Morale: Failure At The Top

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February 18, 2022: Recently the U.S. Navy relieved the top three leaders of an Amphibious Construction battalion (known as Seabees). Those relieved included the commander (a naval captain, the equivalent of an army or air force colonel) and his executive officer (a naval commander or lieutenant colonel) as well as the senior NCO (a master chief petty officer). The reasons were not revealed but they were not serious enough for prosecution and the three were transferred to similar jobs elsewhere in the navy. In these cases, the reasons eventually come out and usually involve some behavior the navy does not currently approve of. That may include overlooking the covid19 vaccination status of subordinates, who otherwise face expulsion from the navy. Other unprosecuted causes for dismissal include drunk and disorderly behavior or unauthorized morale-building activities, like hiring a stripper to welcome back the crew of a submarine returning from months at sea, submerged. Despite decades of efforts to reduce reliefs for poor leadership, there are still 30 to 40 a year.

A decade ago, the navy began making changes in how commanders were selected. This was supposed to be yet another solution to its problem with an ever-increasing number of commanders getting relieved. The 2012 solution standardized how commanders were selected and incorporates the opinions of subordinates and peers when assessing command capability. These are all techniques long used successfully by business organizations. Actually, in the past the navy did consult senior NCOs (Chief Petty Officers) about officer leadership potential, but that practice fell out of favor some time before commander failures began to increase. The 2012 procedures were experimental and not being implemented everywhere immediately.

It may take a while to reverse the trend of increasing reliefs. In 2011 the navy broke a record when it relieved 35 senior commanders. Worse yet, 27 of them were commanding or executive officers on ships. This was higher than the previous record year, 2003, when 23 were relieved. The reliefs continue to occur at record numbers.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the U.S. Navy has been experiencing a larger number of warship captains and other senior naval commanders getting relieved. A decade ago, it was 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 rate gone up? And why hasn't the navy been able to do anything to reverse this three-decade long trend?

There appears to be a number of reasons for this, some of them new and unique, often having to do with the growth of political correctness. But most of the reliefs appear traceable to the performance rating system used by commanders to evaluate their subordinates each year. The navy believed too many unqualified officers were getting promoted to commands they could not handle. The navy tried to deal with this via changes in the assessment system.

These changes were meant to address the damage done by a major assessment modification, in the 1990s, in which written comments on many aspects of an officer evaluation were changed to a 1-5 ranking system. That 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.

The navy also wants to overcome the fact that only a small percentage of reliefs have to do with professional failings, as in a collision or serious accident, failing a major inspection, or just continued poor performance. Most reliefs were, and still are, for adultery, drunkenness, theft or anything that might embarrass the navy. In one case, it was telling jokes that sailors enjoyed but some politicians and journalists didn't approve of. The hope is that comments from peers, subordinates, and chiefs will reveal character flaws before they turn into commanders getting relieved.

With more women aboard warships there have been more reliefs for, as sailors like to put it, "zipper failure", especially if it includes adultery. 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."

Many naval officers see the problem not of too many captains being relieved but of too many unqualified officers getting command of ships in the first place. Not every naval officer qualified for ship command gets one. The competition for ship commands is pretty intense, 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, only 11 of those ensigns will make it to O-6 (captain) and 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.

With all the screening and competition, 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 (admirals). 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, until it becomes an unavoidable, is not 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. The new assessment is supposed to make obvious issues that have, in the past, been hidden from sight (of the promotion boards).

And then there is the problem with not consulting the chief petty officers and the growing reverence towards zero tolerance and political correctness. Asking the chiefs (Chief Petty Officers, the senior NCOs who supervise the sailors) might provide some illumination about officer potential. Unfortunately, since 2000 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. They are getting some of it back as officers tire of trying to cover all the responsibilities demanded by political correctness and zero tolerance.

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 the case. It's also good 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. There was a similar 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.

Over the last decade more retired officers, and other promising naval officers who left before 20 years of service and qualifying for a pension, have made another point that active-duty officers cannot speak openly about; senior commanders, especially admirals, are more concerned about what congress and the media think that what their subordinates need. In the last decade such officers spoke frankly about this problem and it was happening in the army and air forces as well. Not so much in the Marine Corps, which explains some of the bad press they get for no particular reason. It’s long been acknowledged that there are no bad (ineffective) troops, only bad officers. When you have more ineffective officers, that has an impact on the quality of the troops.

 


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