WASHINGTON — Since taking command as the Navy’s top surface warfare officer in early 2018 in the wake of two deadly collision in the Pacific, Vice Adm. Richard Brown has been on a mission to ensure officers and crews know how to get the basics right.
As head of naval surface forces in the Pacific, Brown, with a background in personnel, shook up the career track for surface warfare officers so they could get more time at sea. He also poured money into simulators in fleet concentration areas on the East and West coasts known as maritime skills training centers. They are expected to be fully up and running in 2021. He also reinvigorated the seamanship and navigation courses for junior officers.
Now, Brown is focusing on moving past the basics and toward getting the most out of his ships and crews. Defense News caught up with him to talk about what’s on tap this year.
You’ve instituted a number of changes to the surface warfare officer training program and have focused on getting more simulators to the waterfront for watch teams. When do you think you’ll start seeing the benefits?
In full run, the first [commanding officer] who has had the benefit of all the course changes will be in 2035. You usually get to your [executive officer] ride around the 15-year mark. We predict it will be 2035 when the first CO walks across and says: “I relieve you.” We know that officer has had two division officer tours on ships, OOD [officer of the deck] Phase I, OOD Phase II, two department head tours on ships and 10 [seamanship skills] assessments.
So you have to take the long view on this. You can make changes, but it takes a long time to effect those changes. Then you continually take assessments to make sure we are on track.
You received troubling feedback when you ran checks on the seamanship skills of junior officers prior to rolling out your Junior Officer of the Deck Course last year. How will you know if things are improving?
We are going to redo that in late 2020, and the reason why is we used the OOD competency checks to design the JOOD Course. What we found was that some guys had no issues, some guys had some issues and a few guys had significant issues. What we want to do is shove the bell curve to the right. We used that information to build the JOOD Course, then we ran two pilots last year.
The first pilot was OK, the second pilot was really good, and we kind of slapped the table and said: “We got the course.” But now we are going to rerun those OOD competency checks to make sure we got the JOOD Course right.
You’ve talked about moving away from just a culture of compliance to a culture of excellence. How do you give ships and their crews more space to innovate?
I have approval for the Surface Development Squadron. We’re going to have this place for no-kidding, real-world experimentation. It’s part of this drive to excellence to where we actually have a spot that if a lieutenant commander has an idea, says, “If we had this on our ships ….” Well, we’ll just do it and we’ll go experiment with it.
We’re also doing this with special access programs — the programs we keep at a high level to protect the capabilities we never want to get out. We’d never driven those down to the ships, where we would read in the commanding officers and tactical action officers. Well, we’re doing that, we’re doing two staff pilots — one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast — to prove that we can protect the information but ensure that the war fighter knows the capabilities of his or her systems.
Compliance would say, “Keep it at the highest levels because we don’t want it to get out,” but excellence says, ‘No, the war fighter needs that information."
Commanding officers have complained that their time is so blocked out that they have no time for themselves to address areas for their specific crews or to run training the way they’d like. How are you getting them the time they want?
We’re still kind of early in the process of implementing the Surface Force Training and Readiness Manual, but we’ve had ships that have bought upwards of seven weeks back in the schedule [by completing their requirements earlier]. And I’ve made a promise to the COs that if you get everything done in 15 or 18 weeks in a 24-week cycle of the basic phase, that time belongs to you.
A lot of what has evolved into the “Distributed Maritime Operations” concept started in the surface Navy as distributed lethality — this idea of putting lots of weapons on lots of ships and spreading out to stretch the surveillance and targeting capability of an adversary. How are you continuing to evolve into this DMO construct?
The surface force has been key in the DMO discussion because there is an incredible amount of firepower located on our ships. But once you buy into a Distributed Maritime Operations concept, you’ve got to experiment, you’ve got to work it out. And what better place to do that than the Surface Development Squadron? We kind of had some of this under Surface Warfare Development Group, but they were just doctrine development. You need platforms.
Someone has an idea for this new laser, it will take you two years to get the approval process. Look at the laser we are trying to put on [the amphibious transport dock ship] Portland. We’ve been talking about that since I’ve been in this job, it’s still not on there. [With the Surface Development Squadron], I think we’re talking about weeks to months — it’s this idea of rapid acceleration of experimentation. I think that is where the surface community fits in DMO.