Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Another Relief

In another disturbingly repetitive occurrence, the CO and XO of the Tortuga were relieved due to “loss of confidence” in their ability as a result of their ship striking a buoy.

There are no publicly available details so we can’t pass judgment as to whether their relief was appropriate or not.  However, at some point, don’t we have to start questioning either the standards that we’re holding our commanders to or the process used to select our commanders?

Every year, dozens of COs are relieved due to “loss of confidence”.  Are every one of these guys total incompetents and deserving of relief or are we unrealistically demanding absolute perfection with zero tolerance for any mistake no matter how minor? 

The problem with setting the standard to absolute perfection is that it leads to several bad outcomes.

  1. Potentially good commanders are lost to the service because of a single mistake that may not even be directly their fault.
  2. The Navy loses the enormous investment that goes into producing a commanding officer.
  3. Zero tolerance fosters an atmosphere of micromanaging.
  4. Zero tolerance absolutely squelches a mind-set of healthy risk-taking.
  5. Zero tolerance discourages delegation of responsibility to junior officers because they might make a mistake that will cost the CO their job.

On the other hand, if these dozens of COs are, indeed, incompetent then we need to look very carefully at the screening process that selects such incompetent people.  In fact, I would argue that for each CO who is relieved for incompetence we should also relieve everyone involved in screening and recommending them for command because clearly the screeners were totally incompetent and utterly failed at their job.

Finally, consider that the dwindling number of available ship commands combined with the brevity of command tours and the atmosphere of avoidance of risk taking is actually causing some of the problem.  The opportunities for the practice of shiphandling are becoming limited and the unwillingness to allow junior officers to freely practice is creating COs who have limited shiphandling experience.

We’re our own worst enemy.


  1. What happens during a war if a CO deliberately grounds his ship in order to block a key strategic harbor, thereby altering the course of the war to a victory for the USA? Or accidentally hits a buoy on his way to sinking several enemy troop transports?

  2. Commendations and reliefs all in the same ceremony.

    Remember also the standard is not the same for everyone. Some are given more consideration for transgression than others...

    1. Wow, that's quite a story. I had missed that one. Thanks for the link.

      It sure smacks of gender favortism. When one CO is relieved for striking a blacked out canoe at night and another is rewarded with major command after causing the loss of a helo and two deaths you really have to wonder if gender wasn't the major issue.

  3. ADM Nimitz - today would be toast
    The destroyer Decatur ran aground on a sand bar in the Philippines on 7 July 1908 while under the command of Ensign Nimitz. The ship was pulled free the next day, and Nimitz was court-martialed, found guilty of neglect of duty, and issued a letter of reprimand.

  4. So ... Life is not fair, fact.

    Why one CO gets relieved over hitting a buoy and another does not when a helo crashes with fatalities does appear just. But, the Navy is a fickle organization and like other organizations, not always fair.

    Hitting something with a ship or running it aground, is generally considered the ultimate sin in the ship/submarine world. However, plenty of airplanes over the years have collided and/or crashed without COs being relieved, why?

    I believe it is a deep-rooted belief in that community, if you cannot safely navigate a vessel, you are not competent to do all the other things we need COs to do. I personally believe that in many cases we are throwing out the baby with the bath water. It is also such a long standing order in the ship/sub world that I really do not think much thought and/or deliberation is involved when the collision or grounding occurs. As called out in earlier posts, lots of time, money and experience are lost for either a very small lapse in judgment or an event that is not directly controlled by the CO.

    On the selection side of the house, change is afoot. CNO Greenert very much wants a better selection process and has established means to achieve that. In the case of an XO moving up to be a CO, he requires that the current CO write a letter of endorsement stating that the XO is ready and capable. Also, there are actually panels holding "live" interviews that take place with potential COs. Process before was always a paper review with past performance as the key measure.

    The thing is, there really are a lot of COs out there and I do not have the exact number in front of me, but the percentage that get relieved is really not that high. I believe why it gets so much attention is because the Navy is very public about the relief and makes sure the public is aware.

    One CO relief a year is too many, but so is one death in a car accident; point being regardless of what you do, the event will happen. So, do not get me wrong, not voting for mediocrity, but if you select enough of them, not all of them are going to act accordingly or behave to the highest standards. It is a shame, but that is the reality of it.

    I truly wish that these automatic firings would become something of the past. Review the facts, decide whether the event was a direct result of the CO or lack of his/her leadership and then decide. If it really was a JO who made a poor decision in the middle of the night, let’s note the incident and move on. I understand all about ultimate responsibility, was a two-time Navy CO; but can not wrap my head around these zero tolerance events myself.

    1. AJF, good comment. You touch on the heart of my problem with this issue and that is the "baby with the bath" aspect. A few of the COs are probably incompetent and should be relieved and let go. The majority are probably quite competent and we've invested huge amounts of money and time into their training and development. Can we afford to throw that away? I'm OK with a punishment but let's allow a recovery path. Maybe you move to the back of the list but let's allow the possibility of moving back up without prejudice. Hopefully, they'll come back wiser and stronger!

      We relieve around 25 COs per year. We have a fleet of around 280 ships. That's around 10%. Now, some of the COs are ground commands so I don't know what percentage of the ship COs are relieved. My guess is somewhere around 5%. That seems awfully high given that these people are already the "best of the best" and have made it through successive levels of screening and performance over the years. So this is not exactly a case of a small portion of bad actors embedded in a random group of people as we would expect to find in a random sample of people. COs are not supposed to be a random group. They're a highly trained, carefully selected, and thoroughly proven group to begin with. A "failure" rate of 5% (or whatever it is) seems way too high for a group that is that elite to begin with. On the other hand, if they aren't really that elite than we're back to questioning our selection process.

      I believe our zero tolerance practice coupled with no way back is a severely flawed policy and that our selection process is equally flawed.

      My logic for faulting the selection process is the observed quallity of the people who wind up being selected for flag rank. Those are some uniformly poor leaders who consistently make very poor decisions and exhibit a definite lack of moral courage. If I'm right, and I am, then those people are coming from the CO ranks and thus the CO selection process is badly flawed.

      It seems clear that we are no longer selecting for warfighters but, rather, for risk-averse politicians who are skilled at "playing the game". As at the start of WWII, if combat comes we're going to have to relieve a LOT of commanders for lack of combat capability.

      I believe that a fight with a superior and a grounding is a much better resume for a warfighter than what we're currently choosing!

  5. My first CO, CAPT Charles S. Christenson Jr., of the good ship Niagara Falls (AFS 3), gave all of his JOs an incredible amount of freedom in handling the ship because he knew that no matter how badly you screwed up, he could always pull the ship out of extremis. But that was 1974.

    As a newly minted Ensign with two week aboard the ship, he left me with the conn as we entered Tokyo Bay. I kept expecting to be relieved by the LT that normally had that sea and anchor detail assignment, but it didn't happen. For those of you that have never been there, Tokyo has a multi-lane traffic separation scheme on the charts and we needed to turn to port to make our landing at Yokosuka. There was a lot of outbound traffic that became my focus and we were getting set down on a buoy as pretty as you please. But, I didn't see that happening. At the last possible moment, he took the conn, got us around the buoy, and then calmly asked if I knew what I had done wrong. I very quietly said, "Yes, sir." His reply was, "This is the Captain, Mr. Gideon has the conn," and never mentioned it again. 16,000 ton ship, with a single screw, and this was the kind of seaman and leader that he was. If he had told us that Columbus was wrong and that the world was really flat, but our orders were to sail to the edge, I believe that every man aboard would have said "Aye, Aye, sir," and carried out the Plan of the Day.

    He was a strong contrast to his relief, an aviator that had nearly zero shiphandling experience and a corresponding lack of confidence in his OODs.

    1. Alan, that's a very nice story and I appreciate you sharing it with us. I love that kind of real world feedback. Any thoughts on the current situation or solutions?

      Great comment. Thanks for stopping by and contributing!

  6. The Tortuga ran over a bouy in the Chesapeke Bay, one that is one every nautical chart out there. The damage was caused by wrapping the bouy chain around the shaft and breaking the controllable pitch screw mechanism. This required an expensive ($2.5M) emergent drydocking and 6 weeks out of commision to affect the repairs.

    1. Thanks for the additional detail!

    2. But why should the XO be relieved when the CO is ultimately responsible for the safety and navigation of the ship?

    3. Anon, that's a great question and I had wondered about that when I first read the notice. One or the other would have had direct responsibility but not both. Unless it were a case of a general failure of command attributed to both the top leaders, the fault should have been isolated to one of them. Faulting the other is casting a pretty wide net. Again, we don't know the details so we can't judge but the dual firing does raise questions.

      Great catch!


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