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 naïve 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