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New Standards for Navy Skippers

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Navy photo / MSC 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor

Greenert meets the crew of the USS Firebolt, a coastal patrol ship, in the Persian Gulf in March.

The Navy seems to have hit rough seas in recent years, repeatedly canning command officers who have fallen short on the job. To the Navy’s credit, it announces these ousters more loudly and clearly than the other services. But Admiral Jonathan Greenert, who as the chief of naval operations is the service’s top officer, has had it. Last week he issued new, service-wide rules on how the Navy selects its commanding officers.

Ten C.O.s have been fired so far this year. At least seven have been booted for improper personnel relationships since 2010, including the skipper of the USS Cowpens, who himself was tapped to command that vessel after his predecessor was fired for “cruelty and maltreatment” of her crew. “This program puts rigor back into the qualifications and requirements needed so we have our best leaders in command,” Vice Admiral Richard Hunt, commander of Naval Surface Forces said in a Navy summary of the change, suggesting such rigor recently has been MIA.

The new guidance is dry reading, full of sea-going jargon and personnel-office lingo. But it sets one bar for all Navy personnel to clear, and no longer leaves the bar-setting to the individual aviation, surface-warfare and submarine communities.

“This program will strengthen the caliber of our leaders and provide for a more ready, capable fleet by ensuring we select the right people for command by adhering to clear, consistent professional qualification standards,” said Admiral John Harvey, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces. “This process recognizes each community’s unique professional standards, while reinforcing the necessarily high expectations we hold for those in command Navy-wide.”

Greenert discussed the challenges associated with commanding a naval vessel over breakfast in March, and stressed the need that prospective skippers be properly screened:

It is our view that the American people deserve commanding officers who are accountable, who are up to speed and meet the standards for leadership and behavior and character. Of the 1,500 that we have out there occasionally we have some that need to be replaced. They don’t meet the mark in that regard…It is a privilege to lead in command. Our folks who are in command in the Navy have a unique privilege, especially those afloat. So sometimes, of the 1% approximately that we do have to relieve, there is no one specific issue that we’re finding. It varies.

It’s important to me that we continue to look into the issues that can sometimes come up as people fail to meet the mark, if you will, and that we continue to work with our pipeline.  So it’s important to me that our folks are screened properly, they have the opportunity to develop their character, learn how to deal with stress in addition to seamanship, understand the standards of behavior as they grow up through officers and we’ll continue that…

I don’t view changing standards as an option. I am satisfied with our standards and our training for leadership, for seamanship and tactics, and again, one of the things I’m focusing on is that our kids have the opportunity to develop their character. As an officer goes through being a junior officer where you’re flying, you’re on the bridge, you’re learning the propulsion plant, then you go to the department head where you lead a bigger group. Different kind of stress, different kind of challenges.

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