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Win First and then Go to War

By Cmdr. Stephen Aldridge
Commanding officer, USS Mason (DDG 87)

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” This 2,500-year-old Sun Tzu maxim was the quote of the day in USS Mason’s Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, plan of the day. As the executive officer, I published it only hours before the first of three separate anti-ship cruise missile attacks against Mason and other U.S. warships in the Red Sea.

Many factors contribute to fighting and winning at sea – but clearly training and preparation are near the top of the list. As Sun Tzu taught, “win first and then go to war.”

In my view, when compared to the legacy career path, the Surface Navy’s current executive officer, commanding officer (XO/CO) fleet-up model for O-5 command at sea supports what’s most important – preparing ships and Sailors for combat incidents to operations at sea.

GULF OF ADEN (July 25, 2016) Midshipman 3rd Class Phillip Moore, left, conns the ship under the guidance of Cmdr. Stephen W. Aldridge, executive officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87), during a replenishment-at-sea with the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Laramie (T-AO 203).  (U.S. Navy photo by Yeoman 1st Class Timothy Meece/Released)


There are numerous advantages to fleet-up models. With division officers, the strongest performers are typically selected by the ship’s captain and remain aboard for their second division officer tour. They become true “fleet lieutenants” with a tremendous amount of corporate knowledge amassed by their single longer tour. They know the ship from fo’c’sle to fantail and bridge to bilge. Traditionally, one department head per ship fleets-up, in the case of destroyers, it’s the combat systems officer who likely also serves as the senior watch officer. This officer’s clear tenure advantage improves the combat readiness of the ship. He or she knows the crew, what it takes to craft smart watch teams, and remembers the preparation and training required the last time the ship performed an infrequent complex evolution.

Given the clear advantages that fleet-up division officers and department heads provide to the ship, why wouldn’t we want to afford those same advantages via the captain? The longevity, continuity, and leadership consistency provided by these longer fleet up tours result in a ship and crew best prepared to win first and then go to war.

In Mason’s case, we were in leadership transition between missile attacks. The first attacks occurred in the southern Red Sea on Oct. 9. My relief as XO arrived via an oiler in the Gulf of Aden on Oct. 12. That evening, during a northbound transit of the Bab-el-Mandeb choke point, Mason and ships in company were attacked again with anti-ship cruise missiles. On Oct. 15, Mason was tested again and defeated another round of missile attacks against our U.S. Naval forces. Under the legacy career path, a newly arrived prospective CO could report on deployment and take command a week later. My relief was certainly a talented officer, command screened and a prior coastal patrol CO, however had he reported as prospective CO; a change of command would not have kept the ship and crew in the best position to continue fighting and winning in the Red Sea.

As great power rivalries return and the seas around the globe are no longer a sanctuary for the U.S. Navy – are we willing to turn over warship command to a newcomer on deployment; an officer who has not trained with the crew, does not know the crew, and lacks familiarity with the nuances and conditions of the warship’s engineering and combat systems? I submit that would be a poor decision today. The fleet-up method mitigates much of that downside; it reinforces Sun Tzu’s principle by enabling the XO to win first and then go to war from the captain’s chair. The fleet-up captain knows the strengths and weaknesses of his team and understands the specific capabilities and limitations of his or her warship on day one. Unlike other officers who report to their ship and must take time to qualify or re-qualify (e.g. officer of the deck or tactical action officer), the captain is “qualified by position” from the moment he or she states, “I relieve you.”

As well, clear XO/CO fleet-up advantages exist outside the lifelines of the ship. As XO, you build relationships with key players across the waterfront, from the type commander staff to the maintenance community. You learn the strengths of your immediate superior in command and the staff. The XO works closely with the deputy commodore, also likely to fleet up, and learns his or her leadership and management style. The fleet-up CO has the opportunity to build a strong working relationship with the commodore prior to taking command. He or she better understands the commander’s intent from the boss, also a key warfare commander in the strike group. The result is a ship better prepared to understand and execute tasking – victory before going to war.

ARABIAN GULF (Aug. 15, 2016) Cmdr. Stephen W. Aldridge, executive officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87), addresses Sailors. Mason, deployed as part of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Janweb B. Lagazo)


In short, the longevity, continuity and leadership consistency fleet-up provides at all levels, builds officers better prepared to lead warships into combat, and when called on to fight and win.

Editor’s note: Cmdr. Aldridge is a 1998 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds masters degrees from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. 

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