A Commander’s Perspective: Why Fleet-Up is the Best Way to Prepare U.S. Navy Captains for War

Read the original blog published with the The National Interest

Since the release of the Comprehensive Review the Surface Warfare community has taken a hard – and much needed – introspective look at our qualification processes, training programs, and career management policies.  Poor practices have rightly been called out for change and a healthy debate has been raised over virtually every aspect of Surface Warfare training and personnel management – including the executive officer/commanding officer (XO/CO) fleet-up model – a model which many in the community love to hate.

As I close the book on a full 36 months as an XO/CO fleet-up in a Forward Deployed Naval Forces – Europe destroyer, I felt I should take a moment to step out of the trenches and voice my support of fleet-up.

In my view, maintaining the fleet-up model is the best possible READINESS GENERATION tool, SEAMANSHIP AND NAVIGATION safety check, and CONTINUITY mechanism for commanding officers that we as a community possess.  While the model can always be improved and refined, at its core it makes our commanding officers better, our ships safer, and lessens the churn in the lives of our Sailors.  Throwing that away would be a step back.  Fleet-up is the best way to ensure our Commanding Officers are as ready as possible on day one of their Command Tour.

READINESS GENERATION:

At the end of the day – our mission is readiness and the product we create for the Navy is the ability to meet operational tasking with a ship ready to sail into harm’s way and win.  This was a fact brought home to me as an XO when my ship provided naval surface fire support to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and USS Wasp (LHD 1) Amphibious Ready Group during ODYSSEY LIGHTNING and the liberation of Sirte from ISIS. 

So when I took command on deployment off the coast of Souda Bay at the tail end of my ship’s second FDNF-E patrol, I did so knowing virtually every inch of the ship and the team I inherited.  I knew our strengths, weaknesses, and the personalities involved.  I knew the skeletons in the closet and what we had to do to improve, because for the last eighteen months my life and the life of the ship had been intrinsically linked.

Only two weeks later we were in the middle of a seventeen ship multi-national ASW Exercise off the south coast of Turkey, while simultaneously holding ballistic missile defense duties.  In getting ready for those events, there was no break-in period where as a new CO I had to get to know the ship, its missions, and its people.  I was ready for the ASW exercise because I saw the planning for it, and I was ready for the complexity of the Ballistic Missile Defense mission because I’d seen my team doing it for a year and a half.  Fleet-up provided me IMMEDIATE operational fluency and allowed us to continue the mission with what I believe was no dip in performance resulting from a new CO learning curve.

I was also ready to execute our damage control (MOB-D) certification just after return from deployment because as XO I had overseen the drills to prepare for the event.  And I was ready to execute a maintenance availability with our local contractor and the Forward Deployed Regional Maintenance Center because we’d already gone through both a short maintenance period and a much more intensive shipyard period together.  Because of those experiences we had put measures in place to improve what had gone poorly and reinforce what had gone right.

SEAMANSHIP AND NAVIGATION:

Command at Sea is hard, and although I recognize there are some stone cold shiphandlers out there, whether most admit it or not there is still a certain gut-wrenching fear that courses through the veins of a new Commanding Officer the first time you take your ship alongside – with the question of whether you are good enough whispering in the back of your head.  With fleet-up, the first time I took my ship alongside, in Piraeus, Greece, was NOT the first time that I had ever gone alongside ON MY SHIP.  Instead, I had served an 18-month apprenticeship under a good shiphandler and had taken the ship alongside several times under his watchful eye.  I’d also seen his successes and times when things could have gone better, and I had catalogued every one of those in my head as a data point.  Moreover, from a practical standpoint I knew without a doubt where my neutral pitch was (on a DDG all stop is NOT neutral), how to effectively twist in place in tight quarters (again, an equal twist produces sternway), the capabilities of my linehandlers, the skill (still developing) of my conning officer, the fact that the particular Master Helmsman on the helm had a tendency to pull a half degree left on a steady course, and that my Lee Helm tended to slam the throttles back when placing engines astern but ease them gently up when going ahead. 

So when I took on the pilot and he informed me we would be going in starboard side to vice port side, that his tugs could only pull, not push, and that shiphandling was in the heart, not the head – perhaps unwelcome advice at the moment – I was able to pull from the past eighteen months, modify the plan, and take the ship alongside.  I recognize new Commanding Officers have been doing that for hundreds of years, but I was undoubtedly better prepared for both the evolution and adversity than I would have been without the immediate previous experience as XO. 

Over my next eighteen months in command with more than sixty landings or underways in seventeen different ports, I tried to do the same for my own XO.  I tried to give him opportunities to drive and learn on his own.  And from his time as an apprentice I know he’s ready for anything.

Taking command in FDNF I also knew the area in which we sailed and all the local navigation and seamanship knowledge that comes with it. For example, after several transits of the Strait of Gibraltar as XO, I knew that fishing vessels like to hang out in the middle of the eastbound traffic lane southwest of Tarifa, where and when we should expect the high-speed ferries from Gibraltar and how they cross, and the way in which merchants flow into and out of the Strait.  While this knowledge is not a necessity, the experience – and the experience gained sailing the same waters over and over – fundamentally improved my own situational awareness, comfort, and thereby safety – without any atrophy of skills or knowledge between XO and CO.  My own XO has seen the same, and in three FDNF patrols he has sailed from the Baltic to the Black Sea with time spent in the Adriatic, the Aegean, off the coast of Scotland, Libya, and south of Cyprus.  He knows these waters, and he will be a better shiphandler, navigator, tactician, and warfighter because of it.

CONTINUITY:

Finally, I cannot overstate how much better I think fleet-up is for our Sailors.  As a division officer and department head, I lived through 12-16 month XO tours with the XO sprinting the entire time.  Great officers and mentors all, but they rolled in and operated at a pace that neither division officers nor Sailors could match.  With fleet-up, you cannot sprint and hope to succeed.  It is definitely a marathon, but that is much more commensurate with the pace you should follow to remain relatable to your Sailors.  And there is no way to approach the job as “playing the role of XO”; fleet-up removes much of the caricature of the XO as the perennial bad-cop.  Being onboard the ship, I knew I had to be myself from day one – and upon taking command this made the transition seamless for my crew. 

In taking command I also felt no necessity to make a change for change’s sake or to establish my stamp on the ship.  The crew knew me, I knew them, and we kept what had been working and made some small changes to improve what hadn’t been.  After completing the ceremony, the day of change of command returned to normal and we kept operating as we had been for the preceding months of patrol.  I knew I had an amazing crew, the best Chief’s Mess in the Navy, and good officers – fleet-up in a sense allowed me to get out of their way and let them do their jobs.

I will allow that there is some merit in the counter-argument that the eyes of a new CO or the transition to a new style of leadership could be good for a ship, as many critics of fleet-up have asserted.  In certain circumstances where a bad XO is taking command fleet-up would entrench a negative leadership style for another 18 months.  I would submit, however, that this is an exception, rather than the rule.  Poor performance or negative command climates can and should be called out and those that exhibit them not certified to fleet-up.  On balance taken across the force, fleet-up reinforces continuity.

As a fleet-up, I was absolutely forced to play the long game and to invest in talent, invest in training, and invest in long-term planning in order to reap the benefits as CO of what I helped plan and put in place as an XO.  Ultimately, that was better for the ship.  When I took over as XO prior to my ship’s homeport shift from Mayport to Rota, I knew that I had to start planning for how the ship would operate after one complete FDNF-E operational cycle including four operational patrols.  Both my then-CO and I rightly surmised that operational fatigue and the stress of repeated patrols would be the most significant personnel concern after operating for several years in the FDNF-E deployment model of four months on – four months off.  Likewise, today my new XO, having just arrived for his two months with me before my relief returns from training, is already laser focused on how the ship will conduct operations and exercises two years from now.

IMPROVEMENTS:

The recent change to the fleet-up model to introduce a break between roles has improved it immeasurably.  It has done much to alleviate the legitimate concerns raised by many of my peers about fleet-up keeping an officer too long in the seat – because it IS a marathon.  When I first arrived to the ship as XO, the outgoing CO I served with talked of his own relief a year and a half before as a very difficult experience, leaving the ship on a Thursday night as XO and returning Friday to take command.  Eighteen months later, I was fortunate to receive the benefit of the new CO course at SWOS and I had the opportunity to talk about command with five other soon-to-be COs.  That the six of us all knew each other for the past decade or so helped to make it a worthwhile course from which I gained tremendously.  More importantly the course was a forcing function in reorienting my mind for the new role I was about to take.

Likewise, the institution of a mandatory leave period to rest, relax, and reset is a tremendous benefit.  My own down time was invaluable in reconnecting me with my family and leaving the ship behind to focus on us for a bit.

The only additional suggestion I would make would be to lessen the time between department head and XO/CO and return to the maximum of four years ashore, including training, that was envisioned when fleet-up began.  I recognize that is easier said than done, and may require some hard choices within the community to reduce the opportunity for command or add additional sea time, but the benefit would be to continue to improve the model and thereby surface warfare readiness.

All that said, I was a better CO for living the fleet-up model.  And although I make no claims that I didn’t make mistakes – the mistakes I made in command were my own, and were different than those made by my predecessor because I had learned from him and I was immediately able to apply those lessons without any atrophy of skill or knowledge.  Likewise, I have no doubt that my relief, because of what he has seen over the past eighteen months, will take the ship farther and continue to improve our operational readiness, ability to safely and professionally operate in the European theater, and the day to day lives of our Sailors. 

Cmdr. Halvorsen is a career Surface Warfare Office and is in his last month in command of USS Carney (DDG 64).  During his XO/CO tours Carney conducted four operational patrols in Sixth Fleet and earned the 2015-2016 Arizona Memorial Trophy, the 2016 Intelligence Excellence Award, all five 2016 and 2017 Command Excellence Awards, and the 2017 Battle E.​​

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