Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert, while appearing on "This Week in Defense News," said the Navy's firings are not a sign of a culture problem within the service. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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The Navy's record-setting pace of skipper firings this year has stirred debate inside the lifelines about why so many leaders are running amok, with some sacked early in their command for what appear to be character flaws like dishonesty, womanizing and alcohol abuse.
This spate of firings has led two officers to recently argue in professional publications that something is seriously wrong.
The 24 commanding officer reliefs have also concerned the Navy's top officer, but Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert stops short of saying it's a service culture problem.
"I don't think we've been promoting the wrong people," Greenert said in an interview with "This Week in Defense News," a television show produced by Navy Times sister publication Defense News. "I don't think a measure of failing COs is a measure of the wrong people being promoted."
The CNO, who first mentioned his concern in mid-November, said all of the Navy reliefs stem from one of four causes: incompetence, mishaps, toxic climate or misbehavior. That last category leads all others by a factor of two to one, Greenert said.
"It bothers me that I really don't understand why they're misbehaving," Greenert said on the show, adding, "I'm looking into that."
While acknowledging they're concerned, Navy leaders aren't sounding the alarm. They wield a variety of arguments to support their case: Each failure is unique; the firings are proof the service is holding skippers accountable and therefore are a good thing; and 98 percent of COs successfully complete their command tour.
However, the failure rate for ship and submarine COs rose this year to nearly 4 percent, or one in 25.
This year, as of Dec. 6, has seen 11 sub and ship CO firings, compared with nine last year.
And it's undeniable that many reliefs have garnered bad press. One headline this year, posted on Time.com: "Navy Skippers: The Gift that Keeps on Giving."
In June, Greenert ordered that all COs be screened, and added requirements such as a command test and more trials of 360-degree evaluations, where an officer is rated by subordinates, peers and seniors to develop a holistic picture of his performance and personality.
But some officers say that's not enough — that the entire culture needs to be re-examined. In a recent article, a surface warfare officer observed that in the past two years, at least 25 skippers have been fired for what he termed "integrity-related incidents," and argued this shows that firing officers alone has not proved to be the solution.
"Getting rid of COs who behave badly only mitigates the problem," wrote Lt. James Drennan in his article, "Cause for Alarm," which ran in the December 2012 issue of the journal Proceedings. "If it were a solution, then one would expect a decline in the rate of integrity violations among COs."
Drennan, set to return to the fleet as a department head once he finishes school in Newport, R.I., added: "Naval officers cannot afford to wait for that decline to appear."
The article follows in the wake of a controversial report by a Navy captain that argued the reliefs amounted to a moral crisis. After studying 11 years of firings, Capt. Mark Light concluded that the problems came down to a lack of integrity, where COs didn't follow the rules they espoused, and that action is urgently needed.
"We can and must do better," Light wrote this summer in the Naval War College review. "But doing so will require that Navy leadership makes it a priority."