WASHINGTON — When the U.S. Navy hosted its first advanced tactical training event for surface ships in 2016, it purposely avoided collecting much data: The ships didn’t need another assessment, the thinking went; instead, they needed rigorous training ahead of linking up with the rest of the carrier strike group.
Six years later, that is changing.
The commander of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center told Defense News the organization wants to do a better job collecting information to identify trends that could improve future advanced training events and improve other commands’ training in the work-up cycle.
SMWDC conducts a Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training exercise with surface ships — the cruisers and destroyers in a carrier strike group, the ships in an amphibious ready group, littoral combat ships and patrol ships that deploy independently — sandwiched between the basic phase of training and the final graduation exercise and certification event.
For each scenario in this SWATT, the center’s staff helps the ship crew run through the process of planning the mission, briefing the plan to the crew, executing the mission, and debriefing on lessons learned. The scenarios run the range of missions the ships could be called upon to perform, and they get progressively more difficult throughout SWATT.
Warfare tactics instructors collect the information for a thorough debrief, but “we weren’t collecting data to show trends,” SMWDC Commander Rear Adm. Chris Alexander said. “We weren’t collecting data to show trends for a ship moving through a SWATT, and we weren’t collecting trends from SWATT to SWATT to SWATT.”
Over the last year SMWDC leadership has thought more critically about that approach. The new idea is to collect enough data on SWATTs to inform the rest of the training pipeline, both upstream and downstream, according to Alexander.
“Once we get it right, I will be able to go back and tell [Afloat Training Group]: ‘You gave us this ship out of the basic phase, you said that they were certified in this mission area, yet we see this weakness,’ ” he said. “Or better yet: ‘We always see this weakness. ATG, you need to fix your training.’ ”
The data collection would also let SMWDC go to Carrier Strike Group 4 and Carrier Strike Group 15, which oversee the final integrated training and certification of a carrier strike group, and give them advanced notice of their destroyers’ and cruisers’ strengths and weaknesses as they join with the aircraft carrier and the air wing.
A data analytics working group at SMWDC in more recent years had begun compiling some data at the end of SWATTs to understand what training worked well — and didn’t. But the group’s final report might have come four or five months later, at which point the ships were probably already on deployment and therefore wouldn’t benefit from performance insights.
As part of the effort to collect more and better data, “we’ve added a final performance review that we modeled off the Air Wing Fallon final brief,” Alexander said, referring to the comparable advanced tactical training the air wing receives in Nevada ahead of the integrated carrier strike group training.
SMWDC gives the ships an initial observation right after the final event and owes a fuller report within 10 days.
“We also invite ATG, we invite strike group[s] 4 and 15, we invite the [type commanders] there so that everybody can hear the strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “As we develop these long-term trends, we can we have an audience that can then act on those recommendations.”
SMWDC has worked with Naval Surface Warfare Center Corona in California on the data collection, as well as the speedier data analysis at the end.
“The biggest challenge has been, just, let’s decide on what metrics we’re collecting and how we’re going to collect those metrics,” Alexander said. “And let’s not make the data collection so onerous that the [warfare tactics instructors] can’t do any of the training. We’re trying to strike a fine balance where we can continue to train, but at the same time we’re collecting the right data points that we can better inform the training.”
SMWDC conducted a SWATT earlier this year with this more rigorous data collection effort in place, and Alexander said the command would continue to iterate until it refined its understanding of what data is needed and how to collect it in the least intrusive way.
Alexander said previous commanders at SMWDC had tried to focus SWATTs on higher-end skill sets, helping crew members better prepare for complex scenarios they could face on deployment. The problem was, he explained, crews varied greatly in their proficiency coming into SWATT.
“If you can’t crawl, you can never get to that high-end portion of SWATT,” he said, explaining his return to a crawl-walk-run approach compared to previous efforts to get to walk-run-sprint during SWATTs.
“My emphasizing that crawl piece is not to diminish the fact that we want to expose the ships to the high-end fight: I absolutely want to do that,” Alexander said. “But we also need to be honest; we need to recognize that some of the ships need reps and sets and just the very, very basics of surface warfare. They need to be given an opportunity at the basics”
“And if we skip over those basics, it doesn’t matter what we do at the high end; they’re not learning anything because they don’t have that underpinning of how to execute those tactics,” he added, noting some ships are still coming into SWATT struggling to get their radars on and communicate with the ships sailing next to them.
Alexander also noted that the crews coming to SWATT at a more skilled level shouldn’t have to linger at that basic level of training. A better feedback mechanism between the entire training ecosystem could help flag which ships need a more help and which are already excelling, allowing Afloat Training Group, SMWDC and the training strike groups to better tailor their training to ships’ needs.
“The intent is to inform all of the training commands to make this better,” Alexander said. “I’m not trying to oversell this: This is an iterative process, we’re slowly getting better. But my ultimate goal is some point that I can reach back and I can tell the training commands behind me: ‘Hey, you’ve got to improve in these areas because we’re continuously seeing weaknesses.’ ”
SMWDC is also expanding SWATTs to include all surface ships in all geographic locations — including patrol ships in U.S. 5th Fleet and mine countermeasures ships in U.S. 7th Fleet — and to introduce more experimentation into these at-sea events.
Alexander said SWATTs are being leveraged to test new gear and new tactics as well as new types of coordination with Navy SEALs and other services.
In one recent SWATT, the ships conducted an air defense exercise with U.S. Air Force aircraft that conducted a combat air patrol role. In another recent SWATT out of Bahrain, patrol ships worked with U.S. Coast Guard ships, which played the role of friendly forces and then opposing forces during a later scenario.
“Our events are shaped along serials, which means that they usually last somewhere four, five, six hours, then we take a break and debrief it,” he said. “Well, four or five, six hours sometimes, is the perfect amount of time to work with another organization. So it’s a very flexible exercise that allows us lots of integration points.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.