A new program looks to produce 'the best of the best' Aegis officers. Here, Capt. Randall Hendrickson — now the rear admiral in charge of Navy Air and Missile Defense Command — watches Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Bates operate the radar aboard the cruiser Lake Erie during a 2008 drill. (MC2 Michael Hight / Navy)
Sub-hunting is tough business, as surface sailors know. A competent foe is capable of lurking in the sea’s folds to evade detection or set up a torpedo shot. It’s like a chess match where your opponents’ pieces are hidden from view, but ready to attack from anywhere.
The surface Navy is getting serious about tackling its most fearsome opponent, enemy subs, by taking a page from the airdales: Top Gun.
The Fighter Weapons School has trained the best midcareer fliers in advanced tactics, which they bring back to their squadrons, a process that officials believe has upped the fleet’s prowess over the past four decades — and, obviously, inspired one era-defining 1980s blockbuster movie.
Black shoes are now going to get their “dream shot” and chance to go “up against the best,” to cop two lines from Stinger, the hard-as-nails air wing commander in 1986’s “Top Gun.”
This summer, the surface Navy established advanced tactics courses in anti-submarine warfare and air defense and in July graduated the first class of WTIs, or weapons tactics instructors, a distinction likely to be a career-maker someday.
“The overall goal of it is to raise the level of ASW knowledge and proficiency and to put an ASW ninja in every ship and afloat staff,” said Capt. John Steinberger, the training director at Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command in San Diego, where the new sub-hunting course is being taught.
ASW is not the only area of concern. Carriers depend on Aegis-armed cruisers and destroyers to detect incoming missiles and aircraft. It’s a nail-biting mission, where missiles zoom in at Mach speeds and decisions are measured in minutes, if not seconds.
“There is a long history of subpar performance in our mission area,” said Lt. Cmdr. Marc Davis, who oversees the new air missile course at Navy Air and Missile Defense Command in Dahlgren, Va. Using existing facilities and trainers, the brass ordered Davis and his instructors to “turn our mission around,” Davis said.
The first air defense class starts in early August.
'Best of the best'
The new courses are restricted to surface warfare officers who’ve been recommended by their skipper; the sub-hunting course is only for officers headed toward a job as ASW officer aboard ship or on a staff. Officials are looking for career-oriented top performers capable of taking what they’ve learned to their wardroom and say the benefits speak for themselves.
“There’s a good deal of job satisfaction that can be derived from this — from being, frankly, the best of the best,” Steinberger said in a July 10 phone interview — a week after the ASW course graduated its first seven officers. “They’re walking out there with probably more knowledge in this warfare area than senior officers on that ship or staff they’re going to.”
In addition to the two courses, officials are looking at WTI courses to cover expeditionary warfare and surface warfare as part of an effort to build tougher “SWOrriors” that has the stamp of the surface fleet’s three-star boss.
“We are serious about building on fundamentals of war fighting in the maritime environment,” Vice Adm. Tom Copeman said in a July 3 post on an official blog.
The fleet faces daunting adversaries: diesel-powered subs from belligerent states and the emerging naval might of China. And a decade of supporting land wars has led to a slide in tactical edge, officials acknowledge.
“There’s been a recognition that our ASW proficiency in the fleet has been declining,” said Steinberger, who has overseen assessment and training teams at NMAWC. “What we saw was the proficiency of the wardroom was, in particular, lacking.”
The surface Navy shows signs of getting serious again about tactics: It stood up a surface development squadron of destroyers in Norfolk, Va., two years ago to begin testing new procedures and now is rolling out the WTI courses to hone tactical knowledge.
The first Aegis-themed WTI class will include 10 SWOs headed to shore duty after their second division officer tours. Ideally, candidates are qualified as tactical action officers and have experience aboard Aegis ships. The goal is to eventually offer three classes annually to produce 36 WTIs — the target so that every Aegis ship will have a WTI on board, Davis said.
The course runs for up to 19 weeks, including a two-week visit to the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center in Fallon, Nev., where the original Top Gun school is.
The WTI curriculum starts with Aegis and branches into networks, cyber and space warfare, which will be taught by instructors such as a former cruiser skipper with missile defense expertise and a reserve lieutenant commander who’s spent 853 hours in space, including five spacewalks. At the course’s end, students must survive a board of O-6s and experts.
Benefits are substantial for those who pass. They’re guaranteed a highly coveted billet as a weapons, combat systems or operations officer on an Aegis ship and will be coded as a WTI, a status officials say will one day be a silver bullet for an officer’s career.
“We are selecting officers that we want to command ships,” Davis said.