Their miles of intricate pipes and wires work as circulatory and nervous systems, all of which are controlled by the ship's brain - better known as the combat information center (CIC). Inside the CIC are hundreds of sensors, dials and screens that
help ships see miles over the horizon and defend themselves in case of danger.
But, without well-trained operators and world-class tacticians supporting each ship's commanding officer, the computing power in even the most advanced CICs in the Navy don't come together to provide operational and strategic commanders the capacity
and options they need to carry out the Navy's mission to win wars, deter aggression, and maintain freedom of the seas.
In 2015, the Navy capitalized on an opportunity to enhance the lethality and warfighting capacity of the surface fleet by standing up Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC).
"I've been waiting 33 years for this day; what a great day this is for our surface warfare community," said Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander, Naval Surface Forces, during a ceremony celebrating the SMWDC's creation, June 9, 2015. "The establishment
of SMWDC signifies a major milestone in how we support CNO's 'warfighting first' focus, advancing combat capability and warfare competencies of our surface force."
SMWDC's answer to increasing the surface community's tactical proficiency is to train a new brand of surface warfare officer (SWO) called warfare tactics instructors (WTI) - pronounced 'witties.' These WTIs have become subject matter experts aboard
ships, with specific training in one of three principle warfare areas - amphibious warfare, anti-submarine/anti-surface warfare, and integrate air/missile defense.
"These WTIs will act as force-multipliers on every ship and tactical training command [afloat training groups or tactical training groups] to implement the best practices in each warfare area to achieve a single warfighting standard," said Mr. Frank
Olmo, Executive Director of SMWDC.
Today, WTIs are out at sea, operating in every area of responsibility, creating new doctrine, and validating tactics. Those same WTIs are also training, mentoring, and providing a conduit for feedback - from commanding officers to seasoned chiefs
to the newest Sailors fresh from 'A' school - back to SMWDC in order to accelerate the rate at which the surface community learns the lessons from fleet engagements.
"We've seen a lot of enthusiasm from a lot of the ships. The watch teams are eager to learn, they're eager to improve and they're eager to really get underway and do what they have trained to do," said Lt. Damon Goodrich-Houska, an anti-submarine and anti-surface WTI.
An event where WTIs play a critical role in training is the four-week specialized pre-deployment training course known as Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT). This event fits between a ship's basic phase of training and the more complicated intermediate phase when ships that will deploy together will get underway to train together for the first time.
"SWATT is designed to slow it down a little bit and to really have some dedicated time where all we do really is train and work on tactics," said Goodrich-Houska.
The SWATT program comprises two main features, including a plan, brief, execute and debrief (PBED) process to train watchstanders how to better operate their systems. Trainers also take a crawl, walk, run approach to helping Sailors succeed in increasingly complex scenarios.
❞I believe Sailors have always had the desire to be excellent at their jobs, to really know their systems and to know tactics. Now that they are getting the time to see that we have these debriefing tools, and that they can carry that on forward with them after we leave, they can continue that process. We've seen a lot of great things from these ships." - Lt. Damon Goodrich-Houska
SWATT and similar events have not only enhanced fleet capabilities, but they are also slowly changing the culture of the surface fleet.
"The first time we conduct a full debrief with a watch team as part of the full PBED process, there is an initial stage of defensiveness. We approach things from a strictly instructive angle, addressing errors and the watch stations that made them, focusing on improving rather than simply assigning blame," said Goodrich-Houska. "Playing the audio recordings of the event helps to remind everyone that we're focused on a fact-based review of events meant to help them be more effective warfighters. Things rapidly change, and after a few debriefs, watch standers are identifying their own mistakes before we can get to them."
In a time of continued combat operations and terrorism, with examples like USS Mason (DDG 87) coming under fire while operating in the Red Sea in October 2016, commanders say the creation of SMWDC and the WTIs who support the command's mission is especially important.
"Any notion that the fight is not real for our Sailors at sea has gone out the window. This fight is very real and we have to be as ready as possible," said Lt. Joven Ernani Dinglasan, an integrated air and missile defense WTI. "Surface warfare is a very unique challenge."
❞To be able to lead those Sailors through those challenges ... being able to navigate this task with them to accomplish an overall mission, is why I became a surface warfare officer." - Lt. Joven Ernani Dinglasan
As the WTIs continue to grow in ranks, the mission of "distributed lethality: enabling sea control," as mentioned by Rear Adm. John Wade, commander of SMWDC, during this year's Surface Navy Association National Symposium, continues to become achievable.
"Our mission is clear," said Wade. "We are increasing the lethality and tactical proficiency of the surface force. To do that we are all-in providing support to the fleet to make sure they're ready to fight today, as we are also keeping our eyes on the horizon to developing new tactics, doctrine, and capabilities we need to be effective as a sea power."