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 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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy 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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
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
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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