Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener​, Commander, Naval Surface Forces/Naval Surface Force US Pacific Fleet assumed command this 3 August. On 24 September, the service’s surface warfare community leader responded to a wide range of questions from Halldale Group Editor Marty Kauchak. The Admiral’s comments, of interest to sea services, and the simulation and training industry, are provided in entirety below.           

MS&T: The surface community has moved beyond fatal collisions involving two of its ships in 2017. What is the status of training readiness for the surface warfare community as we speak?

Vice Admiral Kitchener: We are making sure the Surface Force is on track and working to move our force from a culture of compliance to a culture of excellence. Our focus remains on rebuilding the Surface Force Professional Base Training and we have introduced and implemented a revised Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) training and assessment continuum that employs Navigation, Seamanship, and Shiphandling (NSS) assessments across all career milestones.

Some examples of our focus include:

  • We implemented ten mariner skills milestone assessments, evaluations, and competency checks across an officer’s career. Four of these assessments are “Go/No-Go”—as in either “pass” or “fail”— which means that an officer may not go on to his or her next sea assignment if they fail these assessments. This career assessment process is to ensure that all Surface Warfare Officers have the requisite skills to safely and effectively handle and navigate their ships and lead and manage bridge watch teams in all types of maritime environments at each stage of their careers.
  • We’ve introduced the Mariner Skills Logbooks (MSLB) implemented to document watch standing performance, bridge hours, evolutions, etc. Combined with the Milestone assessments, the MSLB allows the Surface Community to monitor performance, establish experience requirements with levels of proficiency, and ensure that officers have the requisite skill sets at each career milestone to effectively and safely handle and navigate their ships.
  • We increased the first SWO Division Officer tour by six months to afford officers more at-sea opportunities to develop and build their skillsets as mariners 2nd tour division officer and department head billets shifted to ships only.
  • Most importantly, we have implemented robust training with the new 4-week Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) Courses. Established in June of 2019 in San Diego, California, Norfolk, Virginia, and Newport, Rhode Island, this intensive program provides hands-on training in state-of-the art simulators in medium to high density traffic management scenarios, proper application of the Rules of the Road, and proper set up and use of bridge equipment. In the summer of 2021, this course will expand to a six-week Officer of the Deck Phase 1 course which will include additional training in the automated radar plotting aid (ARPA) and radar employment, providing STCW-certified training in these areas. To date, over 1,200 officers have graduated from this course and populated the ships of the Surface Force.
  • We also increased quantity/scope of Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training Scenarios (SWATT) and extended SWATT to Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) and we updated the Automatic Identification System Operator Training as a pre-requisite to qualification in a number of key watchstations.
  • We revamped training for the Navigator, Assistant Navigator, OOD, CONN, Helm Safety Officer, Shipping Officer, and Surface Warfare Coordinator (SUWC) courses.
  • And we built in time on the SWO training and assessment continuum so that watchstanders could practice their skillsets. We found that in a series of competency checks conducted in 2020, graduates from the JOOD course with little actual bridge time outperform qualified OODs who did not attend the JOOD course -- they were tested on rules of the road application, proper operation of bridge equipment, watch team management, and high-density traffic scenarios.

I also want to also highlight changes to our enlisted training for the Surface Force. We revamped our Quartermaster (QM)/Operational Specialist (OS) Training is an effort to enhance the training of enlisted rates key to ship navigation.

  • QM Training improvements included additional Voyage Management System (VMS) training and Journeyman training updates. We’ve also significantly increased the amount of hands on lab instruction with paper charts has enabled students to learn and demonstrate the principles of navigation in detail.
  • OS training saw improvements in individual training by leveraging virtual reality devices to train as lookouts and improvements in team training via the establishment of the Mariner Skills Team Trainer. We will have a new Radar Navigation Team Trainer coming online in 2021. Combined, these courses will enable OS students to train as a team in different readiness conditions and scenarios such as a navigation team transiting a harbor or in Condition III steaming as a Combat Information Center Watchstander practicing their skills in support navigation and combat system mission requirements.
  • Over the last year, we implemented an Enlisted Bridge Watchstanders Course. This three-week program provides robust training in simulators and aboard ship to senior enlisted personnel standing bridge watches aboard MCM [Mine Countermeasures]- and PC [Patrol Coastal]-class ships in Bahrain.

The Navy has revamped its Quartermaster (QM)/Operational Specialist (OS) Training is an effort to enhance the training of enlisted rates (three above) key to ship navigation. Image credit: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Anna Van Nuys.

MS&T: You assumed command this 3 August. Share with us some of your priorities for continuing to improve the surface force's training readiness during your watch. 

VAK: My team and I are continuously working to improve and refine the training for the Surface Force. On the East Coast, we developed a pilot program to base Afloat Training Group (ATG) personnel on ships for bundled Basic Phase training at sea. USS San Jacinto (CG 56), USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), and USS Mahan (USS DDG 72) were the first ships to go through this pilot. Because it worked so well, we are now doing it on the west coast with USS O’Kane (DDG 77), USS Lake Champlain (CG 57), and USS Stockdale (DDG 106), with additional ships to follow in the Fall as we consider implementing this process into our Surface Force Training and Readiness Manual. Executing training in this manner allows our force to be self-sufficient and it shows just how resilient we are when faced with challenges.

We are also working to enhance and improve the Surface Training Advanced Virtual Environment. The Surface Training Advanced Virtual Environment (STAVE) is the unifying program for all surface training improvements.

For example, we upgraded the NSS Trainers (NSSTs) in all fleet concentration areas (Norfolk, San Diego, etc.) to Modified NSSTs (M-NSSTs), which now provide rudimentary Bridge/Combat Information Center (CIC) integration capability allowing us to better train the bridge and CIC watch teams cohesively in ship navigation and high-density traffic scenarios.

MS&T: Preview some of the new training capabilities and systems your surface force will receive in the next two-to-three years.

VAK: The Surface Training Advanced Virtual Environment (STAVE) program has made significant improvement to Surface Force training and, specifically, the Mariner Skills Training Program which focuses on navigation, seamanship, and ship handling. Under this $[US] 716 million program, the Surface Community is constructing two 110,000-square foot Mariner Skills Training Centers (MSTC) in San Diego and Norfolk to consolidate all mariner skills training in those two large fleet concentration areas under one roof. Each MSTC will have over 60 state-of-art simulators and labs to provide officers and watch teams with such training as the 6-week OOD Phase 1 Course, 3-week OOD Phase 2 course, Radar Navigation, and Advanced Ship handling.

In addition, under the MSTP, entirely new Integrated Navigation Seamanship and Ship handling Trainer (I-NSST) facilities are being constructed in Mayport, Florida, Everett, Washington, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Sasebo and Yokosuka, Japan, and Rota, Spain to replace the aging NSST facilities with new state-of-the art simulators. The MSTCs will also support NSS training and assessment at the individual and watch team levels. The San Diego MSTC will commence operations by July of 2021 and the Norfolk MSTC will be on line by July of 2022. While the Norfolk facilities are being completed, interim training facilities will be in place by May of 2021 to provide for the new OOD Phase 1 course.

For Combat Systems Maintenance Training across AEGIS, Ship Self-Defense System and AN/SQQ 89 systems, we will be introducing Virtual Maintenance Task Trainers (VMTT) to improve the quality and effectiveness of our schoolhouses. This technology virtualizes the combat system in a system of systems environment to expand the degree of fault isolation and troubleshooting well beyond what we have historically been able to do on representative ship equipment in the schoolhouse. The architecture we will be employing will enable an instructor in Dahlgren, Virginia for example, to teach students at other geographic locations such as Norfolk and San Diego via a training network called STAVE-NET. Eventually, we will provide access to training content and “how-to” videos on ships to help prepare technicians to execute complex or infrequent maintenance actions as “just in time” training to take the place of distance support over the phone or other medium.

On the tactical employment side, we are fielding Aegis Virtual Operations Task Trainers (Aegis VOTT) in each homeport to augment our high-fidelity Combined Integrated Air and Missile Defense and Anti-Submarine Warfare Trainers (CIAT) in Norfolk and San Diego. The VOTTS will support training on the latest Aegis Weapon System upgrades in step with combat system computer program upgrades on ships. Additionally, we will be fielding virtual Anti-Submarine Warfare Tactical Employment Trainers (ATETs) in Norfolk and San Diego to provide tactical decision maker training to ship prospective commanding officers and department heads to better prepare them to employ the vast capabilities of the AN/SQQ-89(A) V15 ASW system.

MS&T: While not an endorsement for a company or specific technology, are there any other new capabilities you are interested in seeing integrated into simulators, classrooms and other training systems for your community?

VAK: While we have very robust and effective training ashore, we always endeavor to provide better training tools to our Sailors and Officers aboard ship. The Surface Warfare Directorate (OPNAV N96), as well as the Surface Type Commanders, Naval Sea Systems Command, and the Surface Force schoolhouses, are all aggressively pursuing a network connection between schoolhouse and ship to provide many of the valuable training tools used in the classroom to our Sailors aboard ship, at any time.

We want to provide operators and maintainers with the latest technical and maintenance documentation as well as performance support tools and on the spot training on specific tasks that a Sailor had never seen or performed before. This would enable a Sailor to “rehearse” conducting a complex maintenance procedure in a virtual environment before actually performing the check.

Currently, we have software programs, such as the Virtual Engineering Task Trainer (VETT), that allows students in the schoolhouse to tear down and reassemble equipment in a virtual environment, and we have seen that the use of this virtual technology has enable students to conduct hands-on maintenance procedures faster and more accurately than from tradition classroom training. We want to give our sailors aboard ship the same access to these training tools and performance aids.

We are also working on better classroom and simulator training our Helm and Lee Helm operators as we are in the process of a yearlong ship control systems review.

Additionally, the Navy is on the cusp of fielding significant improvements in computing infrastructure onboard surface ships. While state of the art hardware is expected on new construction ships, the AEGIS Modernization (AMOD) program is extending the availability of this infrastructure to additional Destroyers, ensuring legacy platforms are able to operate cutting edge AEGIS combat system software and receive computer program updates on a near continuous basis via virtualization and cloud computing. This computing infrastructure is key to ensuring an embedded training system can function at-sea with higher fidelity, six degree-of-freedom (6-DOF) models that more accurately represent weapon performance, and that training scenarios can be run frequently underway without the need for pier-side support. Additionally, improvements in weapon emulators, such as the virtual operational missile (VOM), enable acquisition offices to conduct combat system integration tests for additional “dry runs” as realistically as possible without the actual live firing.

While this technology today does not support the number of “reps and sets” required to build proficiency across multiple watch teams within a standard ships’ training phase, if done in conjunction with pre-deployment live fire events, VOM could provide more robust testing to ensure maximum combat readiness as a ship prepares to deploy. The surface community is exploring a number of technical solutions to broadly replicate and virtually emulate the selection of weapons the surface force will routinely operate and deploy with in the future.

MS&T: To manage expectations, how do you see the share of live, and virtual and constructive training evolving for Navy surface warfare personnel in the next three-to-five years?

VAK: We are improving the time Commanding Officers have to train their crews at sea through the Surface Force Training and Readiness (SFTRM) and subsequent updates, improving the complexity of live-fire Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) events, and implementing the Maritime Warfare Officer Tactical Training (MWOTT) program which will focus on tactical training.

Overall, we are not substituting live training with virtual training – with all the nuance and complexity that exists in the real environment, there is always value in live training. Rather, we are augmenting live training with the use of realistic simulators. We fully expect that over the course of a Surface Warfare officer’s career, each officer will have the opportunity to continuously improve their skills as a professional mariner and warfighter through a variety of continuously improving training courses and simulations. Within the next 15 years, we will begin to see officers that have used a combination of on the water and virtual training as the progress through the ranks.

MS&T: From the perspective of an end-user/operator in the Navy's acquisition system, is there a "help wanted list" you can provide for the simulation and training industry -- in terms of additional training capabilities your sailors, units and staffs would like to see available in the future?

VAK: I would point you back to our previous discussion in questions 4 and 5 for the things we are working to provide for Surface Force Training. That said, as a learning organization, we consistently look at best practices employed by other communities, other services, and other public or private entities to make sure we improve the way we do things, especially in training. In the case of mariner skills training, the Surface Force heavily leveraged the best practices and training programs of industry and other Services to develop the most cost-effective training solutions that fit the unique and extensive requirements of the Surface Fleet.

Our assessment process for navigation, seamanship and ship handling was informed by a gold standard process used by the maritime industry. In developing new training systems and processes, the Surface Community has worked hard to create common architectures and networks that will allow us to easily incorporate and leverage the new technologies and innovative practices of industry.

MS&T: Tell us your priorities for completing and even increasing training opportunities in live and virtual exercises, and other events with surface forces of nations allied and friendly to the US. 

VAK: As a nation with many allies and partners, the US Navy’s top training priorities is to continue to train and operate with partner nations. While we cannot speak to specific future training evolutions, what we can tell you is that we welcome the opportunity to cross train with partners both live and virtually.

MS&T: Thank you for taking time to provide these important, wide-ranging insights to the defense-industry team!

VAK: You are quite welcome.