In 2012, the Navy fired an average of one skipper every two weeks for reasons ranging from bullying to drunken driving to watching porn on a government computer. ()
FIRING TOTALS BY YEAR
For most of the past decade, the Navy has fired at least a dozen or so commanding officers a year, a burnout rate of only around 1 percent. But that has crept higher in recent years, driven by increased oversight and more chances to screw up.
Overall, the CO relief rate stands at 2 percent this year. But statistics show that the Navy’s relief rate is twice that for its most prestigious posting — ship command. In 2012, the Navy removed one ship or submarine CO out of every 25.
Year: Number of firings:
SOURCE: Staff research
This past year, they disappointed shipmates and confounded Navy leaders. And despite official attempts to get a grip on them, fired skippers in 2012 hit a nine-year high.
The Navy fired one every two weeks, on average, a pace that often led to headlines with what seemed to be a running gallery of missteps and flaws: Bullying. Falsifying records. Leering at subordinates. Drunken driving. Viewing porn on a government computer. Faking your death to end an extramarital affair.
One skipper even allegedly told his crew on liberty to "keep drinking."
And then there were the firings that stemmed from ship collisions, back-to-back helicopter crashes and other professional failures that made up roughly the other half of the reliefs.
In all, the Navy reached 25 reliefs in 2012 — the highest in nine years and the second-highest since Navy Times began tracking firings in 1999.
Many of the firings this year were due to failings while on the job. Reasons ranged from mishandling of classified materials to hazing Marines to shoddy ship-handling. The CO of the amphibious assault ship Essex, for example, was fired after his ship collided with the oiler Yukon of the California coast in May. The CO of the destroyer Porter was fired after his ship collided with a Japanese tanker near the Strait of Hormuz in August.
In addition, the Navy fired six leaders for poor command climates, which ranged from "unprofessional" to downright abusive.
Personal misconduct was cited in nine of the firings.
Some reliefs were noteworthy in and of themselves. In late October, for instance, the Navy fired a deployed strike group commander and flew him home, mid-deployment — the first time this has happened since 2003. The former commander of the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group was fired for "inappropriate leadership judgment."
The firings have prompted an increasingly public postmortem on what the Navy could do to reduce these cases. In an article in the journal Proceedings, a lieutenant argued there have been too many "integrity-related" firings and that a culture shift must occur. And a Navy captain who studied 11 years of Navy firings said leadership must make it a bigger priority.
The Navy's top officer has said he, too, is concerned. But Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert believes these are individual failures, not symptoms of a systemic failure.
The CNO, and outside experts, aren't certain what caused 2012 to be a bad one for command leadership.
"The Navy has done its best at [determining] whether or not there are systemic failures, and they haven't been able to find them, and I haven't been able to find any either," said retired Capt. Jan van Tol, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and the former CO of three warships, including Essex. There's not going to be an "Ah-ha!" moment where the service finds a cause and a cure for leadership problems, he said.
But there are theories about why skippers are sent home early. They range from the nature of the Navy and life at sea to the ease of creating accountability through incriminating digital communication.
Today's rank-and-file sailors are more in tune with standards of behavior, and they're more empowered to speak up when something's wrong, a circumstance that makes it easier to hold bad COs accountable.
"It's easier for word to get around about misbehavior and represent it in more shocking ways," van Tol said.
And there is more compelling incriminating evidence now than before, said Norman Polmar, editor of the Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet. Misdeeds can sometimes be reported with "living graphics," he said, through smartphones and social media.
While the high number of firings is a concern, the response has to be appropriate and incoming COs need to understand what can land them in trouble, Polmar said.
The Navy was swift to act when word spread that the wardroom of the frigate Vandegrift was fostering a culture of drinking while on a port visit in Vladivostok, Russia.
The commanding officer encouraged his sailors to "keep drinking" during a party aboard the ship, an investigation found. He was fired, along with his executive officer. The chief engineer and the operations officer were also booted from the ship and cited for personal misconduct. The investigation uncovered binge drinking, an altercation with shore patrol and fighting in a strip club.
In cases of misconduct, it's more obvious how the Navy should react.
But the Navy could better serve its leaders by making sure its rules are not too vague or overly cautions, Polmar said. If skippers stop taking reasonable risks, it could hurt their mission.
The Navy also needs to be mindful of the impacts that its high operational tempo and budget restraints will have on leadership development, a difficult task given the Navy's budget and operational demands, said retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, CEO of the Naval Institute and former chief of staff and deputy commander of Fleet Forces Command. Officers need to gradually develop an ability to manage stress, and fiscal restraints and global affairs will make it tempting to skip corners, he said. If that happens, COs won't have the experience they need to lead gracefully and will be more likely to perform poorly under severe stress, he said.