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Alarming Spate of US Navy Captain Firings

Another branch of the US military undergoes a concerning transformation.

The US Navy has fired three submarine commanders in the last seven months, from the USS Ohio, USS Georgia, and USS Alabama. Furthermore, in 2023, 15 officers were relieved of command responsibilities. There were seldom specific reasons given for the removals, usually the generic “lack of confidence in his ability to command.” Combine the firings with the announcement that the US Navy is beginning an education program on “what right looks like,” and questions arise about what is going on in America’s sea service.

US Navy Has Unusual Number of Failures of Command

Congress has been critical of US Navy leadership for its safety mishaps and lapses in strong ethical standards. So what flaw in the leadership character has brought about the dismissal of so many commanding officers?

“The commanding officer of the USS Georgia sub’s blue crew — Capt. Geoffry Patterson — was relieved by Rear Adm. Thomas Buchanan, the commander of Submarine Group 10, ‘due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,’ the Navy said,” Konstantin Toropin reported for Military.com, explaining that the commander of the USS Georgia was arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) and improper lane change. Shortly after his arrest, Patterson was relieved of leadership. Few legal infractions will get a military commander canned, but a major one that will is a DUI charge. So, this is understandable.

As for the others, on March 13, 2024, the Department of the Navy issued a press release announcing, “Rear Adm. Nicholas R. Tilbrook, Commander, Submarine Group 9, relieved Capt. Kurt D. Balagna as commanding officer of the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Ohio (SSGN 726) (Gold Crew), Mar. 11, 2024, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.” According to Sam Lagrone writing for the US Naval Institute News, “A Navy official told USNI News the relief was related to conduct rather than performance reasons but did not provide details.” Until the secretive conduct, Balagna seemed to have an admirable record, having been the executive officer of the attack submarine USS Virginia and having previously commanded the attack submarine USS Annapolis.

In September 2023, USNI News reported that Rear Adm. Nicholas Tilbrook relieved Cmdr. Michael Lyle, the Blue Crew commanding officer of the USS Alabama, because of concerns over his performance, not misconduct.

It’s not just warship captains who have gotten the axe. Captain Richard Zaszewski, commodore of the Naval Special Warfare Group Eight, was relieved of his responsibilities, again because of “a loss of confidence in his ability to command.” What makes this firing unusual is Zaszewski was a highly decorated warrior who “had earned a Silver Star [the Navy’s third-highest military combat decoration awarded for gallantry], three Bronze Stars, one with a ‘V’ device for valor…,” Mike Best reported in the Washington Examiner.

Addressing the unacceptable behavior that got these commanders fired as well as substandard performance generally, the US Navy found it necessary to implement a program for its personnel called Culture of Excellence 2.0 (COE 2.0). The initiative presents all US Navy personnel with a roadmap for building more capable sea service. The standards of excellence the Navy expects to promote are described in a placemat level of detail to provide an overview of what Americans expect from their senior service. COE 2.0 emphasizes the core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment, related to fighting and winning outcomes, establishing “warrior toughness, great people, great leaders, and great teams.”

Culture of Excellence 2.0 Applies Throughout the Chain of Command

Explaining the importance of COE 2.0 to the future of the US Navy’s warfighting capability, Rear Adm. Brett Mietus, director of the Navy Office of Culture and Force Resilience, observed:

“Culture of Excellence 2.0 will be implemented in every Navy command, in order to have a direct and tangible impact on the Quality of Service of our Sailors. It’s not a new requirement or checklist, but a radical simplification of traditional Navy ideas, ideals, and programs combined with newer concepts in order to provide every command with the tools necessary to build warfighters and teams ready to fight and win.”

The US Navy is making an effort to change how it does business to reduce the failures of command and create a maritime warfighting capability to meet the growing threats of formidable enemies such as China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia. With the magnitude of what is at stake in the global power struggle, the US Navy cannot come in second place. Observing command-level dismissals as a barometer of success, COE 2.0 should result in fewer firings of warship commanders. If not, it’s back to the drawing board to get “what right looks like” right.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.

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