Navy Readiness: Actions Needed to Evaluate and Improve Surface Warfare Officer Career Path

GAO-21-168 Published: Jun 17, 2021. Publicly Released: Jun 17, 2021.
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Fast Facts

Following two deadly ship collisions in 2017, the U.S. Navy looked closely at Surface Warfare Officers who command and operate surface ships at sea. The Navy made minor changes to the officers' career path, such as extending training and tours of duty. It hadn't regularly evaluated or changed this career path in over a century.

Most officers believe that specialized career paths would better prepare them for their duties, compared to the generalist path that the Navy currently has.

Our recommendations include that the Navy routinely evaluate current and possible alternative career paths to best train and retain Surface Warfare Officers.

Awarding of U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer Insignia

U.S. Navy officer being awarded an insignia

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Highlights

What GAO Found

U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs) separate from the SWO community earlier and at higher rates compared with officers in similar U.S. Navy communities, and female SWOs separate at higher rates than male SWOs.

Retention Rates for U.S. Navy Officers and Surface Warfare Officers by Gender

Retention Rates for U.S. Navy Officers and Surface Warfare Officers by Gender

Note: GAO compared the U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer community separation rates with those of the other unrestricted line officer communities in the U.S. Navy: Naval Aviation, Submarine, and Explosive Ordinance Disposal and Special Warfare.

GAO found that after 10 years of service, around the first major career milestone:

  • 33 percent of SWOs remain in their community, compared with 45 percent of officers from similar U.S. Navy officer communities, and
  • 12 percent of female SWOs remain in their community, compared with 39 percent of male SWOs.

By using existing information to develop a plan to improve SWO retention, the Navy will be better positioned to retain a diverse and combat-ready community.

The career path for U.S. Navy SWOs differs from those in similar positions in selected foreign navies and other U.S. Navy and U.S. maritime communities.

Career Path for U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officers Compared with Others

Retention Rates for U.S. Navy Officers and Surface Warfare Officers by Gender

The U.S. Navy made incremental career path changes for SWOs following the 2017 collisions, but has not regularly evaluated or fundamentally changed its SWO career path for over a century. GAO found that by a factor of four to one, SWOs believe specialized career paths would better prepare them for their duties than the current generalist career path. Without periodic evaluations of current approaches, including alternative career paths, and the use of those evaluations, the U.S. Navy may miss an opportunity to develop and retain proficient SWOs.

Why GAO Did This Study

SWOs are U.S. Navy officers whose primary duties focus on the safe operation of surface ships at sea. In 2017, the Navy had two collisions at sea that resulted in the death of 17 sailors and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to Navy ships. Following the collisions, the Navy identified deficiencies in the SWO career path and staffing policies, and took action to improve these areas.

The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 contained a provision that GAO assess issues related to the U.S. Navy SWO career path. Among other things, this report (1) assesses trends in separation rates of SWOs with those of similar U.S. Navy officer communities, and trends in SWO separation rates by gender; (2) describes how the career path of U.S. Navy SWOs compares to those of selected foreign navies and other U.S. Navy and U.S. maritime communities; and (3) assesses the extent to which the U.S. Navy has used or evaluated alternative career paths. GAO analyzed U.S. Navy officer personnel data; selected foreign navies and U.S. maritime officer communities for comparison; and surveyed a generalizable sample of Navy SWOs.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 7 recommendations to the Navy, including developing a plan to improve SWO retention; regularly evaluating its current approaches, including alternative career paths; and using these to improve SWO career options and proficiency. The Navy concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Navy
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of the Navy should ensure the Commander, Naval Surface Forces, uses information gathered on Surface Warfare Officer separation rates to develop a plan with clearly defined goals; performance measures that identify specific retention rates or determine if initiatives to improve retention are working as planned; and timelines to improve Surface Warfare Officer retention rates. (Recommendation 1)
Open
The Navy concurred with our recommendation. In March 2022, Navy officials stated that they had developed overall retention goals, measures of effectiveness, timelines, and mitigation strategy and risk assessment for improving Surface Warfare Officer retention. In addition, Navy officials reported that they plan to use the results from the recently concluded Junior Surface Warfare Officer survey to evaluate the effectiveness of various initiatives impacting Junior Officers, including efforts to improve retention. Further, Navy officials stated that they plan to hold senior officer and junior officer focus groups to further refine survey data and generate ideas for future initiatives for Surface Warfare Officers. Navy officials agreed to provide documentation on each of the above initiatives as they are approved by Navy leadership. We will continue to monitor the Navy's efforts to implement this recommendation and will provide updated information as applicable. To fully implement this recommendation the Navy should finalize its goals, performance measures, timelines, and monitor any changes it makes to the SWO career path and how those changes affect retention rates for the Surface Warfare Officer Community.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should ensure the Commander, Naval Surface Forces, develops a plan to identify actions to increase female Surface Warfare Officer retention rates that includes clearly defined goals, performance measures, and timelines. (Recommendation 2)
Open
The Navy concurred with our recommendation. In December 2021, Congress included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 that directed the Secretary of Defense to sponsor independent research and analysis on the gender gap in retention of Surface Warfare Officers in the Navy. In March 2022, Navy officials reported that they are working with stakeholders to generate a female Surface Warfare Officer survey to help identify actions to increase female Surface Warfare Officer retention rates. In addition, Navy officials reported that they are working to generate family planning training that includes career timing options, increase available resources to families across each fleet concentration area, and address concerns identified in the Junior Officer survey results related to female retention. Further, Navy officials reported that they are considering an unrestricted line O-4 through O-6 deferral option for females who elect to complete operational deferment following the birth of a child. Moreover, Navy officials stated that data collected from the ongoing survey of Junior Surface Warfare Officers should also help them identify additional actions to increase female Surface Warfare Officer retention rates. Finally, Navy officials reported that they are working to increase female representation in recruiting events and recruiting commercials/ads to increase female officer accession rates. We will continue to monitor the Navy's efforts to implement this recommendation and will provide updated information as applicable. To fully implement this recommendation, the Navy should document its planned strategy-including goals, performance measures and timelines-and track progress in increasing female Surface Warfare Officer retention.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should ensure the Commander, Naval Surface Forces, analyzes relevant logbook data for trends between the number of Surface Warfare Officers aboard ships and competition for limited training opportunities, and evaluates the extent to which its commissioning practices are affecting training opportunities for Surface Warfare Officers. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Navy concurred with our recommendation. In March 2022, Navy officials reported that they are working to determine the minimum number of bridge watch standing hours and types of mariner skills evolutions generally required to qualify as Officer of the Deck and maintain proficiency in that watch station. Navy officials stated that they are also working to determine extent to which Navy commissioning practices affect training opportunities aboard ships to qualify and maintain proficiency. However, Navy officials stated that they continue to discover new issues with the mariner skills logbook data and processes. Officials stated that they are working through these issues and plan to have everything in place, including an analysis plan to use data to inform decision making, by March of 2023. We will continue to monitor the Navy's efforts to implement this recommendation and will provide updated information as applicable. To fully implement this recommendation the Navy should document its data analysis plan, perform their analyses, and use the information to make decisions.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should ensure the Commander, Naval Surface Forces, in coordination with other U.S. Navy communities, evaluates the extent to which the requirement to train junior officers who will not remain in the Surface Warfare Officer community limits training opportunities for those who will remain in the Surface Warfare Officer community and make any related adjustments to their respective career path. (Recommendation 4)
Open
The Navy concurred with our recommendation. In March 2022, Navy officials reported that the Surface Warfare Officer community manager is working with Restricted Line Officer community managers to validate the reduction of Surface Warfare accession plan by annualized number of Surface Warfare option officers. In addition, Navy officials stated that Commander, Naval Surface Forces is promulgating and coordinating with the Restricted Line Officer community to build a budget that plans for accessions without Surface Warfare option Officers. We will continue to monitor the Navy's efforts to implement this recommendation and will provide updated information as applicable. To fully implement this recommendation the Navy should share the results of its evaluation of training Restricted Line Officers, any actions taken, and any cost savings or efficiencies achieved as a result.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should ensure the Commander, Naval Surface Forces, reevaluates the need for nuclear-trained Surface Warfare Officers, assesses the effects of the current training approach, and makes any related adjustments to their respective career path. (Recommendation 5)
Open
The Navy concurred with our recommendation. In January 2022, Navy officials discussed the need for nuclear-trained surface warfare officers with officials from Naval Reactors. According to Navy officials they are also currently evaluating the need for nuclear-trained surface warfare officers, assessing effectiveness of the current training approach, analyzing alternative career paths to staff reactor departments on nuclear powered aircraft carriers, and if appropriate, will make adjustments to the nuclear trained Surface Warfare Officer career path. We will continue to monitor the Navy's efforts to implement this recommendation and will provide updated information as applicable. To fully implement this recommendation the Navy should complete its evaluation of nuclear trained Surface Warfare Officers and document actions taken and any cost savings or efficiencies achieved as a result.
Department of the Navy
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of the Navy should ensure the Commander, Naval Surface Forces, establishes and implements regular evaluations of the effectiveness of the current SWO career path, training, and policies in successfully developing and retaining proficient SWOs. The initial evaluation should include at a minimum: (a) an evaluation of the Navy's approach against other career path and proficiency models of other navies and maritime communities, such as specialized career tracks and ship command requirements, identified in our review and (b) input from SWOs at all levels. (Recommendation 6)
Open
The Navy concurred with our recommendation. In March 2022, Navy officials reported that Commander, Naval Surface Forces and Special Warfare Group are evaluating training, policies, and career path options to determine if current Surface Warfare Officer training is successful in developing proficient Surface Warfare Officers. According to Navy officials, their analysis will include comparison of other navies and maritime communities and survey of SWOs. In addition, Navy officials stated that the Junior Surface Warfare Officer survey and associated focus groups may generate ideas for future initiatives to improve the career path. We will continue to monitor the Navy's efforts to implement this recommendation and will provide updated information as applicable. To fully implement this recommendation the Navy should codify how it will regularly evaluate the Surface Warfare Officer career path; complete its evaluation of training, policies, and career path options; document its findings; and make any recommended changes to the Surface Warfare Officer career path.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should ensure the Commander, Naval Surface Forces, implements workforce strategies—changes to SWO career path, training, and policies as well as the implementation of pilot programs to evaluate potential changes—that address the results of the Navy's initial evaluation. (Recommendation 7)
Open
The Navy concurred with our recommendation. In March 2022, Navy officials reported that Commander, Naval Surface Forces and Special Warfare Group officials were developing a specialized career path and associated pilot program for Surface Warfare Officers. In addition, Navy officials stated that the Junior Surface Warfare Officer survey, which closed in February 2022, and associated focus groups may generate ideas for future initiatives to improve the career path. Further, Navy officials stated that Commander, Naval Surface Forces had recently approved changes to the Surface Warfare Officer career path that would allow Junior Surface Warfare Officers to choose to either go directly into Department Head training and assignment (delaying assignment ashore), or delay Department head training and assignment (extending time ashore). The Navy reported that the pros associated with this change include increased family planning opportunities, geographic stability, time for graduate education, and minimal change to career timing. The cons include risk to lieutenant commander and commander screening, reduced time in post department head tours, and less time for Lieutenant Commanders afloat. We will continue to monitor the Navy's efforts to implement this recommendation and will provide updated information as applicable. To fully implement this recommendation the Navy should continue to implement workforce strategies based on its evaluation of the Surface Warfare Officer career path.

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