Two U.S. congressmen introduced a bill last week that, if it becomes law, would spark massive changes to the Navy’s surface warfare officer community.
Introduced by Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., the Surface Warfare Officer Leadership Enhancement, or SWOLE, Act, would upend the SWO world by establishing specialized career paths in the community for the first time, a move they hope would eliminate learning curves that come with changing billets while improving morale and retention.
In a recent Government Accountability Office report on SWO retention, 65 percent of SWOs surveyed supported career specialization as opposed to the current career path, where a SWO is expected to be a jack-of-all-trades.
Under Wittman and Gallagher’s bill, any SWO commissioned after Jan. 1, 2023, would be assigned to an engineering or operations and combat systems career path.
The Navy’s generalist SWO model has remained largely unchanged for more than a century.
Part of the rationale for a generalist path is that a ship’s commanding officer needs to be knowledgeable on all parts of their ship, but according to the GAO, just 22 percent of surveyed SWOs wish to become commanding officers.
Junior SWOs indicated to the GAO that they were more likely to stay in if they could be on a path “that does not provide the opportunity to command a ship.”
The SWOLE Act, which the congressmen are seeking to have included in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, would also provide funding to study the SWO retention issue, with a focus on why women leave the community.
The GAO found earlier this year that just 33 percent of SWOs remain in the community following a decade of service, around their first major career milestone, compared to 45 percent of officers in other Navy communities.
And while there are more women SWOs in that community than other Navy communities, just 12 percent of women remain in the community after that first career milestone, compared to 39 percent of men, the GAO reports.
For those SWOs set on leaving the Navy, the SWOLE Act would also provide training, certification and watchstanding endorsement that would allow an officer to serve a a merchant mariner.
The bill will be taken up and debated during the House of Representatives’ markup of the FY22 defense policy bill, currently scheduled to commence on Sept. 1.
“Recent events and a Government Accountability Office report highlight the growing need to better develop talented Surface Warfare Officers through modernized career management practices, as well as to retain that talent through improved retention efforts,” Wittman said in a statement accompanying the bill’s announcement.
Gallagher said in a statement that recruiting and retaining SWOs is a Navy readiness issue.
“This bill takes important steps to reverse these trends to ensure the Navy has the officers it needs to fight and win in the 21st century,” he said.
While the bill could represent a sea change in the SWO world, such changes may be harder to implement than it seems, according to Bradley Martin, a retired SWO who spent two-thirds of his 30-year career at sea and now leads the National Security Supply Chain Institute at Rand Corp.
“The specialization model works for other navies, and it works for the Merchant Marines, but for it to work in the Navy, lots of things in career paths will have to be changed, and I suspect those will turn out to be painful,” Martin told Navy Times.
Martin wondered what the path would look like for a SWO engineer at the command and post-command levels and noted that the bill doesn’t address a lack of proficiency among junior officers.
He also questioned whether studying the retention issues will have any impact on retention rates.
“Getting someone to look at it is fine, but I think the reasons are likely to be relatively uncomplicated but very difficult to address,” Martin said.
Clarification: this story has been updated to reflect the proper title of merchant mariners.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.