Leadership: India Seeks A Few Good Ship Captains

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February 13, 2014:   The Indian Navy has recently dismissed two captains because of sloppiness which led to accidents. In 2013 the frigate Talwar collided with a fishing trawler at night while another frigate, the Betwa ran aground. The captains of those two frigates were punished. In August 2013 a Kilo class submarine caught fire in port and was destroyed, killing 18 of the sailors on board at the time. Since then there were seven more, less destructive accidents throughout the fleet and more scrutiny is being paid to the captains of those vessels. The senior navy commanders believe this increase in accidents is partly because ships are spending more time at sea. But training deficiencies and poor selection of ship captains appears to be a problem as well. China has been having similar problems, but has not publicized the issue.

The Indians and the Chinese are not the only ones with this problem. 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. It's currently over five percent a year. At the end of the Cold War, in the late 1980s, the rate was about 3-4 percent a year. In 2011 a record 35 senior commanders were relieved. 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. So why has the rate gone up? And why hasn't the navy been able to do anything to reverse this two decade long trend? A lot of it has to do with changing attitudes about what is permissible behavior for a naval officer. The Indians and Chinese, in contrast, are largely concerned with job performance and keeping the ships intact and operational.

The U.S. Navy has come up with several solution to its problem with ship captains. One solution was to standardize how commanders are selected and incorporate 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.

There appears to be a number of reasons for the problems ship captains are having, 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 (where commanders evaluate their subordinates each year). Obviously, too many unqualified officers are getting promoted to commands they cannot handle. This is what the navy is trying to deal with via the changes in the assessment system.

These changes will 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 (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. Or, in one case, it was telling jokes that sailors enjoyed but some politicians and journalists didn't. 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".

Most 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 American 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.

So 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 (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. 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. Asking the chiefs (Chief Petty Officers, the senior NCOs who supervise the sailors) might provide some illumination about officer potential. Unfortunately, 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. They are getting some of it back as officers tire to 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 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. 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.

 


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