Now that Captain Honors has been kind enough to post his fitness reports as an exhibit in the court of public opinion it might be helpful to have a chat on how an officer in the Navy is selected to command.
Now, in order to properly define the discussion space, this is limited to ONLY the selection for Command at Sea. Which in turn limits the discussion, almost exclusively, to officers in the Unrestricted Line. While there are many, many more commands out there that are not either Command at Sea, or limited to the Unrestricted Line, each community has its own particular method of selecting officers for command. And in some cases there are commands which have no particular selection process.
So, we’re basically talking about ships, aircraft squadrons, submarines, aircraft wings, amphibious squadrons, destroyer squadrons, and submarine squadrons. Those are in turn subdivided, loosely, into Commander and Major Commands (Early Command of PCs and minesweepers are also slightly different and not necessarily part of this discussion).
Selection for Commander Command is predicated upon a single thing – performance as a Department Head. At sea. In a submarine, ship, or aircraft squadron. Said performance being documented in an officer’s fitness reports. That’s it.
There are all sorts of other “nice to haves” that might help a record be selected , but in the end, it’s the documented performance in the fitness report that is the clear differentiator. And, to take it even further, it is the level to which an officer is ranked against his peers that counts. Almost all of the verbiage on the back of a report, no matter how flowing, colorful, evocative, or even pathetic will make the difference for an officer who is ranked ahead of his departmental peers. The officer who gets ranked 1 of 2, 1 of 3, 1 of 4 and so on is the officer most likely to have his record selected in a selection board. Those at the 2 of 3, 2 of 4 and so on are where verbiage and “tie breakers” like masters degrees, shore tours, subspecialty codes and the like come into play.
That’s what works for Commander Command (and there is a good discussion in a Navy Personnel Command brief on pages 22, 23, 24 that provides more detail). For Major Command, the only thing that really matters is performance in Commander Command. It’s essentially a “career reset” the day an officer takes command. Every fitness report earned before that is garnish – the meat is those one, two, or three reports earned in Commander Command. A 1 of 2 or 1 of 3 almost guarantees selection to Major Command. 3 of 3 in a competitive report without another competitive report that is a 1 of “something other than 1” does not preclude eventual selection, but all those 1 of 2 or 1 of 3 officers will most likely be selected first.
The basic process by which a board selects a record is the same for command selection boards (screen boards) and promotion (statutory boards). The laws that the boards are governed under are the same. The differences lie in the information within the official record that is considered by the board to be important enough to warrant selection and the number of officers that can be selected. For more detail, look at this brief on statutory board procedures.
Within the “tank” the board is presented records for voting. The most common screen projected to the members is the “Officer Performance Summary Record (PSR)” which provides the most basic information for a fitness report: Reporting Senior, Command, Duration, Individual Trait Grades, breakout against the competitive group for that report, comparison against the reporting seniors previous reports, and promotion recommendation. And that’s it. Individual fitness reports are not normally read or reviewed by the board when voting. The record is reviewed, in its entirety, by a board member known as the “briefer”. This board member reads the fitness report, any letters to the board, and reviews any other information contiained within the record. The briefer makes annotations on the PSR to show trends or important distinction within the fitness reports…but what is annotated is entirely up to the briefer.
When voting there is a small period for discussion (in many boards it can be less than two minutes). During that discussion any question can be asked about the record that is being presented. Any officer with personal knowledge of positive or complimentary information may introduce that information at this time. Adverse information that is NOT contained within the official record cannot, by law and regulation, be presented to the board. No stories of “I heard that ship ran aground” or “Wow…why isn’t that DUI showing up” or “Odd, I don’t see the results of that IG investigation”. If it’s not in the record, basically, it doesn’t exist…didn’t happpen…can’t be discussed. Which is why the common phrase is “boards pick records, not people” exists.
Now, there are a couple of other idiosyncrasies in a few places. Most Surface Warfare command positions (and all operational aviation squadrons) use what is called “Fleet Up”. An officer is selected for command, but spends the first half of the command tour serving as Executive Officer (or sometimes Deputy Commander). There are other selections that have a longer track towards command – Aviation Major Command of an Aircraft Carrier (the aviation community refers to it as Major Sea Command (Nuclear Power Pipeline) )is one. In that case, the officer is selected for major command but serves first as Executive Officer of an aircraft carrier followed by Commanding Officer of a large surface ship (nicknamed “Deep Draft Command”). Once that officer has a fitness report in command of that large surface ship, he is then placed into a pool of officers who’s records are considered by the Major Command Selection board for assignment to command an aircraft carrier (Sequential Command at Sea). The selection rate from Nuclear Power Pipeline to Sequential Command at Sea is very, very high…on the Fiscal Year 11 (sometimes also called the FY 12 board) board there was a 1:1 correlation between the two categories. On the FY 10 board it was a 2:3 correlation. The tyranny of small numbers makes any larger percentage comparison over time suspect. However, it is realistic to surmise that absent an inability to complete Nuclear Power School, or a career ending action that results in either an “adverse fitness report” or a “detachment for cause” proceeding the officer selected for the Nuclear Power Pipeline is most likely to select for Sequential Command at Sea.
So, let’s look at this through the lens of two recent and well documented cases – Captain Holly Graf and Captain OP Honors.
In Captain Graf’s case she was selected for Major Command of a surface ship in 2006 on her 2nd look. That look was based entirely on her documented performance in Commander Command. Since she was not a first look select one can infer that her record in command was not flawless. But, her record was sufficient to be selected for Major Command.
For Captain Honors, based upon his statement to investigators he was selected for Major Command in 2004 on his first look. He subsequently went to Nuke School and had successive tours in Enterprise as XO, then Mount Whitney as CO, and then back to Enterprise as CO. He was already selected for and promoted to Captain when he served as XO in Enterprise. His command tours in Mount Whitney and back again to Enterprise were already predetermined while he was XO in Enterprise. They were only his to lose, not gain, from his performance as XO.
Same as it ever was.