WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is struggling to train enough warfare tactics instructors each year to keep up with current demand, let alone a potentially expanded future demand, according to key service official.
The Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center has since its 2015 creation trained hundreds of sailors to serve as WTIs. These indivuals go through a training program and then into what’s called a production tour, where they work at SMWDC or related commands and spend two years focused solely on either hosting high-end training for ships or experimenting with new high-end tactics. By the end of this production tour, the sailors are experts in surface warfare and bring that knowledge with them to their next at-sea assignments.
As these specialists’ contributions have been felt around the fleet, there’s greater demand for them, SMWDC Commanding Officer Rear Adm. Chris Alexander told Defense News. The service is considering what it would take to ensure every ship has a WTI on staff, and the Navy is kicking off a new effort this fall to pair them with requirements and acquisition offices.
But, Alexander said, he’s struggling to attract enough sailors to go through training, despite all the benefits of becoming a WTI.
“Without WTIs, I can’t produce more WTIs. Without the WTIs, I can’t do advanced training. I can’t do [tactics, techniques and procedures] development. I can’t do experimentation. I can’t influence the requirements process,” he said.
According to Alexander, the production tours — working at SMWDC, working as a surface warfare liaison at the other warfighting development centers, working as a SMWDC representative at Navy training organizations — are only staffed at about 65-70% today.
And whereas he’d need to train 115 WTIs a year to fully staff these production tour billets, he’s only training about 90 a year.
“The WTI program is voluntary. And, in my perspective, we need to keep it voluntary. So we’re never going to tell anybody that you have to go into the program,” Alexander said.
But SMWDC is trying to attract officers just after their division officer tour at sea, and the Navy also offers many other attractive career options at that point.
“Go be a ROTC instructor and get a master’s degree. Go do [an officer exchange program] and go to Australia. Go to the Naval Academy and work on a master’s degree. Go to the Naval Postgraduate School and work on a master’s degree. Go do [Secretary of the Navy] tours with industry. That’s what we’re competing against,” he said.
In the short-term, Alexander is focused on getting back up to producing 115 WTIs a year to fully man the production tour billets. He’s working with the Navy’s personnel system so sailors can do a master’s program and WTI training together.
SMWDC is also boosting its outreach to ship captains, hoping leadership can recommend promising young officers who would make great WTIs and send their applications directly to Alexander.
Alexander is also changing up his messaging a bit: For someone just wrapping up a division officer tour, “this is a tough job; there are easier things to go do. ... That said, if you’re the slightest bit interested in coming back to sea and you want to be the best department head you can be, you want to be the best [executive officer or commanding officer] that you can be, this is the job for you.”
“I would also like to stress, our WTIs are pretty damn successful. The ones that do choose to stick around, they are screening typically at a higher rate for [commanding officer] afloat than the overall [surface warfare officer] community. So pretty impressed with that,” he added.
As the number of WTIs naturally grows over time, and if SMWDC can boost its WTI production, there are already ideas for where else to place them: on all the surface ships.
“I think it’s more important, ultimately, to be able to assign a WTI as a department head on every ship. I think in a perfect world, every single ship gets a WTI. We’re not there yet. And we’ve got a number of barriers to overcome before we can get there: it’s producing more of them. There’s a distribution system that we have to work through. It’s tough, tough challenges to move there. But I think that we need to have that conversation of how do I get one WTI per ship,” he said.
Additionally, Alexander said one of SMWDC’s missions is to influence the future fight, and a great way to do that would be to put WTIs — the fleet’s tactical experts in surface warfare — into program offices and requirements offices.
The Navy will kick off a pilot program this fall to fill billets at the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems and at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren with WTIs who have completed their production tours and a department head tour on a ship. The first WTI is set to show up at PEO IWS in September.
Alexander said the pilot program may expand to NSWC Panama City to address the mine warfare piece of SMWDC’s work.
The impetus for establishing this partnership comes from Alexander’s boss, Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, who released a Surface Warfare: The Competitive Edge paper earlier this year.
“There’s a sentence that jumps out at me, and what he says is, ‘no longer will we field capabilities and then have the force figure out how to use them.’ I think that’s my job. And so I’ve got to get folks closer to the weapons development process, closer to the acquisition process, so we can start influencing what we buy. And then when we do buy something, to make sure that it shows up with the concept papers already written, with the [tactics] already developed … with the training in place,” Alexander said.
He wants to start with a pivotal future system: the integrated combat system, which will ensure future large, small and unmanned combatants are all running the same systems and can share data seamlessly. The senior WTIs working at the program office and the warfare center will provide immediate fleet feedback to the engineers working on the new system, and they’ll have a network of connections at SMWDC and the fleet to tap into for additional perspectives.
After two years working on the program, those WTIs would then be assigned to the resource sponsor’s office, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, or OPNAV N9, to bring their knowledge to the resourcing side of the house.
“So they get two back-to-back DC tours, with acquisition and then resourcing and requirements. Holy cow, we’re starting to create experts here. And that’s what I think I’m most excited about,” Alexander said.
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.