So far this year, the U.S. Navy has abruptly removed ten ship captains, or shore based equivalents, from their commands. This marks the continuation of a worrying trend. In 2003, there were 17 such reliefs. In each of the three years before, there were only 6-8 commanders axed. The current rate equals about five percent of ship commanders a year getting the boot. At the end of the Cold War, in the late 1980s, the rate was about 3-4 percent a year, and since then, it declined further. So why has the relief rate gone up more than doubled in the last two years? 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 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." 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."
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 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.
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.