Sabering Seahorses

Yesterday, it was announced that there is to be Principal Warfare Officer badge. Noting that the crowd that care about this is small but passionate, here are my thoughts.

Background. A Principal Warfare Officer (PWO), in very brief, is the person who fights the ship. They sit in the operations room and aggregate multiple sources of data and information in order to make fighting recommendations to the Captain. You are the ships expert on Rules of Engagement and weapons delegations mean that you often don’t need to defer to the Captain to engage ‘the enemy’. You need an intimate knowledge of the operating parameters (primary and reversionary) of every weapon system and sensor onboard. This includes guns (many), radars, missiles, torpedoes, electronic warfare sensors, radio and satellite communications and the helicopter. The best have an advanced knowledge of how these all work from a technical perspective as well. You need to be able to talk to non-owned assets such as headquarters, ships in the task group, fighter jets, patrol aircraft and occasionally submarines. One of the PWOs will be the head of the Warfare Department and therefore responsible for the Operational Capability of the ship and one will be responsible for the ship’s programme from tomorrow out to 12 months. Get the job wrong and that’s probably you done. Get it right and it’s a major step towards your own command.

Confidence. Despite being so central to warship operations, the PWO group does sometimes suffer from a lack of confidence. “It’s a trade you default to if you don’t tick any other boxes”. Sometimes you come to it “if you have failed elsewhere”. In other words, it’s the opposite of an elite. Personally, I don’t think this matters – it’s just the way it is – but if you are susceptible to barroom ‘bants’ from other branches, and many are, then you can see how it might. Interestingly, the US Navy equivalent suffers from something similar, perhaps more-so in a surface navy so dominated by the carrier and therefore the aviator. Over there, this manifests itself in some bad behaviours. The hideous expression ‘eating their young’ was perhaps coined for USN SWOs although our very own submariners probably push them close. I understand that RAF Harrier mates would have had a shout back in the day as well! Nevertheless, this is never something to either do or be proud of and fortunately, with the possible exception of the late 90s, not a modus operandi that the RN has ever adopted. Nevertheless, Is the badge designed to address the business of not being in an elite?

PWO Course. The course that trains you for all this takes you to the dry-land of HMS Collingwood for a whole year. You will generally be in your early 30s, having done about 10 years in one or two of a wide range of pre-PWO careers. Navigators, fighter controllers, divers, minewarfare officers, aviators, submariners, engineers, reservists and deck officers from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary have all done the PWO course over the years. As you’d expect, operations room experience varies a lot when drawn from a base this diverse. With the list of expertise required of a PWO and the breadth of the pipeline that feeds the system, you can see why the training course is a year long – there’s a lot to learn.

Sea Time. Another possible reason for a badge would be to recognise the length of time a warfare officer is expected to be away from home at a age when they are more likely to have a young family. As an example, my four seagoing jobs prior to PWO course, spread over eight years, saw me at sea for 70% of the time. That’s 5.6 years ‘away from base port’. In my 10 years post PWO course, across five ships, I was 65% out of base port. So, in my 18 ship-based years, I was away from home for just over 12 of them. These are pretty normal figures and amongst other things, explain the sanctity of the one-year shore-based course in the middle of it all. I digress. My point, whilst contentious, is relevant – PWOs, along with submariners, can probably lay claim to the highest levels of domestic upheaval across their career, certainly in the Navy and perhaps across Defence (although I’m sure there will be some SF types who could have a tilt at this particular ‘prize’). Of course you are at the sharp end of a seagoing service so one can’t complain but that doesn’t mean that the sacrifice shouldn’t be recognised.

Existing Badges (for officers). With that as background, and before I get to the messy business of whether or not PWOs should have their own badge, it is worth noting just now many distinguishing badges there already are. Doctors, dentists, divers, pilots, observers, submariners, bomber submariners (most recent addition), commando course, special forces, parachutists, naval architects all have badges or wear coloured stripes to denote their trade or sub-branch. As far as I can tell, they are all here to stay. [Of historical interest, in 1863, engineers and logistics officers were ordered to wear different coloured stripes to denote their trade. These were disbanded in 1955 but their nicknames; pinky, greenie and ‘the white mafia’ live on. And because they’re nicknames, they all have offensive addendums.] Doctors and Dentists have kept their coloured stripes to distinguish them as non-combatants in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Reserves used to have a gold ‘R’ in the loop of their epaulettes – ditched as divisive in about 2003. The point is, the all-of-one-company notion is already wobbling. It also shows that in a service as old as the RN, ‘uniform’ is often anything but. Still, at least it’s not the British Army who knit their own trousers.

Next up I have divided much of the above into the pros and cons that often accompany this discussion both over the years, and now in response to this initiative.


– A PWO badge lies against the ‘all of one company’ ethos and is therefore divisive, perhaps more so as the navy shrinks. (However, see ‘Existing badges’ above).

– “Badges are for boy scouts”. Or, “it’s (American) bling”. You really need to see a US officer in their No1 uniform to know what this means and why some will object. No offence.

– Those that need to know you are a PWO already know – why the need to show it in a badge. (See ‘Confidence’ above).

– It is particularly divisive for the engineering heads of department in a ship. They have rank and responsibility equivalence to their PWO counterparts – why should they not have something similar?

– Cost. No idea what this will be in this instance but should we be spending money on this kind of thing in the current climate? 


– Pride in the branch. The breadth of expertise required of a qualified PWO is notable. ‘Jack of all trades’ is their greatest strength. ‘Master of all’ is hard to do but if you manage it, and at the say so of your CO, then why not have it recognised. Also, you’re at sea all the time – something to be proud of.

– Sense of identity. Building and identifying cadres such as this make the branch more attractive to both join and then stay (critical). 

– Pay. In the absence of a PWO pay-band (unlike nearly all of the others listed above) why would you not want a badge to recognise the hardship.

– They’re useful when working with other services and countries. There is some truth in this – being able to identify your trade when overseas can be useful, particularly when nearly everyone else does. 

Story Time. I’ll finish in timeless fashion with two ‘dits’. The first was in 2009 when the idea of a surface warfare badge (for all ranks and rates) was aired and nearly came to fruition. It came about because a senior Warrant Officer returned from what was clearly a bling-rich US trip (sorry, repeat theme) feeling rather under-dressed. He was sufficiently animated to fire-up the admiral to whom he was accountable who then ran with it. The idea was aired at the annual commanding officers’ forum where it generated a lot of discussion split broadly along the lines above but tending to dissent. The Warrant Officer protested publicly with the full authority of someone whose day job was to gather this kind of feedback with a, “I’ve spoken to Ratings across the navy and they are all massively in support”. Very few can/would dare counter that with one notable exception. A carrier XO, who was a forthright officer, said,, “can I ask who all these Ratings are, because I’ve got 600 in my ship and they all think it’s shit”. I’ve no idea if the PWO community themselves want this badge but beware the person who claims to understand all target audiences.

The second shows how divisive this subject can be. Badges for submariners were introduced in the 1950s, taking their current form of two non-distanced dolphins (making out) in 1972. I have it on good authority from someone who was there on both occasions, that submariners on hated them. Yet now they are the cornerstone of the branch – the green beret of the underwater world, maybe even the lyre of the volunteer bandsman. They are awarded in a ceremony that involves receiving them in a glass of rum which the proud recipient trades for never going on a run ashore again. It seems that we are a fickle bunch when it comes to these things and perhaps the real issue is just one of fear-of-change rather than anything more profound.

Summary. In my view, I don’t think the PWO badge is required. It erodes ‘all-of-one-company’ and the increased sense-of-team doesn’t offset this (or is even required). I also think that medals and stripes are enough bling on one uniform and that the target audience to whom this matters isn’t large enough to justify the cost. However, as long as this isn’t just part of a wider desire to meddle then there is good news. First, no one cares what I think and second, in three years time it will be as normal as dolphins, bomber pins, AB rank slides or any number of other initiatives the contentiousness of which was short-lived.

Published by Tom Sharpe

Tom Sharpe is a freelance communications consultant and partner at, an international communications consultancy. He specialises in managing reputations and capacity building for complex and often contested organisations. Prior to this he spent 27 years in the Royal Navy, 20 of which were at sea. He commanded four different warships; Northern Ireland, Fishery Protection, a Type 23 Frigate and the Ice Patrol Vessel, HMS Endurance.

2 thoughts on “Sabering Seahorses

  1. I completed PWO 67 back in the dark ages of 1986. Already an Observer, the thought of having a badge for qualifying never crossed my mind, nor was it aired. While the course was not particularly demanding when compared to say Operational Flying training in the Lynx, it represented the main ‘Career Course’ at the time and it was clear that it was rapidly becoming a pre-requisite for Command. It was said that failing the course would be a complete career stopper but those I was aware of that left, did so not because of professional ineptitude but more because of being treated like a schoolboy after as much as 9 to 12 years at sea. At the time, the course carried little or no prestige and I don’t remember feeling particularly proud of my achievement, rather relieved that it was over and keen to get on with my career.

    The USN have always had their Surface Warfare badge that extends to all levels and the Surface Warfare Association in the USN carries a lot of weight in the Future USN debate. In my time in the US, I always felt that the Surface Warfare pin did act as a source of pride for those wearing it and identified them as individuals continuing to work hard to further their careers and succeed on the path to Command. I was also very much a fan of the ‘Command Pin’ rightly singling out those who had achieved a major career pinnacle.

    In sum, I am in favour of anything that builds esprit de corps, recognises hard work and professional commitment. I particularly like the different colour for Command recognition.


    1. Thanks Alan,

      I’m not surprised you didn’t find the course challenging. Of all the many entry points, I always thought that Observers were perhaps the best prepared although my small ships nav/FC route was good as well. Others came in from a much less well prepared start position – divers always spring to mind for some reason…!

      I did mine in ’02 and would say that those that left did so not because of the way we were treated but more because they just didn’t fancy the job enough to overcome the impending sea time. Same end result though.

      Interesting perspective from across the pond which of course bears relevance, not least because of their penchant for shiny things! The difference in how/when they award theirs, whilst seemingly minor, are actually significant as you say. And if someone had told me to wear a command star I wouldn’t have objected, so clearly my objections are inconsistent.

      As I said in the blog, I’m not sure these things are desperately important. There’s a flurry of chat then in a year, everyone has forgotten. My only exception to this would be if this is part of a wider theme of pursuing vanity projects – then it’s an issue.



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