they were preoccupied with having an orgy on deck.

    17. It is clear to me that you did not read the report. That's very disappointing. If you want to concoct conspiracy theories, at least do your homework.

    18. I'm not concocting any conspiracy theories. I'm merely saying that we have been presented with an explanation that doesn't explain.

      I've read the report, at least the one I can find online that has certain (presumably classified) portions redacted.

      It doesn't answer my questions. What was so urgent about having two river patrol boats in Bahrain that they had to make this stupid transit by themselves? They were supposed to rendezvous midway with a USCG cutter to refuel. Why didn't they have the cutter come up and rendezvous with them upon departure and sail in company with them? Maybe it would have delayed them a few hours, but I doubt that the whole free world would have come crashing down because two river patrol boats were half a day late getting to Bahrain. The whole transit was incredibly stupidly conceived and planned.

      Look, not one thing I am saying disagrees in any way, shape, or fashion with your contention about incompetence of the officer and crew onboard the boats. So I'm not really sure why you are taking such exception.

      All I'm saying is that there has to be more to the story than what we know, because what we know, and what the report says, fail to address some really obvious questions.

    19. You're welcome to your conspiracy theory. I'll be moving on.

    20. Again, I have no conspiracy theory. If you think I do, tell me what it so I can know too.

      All I am saying is that the "official" story makes no sense.

    21. Oh come on now, at least be honest. You can't have it both ways. If you don't believe the Navy report of the incident then you obviously believe there was some other mysterious mission taking place. Or, if you don't believe there was some alternative, mysterious mission then there's no reason to disbelieve the Navy report.

      Do you also believe the Navy's reports of the Burke collisions were also lies and that they were on mysterious missions as well? You must since all of these incidents involve equally mind-boggling incompetence. What mysterious missions do you think the Burkes were on?

      The Navy reports make perfect sense - they document pure incompetence. Whether it's colliding with giant cargo ships, running aground in perfect weather during daylight, plotting a course over reefs and then running aground, or incompetently plotting a course into Iranian waters, it's all the same: widespread incompetence. Nothing sinister or mysterious, just incompetence.

      Don't bother replying, I'm cutting this discussion off as too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

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    23. I really don't have any particular mysterious subplot in mind. It's just tat the whole concept of sending two small boats out unaccompanied on a longer transit that they have ever made before, passing relatively close to hostile territory, is just mind-bogglingly stupid, unless there was something critically important to be gained, and I am unable to determine what that could possibly have been.

      The crew were incompetent and disobedient. I agree 100% with your analysis there. But that isn't enough to explain the massive stupidity on multiple levels involved in scheduling this transit in the first place.

      I'm out. We have more important topics where we basically agree.

  2. I commanded a 4500 ton AOG in the Pacific as a LT. Best tour----and learning experience available. One key is to listen to your Chiefs and WOs. The squadron Commander (SERVRON 5) was also a great mentor.

  3. "The Navy’s investigation showed that the commanding officer, a Lieutenant Commander (O-4, junior officer), made a multitude of mistakes . . ."

    Maybe I've misread you, but a Lieutenant Commander (O-4) is not a junior officer. Lieutenant Commander is a mid-grade rank and usually someone with 10-12 years of experience. A Lieutenant Commander is usually the executive officer of a destroyer, attack submarine, or a frigate (when we had them). In the Army or Marines, they would be the executive officer of a batallion.

    1. Here is the Federal Pay Scale website which shows O-4 LtCdr as junior officer:

    2. Side note: 200 or so Admirals as 200K/year?
      Why not starting from there with the cuts, for once...

    3. I stand corrected. Only in the Navy could an officer with 10 years experience be considered a junior officer.

    4. The key point is not whether the commanding officer is technically considered a junior officer but whether a small vessel command, such as the LtCdr's Avenger class MCM is a good experience opportunity or a bad one. As I stated in the post, with proper supervision, mentoring, support, etc. it ought to be a valuable and positive experience. The reality in today's Navy is that the officer clearly didn't have any of those supporting elements or else he wouldn't have made the litany of mistakes he did, as you saw in the report. Without those supporting elements, small vessel command has a high likelihood of failure.

      "Only in the Navy could an officer with 10 years experience be considered a junior officer."

      One of the severe problems the US Navy has is a glut of junior officers relative to the number of officer slots on ships. I've read and heard about junior officers having little or no actual shiphandling or any other relevant experience because there a simply too many junior officers vying for 'attention'. We're also seeing the phenomenon of sailors rotating in to and out of tours without ever leaving dock. All of this means that while an officer may have ten years served, it is quite possible that he has little actual experience doing anything relevant.

      The circumstantial proof of this is the appalling frequency with which commanding officers (once junior officers, themselves!) are demonstrating complete failure to grasp and master basic seamanship, ship handling, crew organization, crew training, crew competency, etc. That's why we run ships aground, collide with giant cargo ships, and get relieved on a stunningly regular basis.

      Consider the example of the Zumwalt's first commanding officer who, during his tour, never left dock and never had a combat system installed on the ship. What relevant experience did he get from his year or so of command? And now he's an admiral of a carrier group! An admiral with no major ship command experience is now running a carrier group (and, to make the situation even more ridiculous, he had almost no carrier experience).

      Conceptually, ten years served may only be the equivalent of one year experience.

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    6. "One of the severe problems the US Navy has is a glut of junior officers relative to the number of officer slots on ships."

      It's a glut of officers, period. Too many JOs, too many senior officers. I also think we err by trying to make officers generalists so we get jacks of all trades who are masters of none.

      I know you don't like this idea, but I go back to the Royal Navy concept of splitting line officers into deck/warfare and engineering--broken down further into propulsion engineering, weapons engineering, and aviation engineering--officers. The engineering officers run the ship, while the deck/warfare officers navigate the ship and fight the ship. The officers in charge of making things work are engineering officers and receive extensive technical training and graduate degrees in naval engineering and architecture, so they know what they are doing. The deck/warfare officers receive the equivalent of merchant master training in navigation and rules of the road, plus strategic and tactical training. An OOD letter is basically equivalent to a master's license. Just as you say about ships, if officers specialize then you get more capable officers.

      We got into disagreement about senior engineering officers going to design bureaus, but that is a minor part of the concept.

      In the RN scheme I would probably have ended up as a weapons engineering officer with a specialty in mine warfare. I know some of you have watched episodes of the 1970s BBC TV series "Warship" online. LCDR Bill Kiley in that series is a weapons engineer.

    7. "I know you don't like this idea, but I go back to the Royal Navy concept of splitting line officers into deck/warfare and engineering"

      I am 100% for that concept! Just not the part time ship design engineer.

      " Just as you say about ships, if officers specialize then you get more capable officers."

      There is a small caution about this. In a 100% peacetime navy, the concept would work fine. In combat, with casualties, you might encounter a situation where you lose the commanding officer and others. What happens then, in terms of chain of command and qualifications, is an issue and I don't know how the RN addresses it.

    8. Well, the RN has a pretty decent wartime record, so I presume they have come up with some way to deal with it.

      I do know that they split the CO and XO (1st Lieutenant in their terminology) between the bridge and CIC (operations room), and CIC is typically located away from the bridge, which reduces the chances of both getting whacked in the same hit.

      And I think you jumped to some unwarranted and unstated (by me, at least) conclusions regarding the ship design situation. You have these officers not eligible for command at sea who reach senior levels and you need to have some sort of career path for them. It's pretty easy to work postgraduate eduction in engineering and/or marine architecture into their career patterns. Some would go to shore commands, including repair and maintenance and possibly ship construction facilities. Some would be available for ship design bureaus. We're probably talking a couple of hundred senior officers, maybe 40 or fewer at flag rank, and I believe BuShips used to have something like 1250 personnel, so there would be plenty of room for the people that you think need to be there. I'm just thinking that if you had a weapons engineer or a few around, somebody would have figured out that the Zumwalt gun system was unworkable, or if you had an aviation engineer or a few around, somebody would have figured out that EMALS was not ready for prime time, or that if you had a propulsion engineer or two around, somebody would have figured out that the LCS propulsion system couldn't be maintained by the proposed manning.

    9. I do know that all RN deck/warfare types get far more intensive training in rules of the road, strategy, and tactics than USN officers, so a lower ranking officer who survived might be better able to function in a command role.

      Looking back on it, during my entire time on active duty, I think my sum total training in ROTR/strategy/tactics consisted of one hour of mo board training. I noted this on another website and was told how much more training JOs got in such subjects today, to which I replied, "Well, at least we learned not to run into anything." Officer professional competence does not appear to be a feature of modern USN training. I want to ask, "What is?"

    10. "Officer professional competence does not appear to be a feature of modern USN training. I want to ask, "What is?"

      Diversity, sensitivity, gender equality, climate change … you know the litany.

  4. I'm not sure you picked good examples in this post.

    The Jeffersonian 'navy' of small boats would be the product of of a man who would have been literately horrified by the current US navy and its size and scale.

    He certainly would not have cared a wit for it to provide trained men for some potentially up scaled navy he would not want.

    The Riverine boats were out of their depth. Also I am little unclear about how much navy crew thay have verses add on.

    The MCM is a useful point as I see it but it shows rather what the distaste for small ships gets the navy more likely. The track record of the Cyclones and USCG cutters in the Gulf is likely I think more indicative of of what should be considered a small boat. Also of course it not like the navy is running a great track record on large ship navigation lately.

    Do the last of the navy Mine sweepers count? By all recent reporting they can hardly function and the USN cares not so how could they be decent training platforms?

  5. On a side note, the Navy recently announced they will not to replace the Cyclone-class patrol boats, which would be a good level of command for an O-3. The Navy needs to provide quality leadership opportunities for junior officers if they expect them to command cruisers and destroyers later in their careers. In my opinion, the Navy could use 40 to 50 such ships.

    1. Come on some drone unmanned ship will do the job better faster smarter and be immune to hacking and electronic warfare and probably have a LASER. The Power point gibberish will prove it.

    2. "The Navy needs to provide quality leadership opportunities for junior officers"

      Evidence would suggest that Burke and Ticonderoga commands are not quality leadership opportunities. The degree of micro-managing and second-guessing exerted by higher command pretty much precludes this. Add to that the fact that command tours are too short to rack up any significant command experience. Some captains never leave the dock during their command tours. For example, the Zumwalt's first captain never sailed and never had a combat system installed. What kind of command experience did that provide?

      You may be in favor of junior officer command opportunities, in theory, but the reality is that our command system is badly broken.

    3. I do think they should have ships an O-3 can command, but the PCs are commanded by an O-4.

  6. I was under the impression in WW2 that a lot of frigates and destroyers and submarines were commanded by Lieutenants and Lieutenant Commanders. Makes one wonder what the difference was in those days.

    1. More ships. WW2 is a poor reference point the USN and every other branch had to expand massively and quickly you are going to see a lot of junior officers get a command.

      Even the USCG which has more ships still looks to have the command of a sentinel class cutter (about equivalent to a Cyclone) at O4. But it a lot of smaller boats so likely has room for a lot more junior officers to command.

  7. Have you recently seen the news of the Chinese UUV in Indonesian waters? You ever plan on writing a post about the implications of such development?

    My guess that it supposedly mapping the seabed for possible incursions by the Chinese Navy. Other than that, I wonder what use an unmanned submarine drone doing in enemy's territory.

    Source for reference:

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  9. So, petty officers don’t train ensigns any more?

  10. I'd like to add a varied perspective which may (or may not) add something to the conversation.

    When I had finished my army obligation I went to work for a large, nation-wide trucking company.

    They had large maintenance facilities scattered throughout the country with 30 to 50 mechanics and running 24/7 operations.

    To lead these operations we would have a shop manager and 3 team leaders (with a mix of former army officers and former mechanics who had been promoted off the shop floor).
    The manager and day shift team leader shared the daylight responsibilities and the other two team leaders provided 7 day per week coverage for the less experience night shifts.

    The company also had small dedicated shops of 6 to 7 mechanics that serviced remote accounts (like Walmart distribution centers and the like).
    These would be supervised by a single team leader, with support from the regional managers, and used as a stepping stone between being a large shop team leader and a shop manager.

    I would think that small vessel command could be useful as a similar kind of stepping stone for navy officers.



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