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Job Description for a Tactical Action Officer

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A tactical action officer in the U.S. Navy is responsible for the weapons, sensors and propulsion of a ship or group of ships in the absence of the captain. The TAO has the same power to maneuver, defend and attack against an enemy threat as the captain, but only when the captain is off duty and doesn't have command of the bridge.


Officers have been serving on Navy surface ships for centuries, but the designation of surface warfare officer (SWO) is a relatively recent addition to the U.S. naval lexicon. In 1975, the first SWO insignias were created to recognize the unique skill set of these officers. To acquire this insignia, each newly commissioned officer had to attend Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) for six months and then serve for two tours on different ships. During these tours, the officers learn to command every system on the ship until they work their way up to the tactical action officer position, where they command every system at once in the absence of the captain. Since 2003, newly commissioned officers go straight to their ships for initial training and then attend SWOS for one month.


Newly commissioned surface warfare officers command individual systems when they serve as the conning officer to drive the ship, the officer of the deck" to run engineering or combat information center watch officer to command all weapons. As tactical action officers, however, they will command all of these systems at once. To be chosen for the TAO position means you have mastered command of every individual system in the ship and are ready to combine your experience into one complex job.


The tactical action officer is responsible for controlling the ship's weapons, sensors and propulsion in defense or attack against enemy forces. To successfully utilize every aspect of a Navy ship or even possibly a task force requires the mastery of naval tactics. With the basic skills of a captain at hand, the tactical action officer represents the captain's voice on the bridge until relieved by another tactical action officer or the captain.

Types of Training

Naval officers receive general instruction before they are commissioned, but they are immediately assigned to a ship upon receiving their commission as ensigns, where they strive to qualify as officer of the deck. Once this is accomplished, they are sent to Surface Warfare Officer School, where they train through naval maneuvers and complex simulators. After a month at the SWOS, the officers are prepared to return to their ships and earn their SWO insignia pins by completing each qualification. One of the most difficult milestones toward qualification is the tactical action officer position.

Benefits of the Intelligent Tutoring System

The Navy uses a Tactical Action Officer-Intelligent Tutoring System (TAO-ITS) to train surface warfare officers for the tactical action officer position. The ITS is basically a complex naval video game. Instructors at the SWOS can create scenarios within which they control the geography, the types of ships and aircraft present as well as the battle plan of the simulated enemy forces. This tactical naval simulator allows junior officers to train intensively in preparation for the tactical action officer position.


Scott Friedman is a writer based in Bend, Ore. Friedman was a technical writer for a USAID contractor and a community health system. He writes for various magazines and websites while running a proposal development firm, BDC International. He holds a B.A. in international affairs from George Washington University.

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