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.

Posted by M. Ittleschmerz in Aviation, Navy

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  • MS

    Ducks pick ducks. The sad thing is – the system will never change. Oh sure – we will have working groups, think tanks, etc. But at the end of the day, we will stick with this system. Is it the best system? I don’t think so. I too believe that more emphasis should be placed in the quality and diversity of the entire career than a specific event. But it is what it is.


  • Mittleschmerz

    Can you elaborate on what you mean by “more emphasis should be placed in the quality and diversity of the entire career than a specific event”?

  • Solon

    Outstanding brief (this from a former Pers 433/Air Combat placement type) on how command screen really works. There is some more nuance (Special mission vs. operational command, and the relative weighting), but for this discussion, MOST USEFUL.

    Here’s the thing – there is no “reasonable reason” for firing the officer now. The transgressions in the period of time in question were deemed insufficient to derail CAPT Honors. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with any individual’s perception of the VIQ (Videos in Question), but I am waiting to see who else falls. If Honors is the sole scapegoat (a la Dan Chang and USS RADFORD ten years ago), then ADM Harvey and the entire system will have committed an epic fail on the level of CNO Kelso and Tailhook. Sayin’ one thing and doin’ another.

    So I wait.

  • Mittleschmerz

    Solon – while I appreciate your comments, the Honors/Graf piece is a coda, nothing more. I’d prefer to stay on target with how folks get selected and what the process really is, rather than go back down the “he deserved it” vs “no he didn’t” rabbit hole for the umpteenth time.

  • Mittleschmerz

    …sorry half formed thought…here’s the second part.

    The reason that Honors and Graf are codas is that I’m in the early thought stages off two other posts explaining the Detachment for Cause process – which is completely separate and distinct from the command screening process. Nothing that I wrote in this post has anything to do with the removal of an officer from command, or from any other position. The record that was selected to command is irrelevant during the decision process to remove someone from command.

    The record does come into play later in appeals, Boards of Inquiry, Show Cause Proceedings and so on, but not while a commander is faced with the difficult decision of whether to initiate a DFC.

  • MD

    very good post

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “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.”

    So why were the incidents when Graf commanded Churchill NOT in her record?

  • Mittleschmerz

    URR – again, not the point of my post. But, if you want to know the answer to your question then you need to contact her former Commodores. They, and only they, know that answer.

    Now, you are aware that an officer’s record is not an all inclusive look into her soul, right? The record contains fitness reports, official statements of qualifications, and MAY contain legal documents that pertain to an individual record. If an officer gets a Punitive Letter of Reprimand, or goes to Captain’s or Admiral’s Mast, then an annotation of that is in his record – but not much more than that.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Fitness reports. Yes. Block 28, and Blocks 33-39. Pesky ones, those.

  • M. Ittleschmerz

    Block 28 – Command employment has not been reviewed on any selection board I have seen, served on, or heard of. It is there as a legal record, but not part of the “performance” of an officer or Sailor.

    Blocks 33-39 – The “grade” blocks. Also not individually briefed or reviewed. As I posted above, the average of those numbers, compared to the averages of the other officers graded on that day and then compared to the average of previous reports of officers in that grade from that reporting senior are looked at. So long as an officer is above the group average and reporting senior average, the report is looked on favorably.

    For promotion and next milestone screening, the only “important” block, in my experience and opinion, are (in order of importance):
    42 (in relation to 43)

    And no others. The averages I mention appear on the PSR.

  • “But, if you want to know the answer to your question then you need to contact her former Commodores.”

    That is the question. That is where you will find your answers … if they will return your calls and/or emails.

  • Lowly USN Retired

    The fact is, other than placing surveillance cameras throughout the ship for the purpose of monitoring personnel actions and conduct, the fitness report is the best reporting system the Navy has in place for grading officers in their fitness to serve, their fitness to promote and in their fitness to command. One of the few flaws in this system is one Sailor may be the rebirth of Admiral Ray Spruance in the eyes of one reporting senior whereas the same Sailor in the eyes of a different reporting senior may seen as a one hash mark Seaman Apprentice Bo Shittheragman.

    It is up to the Captain/Commanding Officer to accurately train his officers and crew to fight his ship to victory against all enemies as well as to instill in each Sailor the core values of honor, courage and commitment. Honor, courage and commitment includes honest submission of fitness reports.

    Until the political correctness plague is cured, award programs such as the Golden Anchor are scrapped and honest fitness reports are submitted, the Navy will continue to have despicable officers, such as Captain Graf, promoted through the system until a casualty occurs and they are finally exposed for who they really are.

  • Jay

    Lowly – concur about fit reps, the rest, not so much… CAPT Graf was exposed without a casualty, unless you are talking about the casualties of some of the careers of good folks who suffered while serving under her. I think we’ll see more firings in the future, not less, and it will have less to do with the comand screening process, or fit rep fiction, and more to do with our relatively recent Internet connectivity – at least in the case of poor command climates. Folks can now reach out to others who served with the same CO, and understand if they have a Tyrant situation, or a CO with just a bad month.

  • Lowly USN Retired

    Jay, “unless you are talking about the casualties of some of the careers of good folks who suffered while serving under her.” is exactly what I was attempting to convey. These types of casualties are more costly than loss of lube oil pressure in the MRG or an uncontrollable main space fire. What you wrote February 7th, 2011 at 2251 is on target germane to the Internet and command climate. Is a “CO with just a bad mouth” acceptable in the Navy these days and time?

  • Prof Gene

    It is true that the current Seven Trait Grades And Eighteen Lines of Text On A Single Sheet “is the best reporting system the Navy has in place for grading officers in their fitness to serve, their fitness to promote and in their fitness to command” (per Lowly) but that is a big part of the problem here. The current form dates from 1996, absolutely unchanged by the events of 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somali pirates, etc. By contrast, the average Navy officer fitrep form in the 20th century had a dozen trait grades and some specific questions about desirability for future service in various roles. Anyone trying to account for IA service on a PRT “in lieu of” some more standard billet is highly aware of the deficiencies of the current form. There is real reason to doubt whether the current form is asking for the right information; if it is not, then board members don’t know things that they really should.

    The current fitrep is used for everything in an officer’s career–selection, promotion, counseling, feedback, performance documentation, guesstimation of potential, fitness to continue service–so that single sheet of paper is both one-stop shopping (for the Bureau and anyone else who needs to know) and a single point of failure (when the boss fails to effectively communicate the truth). The single sheet standard is looking a bit archaic a decade into the 21st century. Perhaps the time has come to take a close look at some alternative ways of doing this.

  • Mittleschmerz

    @Prof Gene – but that system was bloated and over inflated. At least with our current system the grades, at least in relation to other officers that the reporting senior has written on, have some form of benchmark. This allows us to have some form of quality cut even if the language on the back is hyperbolic hyperbole.

    The only thing I really disagree with is what you say the fitness report is used for. It has a singular purpose – to communicate to the board whether or not an officer should be promoted. It’s not there for any of those other things you mention – most specifically NOT for counseling.

    The surest road to perdition is by believing what is written in your fitness reports.


    It really doesn’t matter what reporting system you use. If the reporting senior is unwilling or unable to acurately evaluate his or her subordinates, for whatever reason, and is unwilling or unable to make the tough calls to clarify the situation for the board, the system fails.

  • Anthony Cowden

    “So why were the incidents when Graf commanded Churchill NOT in her record?”

    “…if you want to know the answer to your question then you need to contact her former Commodores. They, and only they, know that answer.”

    When CO of the WINSTON CHURCHILL she was unable to execute a wartime mission because of a stopped-and-locked shaft As a Battle Watch Captain in the Navy Ops Center I was in receipt of all CASREPs, and I looked up WINSTON CHURCHILL’s to get an idea of the repair efforts – it was a CAT 2 (Note: I did not know the name or the sex of the CO at the time). I was very surprised, and I came very close to forwarding the CASREP to the N3/N5 distribution list with a “WTF?” comment line – but refrained, because I felt it was the place of the ISIC to address the situation: surely the ISIC would question why a CO who could not perform a wartime mission because of an engineering casualty would file a CAT 2 CASREP…

  • Prof Gene

    Grade inflation has been a problem for a half century or so, though it hasn’t always been that way. VADM Fletcher gave RADM Spruance a 3.9 (or maybe a 3.7, his writing isn’t clear) on a 4.0 scale for Command in his Battle of Midway fitrep, though Spruance had made the most significant tactical decision in USN history with a degree of calculated boldness that exemplifies the very best in our tradition of command at sea. That decision was the key to winning the battle and changed the strategic calculus of the war, so if that isn’t 4.0 (and the report specifically states that it is only for the battle) then it’s hard to see what is. The current form was designed to constrain the inflation of recent years, but it hasn’t been fully successful at that. Limiting the amount of space for hyperbolic text (good) has also limited space to document specific performance in any detail (not so good, particularly for those in non-traditional jobs). And the one thing the current form provides is that ranking, which as the original post points out is the only thing you can be certain that a board will look at.

    Mittleschmerz’s point about the use of the fitrep needs clarification. It may be true that the purpose of the fitrep is solely to communicate to a statutory board whether an officer should be promoted (it’s not – clearly it is also to communicate to an administrative board whether an officer should select for command), but my point is that the fitrep is used for all of those other things, regardless of its actual purpose. Going before a retention board? Let’s look at your official record (fitreps). The fitrep gets used for most everything because there isn’t any other reference to consult, but it is the superlative reporting senior who manages to make the fitrep process an effective documentation of your performance, an accurate estimation of your potential, a clear recommendation for your future service and useful feedback to you, and all in 18 lines. It’s true that the current fitrep tool is a poor counseling tool and that you would be foolish indeed to believe hyperbolic text is an accurate evaluation, but the fitrep form remains the official officer counseling tool, and the fitrep instruction still requires semi-annual counseling based on it with a signature from the officer that such counseling was received (a sort of semi-annual integrity challenge in my experience, since my CO’s consistently dodged doing such counseling).

    And USNVO is absolutely correct that the effectiveness of any tool is entirely dependent on the willingness of the reporting seniors to clearly communicate their professional evaluation of the officer in question. Other services have moved to longer forms (the Marine Corps’ officer fitrep is 5 pages) and to a senior officer review process that requires the reporting senior to justify his/her choices to his/her boss. That sort of oversight is not part of our Navy culture – our view of command does not allow for that sort of interference in the professional judgment of CO’s and Commanders, and I would not advocate that we go in that direction.

    I do think we need a better form that provides more information (our current Flag fitrep has twice as many trait grades as our current Ensign-Captain report). And that we should probably put CAPTs on a different report form than LTs – the focus at those levels ought to be different (just as CPOs are now on a different form than POs). And that we should seriously consider whether any other evaluative means could help differentiate the best from the very good here in the 21st century.