Leadership: Iron Ships And Wooden Captains


September 26, 2010: So far this year, the U.S. Navy has relieved fifteen commanders of ships or major facilities. The two latest incidents involved the captain of a SSBN (nuclear sub carrying ballistic missiles) and the commander of the Trident Training Facility in Washington state. These last two were relieved in the same week. Two submarine captains have been relieved in the last month. For all of last year, 19 captains were relieved. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the U.S. Navy has been experiencing a larger number of warship captains getting relieved from command. It's currently over five percent of ship captains a year. At the end of the Cold War, in the late 1980s, the rate was about 3-4 percent a year. So why has the relief rate gone up?

There appears to be a number of reasons for this, many of them having to do with changes in the rating system (where commanders evaluate their subordinates each year). Seeking a solution, the navy queried commanders for new ideas for the evaluation system. One of the more interesting ones is to hold commanders responsible for their evaluations. Thus, when a commander was up for promotion, one of the items considered would be the accuracy of their past evaluations. After all, the higher your rank, the more important it is for you to pick the right people for promotion. The navy has also looked at how corporations handle this evaluation process, and discovered that it was common to poll subordinates for evaluations as well. The navy was aware that some commanders consult senior NCOs (chiefs) on evaluations. Chiefs have a lot of experience, and see officers a bit differently than more senior officers.

Another problem was a major modification, two decades ago, in these fitness reports, in which written comments on many aspects of an officer evaluation were changed to a 1-5 ranking system. The new method also forced raters to rank all their subordinates against each other. This was unfair to a bunch of high performing officers who happened to be serving together, and being rated by the same commander.

Even more worrisome is the fact that only a small percentage of reliefs have to do with professional failings (a collision or serious accident, failing a major inspection or just continued poor performance.) Most reliefs (73 percent of those this year) were, and still are, for adultery, drunkenness or theft. With more women aboard warships, there have been more reliefs for, as sailors like to put it, "zipper failure." Typically, these reliefs include phrases pointing out that the disgraced officer, "acted in an unprofessional manner toward several crew members that was inappropriate, improper and unduly familiar.” Such "familiarity" usually includes sex with subordinates, 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."

Most naval officers see the problem not of too many captains being relieved, but too many unqualified officers getting command of ships 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 hundred 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? Some 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.

In some respects, there have been fewer reliefs. It's now common to leave a captain in charge after a major incident. When the destroyer "Cole" was hit by a terrorist bomb in a Yemen harbor in 2000, the captain was not immediately relieved. This is part of a new pattern which makes many naval officers uneasy. Officers, and sailors, would be more disturbed if the rate of captains being relieved went down. No captain is perfect, and crewmembers feel more comfortable if they know that their boss will quickly get the axe if there is a major problem.

And then there is the problem with the chiefs, history and zero tolerance. Asking the chiefs (Chief Petty Officers, the senior NCOs who supervise the sailors) might provide some illumination about officer potential. Except that, over the last decade, officers have been less inclined to ask their chiefs much. The "zero tolerance" atmosphere that has permeated the navy since the end of the Cold War, has led officers to take direct control of supervisory duties the chiefs used to handle. The chiefs have lost a lot of their influence, responsibility and power.

The problem is that, with "zero tolerance", one mistake can destroy a career. This was not the case in the past. Many of the outstanding admirals of World War II would have never survived in today's navy. For example, Bill "Bull" Halsey ran his destroyer aground during World War I, but his career survived the incident. That is no longer is the case. It's also well to remember that, once World War II began, there was a massive removal of peacetime commanders from ships. The peacetime evaluation system selected officers who were well qualified to command ships in peacetime, but not in wartime. Same pattern with admirals.

Another problem is that officers don't spend as much time at sea, or in command, as in the past. A lot of time is spent going to school, and away from the chiefs and sailors. For example, while the navy had more ships in the 1930s, than it does today, there were fewer people in the navy. That's because, back then, 80 percent of navy personnel were assigned to a ship, and had plenty of time to learn how to keep it clean and operational. With that much less practical experience, it's understandable that more captains would prove unable to do the job.




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