The U.S. Navy has relieved six ship
or unit commanders in the last six weeks. The latest relief came after the
destroyer Arleigh Burke ran aground off Norfolk Virginia on May 15th. The
damage was superficial, and after that was confirmed, the ship resumed its
training exercise. The others relieved include the captain of a nuclear
submarine, a EA-6 electronic warfare squadron commander, the head of a
recruiting district, another destroyer captain, and the captain of the sailing
ship USS Constitution (a museum ship.)
The navy rarely releases details of why the
officers were 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. Rather common are cases involving "zipper
control" (adultery with another officers 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."
In the last five years, the navy has been relieving
more commanders. 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. Currently, 2-3 percent of commanders a year are
getting the boot. 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 gone up more than doubled
in the last few 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
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
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.