June 27, 2010:
The U.S. Navy has relieved the captain of a frigate (USS John L. Hall), because, two months ago, his ship bumped into a pier as it was docking in the Black Sea port of Batumi, Georgia. There was no damage to the pier, but the Hall suffered damage costing $160,000 to repair. After the investigation was over, the navy concluded that the captain should be relieved for loss of confidence in his ability to command.
That makes seven ship captains relieved so far this year, more than twice the rate that it has been relieving them in the last few years. That, in turn, is an increase over the rate for the 1990s. Other strange things are happening. One of the most recent dismissals was unusual for two reasons. First, the dismissed captain was a woman, and, secondly, the navy gave the reason (abusive treatment of the crew, and the captains demeanor and temperament). Complaints from the crew had been coming in for some time, and the captain was relieved as she was at the end of her tour of duty on the USS Cowpens, and in the process of turning over command to another officer. The dismissed captain went off to her next assignment, as a staff officer, but her career prospects are now rather dim.
The navy rarely releases details of why the officers are relieved. But the usual reasons are character flaws of one kind or another. Running the ship aground is seen as a rather obvious failing, but it is not the most common one. Those would be cases involving "zipper control" (adultery with another officer's wife, or a subordinate). The British also relieve a lot of commanders, and are more forthcoming with the reasons. One British skipper got the sack recently for "bullying." That is similar to what happened on the Cowpens.
In the last decade, the U.S. Navy has been relieving more commanders (of ships and units). In the first few years of the 21st century, the navy relieved 6-8 commanders a year. In 2003, that went up to seventeen, and the number has remained high every since. At the end of the Cold War, in the late 1980s, the rate was about a third less, and after the Cold War ended, it declined further.
So why has the relief rate more than doubled in the last few years? With more women aboard warships, there have been more reliefs for, as sailors like to put it, "zipper failure." There may have been more than are indicated, as sexual misconduct is often difficult to prove, and a captain who is having zipper control problems often has other shortcomings as well. Senior commanders traditionally act prudently and relieve a ship commander who demonstrates a pattern of minor problems and who they "lack confidence in."
Many naval officers see the problem not of too many captains being relieved, but too many unqualified officers getting command of ships and units in the first place. Not every naval officer qualified for ship command. Only a small percentage of the 53,000 commissioned officers gets one. The competition for ship commands is pretty intense. This, despite the fact that officers know that, whatever goes wrong on the ship, the captain is responsible.
It's a hard slog for a new ensign (officer rank O-1) to make it to a ship command. For every hundred ensigns entering service, about 90 will stay and make it to O-4 (Lieutenant Commander), usually after about nine years of service. About 67 of those ensigns will eventually get to serve as XO (executive officer, the number two officer on a ship) after 10-12 years of service. Some 69 of those ensigns will make it to O-5 (Commander), where it first becomes possible to command a ship (a frigate or destroyer.) About 38 of those hundred ensigns will get such a command, usually after 18-20 years of service, and for about 18 months. About 22 of those ensigns will make it to O-6 (Captain) after 20-21 years of service. But only 11 of those ensigns (now captains) will get a major seagoing command (cruiser, destroyer squadron). Officers who do well commanding a ship will often get to do it two or three times before they retire after about 30 years of service.
But with all this screening and winnowing, why are more unqualified officers getting to command ships, and then getting relieved because they can't hack it? Navy captains point to the growing popularity of "mentoring" by senior officers (that smaller percentage that makes it to admiral.) While the navy uses a board of officers to decide which officers get ship commands, the enthusiastic recommendation of one or more admirals does count. Perhaps it counts too much. While the navy is still quick to relieve any ship commander that screws up (one naval "tradition" that should never be tampered with), up until that point, it is prudent not to offend any admirals by implying that their judgment of "up and coming talent" is faulty. In the aftermath of these reliefs, it often becomes known that the relieved captain had a long record of problems. But because he was "blessed" by one or more admirals, these infractions were overlooked. The golden boys tend to be very personable and, well, look good. The navy promotion system is organized to rise above such superficial characteristics, but apparently the power, and misuse, of mentoring, has increasingly corrupted the process.