9/11: A turning point for Navy Master-at-Arms

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a turning point for the Navy Master-at-Arms rating. MA retained its law enforcement functions while simultaneously taking on more security, force protection, and antiterrorism duties.

Twenty years ago, the tragic events of September 11, 2001, changed the face of America forever. It also changed the military with greater emphasis on security, force protection and antiterrorism. The events of that day forever altered the course of the U.S. Navy’s Master-at-Arms (MA) rating.

Established nearly 50 years ago in July 1973, the MA rate was only open to personnel in pay grades E-6 and above. Individuals in the E-5 paygrade could apply, if already selected for advancement to E-6 or held substantial law enforcement related qualifications. The Navy chose 486 of the fleet’s top Sailors from a field of more than 2,000 applicants to be the first Sailors in the newly established rate.

Alan Johnson, a retired warrant officer and a Vietnam War veteran, was among the 486 Sailors who were chosen to crossover and serve as a Navy MA. In a 2013 interview, Johnson said, “Back then, we went through the Air Force’s law enforcement course, but much of what we did learn came from on-the-job training. The Navy was not sure what it was going to do with MAs and what they were supposed to do.”

Before 9/11, the MA rating was seen as primarily an overseas law enforcement rating, according to retired Master Chief Master-at-Arms Robert Burgett, who today serves as the learning standards officer at the U.S. Navy’s Center for Security Forces.

“Studies were going on to see if jobs could be out-sourced to civilians,” said Burgett. “Navy leadership did not know how to use MAs or how the rate would fit within the Navy’s mission. The rate’s manning level was around 1,500, as I recall. Most senior people back then knew each other no matter which coast you were on.”

However, 9/11 was a turning point; it changed everything, including the MA rating. In the wake of 9/11, the MA rate retained its law enforcement functions while simultaneously taking on more security, force protection, and antiterrorism duties.

“The Navy needed the means to provide itself with force protection and antiterrorism capabilities using a force other than the U.S. Marine Corps,” said Burgett. “The Marines were a fighting force needed on the front lines. The MAs were trained on small arms, self-defense, law enforcement, force protection, and antiterrorism in steps. Over time, the MA mission migrated from law enforcement to security forces.”

A Sailor receives apprenticeship training to become a master-at-arms at the Naval Technical Training Center Lackland, located in San Antonio, Texas. The school recently underwent significant changes to its apprenticeship course curriculum to align the training to fleet requirements and the Navy’s Sailor 2025 vision.

“The new curriculum includes a hybrid of Security Reaction Force Basic, Security Reaction Force Advanced, Active Shooter Response, advanced First Aid, improved training aids to enhance the training experience, and more,” said Lt. Cmdr. Kelly Cruz in a June 2020 interview.

The course redesign employs various innovations and new ideas to bring training in line with modern-day and emerging threats. The training now expands the focus on threat determination and response to prepare students for real-life situations in the fleet.

Today, the dedicated Sailors of the master-at-arms rating are more tactically proficient, ready to protect Navy personnel and property worldwide. They are the guardians of the fleet.

The Center for Security Forces provides specialized training to more than 23,000 students per year. It has 14 training locations across the United States and worldwide that carry the motto: “Where Training Breeds Confidence.”