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My universe uses a lot of parallels to modern and World War Era navies. With that, I am trying to make a plausible space navy operating several centuries from now. The particular ship for this question is an advanced hunter class cruiser designed for long solo missions.

The Executive Officer (XO) is a very capable commander that is under consideration to have a command of his own. He was actually considered for Commanding Officer (CO) of this ship but was passed by because he was still too far away from the rank of captain.

The event starts off with the CO giving him the command for a short operation and stepping aside. During the operation, something goes wrong with the helmsman and the ship comes under attack from multiple hostile ships. Without any hesitation, the XO jumps into action and gets the ship onto action. The captain had replaced the incapacitated helmsman and was now following orders from the XO.

I want this for character development, but I feel it might be too far out of proper procedure. Especially later when the XO gives an order and the captain disagrees with it. My question, in the event above, would it be plausible for a XO to command a ship in battle while the CO is available?

Edit: Based on the feedback I've seen, I need to incapacitate the CO and have the XO keep the conn that way. Other things that are important details:

  1. The helmsman mysteriously dies while in the middle of maneuvers between asteroids.
  2. The ship is on a covert operation spying on several other ships in a meeting in a very dense asteroid field (a moon that had been destroyed a few decades prior).
  3. The XO is being groomed for the CO of this ship, the ship is a state of the art "stealth" ship... As stealthy as one can get in space. It has a very good thermal shield and highly efficient maneuvering thrusters.
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  • $\begingroup$ Depending how long the missions are (if it is multiple years between port calls) you are going to need to consider crew development and shifting of roles so ultimately everyone is able to do everything. The mechanics of that could be very interesting to explore. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2022 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Markitect I am going to vote to close this question because it really belongs on the Writing.se stack. A moderator can migrate it over there, and all these comments will stay with it. You are really asking about character behavior in your world, not about your world. You have a story-based problem in a complete world. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 10, 2022 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because this problem needs character development, which should be handled on the Writing stack exchange. Request a moderator please migrate this to that site. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 10, 2022 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ Off-topic rant: Look at space exploration now. Does it look anything like ship sailing a few hundred years back? Do you really think space warfare will by anything like ships on water? (I hope it will not exist, though.) $\endgroup$
    – Pablo H
    Mar 10, 2022 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ It 'belongs' on History. But they're not going to translate naval into space for you. That's our job, +1 $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Mar 10, 2022 at 23:23

7 Answers 7

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Would it be plausible for a XO to command a ship in battle while the CO is available?

Having sailed MANY years under two military services I echo the common sentiment here. No, this is not plausible. If the CO was incapable of command it is MOST CERTAIN he/she is incapacitated for the helm as well. The circumstances to permit this command flip while the ship is in battle would be incredibly bizarre and you literally have incapacitated all other crew who have ever turned a steering wheel. The person most likely to take the helm if no lower rank members could do it would be the senior-most junior officer, or the Deck officer, and then the Operations Officer (that too means you are in a Bad Day).

It sounds like you are setting up a scene that would commend this XO for service above and beyond the call of duty, by assuming command while the Commanding Officer is physically able-bodied and on the bridge. This is not a commendation at all, because the reason the CO is driving is that your XO has assigned the commander to the steering wheel. Consider the logic here: Person A has command of a crew. That means everyone obeys orders from person A. However, the crew experiences a tragic crisis during an extremely intense situation, where the ship is in great danger of being discovered by a hostile enemy if they do not remain very stealthy, and keep the ship in a very precise location out of view. Then, suddenly, and with no reason, the critical person driving the ship is dead. Everyone's life is in danger now. Everyone is scared, confused, and rumors instantly form all around the ship about poison, or the ship's doctor is incompetent for not catching a problem, or the cooks are poisoning us, or there is a spy onboard the ship, or... an endless list of conspiracy theories suddenly spawn as these several hundred people stuck in a little metal bottle billions of miles away from their families and now in mortal danger stop caring about the ship or the mission, and start thinking about survival. And the answer their leader has is, "XO, you handle this mess. I feel like driving today." Ouch! Bad judgement call, you have successfully made your CO into an idiot by relinquishing his command at the first sight of trouble, but now everyone is taking orders from person B: The XO. (Let's not even go into the announcement that will go over the intercom telling the crew that their helm has no control and the one person they trusted with their lives has crumpled under the pressure). But somehow, this all happens, and Person B is now giving orders. His good news to the crew goes like this:

"All hands, this is your Executive Officer. We had a scare for a minute there and we lost our helmsman mysteriously. Yes, our commanding officer who we all signed up and volunteered to give our lives for has decided he could not handle this much pressure, so I am now in charge. My first act as Commanding Officer, then, to deal with this mysterious and tragic death, will be to put everyone's lives in the hands of the former CO. Now, don't worry. He might not be good under pressure, but I'm putting good money that he can still drive like the dickens, so I have decided to assign him to steer us out of danger. If you have a God, this is the time to pray. If not, well, good luck! That is all."

That XO will never see command.

While this is not an active combat scene, it is a situation that puts the crew directly in harm's way; it is an espionage scene. The same rules apply, you have just traded action for suspense. So I believe your real meta question here is more about setting the XO up to be the hero of the scene and the crew favorite. I can not emphasize enough that trying to manufacture a crisis in-world that puts the XO over the CO will turn out very badly for the reputations of both officers. A Commander is chosen specifically for their ability to command under the most dire situations. There is nothing at all you can do to make this Commander voluntarily release his authority that will end up with a hero somewhere. Perception is everything; intent does not exist. I am not answering your "I want the XO to look like..." question because no one cares what you want people to see, what matters is what they actually see. That is how story telling works. We (outside your story) see that the CO "meant" to groom the XO. No one will see it that way. This is a system-wide failure that will destroy trust in the military as a whole; no one will walk away with a medal, many will walk away without a paycheck if they are not executed for malfeasance. Keep reading, because you are in hostile territory and it may happen that none walk away at all.

Establish calm, build confidence

Your crew is on a stealth mission. There is no support anywhere. They are several hundred souls corked up in a little metal bottle floating in vast, cold space, and 4,307 plasma-photon-death-ray-lasers are anxious to smear their atoms across several conveniently nearby asteroids. Their nerves are raw, their adrenaline is high, and they are now trapped in this bottle with a killer (no matter what it was really—heart failure, a virus, poison, or whatever—the crew will make every possible conspiracy theory).

When the crew gets the news of the death of their shipmate, the mission no longer matters. Survival is all that matters, and THEY WANT ANSWERS. They will not function until the leaders they volunteered to serve convince them that they are safe. Safe from the asteroids, safe from the enemy, and now; safe from the killer among them. This has to come from a speech, and needs to be delivered by the XO after the CO has suffered some accident. It will be one of those speeches that has the national anthem playing in the background, and everyone on the ship stops what they are doing, takes off their hat and bows in tearful reverence. You have to deliver the speech that spreads across the galaxy and becomes a legend. Now your XO is set up to command.

But how do you handle the immediate crisis of an empty helm? You need to have him use amazing judgement in replacing the helm with a ringer. Or maybe the replacement is a loose cannon and your XO “has a gut feeling” (see my note below) that only this wildcard can drive them through this. A third option is that there are NO good drivers left, so he mentors a green helmsman who has only ever pulled out of port one time, is a third string cook who struggles with getting donuts to look like circles, and has beads of sweat running down her forehead. The XO commands gunfire, orders engines, all while calmly building confidence in this nervous long-shot driver. Think of Denzel Washington guiding a rookie through defusing a suicide bomb over the phone. The commendation for an XO will be given for leadership and judgement.

But the crew likes the XO better than the CO?

Military ships do not, thank all that is holy, operate as a democracy. A military structure only functions by the forfeiture of some basic rights. One cannot have both freedom of choice and a duty to obey orders in the same person. If your crew decided the XO would be a better leader than the CO, and even had discussions about taking orders from the XO instead of the CO, then the word for your situation is mutiny. Your ship is lost. Small gunfire breaks out from one or two loyalists, then everyone gets their atoms smeared across several conveniently nearby asteroids by 4,307 plasma-photon-death-ray-lasers.


NOTE: An XO is directly in charge of personnelle issues and would personally know any and all drama, shenanigans, mishaps, foibles and both good and bad behavior of the entire crew. That is the description of the Executive job. An XO would be (and is) the go to person for finding a qualified replacement for anyone.

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  • $\begingroup$ What I was initially thinking was that the XO was going to give the captain the conn back and take over the helm, but the captain shook his head and took over helm instead. At this point, there is no battle situation, just everyone wondering what happened to the original helm who mysteriously died in their chair. But looking at this and the other comments, I might have the captain getting knocked out in an impact since he was not buckled in. So another person could take helm then. $\endgroup$
    – Markitect
    Mar 10, 2022 at 2:59
  • $\begingroup$ So you basically want the CO to “show his trust” in the XO by relieving his own station, in peace time. The crew would do badly if one of their own died mysteriously and their commander’s response was to let the XO deal with it while he drives the boat. This can’t be spun in a good way. It just looks very very bad. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 10, 2022 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ That is a very good point I have missed. So I need to knock the captain out. Just to note, it is at peacetime... But "peace" time like Cold War peace. $\endgroup$
    – Markitect
    Mar 10, 2022 at 3:23
  • $\begingroup$ But your goal is to build the XO résumé right? That can be done in peace as well. I can work on the answer for that. Do NOT let the CO give his command away durning a crisis! I will explain in the update. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 10, 2022 at 4:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Markitect This action will have the opposite result, unfortunately. Leadership will only be recognized when it "happens," not when it is manufactured. You have all the elements in place with the mysterious death of a crewperson. The simple solution is to have the CO mishandle it so badly that the XO clearly has no option but to assume command. You must either incapacitate the captain or make him an incompetent sniveling idiot. When a member of the crew dies mysteriously, the whole crew becomes paranoid. Leadership must instill a calm and confidence, or the crew falls apart. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 10, 2022 at 5:31
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unlikely.

It is entirely feasible the XO will have the Conn at any particular time, the captain can't be on the bridge all the time.

Having the Conn means that the XO is essential in charge of the ship and will issue orders regarding its movement and operation. It possible that the XO would be given defacto command over a short operation for training purposes, especially if he is being groomed for future command

In a combat situation the XO would then be in charge until the captain reached the bridge when the captain would immediately take back the Conn as they are the ones that are responsible for the ship and there would be too much confusion if the XO and captain gave conflicted instructions.

That's not too say it's impossible for the captain to do it, but they would probably be court martial-ed after the fact for risking the lives of their crew

You are better off having the captain unable to reach the bridge until combat has finished

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It depends on the command structure and culture and probably the level of confidence of the CO has in his XO. Also how the ship is trained to react in emergencies. In the future, it may also depend on how highly automated the ship is.

In modern navies it is recognized that CO may delegate the operation of the ship. In the US a lot of that is a carryover of traditions from the British navy and sailing ships.

Usually the Officer of the Deck is the CO's designated representative and has the responsibility for the ship including directing where it goes, and depending on the situation, fighting the ship e.g. releasing weapons. For that there would be previously established rules of engagement.

The CO can also designate the XO, or occasionally some other usually senior officer to act as captain while he he gets some rest or if in port on leave etc. In that case the designated person has the authority of the captain, but may also have some additional orders to wake the captain up if a certain situation occurs, or to react in a certain way to a specific circumstance.

Assuming they are underway, the officer of the deck would then get permission from the XO for operations that would normally require the CO's permission. The officer of the deck would know through some type of standing orders that are logged, and the officer of the deck would sign the log acknowledging the orders of who is acting CO when taking the watch.

The CO has the ability to say, "I have the Conn", or "I assume Command" or a similar phrase, and take the Conn back from the officer of the deck and direct the ship at any time. Once saying that he has command, he assume his normal role.

In your example, the XO is doing his job. The CO doesn't have knowledge of the tactical picture, the XO may know the best direction to maneuver to fight the ship. So it is not unreasonable for the CO to take the helm and steer the ship if it needs to be done.

Somehow the ship needs to transition to "battle stations". If under attack, the crew should doing damage control, and the people assigned to specific positions they have trained for should get to their battle station positions, unless they are fighting the casualty. There should probably be a different helmsman who should be coming to take the helm. Or another helm qualified person should relieve the captain of the helm freeing him up. Once everyone is in their assigned battle station there should be less confusion.

If the CO disagrees with the XO, in your case I think he could say "I have the conn" and steer the ship the way he wants it. But he is taking a big risk, if he doesn't understand the tactical situation. If it is some other type of order, like firing a weapon, he might have time to countermand it, but things can happen very quickly, and even if he verbally countermands the order, someone could have taken action on the original order.

It is a more confusing situation where there is a helmsman (usually a qualified junior enlisted, (except maybe at battle stations where a more senior enlisted might have the helm) might have two senior officers giving him contradictory orders. That is partially the reason why the officer of the deck or Captain announces they have the conn.

In some ways, warships are very highly scripted and there are lots of checks to make sure orders are understood and and procedures or routines are followed.

Verbatim repeat back is one example, if the XO or whoever is driving ship says "right 15 degrees rudder", the helm should be repeating " right 15 degrees rudder Aye" back.

Sailing ships had very large crews. Modern ships and submarines have more crew than they actually need so they can do damage control. A cargo ship in comparison has a very small crew. In the future, with your space ship, depending the amount of automation the number of crew could be a lot smaller than a modern warship. However, somethings like a reliance on procedures, responding to certain types of casualties in very scripted ways, and ways to ensure good communications are likely to stick around.

Added Edit: As a practical matter, the CO wouldn't stick around playing helmsman very long. He would probably want to take control of the ship, and depending on the type of ship, the XO may be the person who is in charge of damage control, and may want to make sure that is going right.

If is is a very small crew, people are likely cross-trained to be able to do multiple functions.

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would it be plausible for a XO to command a ship in battle while the CO is available?

No

At the moment when you have the CO taking the helm, what would actually happen is that either:

  • a different junior officer would seize the helm; or
  • the XO would take the helm

The first option is by far the most likely, because on any vessel there will be many others ready to hand who are capable of taking over the helm.

Your scenario would especially not happen if the XO is "still too far away from the rank of captain" to be given his or her own command. In truth, nobody would even have contemplated giving him his own command. It is not the case that military brass looks at a seaman who has just distinguished himself, and says "gosh, he sure did a great job swabbing the deck -- anyone else think we should maybe put him in command of something?"

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  • $\begingroup$ He was more than distinguished, he was tested by the brass a couple years prior and was essentially selected to command this ship, but the Admiralty couldn't all agree on that so he was just given the XO position. $\endgroup$
    – Markitect
    Mar 10, 2022 at 3:35
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If you want to tell a story like this, assume that

  • The CO is temporarily incapacitated. Appendicitis, maybe? You could spin it in a way that having been under sedation puts the CO off duty for a prescribed period if the role is more like a pilot than a tactician.
  • The CO is in CIC, the XO is on the bridge, or vice versa, and power is lost to one of those compartments but not the other.
  • The CO is planetside for some reason and cannot get back in time.
  • The mission is not actually solo, the CO is the seniormost captain in the small squadron, and becomes the squadron commander. So the CO tells the XO, 'I'm on the flag bridge, you fight the ship.'
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  • $\begingroup$ Similar to CiC vs Bridge: The ship has to unexpectedly revert to emergency steering from engineering whilst the captain is in engineering section. The captain takes control of the emergency steering (which might require a lot of management), whilst the XO is coordinating the ship. $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2022 at 16:24
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Maybe if there's another task that only the CO is qualified for. Let's say something blows up in the engine room and knocks out all the engineering staff - the CO is a former engineer and knows the ship's mechanical operations better than anyone else who's available, including the XO. So XO takes the bridge while CO runs down to the engine room to do whatever tech-tech is required to get things under control. Something on the lines of "If we don't get someone down to take care of that warp core breach, we'll lose the whole ship!" (I believe this exact scenario has occurred more than once in the Star Trek franchise...)

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I have two scenarios I think are plausible:

Something particular about the scenario means the XO is more experienced.

Perhaps, for example, they are fighting a particular enemy or encountering a rare, strange and dangerous phenomena. The CO allows the XO to take over in this case because of his particular experience in that area. It must be something fairly odd for this to happen but hey....strange things happen in space.

Computer security malfunction.

This is probably easy to pull off. The high tech spaceship has high tech security controls. You can't just go sit at a console and start using it. The ship itself has to recognize that you are authorized to do so. Some battle damage (or just a good old bug in the software) has caused the system to lock the XO into the command position. The CO cannot take command because the ship does not recognize his authority to do so. He can stand there and tell the XO what to do but in the interest of efficiency, decides to just let the XO command while the CO goes off to handle damage control or engineering or whatever, leaving the XO totally in charge.

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