After the announcement blares over the ship’s 1MC announcing system, USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) is overcome by silence, as the crew waits for the message conclusion.
“Combat systems casualty, combat systems casualty,” the tactical action officer (TAO) finishes.
The Quickdraw and SNOOPIE (Ship’s Nautical or Otherwise Photographic Interpretation and Exploitation) teams collectively exhale. C5I Department springs into action, bringing the malfunctioning gear back on-line within minutes - of course, prompting another message from the TAO, proudly announcing the expeditious recovery.
The TAO is the undisputed champion of the 1MC. They’re the kings and queens of unfinished meals and interrupted slumbers. When they make an announcement, someone somewhere on board drops what they’re doing and responds... immediately.
But who are the TAOs? What do they really do, and why is it always so urgent?
“The TAOs are watchstanders with batteries (weapons) release authority granted by the Captain,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Ewing, the ship’s Damage Control Assistant (DCA) and TAO watchstander. “It’s the senior combat watch station on board the ship. All of the CIC (Combat Information Center) watch stations’ information flows through the TAO, who must make decisions, in the absence of the captain, of how to fight the ship.”
“They are the figurehead of a much larger watch organization - the CSOOW (combat systems officer of the watch), the technicians, the watchstanders” he added. “It takes the team to come together, doing what they do. The TAO uses the information those people provide to make the best decision for the ship in a combat scenario.”
While it’s safe to say that TAOs must be extraordinarily skilled multitaskers, the successes of the watchstanders beside them play a critical role in their own successes as TAO.
“You’ve got to be good at multitasking, but you’ve got to train the watchstanders that you’re working with to be good at their job, and you have to be comfortable with delegation,” said Ewing. “There are some things, though, that you just can’t delegate - firing weapons, making that decision for hostile intent. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever possibly have to do. That falls solely on the TAO. But it’s not the TAO that makes it all work. It’s the whole watch team in combat. At any one time, there are 25 other Sailors that are all doing their jobs, doing their best to support the ship in a combat scenario.”
Even with support from those around the TAO, it’s a heavy burden to fall on the shoulders of one person. But for Ewing, it’s a burden he’s motivated by and willing to accept.
“You’d be missing the gravity of this position if you weren’t a little nervous sometimes,” he said. “If you’re nervous, that’s okay because it tells you that you’re paying attention and you’re trying to do the right thing and you’re trying to make the best decisions. But like all things, the more you practice, the more scenarios you work on, the more comfortable you become.”
One scenario in particular tested Ewing’s comfort zone.
“The hardest watch I’ve ever had to stand was as ‘whiskey’ during our air defense exercise,” he said. “We had 10 to 15 opposing force aircraft that were all flying toward us, all trying to test our boundaries, test our limits, test our preplanned responses (PPR). The scenario slowly built into a crescendo, where the aircraft tried to get us to unnecessarily shoot at them. Knowing and understanding the PPRs and how we meet that deadly force triangle (capability, opportunity and intent) is key. That was probably the most stress I’ve had on watch, but it was a good stress because if you’ve trained well, you’ll perform well.”
The reward is worth the stress, according to Ewing. The pride and sense of accomplishment he gets from standing a successful watch is unmatched.
“Being a warfighter first is my favorite part of my job. I’m the DCA, the fire chief for the ship, but what I enjoy the most is fighting the ship - knowing how to tactically employ all of our weapons systems and all of our sensors, collect that data, feed it into the bigger ‘machine’ of the theater and the fleet. It’s probably the most rewarding part of being a Naval officer, especially for a surface warfare officer.”
That is the TAO.