Story and photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Josh Keim

Behind every ship’s commanding officer (CO) is a small group of Tactical Action Officers (TAO) who are responsible for weapons release, sensors and overall defense of the ship in the absence of the captain.

Chief Warrant Officer Chad Guerrero is one of three TAOs assigned to Stennis. He has served in the Navy for more than 21 years and has been a TAO aboard Stennis since April 2009.

Prior to qualifying as a TAO, Guerrero had to graduate from Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) where he trained with other officers in naval maneuvering exercises using complex simulators.

“The training was challenging because I had to prove to a lot of people that I was able to withstand the pressure and had the ability to do the job effectively,” said Guerrero.

The Navy uses a Tactical Action Officer- Intelligent Tutoring System (TAO-ITS) to train for the TAO position. The TAO-ITS is a complex, interactive video simulation that allows instructors to create scenarios within which they control the geography, types of air, surface and sub-surface contacts, and the battle plan for the simulated enemy forces.

The TAO-ITS gives officers the training required to prepare them as TAOs.

Guerrero said the training room at SWOS is surrounded on all sides by display screens, and the instructors are able to manipulate the screens to make it look like the inside of a carrier, frigate or a destroyer.

“They had contacts coming in at us in a simulated bridge,” said Guerrero. “It was pretty cool to be able to look out the port side window and see a small boat driving into us.”

Students at SWOS use prearranged operating procedures called pre-planned responses to communicate with enemy contacts, shoot warning flares, and launch missiles.

“You’re stumbling all over the place before you figure out the right thing to do,” said Guerrero. “Once you feel confident with one contact, you move on to the next level where two or more contacts are coming at you.”

Upon graduating from SWOS, Guerrero reported to Stennis for a three-year tour and earned his job as TAO by completing three qualifications.

“First I got qualified as the Combat Direction Center Watch Officer (CDCWO), whose primary job is to control the surface side of the house,” said Guerrero. “Then I progressed to the air defense side of the house as the Air Defense Weapons Coordinator (ADWC). “The ADWC controls the processes of launching and recovering aircraft. Once I qualified as CDCWO and ADWC, I moved over to the TAO position where I supervised the previous two positions and learned to be the captain’s TAO.”

Operations Specialist 2nd Class Keegan Wigger, an air intercept controller who has worked with Guerrero for more than three years said watching officers move from one area of responsibility to another is a complicated exchange.

“The biggest thing with transitioning from one watch to another is the changing of mindsets,” said Wigger. “To switch mindsets to what you need to think about for different warfare areas takes a toll on your watch standing and how you approach different situations.”

Guerrero said it was difficult but became easier as he progressed to each position.

“The first qualification board that I completed and passed was like taking one small brick off my back,” said Guerrero. “By the time I got to the TAO position, it was like they had taken off a whole sea bag of bricks, and I felt so much lighter.”

Guerrero had to exhibit proficient command in each of the three systems in order to prove he was ready. As TAO, he would have to combine all his experiences into one complex job.

“To me, this is a top dog position,” said Guerrero. “It means a lot that the CO has enough trust in me to allow me to do my job as a TAO and carry out his battle orders. It feels good to have that much respect from my chain of command.”

The captain’s TAOs are trained and qualified to defend Stennis and keep it prepared for battle.