Command Decisions: Can the Navy do right by NECC?
By Lieutenant Brian Hamlett, U.S. Navy
In January 2006, the Chief of Naval Operations directed that the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) be established, with the goal of providing combat-ready units. The command's initial capabilities included explosive ordnance disposal, maritime expeditionary security forces, expeditionary logistics, and other forces familiar with joint, interagency, and multinational operations in coastal, near-shore, and offshore areas.
Since 2006, NECC has implemented a realignment and modernization program of current expeditionary forces while simultaneously developing new capabilities such as maritime civil affairs, riverine, and expeditionary combat training commands. It has grown to a force 40,000 strong, including both active-duty and reserve components. NECC has also developed and established itself as the foundation for the Navy's fifth warfare enterprise, the Navy Expeditionary Combat Enterprise.
Retain and Increase the Force
Much has been accomplished, but far more could have been achieved if commands and staffs had not been challenged with constantly training and adapting new personnel with little to no expeditionary-warfare experience. This trend needs to be broken if NECC is going to continue to provide the current level of support in an environment with continually increasing operational demands. As then-NECC commander Rear Admiral Donald K. Bullard expressed this on the Navy's Web site for naval surface warfare officers, SWONET (1 April 2008):
We have had a lot of great Sailors who have really enjoyed these missions; we [established] the expeditionary warfare pin, [recognizing] the skills and the maturity needed of the Sailors to operate in this community. But now we need to also keep them, not that they shouldn't go to [other] areas of the Navy, but their primary [focus] should be in this area if we are going to make this a long-term commitment, and that goes for officer and enlisted.
The current NECC career model for officers is insufficient. It is considered a onetime deal in which they gain experience in an unfamiliar warfare area, then return to their designated areas. The biggest problem with this is that the training provided to these officers (primarily landside operations and small-unit tactics) is essentially wasted when they return to ships or aircraft in which these methods do not apply. Rear Admiral Bullard noted in Stars and Stripes: "We train them; they become very good; they may never come back again" (21 January 2008).
The development of an expeditionary officer career path would not only benefit NECC by providing upper-level leadership with experience in expeditionary warfare, it would also reduce financial requirements for repetitive introductory training of new officers. The average officer training for a job at NECC takes between 6 and 12 months and thousands of dollars. With most tour lengths between 18 and 24 months, officers spend up to 40 percent of their tours in school or training for their billets. This cost and time could be better spent by training officers when they entered the expeditionary warfare community, and then allowing them to stay in the community to hold officer-in-charge, executive officer, and commanding-officer billets. This would provide continuing and progressive training as officers advanced.
It is vital for NECC department heads to have served previously as NECC division officers, for the same reason we return shipboard division officers to shipboard department-head jobs. They have a basic understanding of how the organization works and what it takes to get the job done. This leads to better efficiency and overall increased deployment readiness. NECC division officers would have deployed with small teams or entire detachments on real-world operations and exercises; thus they would be familiar with operational abilities and requirements. Someone who was previously an NECC division officer would be able to show up as a department head and, in relatively little time, be operationally ready for any tasking.
The same argument applies to senior officers. It is imperative that our commanders know enough about operations to provide the necessary leadership. With the exception of explosive ordnance disposal, Civil Engineering Corps, and Supply Corps commands, the majority of current squadron COs are career officers with vast Fleet shipboard experience. By placing senior officers with minimal expeditionary experience in this position, we are essentially placing a huge learning curve on the billet that has traditionally been that of the most experienced person in the command.
Under the current career path, we expect these officers to make decisions with little to no expeditionary experience. Therefore, their understanding of the dynamics and possible results is limited. The fact that we have officers successfully commanding squadrons with a mission basically foreign to them is a tribute to officer-corps training and professionalism as a whole. However, without taking the right steps to give future executive and commanding officers the necessary operational, administrative, and tactical experience, we are essentially limiting the growth potential for this new warfare area.
Many options are available to accomplish the goal of retaining NECC's officers. They range from creating a new designator to expanding the current antiterrorism/force-protection specialty career path (AT/FP SCP) to establishing new officer subspecialty codes. Each of these would work. The only issue is that they reach the goal at different levels.
Many Paths, One Destination
The first and most complete option would be to create a new expeditionary-officer designator. That would immediately address many of the aforementioned issues. Although obviously not the easiest route, it would ensure the accomplishment of several required actions: creation of a career path, establishment of type-commander qualification and training programs, and dedicated leadership for all NECC forces serving Fleet and task-force-level commanders as well as various shore establishments. Additionally, it would allow NECC to roll down a number of requirements at least one pay grade and reduce the loss of officers who wanted to remain in expeditionary warfare.
Expanding the current AT/FP SCP is a second option. This would require that all affected officers fall under NECC, and that NECC billets be recoded as AT/FP SCP. It would not be a difficult option, since NECC is the sponsor for the AT/FP career path. An advantage would be that this path has recently been open to other unrestricted line communities, meaning that surface warfare officers would not be expected to completely fulfill all billet requirements.
But this option does not cover the training of divisional officers or lead to dedicated command billets. The specialty career path is only open to post-department heads, and the current AT/FP SCP only has one CO/XO billet. To counter this, the AT/FP path must be altered to allow divisional officers to apply. This will capitalize on their training and experience. Dedicated executive- and commanding-officer billets must also be expanded to make this option viable.
Another option, and one that has already seen some initiative, is the establishment of NECC additional qualifying designators. After an examination of the current skill sets, operational experience, and requirements of officers serving in all NECC billets, these additional qualifying designators can be initiated. The detailing process for NECC billets at the level of department head and above will then necessitate these codes. Although this plan keeps officers with experience in their jobs, it does not eliminate the revolving door of experience. We will still send officers back to Fleet jobs with undetermined amounts of time between NECC tours. This option also continues to present a lag time for OICs, XOs, and COs upon reporting before they are operationally ready for deployment.
Any course of action includes obvious challenges, as well as positive and negative aspects. What must be the eventual result is a community of officers who are professionally mature in expeditionary warfare after a defined billet-structured career path that leads to O-5 command. Significant post-command billets will also be necessary to support community growth.
Broad Preparation for a Changing Military
The Navy wants officers with broad experiences to be jacks-of-all-trades. There is a need and a place for these officers, but when lives are on the line, we must have experienced officers to run the show. This should not be about money or a power struggle over who goes where. It should be about what is going to benefit the Navy and its Sailors. And what most benefits both is to train junior officers in expeditionary warfare, provide continuing and progressive training as they advance, and ultimately grow them to be officers-in-charge and commanding officers.
Despite the many successes of NECC, one of the main challenges to its directive is the retention of personnel. Drastic steps need to be taken to ensure that the Navy's expeditionary combat warfare capability continues to properly develop. This must include a cadre of proficient and effective officers.
The fact that the Navy Expeditionary Combat Enterprise plays an essential role in each element of the service's overall maritime strategy (power projection, maritime security, deterrence, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response) means that it will be here for the foreseeable future. Regardless of which course of action is selected, something needs to change, because NECC is not going away. With changing definitions of military action increasingly commonplace, NECC is and will continue to be the Navy's leading type command to focus on nontraditional aspects of combat and naval power.
Lieutenant Hamlett is serving in the operations section of Combined Joint Task Force Paladin, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. During his NECC tours he has deployed with boat and security teams to Guatemala and Panama, led mobile training teams in Singapore and Brunei, and coordinated other AT/FP multinational exercises with Malaysia and Thailand.
LCDR SWO MTS all retd now PBR-FVA VP
This is the same problem SBU encountered. Why do folks continue to think their challenge is unique? The NECC needs only to look at the SBU/SBT model to close loop and set career paths for enlisted and establish a CWO corps for continuity
Its a lot tougher than that I think? NECC and specifically the boat units are the begining of a whole new specialty Expeditionary Warfare EXO. The career paths, training and long term viability was just set up and so there are not many senior folks to manage how personnel move through it. BUPERS is probably clueless as to what constitutes a good career path both for officers and enlisted. That I what I heard when I spoke with a LT RivRon det OINC combat qualified. Maybe RADM Pottenger will help things along if she get back to DC?
LCDR SWO MTS all retd now PBR-FVA VP
In reply to this post by leesea
Enlisted is fairly easy. Look at SB's. It requires close-looping the community. As far as careers stagnating, there are far more types of Jobs within NECC than there ever was at SBU's as far as a variety of duty is concerned. Perhaps an Officer designation should be created which an officer can redesignate after a tour at sea to fully understand the logistics involved and to get a broader veiw of the Navy. Still, I beleive that the bridge of continuity between Officers and Enlisted is the CWO. Developing plans and training, Patrol Officer and Maintenance Officer. Least of which is the credibility with both the Officer and Enlisted communities.
What amazes and, yes, frustrates me is that here is a relatively "uneducated" Former Boat Guy/QM1 figuring this stuff out. Well that is not exactly true. It already has been figured out By SPECWAR. Can't expect highly trained individuals to pay back the skills they have learned when they are shipped back to the fleet after 2-3 years. What may happen at this point is, and I know first hand because it happened to me, some guy will do two seperate tours. Some of those that do, will find that when the board sees "repeat duty", it will be a career killer.
Funny how some folks just cant learn a lesson. I remember MCPON Plackett saying when I asked him during Earnest Will if 9533 will ever close loop. He brought up the career path business too. With all the types of duty possibilities within NECC there frankly is no excuse to ponder this issue. This is the command that takes the fight from the sea to the beach, if you will.
The answer is for the Folks in charge to suck up the pride and look to your Specwar brother's model and get busy!
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