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Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer, USN (Ret)

Chair & Professor of Practice, Undersea Warfare

A career submarine officer, Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer served in both fast attack submarines (SSNs) and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). He commanded USS LAJOLLA out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Submarine Squadron 15 in Guam. His flag officer tours included Vice Commander at Navy Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Center; Commander, Task Force 74/54 & Commander, Submarine Group 7 in Yokosuka, Japan; Commander Submarine Forces Pacific; Deputy Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet; Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet; and Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Plans, Policy and Strategy (N3N5).

Sawyer is a 1983 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering. He received a master’s degree in Engineering Management from Old Dominion University. He retired from the U.S. Navy in September 2021. In January 2022, he began working for the Naval Postgraduate School as the Undersea Warfare (USW) Chair and Professor of the Practice.

What led you to the Naval Postgraduate School and what has been the most impactful while on staff here?

I liked the idea of teaching young officers about Undersea Warfare and being able to continue to assist the Navy in working on the challenges we face in the future.

As the Undersea Warfare Chair at NPS, you are aligned underneath both the Undersea Warfare Academic Group and the Naval Warfare Studies Institute. What are your goals as the Undersea Warfare Chair and how have they evolved over the last year?

As the USW Warfare Chair, I work with the Under Sea Enterprise — an organizational construct that includes the organizations that contribute to USW including the air, surface & subforce Program offices, Type Commands (TYCOMs), warfare centers, etc. — to identify the issues they are working. After identifying these issues, I then work with the NPS students and faculty to determine if we can help. NPS can help with theses, wargames or research. Importantly, NPS incorporates this work into the educational curriculum the student is taking.

My predecessor did an outstanding job as the USW Chair for about 12 years. It was easy to take the baton from him and continue forward. My focus is slightly different in that I try to focus my efforts and the students/Faculty on nearer term Undersea Enterprise identified challenges. And I want the student to be ‘sponsored’ by a USW organization. As a sponsor, the USW organization provides the area to be addressed & conducts periodic vector checks with the student to make sure he/she is on target. Additionally, the sponsor can open doors to ensure the student has the info needed to work on and complete the effort. The student out briefs the work to the sponsor. Both the students and the sponsors are benefiting from this arrangement. We can and need to do more.    

What are the most substantial threats facing our Nation and how is NPS positioned to address those threats?

I focus on the operational issues facing our Navy/Nation and more specifically those threats in the Pacific. That is not to downplay other security issues we face throughout the world but simply a recognition that my bandwidth requires me to prioritize to ensure I deliver outcomes. With this, I think President Rondeau’s new Strategic Vision for NPS is correctly re-shaping and focusing how NPS works with the Fleet/Force. One of the goals, in my words, is better leveraging our world class NPS professors & researchers and our warrior-scholars onto the Naval challenges.

Tell us about the Nimitz Research Group. What is your role? Who is involved?

The Nimitz Research Group is a cohort of students whose common goal of their thesis or capstone work at NPS is to work on a problem associated with the Pacific. Our primary Fleet supporter of this effort is Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMPACFLT). However, the students can do work for any of the organizations focusing on Pacific problems, like Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC) or Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (FMFPAC).

My role is as the ‘senior mentor.’ I assist the students in making connections – finding a challenge/thesis and a sponsor – and provide my operational view on their effort as they proceed. My counterpart, Professor Jake Didoszak, is the Academic Advisor. He works on the academic side of things and between the two of us we cover what the student needs to complete their projects.  

The Nimitz Research Group was established one year ago in February of 2022. What progress has been made over the past year? What are some of the problem sets that the NRG is working on?

The Nimitz Research Group is now at initial operational capability. We just completed our first visit to COMPACFLT where the students received briefings from the CPF leadership on specific issues they were working on or needed help with. We had 11 students on the trip, and they all completed the week with topics identified and sponsors lined up. The efforts the students are currently working range from in-theater distribution of supplies to ice keel predictions to offensive mining.  

During your time on active duty, you served in several command and leadership roles in both 7th Fleet and U.S. Pacific Fleet. Why is it important for U.S. Pacific Fleet to be tied into the Naval Postgraduate School through the Nimitz Research Group? How does this relationship expand PACFLT’s capability and enhance operations in the Indo-Pacific Theater?

The NRG is one effort that ties NPS students & faculty to the most pressing operational challenges the Navy faces. We have other ‘touch points’ with COMPACFLT including the Naval Warfare Studies Institute (NWSI) and an effort called ‘NPS Makalapa,’ which is an offering of NPS specific short courses to COMPACFLT and Pacific commands. Holistically, NPS working with Pacific commands is in the best interests of the Navy. The Pacific is our most pressing challenge and NPS can provide significant contributions to solving the challenges. And while we have a lot of focus on COMPACFLT, I believe that as we solve Naval problems in the Pacific, it also solves or informs the solutions for similar problems elsewhere.

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