As the destroyer swerved away from the impending collision by rounding the stern of the tanker, the nimble warship now faced a plethora of other super-sized ships as it transited a major shipping lane, both with ships traveling in the same lane and with others crossing the flow of traffic.
Avoiding a collision would absolutely require prompt evasive maneuvering.
But no one was in immediate danger, because the situation just outlined was played out virtually, as an “extremis extraction scenario” that is included in the new Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) course at the Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) — the primary training facility for SWOs. This scenario and others like it purposely put students in extremis situations, in order to increase their stress levels, help them gain an appreciation for the maneuverability of their ships, and teach them how to get out of difficult ship-handling situations.
Thanks to SWOS's recent technological advancements, young officers taking the revamped course can stop, evaluate their mistakes, and redo their scenarios virtually, on shore, from the safety of Newport, Rhode Island.
Long before reporting to their first ships, junior SWO candidates will learn how to safely navigate a ship using radar, become proficient in standard bridge commands, learn the operational controls of the helm and lee helm, and master the rules of the road using a system of high-tech, virtual reality training modules. These scenarios place them in situations they could one day face as officers of the deck, under varying navigational and weather hazards, in navigable waters throughout the world.
While this improved training has been under development at SWOS for the past two years, it was accelerated after the summer 2017 accidents involving two destroyers, in response to which the SWO community took a prompt, hard look at the way its junior officers were being trained.
“Since the mishaps of 2017 and the follow-on Comprehensive Review, which really forced us to look introspectively at our community and dive deep into the details, we discovered quite a few areas that we needed to address,” said Capt. Scott Robertson, USN, SWOS commanding officer. “There's been a tremendous amount of work here at SWOS. We've made modifications to almost every one of our courses' curricula.”
One significant implementation is the number of hours each student spends in the Conning Officer Virtual Environment (COVE) — a virtual training classroom with multiple monitors that offer a 360-degree view of the mission scenario, a high-tech helm console, full radar, and a voyage management system.
“We're in the midst of a renaissance and sea-change in surface warfare training,” said Robertson. “For the first time in a surface warfare officer's career, we have all the elements for competency coming together.”
Those elements, he said, are formal training, experience at sea, and an assessment strategy to measure and validate aptitude.
“When we were developing the curriculum for the JOOD course, we wanted to focus on [the] thought-process and how the junior officers would think out in the fleet, and give them lots of tools to make decisions — such as identifying target angle, how to identify relative motion, and how to work as a cohesive unit as bridge watchstanders,” said Ellie Mindeman, JOOD curriculum designer and course instructor.
The course was also customized to include real-world and adaptive situations and to incorporate course material that needs extra attention, as reflected by student test answers.
“Every day, they received quizzes, and we were able to formulate new quizzes and new scenarios depending on how they were reacting, based upon how they performed,” said Mindeman. “If they were struggling with something specific, we were able to create more dynamic events within the COVE to reinforce that skill.”
At the end of the course, Ensign Thaddeus Ellis, who built on what he learned in the basic division officer course (BDOC), was selected to participate in advanced-scenario modules, which pushed his critical-thinking ability to the limit.
“The most challenging part of the course was having to make decisions. We examined the phenomena called 'paralysis through analysis' where you can stand there all day and analyze what's going to happen,” said Ellis. “But you're losing time when you analyze. It's best to make a decision, make the safest decision you can, and make it early.”
Lieutenant Sarah Miller, a senior JOOD course instructor, explained that in order to improve junior officers' technical aptitude, instructors intentionally put students in extremis situations. The course forces them to confront a case where the ship “is in a bad spot and in a high risk of collision,” and asks them directly: “How do you get out of that?”
“While the course does give the students acting as the officer of the deck in the bridge team the freedom to initiate tactical maneuvering,” said Miller, “the idea is to never have to put yourself or the ship into survival mode.”
Ensign Tasia Blue, who served as a deck seaman before being accepted into officer candidate school, had some experience in ship driving, but said the course intensified her knowledge.
“The COVE scenarios that we experienced [are] definitely going to help me become a better surface warfare officer, because we dealt with a lot of situations,” said Blue. “I now know what ARPA [automatic radar plotting aid] is, and I know how to use a radar, and [I'm] equipped to know the standard commands in a proficient way. ... So it definitely builds that level of confidence that a junior officer of the deck needs as a surface warfare officer.
“It really hit home for me, especially knowing some of the Sailors onboard [ships involved in the 2017 mishaps], so once I got my commission and became a surface warfare officer, I automatically knew what my job was about to entail. It inspires me to put my best foot forward.”
With the continued expansion of shipping commerce and advancements in the maritime industry, the roles of SWOs like Blue will always be adapting.
Robertson emphasized that maritime traffic, which has increased 300 percent in the last 20 years, will continue to grow in the coming decades, resulting in more challenging shipping lanes with complicated choke points.
“We've made a movement to be more aligned with the international maritime organizational standards,” said Robertson, explaining that the curriculum will eventually incorporate the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (SCTW), implemented by the U.S. Coast Guard's National Maritime Center based on an international convention of the same name. “We're going to be teaching more courses for our junior officers. It's important for us to be more aligned with our fellow mariners when it comes to training standards.”
While the high-tech aspects of SWOS's new curricula immerse students in futuristic technology, the school is also creating training modules that teach students how to safely operate ships without the emission of any radio-frequency energy. This will help them develop “seaman's eyes,” using motion and the relationship of a ship's hull and proximity to the horizon to make shiphandling judgments and decisions.
“The SWOS JOOD course is absolutely essential to ensure that our bridge watchstanders are truly ready,” said Robertson. “We all have to be ready. It doesn't matter if you're going to an engineering school or learning damage control in the firefighting or wet trainers. No one is more important than anyone else. It takes everybody doing the right thing and being ready to execute their job to ensure the ship is safe.”