The bridge of each Navy destroyer is controlled by a round-the-clock shift of young officers, who must pass written and oral exams to qualify for the positions. Still, they typically are under 25 and may have little shipboard experience. Junior officers also move on to other assignments after limited tours.
“Are we shortchanging their basic training, especially as we rotate our junior officers every 18 to 24 months?” asked Admiral Crowder.
Training for junior ship officers has changed significantly in recent years. In 2003, the Navy dropped what had been an intensive six-month training course on navigation, basic seamanship, engineering and maintenance before new officers were assigned to their first ship.
Instead, the new officers were sent directly to a ship where they were supposed to learn on the job. Some said they got practical training on deployments, and noted that the Seventh Fleet had a reputation as being the most experienced in the Navy. But, many commanders said, crews were too busy to provide that kind of instruction.
By last year, the Navy had largely reversed course, sandwiching a junior officer’s first sea tour between 14 weeks of classroom work.
Most ships use a traditional “five and dime” watch rotation, in which sailors serve five hours of watch, then have 10 hours off, he said. But during those 10 hours, sailors often have daytime duties.
The rotation can lead to a watch officer pulling a 20-hour day every three days, Mr. Cordle said, adding that even designated sleep time can be interrupted by drills or refueling operations that can keep sailors up for days at a time. A recent Government Accountability Office report said sailors were on duty up to 108 hours each week.
“I averaged 3 hours of sleep a night,” someone described as a Japan-based Navy officer wrote on Reddit last week. “I have personally gone without sleep for so long that I have seen and heard things that weren’t there. I’ve witnessed accidents that could have been avoided because the person was so tired they had no right to be operating heavy machinery.”
Navy tests of sailors on the five-and-dime schedule found lack of sleep led to blunted decision-making and reflexes that were roughly the same as those of sailors who had downed several beers.
The Naval Postgraduate School has developed a shorter watch schedule to match circadian rhythms, which uses three hours of watch duty and nine hours off. Recognizing the benefits, submarines were ordered to move to a similar schedule in 2015.
Mr. Cordle said adopting the schedule could result in greater safety. But the Navy has left scheduling up to individual captains, and three quarters of ships still use the five and dime.