Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs) have been a part of the Navy since…always. Our Navy started out on surface ships, and surface warfare continues to be important, no matter what an Aviator, Submariner or SEAL will tell you. Yet increasingly I have to wonder, does the Navy understand why it is so hard to keep SWOs? You would think with hundreds of years of history this would be obvious, but given its latest actions, I’m not so sure, because the US Navy is facing a SWO manpower crisis, and is dealing with it in ways that simply won’t work.
Let’s go back to my original rules for Navy manpower. When times are good and we have too many Naval Officers, the Navy does the following:
- Kick people out for failing physical fitness tests, even if they are otherwise good Sailors
- Make it hard to get waivers for things like antidepressants and other medical issues
- Begin nicely asking older Naval Officers to retire to make space for younger officers
- Lower the number of Officer Candidate School admissions
- Reduce bonuses
- Make life increasingly difficult, so that more people naturally quit
- Conduct a Reduction In Force (RIF) and simply remove people
This is a pretty good strategy to reduce numbers, slowly ratcheting up the pressure to ensure we don’t have too many officers hanging around. Naturally, if we have too few officers, the Navy turns this around by:
- Not kicking people out for physical fitness test failures
- Waiving darn near everything, from age to non-violent felonies
- Asking people to pretty-please stay around a few more years
- Opening OCS and other admissions
- Raising bonuses
- Make life better for officers
- Reduce opportunities to leave early
- Op-Hold people
In the past, the Navy has done everything on the first list to bring down numbers. Now, they are doing…almost everything on the second list, but it’s not working, and it’s becoming glaringly obvious in the SWO community. If you listen to Admirals speak (and I don’t recommend that), you would think we’re doing OK on SWO retention. But a brief glance at the Health of the Force survey shows that disaster looms around the corner:
Future force structure increases outside the future year defense plan (FYDP) require DH billet increases, requiring increased retention. This compares unfavorably with a declining billet base across the FYDP as the Navy divests legacy platforms. Year groups 2015-18 require an average retention rate of at least 37.3%, exceeding the 10-year average. If fleet size projections remain accurate, Surface Warfare requires a retention rate of 44% in YGs 19-22 to meet future afloat DH requirements.Health of the Force Survey
So we’re not making the retention rate we need now, and we have to increase this by 10 percentage points in the future, but retention is plummeting.
The Navy is already overlooking physical fitness failures, waiving medical conditions and opening up OCS admissions…which are now having a higher-than-expected failure rate. I would think most people would understand that lowering admission standards will likely lead to more failures in a difficult program, but apparently “most people” doesn’t include Navy HR.
So what to do next? Raise bonuses. And boy did they raise them.
NAVADMIN 045/23 discusses continuation bonuses for SWO Lieutenant Commanders (LCDRs). SWO leave after their first Navy tour at a fairly high rate, and it’s hard to persuade them to stay in long enough to promote to LCDR around their 8-9 year mark. So why not pay them $22K a year IF they stay in after promoting to LCDR? It’s certainly worth a shot.
NAVADMIN 046/23 establishes a payment schedule for SWO Department Head bonuses. If a SWO screens for Department Head and agrees to stay for two Department Head tours, they can get bonuses up to $105K in total over 6 years. Conveniently, that would put them right at the point of getting a continuation bonus as outlined previously.
Now, normally this would work. Throw enough money at people, and you can normally get them to stay. But it’s not going to do that, and the reason is hinted at in the Health of the Force Survey:
Improving retention requires a multi-pronged approach. First, community managers are allowing more individuals to lateral transfer and re-designate. This will divest end strength in year groups with smaller DH requirements, freeing inventory for future accessions. Second, several monetary and non-monetary efforts are underway to improve Surface Warfare retention. Surface Warfare Officers now have a career-long continuum of monetary incentives with the introduction of the SWO Senior Officer Retention Bonus (SWOSORB) in FY22. Third, the community offers improved education opportunities including: postgraduate education opportunities, tours with industry, and fleet-up options for increased geographic stability. Fourth, Surface Warfare recently modified the career path to incorporate multiple family planning opportunities for career-minded SWOs. Finally, SWO released the junior officer survey, senior officer survey, and junior officer exit survey to solicit retention feedback.Health of the Force Survey
Two things stick out:
- Family Planning opportunities? I thought Navy was all about killing babies, or at least circumventing existing laws to do so? Guess that’s not so popular when retention is on the line?
- The Junior Officer Exit Survey results.
I’ve read the JO Exit Surveys. They’ve existed for years, and they say the same things over and over:
- We don’t train people enough
- The job is thankless and people treat JOs like dirt
- JOs find Navy life is incompatible with having any outside life or family time
That’s every survey, ever. Pay doesn’t make the top three retention issues in almost any survey. In the past though, enough money would make people overlook how bad the job is. But when truck drivers make over $100K a year, or companies pay project managers $150K or more a year, that $105K spread out over 6 years starts to look really small. The Navy caps officer bonuses at $330K over a career. Civilian companies don’t. Pay isn’t going to fix this crisis.
The ONLY hope for retaining SWOs is to increase quality of life. This would mean closing the sea duty billet gap, addressing the shipyard maintenance problems, and make driving a warship fun again. These are all inside the Navy’s wheelhouse, but it seems increasingly incapable of taking these actions. I suspect that the top SWOs are looking down thinking “You young officers are pathetic, back in my day we worked 16 hour days on shore duty and we BEGGED FOR MORE!!!”
Given that pay won’t fix it, and Navy won’t address quality of life issues, I predict we get operational holds on people leaving in the next 6-12 months. I’d like to be wrong, and maybe next year you can repost this and laugh at me, but I have a bad feeling I’m right about this.
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