Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Decline of the LDO

Every sailor I've talked to joined the Navy for different reasons. Some intended only to stay in for one enlistment and get out. Some wanted money for college. Others joined in the wake of 9-11 to fight terrorism. Still others are carrying on a tradition that extends generations in their families.

A lot of these folks enlist and then later want to go officer. I am glad that we allow our outstanding enlisted sailors the opportunity to go officer. Many of them go Limited Duty Officer (LDO) through the Seaman-To-Admiral-21 (STA-21) program. Others join through Officer Candidate School (OCS) and can become unrestricted or restricted line officers.

While opportunities are always there for high achievers, the Navy is starting to clamp down on LDO programs. In fact, in the future I see few if any opportunities for LDO accessions, and a dwindling of most enlisted to officer programs in general. This will conflict with what Big Navy likes to say, but here's what I'm seeing:

1. Record officer retention, probably due to the recession, plus budget cuts means that we have plenty of officers. Our officer inventory is thus going to be very large relative to the number of billets available.

2. Naval Academy and ROTC numbers are pretty fixed. What changes is OCS and STA-21, as they are monthly/yearly accessions, while the others are 3-4 year programs. The Navy can clamp down easily on OCS/STA-21 to increase/decrease the inventory in response to small changes in manning.

3. LDOs traditionally don't take the "career enhancing" jobs, particularly department head positions. For submarines and surface warriors, these positions are hard to fill (for good reason: the Navy treats those officers like garbage!). The guys in Millington are going to latch onto folks that can fill those jobs...more than likely not LDOs.

4. LDO slots are closing or being converted rapidly. LDOs are being phased out in EOD and SEAL career fields, and are being forced to convert from LDO to regular officers in the Information Dominance Corp when they reach 10 years of commissioned service. On surface ships, many LDO slots are being converted to line officer slots.

There is a definite Navy-wide push to shrink or eliminate many LDO positions.

My sources tell me that the number of STA-21 openings will drop from 250 to less than 50 Navy-wide by 2013. That's a huge plummet, meaning that any STA-21 candidate is going to have to be darn near perfect to even have a shot at commissioning.

So what's a hard-charging enlisted guy or girl to do? First, your best shot is OCS, since the selection boards meet every month. That means you'll have to get a degree on your own time. Nowadays, this isn't too bad, since there are a ton of online degree programs, and tuition assistance is still pretty easy to get in the Navy.

Second, you'll have to be competitive. You can't blow off your PQS and warfare pins. You can't be constantly behind the green table explaining to your CO why you got arrested while on liberty. You'll have to be placing top in your division and at your command. If you're not in the top ten percent, your chances for STA-21 are going to be zero.

Also, a word of advice: once in, your enlisted service will only get you so far. Because most people will not be an LDO, you will be competing with officers who are younger, have had more opportunities to hit career wickets, and are every bit as competitive as you are. Your enlisted service won't get as much credit as you may want to believe. You'll have to get the same warfare devices and do the same qualifications your fellow officers will (which seems to be a bone of contention with a lot of LDOs). My advice: suck it up and do it if you want to make LCDR. You have one big advantage over the young guys: you've got sea time and experience that they don't have, so it won't take you as long to get stuff done. Use that to cut down on how long it takes you to qualify, and you'll keep up just fine with the other junior officers.

While not a popular message, enlisted sailors need to hear the hard truth: it's hard to get picked up for officer, and is going to get harder. There are lots of rewards, but the path is definitely becoming the road less traveled.