Monday, November 19, 2012

Who's In Charge?

Navy Times website just announced two more commanding officer firings.  Here's the totals for last year and this year (so far!).

            CO     XO     Senior Enlisted
2012     24       5         13
2011     22       5         12

Some readers have criticized ComNavOps for being too harsh in judging Navy leadership.  I unabashedly admit to being highly critical of the leadership and I've documented the reasons.  In fact, my belief that the Navy and the country are being ill served by Navy (and civilian - but that's largely outside the scope of this blog) leadership was one of the main motivations for starting this blog.

The Navy has fired 46 commanding officers in less than two years.  Something's wrong.  Something's very wrong.  It's painfully evident that our selection process for CO and above is broken.  Well, at least the rest of the commanding officers, the majority to be sure, are good, honest, decent leaders of the highest moral character, right?  I doubt it.  They just haven't been caught yet or their failings are insufficient to actually get them fired.

I assume you're all familiar with the "tip of the iceberg" principle?  For those who may not be, the concept is that what you can see represents only a small fraction (usually cited as 10%) of the total, hence the analogy to the tip of the iceberg where the vast majority of the iceberg is hidden beneath the water relative to what's visible.  For instance, in industrial safety matters, visible and documented safety violations are assumed to represent only 10% of the total safety violations that are actually occurring. 

Likewise, I assume that for every CO whose behavior is egregious and visible enough to warrant firing, many others are guilty of the same behavior but have not been caught.  Does this unfairly paint all leaders with the same broad brush?  Certainly, and that's unfortunate but the evidence suggests a systematic and endemic failure of the selection process which strongly suggests many other flawed leaders are currently serving.

Consider the recent posting about Adm. Harvey's mea culpa.  That's a perfect example of a leader who lacked the fortitude to stand up for what was right while serving and only spoke up as he was retiring.  That's a flawed leader.  While he didn't do anything that qualified as a firing offense, he also didn't serve the Navy or the country well.

Remember that flawed leadership isn't just about firing offenses.  It's also about the lack of courage to take a stand in the face of bad decisions and flawed policy.  It's the weakness of character that allows a leader to go along with a program he knows is wrong because he wants to protect his career.  That's why minimal manning programs occurred which anybody could see would be disasters.  It's why LPDs were accepted by the Navy with thousands of hours of uncompleted work.  It's why the LCS continues to move forward despite being an abject failure.  And so on ...

So, what's going on?  Are all these leaders suddenly becoming drunks or sex offenders or thieves or whatever after they become leaders?  Of course not!  Their behaviors were there before promotion and remained after promotion.  Why isn't our selection/screening process finding this?  -because we're not looking at the right criteria, obviously.  Now, I can't begin to suggest what the right criteria are.  Navy leadership will have to do that.  Unfortunately, that's like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop.  Flawed leadership is unlikely to come up with better selection criteria.  We can only hope that the good leaders (and there must be some) will stand up and loudly and publicly insist on meaningful changes.  Come on Navy leadership, stand up and demand change!  Save my Navy!


  1. Was the Navy ever good at firing people? Thomas Ricks describes in his book how the Army used to be good at firing people before Korea. Then they decided that firing people made the Army look bad to the Congress and Senate. This article describes the problem.


    1. Thanks for the link. You appear to be referencing firing for warfighting failures whereas the Navy's firings are for personal behavior.

      To answer your question, as with the Army, the Navy was quite active in firing commanders in WWII. Many submarine COs were fired before combat COs were found. Many Admirals were fired (if they weren't killed) when the fighting around Guadalcanal revealed their ineptitude. Again, as with the Army, no Navy commanders have been fired for warfighting failure for quite some time. Not too surprising, really, since the Navy hasn't fought a battle for ages.

      I am 100% sure that the current crop of Admirals and COs are largely inept when it comes to warfighting. In the event of conflict, many commanders will have to be relieved and true warriors identified, just as in WWII. That's the biggest failing of the Navy right now. We've lost the warrior mentality and culture. We promote based on totally irrelevant criteria and, as a result, are unprepared for war.

  2. Part of the problem might be the zero defect standard for officers. Minor offences which could lead to more major problems are overlooked and not officially punished so as not to hurt careers or embarrass the Navy until such point where they can no longer be overlooked and then down comes the hammer on offenses that might deserve punishment but not dismissal. There seem to be no middle ground, a place often held by us mere humans.

    Before I got out of the Navy this same perfection standard seems to have been spreading to the enlisted ranks where before someone could mess up, be officially punished including reduction in rank and still later serve and advance.

  3. Lets see,

    Roughly 1 out of every 100 commanding officers are fired. Even if 10pct who should have been fired aren't (does that apply to groundings and collisions? becasue that would mean we have a lot of ships being damaged without anyone knowing, but I digress) of the problem, that is 1 in 10.

    Not seeing the problem there.

    I especially appreciated your proposed solution. Not very Theodore Roosevelt "ish".

    1. OK, either you did not understand my post or I'm not understanding your comment.

      As an immediate aside, do you know how many commanding officers there are? I've always wondered about that but never found a source. Let me know, if you know.

      To very succinctly summarize the post, the leadership firings are for flagrant issues of character. These issues are, undoubtedly, readily visible before selection to command so we're not doing a very good job of screening. There's the gist of the post.

      Allowing any number of people with visible and serioius character flaws to achieve command level is a problem. Realistically, of course, we'll never achieve perfection but 46 COs in two years is totally unacceptable. The iceberg principle suggests that the number of flawed COs is in the hundreds. If you don't see a problem with that then we'll have to agree to having radically different standards!

      Please don't misunderstand. My concern is with character not technical performance. I'm fine with technical mistakes including groundings/collisions. In fact, I've stated in other posts that a few major incidents should almost be a requirement for advancement!

      I totally missed your point about a solution and not being very TR-ish. I should probably get that reference but I'm drawing a blank. Educate me! As far as a solution, I didn't really propose one beyond calling for those good leaders to stand up and be counted in fixing the system.

      As I said, I think one of us misunderstood the other and I'm not sure which!

      Thanks for commenting.

  4. The Royal Navy went from having the most innovative and daring officer corps in 1800 when ships would regularly engage and defeat much larger vessels (admittedly US frigates came as an unpleasant surprise) to a stale shadow of itself sixty years later (coincidentally about the same amount of time that has elapsed between the end of WW2 & now). By that time, captains sailing out for gunnery practice would discard their ammunition at sea rather than get their ships dirty, pretty ships clearly being far more important when there wasn't a war being fought. This culminated in a disaster when two columns of ships were ordered to reverse course, in sequence towards one another. The admiral misjudged the turning circles but no-one dared to contradict his order so the two lead ships collided. The ship which struck the flagship was unfortunately armed with amongst other things, a ram and the admiral went down with his flagship rather than face a court martial.

    I'm assumimg that you're talking about the professional rather than personal qualities of officers. If Nelson's personal conduct with Lady Hamilton ws taken into account, he would never have got to Trafalgar.

    The point of this diatribe is to emphasise that in a peacetime navy senior officers stifle any initiative in their subordinates, because after all, the responsibilty belongs to admirals.

    The Royal Navy didn't fully get over this until 1939, but since then there's always been a significant proportion of 'minor' warships... In terms of numbers, something like 40% of the RN is small ships, minehunters, patrol ships and survey vessels. This gives the younger officers a chance to exercise independent command and to have their performance properly appraised before they skipper major warships.

    Aside from the officer training benefits of small warships, they're also useful in their own right. Just as there's no point deploying stealth bombers against a third world nation without RADAR, it's not exactly cost effective deploying destroyers capable of shooting down incoming ICBM's and hunting fast moving nuclear submarines, against AK47 armed men in skiffs on the East African coast.

    BWC 22/11/2012

  5. Very good article about this very topic:

    How Are the Mighty Fallen
    By Captain Kevin Eyer, U.S. Navy (Retired)

    I don't know when it was posted, but you may like it. Am currently reading it now


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