Should sea duty matter in officer promotion?

Comments at Leadership Seminar, AFCEA/USNI West Symposium

by David Marquet on Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 11:58am

On VADM Konetzni’s leadership panel at AFCEA/USNI WEST on 12 February titled: “Leaders, How Do We Find, Develop and Promote People with the Right Stuff?” we had the following discussion.

The number of officers serving aboard ships is becoming a smaller and smaller proportion of the total officer billets. This is because of the following:

1. The US Navy ratio of active duty end-strength to ships, which had been relatively stable since WWII at 1000:1 has recently crept up. Today, with 332,000 Sailors and 283 ships, it stands at 1170:1.
2. Officers manning, as a proportion of total end-strength, has also crept up. This is in response to demands for specialties and joint commands.
3. Finally, officer billets aboard the ships we have has been trending down. As an example, the Baltimore had 61 officer billets, Leahy 27, Ticonderoga 24, and Burke 23. The trend continues with LCS.

While I use at-sea billets aboard ships as my metric, the trends are true in aviation as well: 4-seat aircraft are replace with 2-seaters; 2-seaters by single seaters; and single seaters by UAVs.

Why does this matter? The Navy continues to act as though service at sea is the litmus test for competence as an officer for the unrestricted line. Navy has difficulty properly valuing the contributions of officers in “other” billets. Thus, more and more officers are being passed through fewer billets, resulting in shorter tours, sub-optimization of performance, and execution-based (or worse, presence-based) assessment of capability. Further, the body of operational knowledge among a typical officer dealing with the vagaries and risk that comes with operations at sea, is reduced. [I don’t like using the word experience because that gives credit for simply occupying a billet.]

I suggest that a coherent Navy strategy needs to:
1. Embrace the reality of this trend and learn how to value non-seagoing contributions; or
2. Reverse the trend and return to a more maritime-focused service.


The USS Baltimore cruiser from WWII had 61 officers. Current ships of the same size have less than half that many officers.

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