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Pacific edition, Thursday, August 16, 2007

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Four steps. That’s how far Lt. Robert Shu will move to assume command of the USS Patriot next year.

Same goes for Lt. Ted Essenfeld, moored next door on the USS Guardian. Both men are executive officers on Sasebo Naval Base mine countermeasures ships. Both will “fleet up” to commanding officer on their ships next year and are leading a Navy-wide surface warfare initiative that will affect 65 ships by 2009, and more than 120 ships by 2015.

“It’s a whole different kind of ownership,” said Essenfeld during a phone interview with Stripes last month. “This is for the long term.”

The Navy initiative, in which XOs serve 18 months before assuming command on the same ship for another 18 months, was announced in 2005 and is designed to bring more stability and consistency to ship leadership, which in turn is hoped to increase readiness. Naval aviation has done something similar with squadron leadership for years, Shu said.

Because mine countermeasures ships are small, with crews of about 80 people, both Essenfeld and Shu felt that these were ideal ships to pilot the program.

Guardian crewmember Petty Officer 2nd Class Bradley Derum agreed.

From a crew perspective, “long, shaky” transitions can be avoided when the skipper has specific ship experience and the crew knows whom they are working for, he said.

“I personally think it’s a good idea that the XO gets some experience before jumping in the captain’s chair,” Derum said. “It gives everyone a leg up.”

Essenfeld said he also enjoys knowing that the policies and changes that are being implemented today will follow him to his next command.

“As the XO, I implement policies and effect changes that impact everyone, and because I’ll be the CO, I know the changes I make today can shape the ship the way I want to it to be running months from now,” Essenfeld said.

But both Shu and Essenfeld are quick to say that the line between jobs still is very sharply delineated.

For now, they are sticking to their jobs as XO and they don’t talk about “fleet up” with their crews unless they’re asked, they said.

“There’s no confusion,” Shu said. “The roles are clearly defined — everyone onboard knows who the captain is. I’ll have my shot when the time comes.”

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