The Navy’s integrity problem, revisited
Twenty months ago, Best Defense highlighted an important article on the spate of Navy firings of individuals in command. That 2010 article has been updated.
By Capt. John Byron, USN (Ret.)
Best Defense office of maritime ethics
Twenty months ago I highlighted in Best Defense an important article on the spate of Navy firings of individuals in command. That 2010 article by Captain Mark Light, USN, titled “The Navy’s Moral Compass: Commanding Officers and Personal Misconduct,” has been updated by Captain Jason Vogt, USN, again publishing in Naval War College Review.
Both officers in their studies seek to better understand why Navy COs get fired and put forward recommendations on how to bring the number of such drastic actions to a minimum. In 2011, then-Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead reacted to the spate of reliefs by putting in place his Charge of Command exhorting commanding officers to fully understand the duties imposed on them and act accordingly. His relief, current CNO Jonathan Greenert, doubled down on this approach by reissuing the Charge and establishing a required protocol involving both the new CO and his boss in its implementation. He also instituted a Command Qualification Program, applying Navy-wide standards to be met by those going to command, a system previously left to the individual officer communities and a sometimes-tendency to emphasize warfare skills without concomitant attention to the broader aspects of command. And CNO Greenert created a Navy Leader Development Strategy and with it a training continuum that he landed at the new Command Leadership School at the Navy Leadership and Ethics Center housed at Naval War College Newport. So it’s clear that the Navy’s most senior leadership saw a serious problem and set out on a serious course to deal with it.
How’s it worked out? Hard to tell, but it’s not gotten worse. Both authors rue the inadequacies of the Navy database on command firings, still badly incomplete. Both note the clutter invisible in the data of ‘soft-firings’ — the undocumented early reliefs of skippers not up to the mark — and ask for better reporting of all types of detachments-for-cause of Navy COs, those that meet the formal DFC criteria and the backdoor firings too. Vogt continues Light’s analysis of community-specific data, seeing no direct community correlation but noting that the VQ/VAQ squadrons at Whidbey Island do stand out statistically.
Captain Vogt tees up some new recommendations. One is that Navy look to its 360-degree evaluations in test at the time he wrote for correlation with later-revealed failure. The Navy has since said it won’t do these in the future (a good thing to this skipper’s thinking) and so his recommendation is moot.
He also asks for greater visibility into the reasons for formal firings, finding ‘lost trust in ability to command’ far too light on details to provide lessons to be learned. He’s right, but going beyond this in administrative firings not involving the military justice system would cross lines in the realms of privacy and equal justice. A better approach for learning the needed details would be to require that all firings be processed through the military justice system, as Article 15 hearings or courts martial. Certainly zipper problems deserve an airing (not a good pun) at mast or court martial and so too the professional failures leading to relief in areas of accident or incompetence should be serious enough to at least be aired formally.
Finally, Captain Vogt recommends consideration of financial penalties for those fired, a recoupment of bonuses or imposition of other financial penalties through a new post-command board proceeding he would invent to review those fired in command. I think this an added burden on a system already complex enough; taking everyone fired to mast or court martial allows the imposition of fines, without invention of yet another review process and the potential slowing down or avoidance of a relief that was justified.
The systems now in place, administrative through the chain of command and the Navy personnel system and judicial through operation of the UCMJ, are adequate to the task. Time will tell if the worthy efforts by Admirals Roughead and Greenert do the good they’re intended, but indications are quite positive. A better reporting system, more accurate stats, and a requirement that all CO reliefs go before the bar of justice will help greatly.
But in the end, it’s up to the individual in command to behave well and drive safely. Good guidance from one who’s been there: don’t run aground, don’t hit nothing, and keep the ocean out of the people tank. And never get your honey where you get your money.
I’m proud my Navy continues in its traditional high standards of command. And I still wonder why the Army and the Air Force have such a disdainful view of public accountability: where are the comparable studies, statistics, and high-level actions on untimely reliefs of their commanders?
Captain Byron retired from 37 years continuous active duty in the submarine force and 15 years with a global corporation. He commanded the submarine GUDGEON and Naval Ordnance Test Unit at Cape Canaveral. He blogs in Best Defense as Rubber Ducky.
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