Breaking down the brown shoe - black shoe wall: a memo from the fleet
The unfortunate facts of the surface navy’s catastrophes in 2017 are well known. We know we have cultural problems in the SWO community, and they are having impacts paid in the blood of our Sailors. However, having a series of accidents that result in a moral reckoning is a phenomenon not just relegated to the surface community. The submarine community had one in the 2000s after the Greenville collision. Aviation has gone through several reviews decades ago leading to the development of the NATOPS and CRM programs, as has the surface warfare community (most recently, the Comprehensive Review of 2017 and the Balisle Report of 2010). However, the reviews and congressional testimonies are not enough to stop the atrophy: concrete steps must be taken to implement the recommendations at the individual ship or squadron level.
We’ve had enough of the “brown shoe,” “black shoe” cultural conflict in our navy, and it’s not just a surface - aviation divide. The real travesty is that the Navy’s community culture has created silos of knowledge, and in fact, overt hostility to those who are nominally our brothers and sisters in arms. It is this culture that ultimately led to a surface community searching for answers after a terrible 2017, when in fact the answers sat literally across the street in the Navy’s own aviation community. It is a moral travesty that it took the death of seventeen Sailors to force a reckoning in the SWO community, but we’re there. At the institutional level, the Undersecretary and Vice Chief of Naval Operations are looking for improvements, but we could not wait for the “big navy” answer. So, we, two active-duty sisters, one surface warfare officer (SWO) and one pilot, decided to learn from one another and just get started. VP-30, the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), and the USS Lassen (DDG-82) are sharing best practices related to the planning, briefing, execution, and debriefing (PBED) process, safety, standardization, and checklists. While the aviation community has had a cultural focus on these issues for many years, the surface community has only recently opened its eyes to the practices that can control and improve safety statistics. We are working together to speed up the pace of improvement.
Culturally, the aviation community has had forty years’ head start on the SWOs in terms of the standards set around safety and crew resource management. Beginning in the 1960s, aviation realized that mishaps were occurring at a dangerous level and implemented the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) program to ensure standardization of training. Through NATOPS, aviators track evolutions performed, complete minimum numbers of landings, approaches, and flight hours per month and per year, and perform two annual checkrides in instrument flight and emergencies. They are re-qualified at the FRS after periods away from the aircraft and must pass a checkride again when arriving at their new squadron - even the new commanding officer is held to these same standards. The aviation community accepts these restrictions as necessary for safety, and holds themselves to the NATOPS standard. The Crew Resource Management (CRM) program was developed in the airlines in the 1970s and moved into naval aviation in the 1980s. The program includes annual training, evaluations on annual checkrides, and higher-level qualifications for CRM facilitators and CRM instructors. Every aviator can list the seven skills of CRM and talk about how Threat and Error Management (TEM) can be implemented on a given flight.
The emphasis on safety permeates throughout aviation, from the organization of a squadron to the culture on daily flights. For example, in the typical aviation squadron, the Safety Officer is a standalone department head job, often held by a senior DH, but on a destroyer, it is typically a low-priority collateral duty for the operations officer. Every flight is briefed using principles of CRM, and the aviators are expected to verbalize the threats faced and perform time-critical ORM to avoid them. The priority placed on safety shows itself in many other ways; on a ship with a helicopter detachment embarked, one highly visible difference is the priority placed on human factors like getting enough sleep. A pilot will work hard to achieve her mandatory 8-hour crew rest prior to a mission; a SWO might brag about how little sleep she got the night before. Both officers must conduct dangerous and technical missions, but only one has controlled for human factors.
Onboard Lassen, we are changing the SWO culture that seems to downgrade the importance of safety and the importance of the tools we have to reduce human errors. To start, we are simply talking about this topic. We are bringing pilots in to provide officer training in the Lassen wardroom, to include topics like crew resource management. While the SWO community has mandated a bridge resource management course for several years, it tends to be treated as a “one and done” requirement rather than a cultural imperative. The VP-30 CRM model manager came to lead us in a case study discussion on the importance of threat and error management (TEM) and how we might apply its seven principles to avoid putting the ship into an undesired state. A clear need exists for a framework in which to discuss and dissect mishaps at sea, but unfortunately, the CRM instruction is a Commander Naval Air Forces instruction and does not apply to SWOs at all, nor are there billets in any CRM training pipeline for SWOs to learn. Perhaps most tellingly, the Naval Safety Center, which nominally provides services across the naval enterprise, has no SWO equivalents for, among many others, aviation fleet outreach programs, the Naval School of Aviation Safety, and aircraft maintenance best practices. The safety enterprise is simply far more focused on aviation; both because of its historical origins in aviation safety and the lack of demand from the SWO community.
In the absence of institutional support, VP-30 and HSM WINGLANT have both worked with Lassen as we developed checklists to further engrain best practices into our everyday routine. Leadership from Lassen spent a week in the daily routine at VP-30, participating in simulators and flights, discussing safety and standardization, and learning about programs and their effect on culture. At VP-30, we saw extensive use and continuous development of checklists, codified into the NATOPS program. While the SWO community has no equivalent program, we are working on improving our checklists for easier use. On Lassen, we’ve adopted the challenge and response style of running a checklist, and built briefing guides for use prior to every bridge team assuming the watch. The plan-brief-execute-debrief (PBED) process is completely inculcated into the life of an aviator. We are working towards that goal in our own bridge teams.
At VP-30, the use of high-fidelity simulators accounts for approximately 70% of a new aviator’s training pipeline. These simulators are used to reinforce handling characteristics, teach emergency procedures, and even to practice tactics. They can be operated in a pilot-only mode, connected to the tactical operators, or even linked between assets. In Mayport, no such equivalent resource exists for ship crews. However, we do have the naval shiphandling and seamanship trainer (NSST). The NSST is a 2006-era generic ship-handling simulator that is staffed by retired master mariners. As a basic trainer, it is useful for training in standard commands, basic maneuvering, and decision-making, but the communications and teamwork between the bridge and CIC is missing. Recently, a small radar repeater and microphones were placed in a back closet in an attempt to get the bridge teams used to communicating with the tactical team in CIC, but the experience is far from realistic, and many bridge teams don’t take the exercise seriously.
In March 2018, Commander Naval Surface Forces Atlantic increased the requirements for simulator time (to 80 hours per year per ship) and implemented a mandatory checkride in them prior to going to sea. The checkride scenarios are set in high-density traffic routes that demand frequent communications and deft maneuvering. While ships have completed these evaluations satisfactorily, they have been handicapped by a lack of simulator fidelity, communications capability and radar functionality. The simulator in Mayport needs a complete upgrade - a sizeable investment - if it must be used to make our bridge and CIC teams effective and proficient. Building terrific new LCS simulators does not make the rest of the fleet proficient. As we continue to implement the PBED process and improve our shiphandling competencies, the surface navy needs the state of the art equipment that is available in the commercial sector, just as the aviation community already uses. In the meantime, we are practicing the use of our improved checklists and briefing guides in the simulator, improving our competency and fluency in the language of crew resource management. We have worked together in the simulator, with the SWO sister leading the crew through an evolution and the aviator sister helping with the use of checklists, effective communication across the bridge, and best practices to handle communication breakdowns.
Another element of the surface Navy culture that we are working to break down is that every ship is too unique to learn from other ships, other assets, or even other communities. The aviators have sidestepped this issue by building a culture that recognizes differences between platforms while maintaining a common set of principles regarding safety, maintenance processes, and use of checklists for procedures. There exists a single document for the naval aviation enterprise in general: CNAF 3710.7 for aviators and CNAF 4790.2 for maintainers. There is no specific information about how to fly a plane or how to fix a system; instead, the community’s general documents describe processes for qualification, general safety principles, and departmental organization.
Each ship is built differently; the 2017 comprehensive review noted the need for a service-wide standardization of bridge systems. In the interim, Lassen is learning from the P-3 community at VP-30, whose planes are aging and being phased out, how to deal with individual differences while maintaining a culture of standardization. Each P-3 is laid out differently, with equipment for different mission sets onboard, different tactical capabilities, and even a different flight station layout for its pilots to learn. However, despite the differences, maintenance is always performed via checklist, with multiple levels of supervision, the pilots are briefed on the aircraft status prior to each flight, and the principles of CRM are applied to switch between mission sets and, for the pilots, develop a new “scan” of the flight station instruments. Checkrides are basic, focusing on the similarities between planes, and ensure safety despite the configuration. A different configuration is not a reason to avoid a checkride or to allow for unsafe practices, as similarities in operations can always be found.
The process of building bridges, sharing best practices and forging learning links between communities is a process that must continue. We have come together to create an excellent structure that has immense benefits for the surface community as we learn the lessons from McCain and Fitzgerald. Although ship simulators need to be updated and surface-common documents need to be promulgated, the next step for immediate implementation should be a liaison program. As big Navy discusses ways to force ships to embody a culture of safety, the most effective way to actually transmit that message is to stand up a designated, CRM facilitator-qualified aviator to serve exclusively as a CRM/PBED/safety liaison, attached to each DESRON, able to provide training in the simulator, lead discussion groups, and embark for underways to aid in the actual implementation of PBED and checklists and reinforce the message of a culture of safety. By simply providing each ship with this resource that Lassen has found invaluable, the surface community will not be expected to “go it alone” while also maintaining a high OPTEMPO.
In the meantime, VP-30 and the Lassen will continue to forge ahead, skipping the layers of bureaucracy that tend to prevent sharing lessons learned and best practices, to improve one another. Our next steps will focus on incremental improvement - scrubbing checklists, changing our culture, talking about safety and the ways that we can lessen the likelihood of another Fitzgerald or McCain incident. Pilots from VP-30 will join us on our next few underway periods to continue to assess and provide ideas for improvement. In short, thanks big Navy, we’re looking forward to your assistance, but until then, we’ll just get it done on our own.