CIMSEC has an interesting article by a serving officer, Lt. Joseph O’Connell.

He starts off talking about gapped billets in the Coast Guard in general, 200 in 2021, but then concentrates on gapped afloat billets, 11 in 2021.

” This shortage grows more acute when considering the critical billets O3 and O4 officers fill aboard Coast Guard cutters: Operations Officers, Engineer Officers, Executive Officers, and Commanding Officers, depending on the cutter class.”

I am sure his observations are accurate, as far as they go, but I think he may have missed an important aspect of the Coast Guard’s assignment policies that has resulted in many officers, with sea going ambitions, making the choice to leave the service at the O-3/4 level. If we don’t do something differently, the problem is going to get worse.

As the Coast Guard continues to bring new hulls online while operating legacy assets the demand for afloat officers will far outstrip the limited and dwindling supply, with projections anticipating a 25% increase in cutter billets from current levels.

A change in personnel assignment policy could make a big difference.

I am long out of the service, so it is best if you check to see if my assumptions are correct.


  • The ambition of most seagoing officers is ultimately to have a command afloat.
  • Being a department head or XO is not an end in itself. It should be seen as a step toward command.
  • Assignment officers are more likely to select an officer to command if they have had a previous successful command tour.
  • If an O-3 sees that it is extremely unlikely he will ever get a command, he is unlikely to seek a department head or XO job and may very well leave the service.


Coast Guard personnel policies have created a situation where if you have not gotten a command as an E-3, it is unlikely you ever will.

The service is procuring 65 Webber class WPCs. At least 51 have already been commissioned. While a few are commanded by warrants or O-4s, generally they are commanded by O-3s. These and the few other O-3 afloat command billets create a large pool of potential future COs to choose from.

Those that have been or expect to be O-3 COs are unlikely to seek billets as department heads or XOs.

Those who miss the opportunity to command at the O-3 level, will see little chance they will be an afloat CO in the future.


Make command of a Webber class an O-4 billet.

Require that those selected to command Webber class WPCs will have completed a successful department head or XO afloat tour.


While some may feel command of a patrol craft requires only a junior officer, consider that these little ships, unlike WPBs, are doing all the same missions as an MEC (except the aviation component) with a smaller crew and fewer senior personnel to advise and support the CO. These ships generally operate independently, unlike Navy patrol craft which generally operate in groups under a squadron commander. We are seeing some of them embark on voyages of thousands of miles, operating outside US waters.

This policy would provide an incentive for officers to seek department head or XO tours as O-3s.

The Officers chosen to be COs at the O-4 level will be more experienced and more mature.

The service will have had more time to evaluate the officers prior to assignment including direct observation by a CO afloat, who should make a recommendation for or against a future command afloat.

Ultimately some officers will determine that they really have no chance of getting a CO afloat tour, but it will happen later in their career, when they may have found other rewarding work and they are less likely to leave the service.


  1. From an army guy:

    87’ O1/2 command
    154’ O3/4 command
    360’ 05 command
    418’ O6 command.

    The O2 and O4 time is spent on staff or as XO. Do it. You will outclass the navy all day.

  2. Having been a CPO, CWO, CWO-LT, and LCDR who had 2 afloat commands, CWO a real 110 and LCDR WLB, and XO WLB and two ashore commands I find the call to make the FRC an O4 command ridiculous. Warrants have commanded small cutters for decades. We went through this same BS with the 140 tugs and Island Class when the then commandant uttered disparaging words about CWOs in command of those now extinct cutters.

  3. What I was trying to point out here is one reason we have an officer shortage. That if those officers who want to be COs give up hope of that ambition, they may leave the Coast Guard early on and that not only means that sea going billets are shorted, but it also means that shore billets are shorted too, because even those who think of themselves as sea going specialist spend 2/3 of their time ashore.

    • The problem lies with the Assigners and that system, not with what ranks command what ships.

      87s should have an E-8/E-9/W-3 and should be looked at as “career pinnacle command tours” for highly experienced Senior/Master Chiefs and late-career (experienced) Warrants who rose from enlisted ranks via experience and skills.

      154s & WLMs should have W-4/O-3 – Officers in these ranks have time in service (experience), command experience through prior department head or ashore service, and technical skills at level needed.

      WLBs & WLBB should have an O-4 Commanding Officer.

      All of the above should be looked at by Assigners as “entry-level” CO positions. Command ability / experience from shore assignments or as department officers should be considered and credited to prospective candidates. If by the time one is an O-3 and has no ashore or dept. head command experience, something is wrong. Either there are personality/people-skills deficits, technical skill deficits, or you’ve had very bad luck at assignments. If it’s the first two, adios, I want you out. If it’s the latter, Assigners should prioritize those officers to a dept. head or XO position afloat, so they can qualify for a slot as an O-4 CO on a WLB.

      The CG already has a problem of assigning command billets too high of a rank. The NSC, if it were in the Navy, would be a frigate with an O-5 skipper. In the CG, CO is an O-6 billet. Raising a WPB to an O-4 is exacerbating the problem. Command billets need to be pushed downward in rank to increase the qualified/experienced pool of officers for later (higher-ranking) command eligibility.

      Assigners must open up their eyes to XO billets too. The WWII US submarine fleet system of running prospective COs as an XO for one deployment under an experienced CO before taking command was outstanding. Just like with the CG today, they were dealing with complex systems and complex decision making and tactics. Every CO should do a deployment as XO first. This will also give an opportunity to scrub any prospects who do not perform satisfactorily.

      Lastly, Assigners / Officers should be required to build in a Dept. Head or Staff leadership role in-between command assignments. This would require dept. head billets to be filled, and not put mid-level officers in the difficult position of never being looked at for higher command if they do a staff or dept head tour.

      • Another point: I’m not sure, with the current/growing billet shortage issue happening, this is still the case, but I saw many a great O-3 and some great O-4s get drummed out of the service because of the old “move up or move out” system. I would hope with the shortages, this system has been discontinued, but we can never assume, as the bureaucracy can be slow to recognize and react.

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