The surface fleet has been clear: it wants more warfare tactics instructors, officers highly trained in areas like air and missile defense and anti-submarine warfare, to serve in a growing number of roles at sea and ashore.

But the Navy’s hub for surface warfare has struggled in the past to increase the number of warfare tactics instructors, or WTIs, it produces and sends out to the fleet. It had the training capacity, but officials said it lacked enough volunteers to come in for the intensive training program.

That trend changed in fiscal year 2023, when the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center, or SMWDC, was able to increase its output of these experts by 30%, graduating 121 new WTIs compared to the 90 it had been graduating annually in recent years.

As the number of WTIs in the fleet grows — and they take on more high-profile work, such as informing Houthi missile shoot-downs in the Red Sea — SMWDC Commander Rear Adm. Wilson Marks said it’s becoming easier to entice promising young officers to sign up for the training program and join the WTI community.

Graduating 121 new WTIs beat the center’s internal goal to graduate 115 officers from the program in fiscal 2023, Marks said.

He attributes the increased number of sign-ups to a trickle-down effect, where officers in the fleet see WTIs leading the surface community and being promoted at higher rates.

“My captain was a WTI, or my department head was a WTI, and when I saw their level of knowledge and expertise, it made me want to be them,” Marks said of what his incoming students tell him.

As the community of WTIs grows, and these experts fan out and become integral to ship operations, Marks believes recruiting future WTIs is getting easier.

Wilson said the 121 new WTIs in FY23 is a good start, but he’s now eyeing 135 for the current FY24.

“I still don’t have enough, but it’s a good problem to have in my opinion,” he said, noting increased demand by the fleet for these experts.

When SMWDC opened in 2015, it only had to train enough WTIs to serve in select jobs called production tours, where they taught courses at SMWDC, ran SMWDC’s Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training events at sea or served as liaisons on the staffs of other training commands.

By 2019, though, SMWDC set a goal to have at least one WTI serving as a department head on every single surface ship. Then it set its eyes on putting WTIs on all air defense command staffs, regional fleet staffs and more.

Going forward, it wants WTIs serving in select roles at the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems and on the surface warfare director’s staff at the Pentagon, where they could influence future combat system development and acquisition.

In total, the Navy has 611 sailors who are trained as surface WTIs — more than the 450 to 500 billets the Navy wants filled with surface WTIs, but Marks said there are still open billets today because some of the WTIs are in joint assignments or other jobs that aren’t considered WTI billets.

The pressure is on to keep pumping out WTIs, and Marks said SMWDC is on track to hit its goal of 135 this year.

“That goes to, one, the surface force values them,” he said. “But I think also that our fleet sailors get that, hey, being a WTI is a great opportunity.”

The personal benefits for an officer becoming a WTI are numerous, according to Marks.

“One, they screen at a higher rate than their peers, when it comes to screening boards. They have excellent retention,” the rear admiral continued. “And from the ones that I talked to, their job satisfaction is really through the roof. Because of that additional knowledge and technical and tactical expertise that they get and earn here, they take that back to the fleet and just feel like they’re able to contribute on day one, on any job that they roll into.”

Marks said ongoing operations in the Red Sea have also demonstrated the value of surface WTIs. Of all the ships that have shot down missiles and drones since Houthi attacks began in October, Marks said there have been 13 WTIs total on seven ships’ crews and the destroyer squadron’s staff.

WTIs have allowed for quicker conversations between the ships and the technical experts back in the U.S. who can make sure they’re best prepared for the next attack, Marks said.

“They’re also critical because they provide that additional layer of tactical and technical expertise on the ships to help bring them to an even higher level of readiness,” he said.

He’s confident that, even as demand for WTIs continues to rise, SMWDC can continue to increase its output.

He cited a Red Chips program that’s been successful, where a ship captain can send one officer a year directly to WTI training without going through the normal application process. Marks said this helps send the message to young officers that becoming a WTI is a good career move and is valued by leadership, if they’re willing to send their best and brightest to the training course in San Diego.

He said SMWDC will open a state-of-the-art schoolhouse later this year, and it has worked with Navy Personnel Command to pair WTI training with a graduate school assignment, for example, to entice more officers to apply.

“The demand signal continues to rise: for example, after [the Surface Navy Association conference in January], I had, I think, four of my peers came up and said, I want a WTI tomorrow,” Marks said. “I had two senior leaders come up and say, we need more WTIs in these areas.”

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.

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