What did it mean to have a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) qualification that was issued from a non-combatant (no weapons systems) navy ship? Answer: nothing. It meant nothing to 99% of the surface ship navy.
Starting in the 1980s and beyond, approximately 40 of these so-called designated non-combatants issued SWO pins soon after Congress changed a law which previously prevented women from being assigned to navy ships. All of these ships had very limited underway schedules. It’s hard to believe that officers who received qualifications from any non-combatant ship were actually qualified to move up to combatant ships as their careers progressed and the navy was opening up more ships to women in the 1990s. There were very few exceptional women, depending on the quality of the training they received, and the type of ships they were later assigned to.
One example was the USS Point Loma (AGDS-2), which had no installed weapons systems, no underway fueling ability, and no flight deck/air operations ability. The Point Loma was originally called the Point Barrow, a civilian ship built to civilian standards before the navy purchased it in the 1970s and changed its name. Before the navy bought it, the ship was used on the east coast to haul Saturn rocket boosters to Cape Canaveral. After the navy purchase, it’s mission was to haul the submarine force’s deep submergence vehicles, such as Trieste, wherever needed. Unlike most warships, the Point Loma never operated in formation with other vessels, the only exception: a garbage scout called the Egabrag (read it backwards). The Egabrag was used to pull/tow a transducer to test the Point Loma’s contractor owned/operated sonar equipment. Compared to a warship, the Point Loma was not required go out on extended (6+ months) deployments. A typical week was going out on Monday morning, and returning Friday afternoon.
The USS Point Loma’s mission, at the time I was assigned to it, was to provide support to the submarine navy’s Trident missile testing program in the Pacific. The specially installed equipment was owned and operated by private contractors to track missile flight trajectory, and sonar equipment to detect a Trident sub’s position. The ship merely provided the platform for the contractors’ use. Other than that, SUBPAC (US Submarine Force Pacific Fleet) and the surface ship navy didn’t give a flying s#!t about the Point Loma, for a number of reasons as I’ll explain.
Until recently, the navy allowed each ship to set their own standards and criteria for warfare qualifications. It was claimed that because many ships have different capabilities and designs, it wouldn’t be fair or practical to have one standard for all ships currently in service. After the well-publicized 2017 fatal collisions that occurred in the Pacific, the navy is now re-evaluating its training and education for SWO officers, and is reportedly struggling with identifying adequate navy-wide standards and criteria for bridge watchstanders. In my opinion, the surface navy has more problems than it wants to admit and resolve. After the 2017 collisions, the surface navy had to be shamed into changing its long standing attitude about crew sleep deprivation. After all this time, leadership is finally taking into account sleep cycles when developing watchbill assignments.
In the case of the USS Point Loma, the SWO qualification process was fake and corrupt, in a large part because no one in the chain of command cared to monitor program quality. Assigned to a submarine squadron, the Point Loma was viewed as stepchild, frequently escaping standards that were held for other vessels. Without proper oversight, it was easy to grant qualifications based on politics rather than merit. On the Point Loma, the process was also used punitively to punish and ruin some officers’ careers without just cause. The ship’s captain (CO) and executive officer (XO) were both submarine officers. Senior submarine officers were allowed to award SWO pins automatically to each other without testing knowledge. Some of them didn’t even bother to wear the pin, keeping it in a box in their desk drawer. Unless there was a collision or a ship ran aground, SWO officers could get away with a lot, depending on how well they played the political game. The Point Loma’s Captain O’Shea, who did not bother to attend SWO oral boards, placed more emphasis on style (i.e., confidence) rather than substance and knowledge. Style and confidence are nebulous, unmeasurable qualities that can only come with good training and a lot of experience which cannot be learned in one tour at sea on a ship with a limited underway schedule. Confidence on the bridge was not enough to stop a collision in Port Hueneme harbor in 1983 between the Point Loma and a moored fishing vessel and pier, which resulted in $75,000 in damage claims against the government. Captain O’Shea was later held accountable with a punitive letter for negligent hazarding of a vessel.
Surface ship commanders need to get wise about human behavior in a shipboard environment. Turning a blind eye to toxic work climates, allowing sexual misconduct, assault and harassment to go undisciplined, abusing and persecuting subordinates, allowing competitive peers to target each other for destruction, favoritism, scapegoating, and high drug abuse rates are no way to build crew morale, mutual trust and performance. Why would anyone want to harass and persecute bridge watchstanders, for example? How does messing with the minds of these people enhance ship and crew safety while underway? In the military, there is good abuse and bad abuse. Good abuse is a training method intended to help people to survive in combat. Bad abuse is used to destroy and eliminate competitors and people that one doesn’t like, especially if they have less power.
So, they called themselves “warriors”, when the only enemies were each other. At SWO school, which I attended in Coronado, CA, we were taught naval warfare, but that was the last time it was ever mentioned or tested. On the Point Loma, the SWO oral boards I participated in asked me no questions about warfare. All the emphasis was on engineering and Officer of the Deck (for bridge watchstanding). I will bet that these same SWO officers don’t have the courage to use their own names on social media. Did these officers really think they were great shipdrivers? How would they have managed to develop that in one tour of duty on a ship with a limited underway schedule and no organized training, the program being managed by a female lieutenant with a conflict of interest against the peers she was allowed to evaluate? Even O’Shea received a Punitive Letter of Admonition for negligent hazarding of a vessel after the Port Hueneme collision. One female officer went on to the USS Cape Cod, and was Officer of the Deck (OOD) when the ship collided with a pier in Vancouver, BC., according to a social media exchange between two former crew members. Her career didn’t last much longer.
THE LEGALLY BLIND CAN BE NAVY SHIPDRIVERS!
The Point Loma was not the only ship with silly, inconsistent standards and criteria for SWO qualification. In 1983, the USS McKee (AD-43) issued a SWO pin to a female lieutenant who was legally blind, by her own admission. This officer had to have a waiver just to get in the navy to serve on shore duty. She wore glasses as thick as coke bottles, which could not correct her vision to 20/20. I was acquainted with her while we attended SWO school in Coronado. I once sat about six feet away from her at a meeting, and she couldn’t recognize me until I moved up into her face.
When SWO officers are assigned to the watchbill as OOD underway, they are in charge of a bridge watch team. In addition to checking the radar screen, the OOD is expected to be able to see out the window in case of anything big coming at them. Except in the case of the USS McKee, where it must have been OK to squint a lot and sort of feel their way around. Again, how does allowing these exceptions enhance ship and crew safety?