Navy Not Doing Enough to Evaluate Training Changes After Deadly Collisions: GAO

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surface warfare officer
Lt. j.g. Louis Wohletz, second from left, is observed by Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force officers as he stands watch as a surface warfare coordinator during a maritime strike operation exercise in the combat information center of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Milius (DDG 69) during Annual Exercise (ANNUALEX) 19 in the Philippine Sea on Nov. 13, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor DiMartino)

The Navy must change the way it evaluates surface warfare officer training as part of an ongoing push to prevent catastrophic ship collisions like those that killed 17 sailors in the Pacific in 2017, a top government watchdog says.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office says the Navy isn't doing enough to assess the changes it put in place to train its ship drivers. The watchdog agency made several recommendations in a new 61-page report on "Actions Needed to Evaluate the Effectiveness of Changes to Surface Warfare Officer Training."

The service needs a means of soliciting fleet-wide feedback on the quality of the increased ship-driving training SWOs now receive, the agency wrote. Navy leaders should also develop more spot checks to assess SWOs' chops at sea, especially after inspectors "found concerns with more than 80 percent of SWOs' ship-driving skills," the GAO noted.

Without making those and other changes, Navy leaders will have no way to know whether investments in SWO ship-driving training are working, what other changes might be needed, and if ships are being safely operated at sea, according to the report.

Related: The Navy Is Making It Tougher to Earn a Surface-Warfare Officer Pin

"The Navy has relied on added skill checks conducted throughout a SWO's career to ensure that each SWO has basic ship-driving skills, but has not put key processes and assessments in place to evaluate comprehensively the effectiveness of its changes to ship-driving training," it states.

Navy leaders have said it could take as long as 16 years to know whether changes the service is making to SWO training are improving ship-driving proficiency. But the GAO found several shortfalls in the way the service is planning to assess its training.

The agency offered four recommendations:

  • That the Navy collect and evaluate fleet-wide feedback on the quality of training through a survey
  • That the service routinely conduct ship-driving competency assessments
  • That it provide standard criteria for qualifying ship drivers
  • And that it develop a plan to analyze and use logbook information

The Navy concurs with the GAO's four recommendations, said Cmdr. Patrick Evans, a spokesman for Naval Surface Force, Pacific Fleet.

In response to the GAO, Vice Adm. Richard Brown, head of Naval Surface Force, Pacific Fleet, said his community will look for new ways to get feedback on the new SWO training changes. The command will also use performance data to identify training shortfalls, he wrote.

Brown also outlined programs the Navy uses to track mariners' skills at points throughout their careers.

Evans added that the Navy remains committed to building a surface force that's second to none -- one that "operates safely, controls the seas, and provides the nation with combat naval power when and where needed."

The Navy is investing heavily in updates to its mariner skills training centers. New simulator-based facilities, which were prioritized after two separate fatal 2017 destroyer collisions, will cost the service more than $467 million over the next six years.

A new officer of the deck course will also build on skills SWOs learn in their first phase of training. That course, which will add 102 hours of classroom and simulator training for SWOs, is set to begin in 2021. It will follow an expanded version of the Junior Officer of the Deck course, currently open to newly commissioned ensigns.

Students are getting more simulated training in high-density shipping traffic and in-extremis maneuvering. When the new Officer of the Deck Phase I course is rolled out, it will continue increasing ship-driving time.

Evans said there are already early indicators officers who complete the new Junior Officer of the Deck course are better equipped, compared to students who completed the older Officer of the Deck course in 2018.

The Junior Officer of the Deck course graduates, who complete navigation, seamanship and ship handling assessments, "reflect vast improvements," he said.

The total number of students completing that assessment with "no concerns" jumped to 21% as of November, up from 16% last year, according to Navy data. And the number of students completing the assessment with "significant concerns" is on the decline, falling to 3% from 18% last year.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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