Thursday, July 31, 2008

Change of Command

The Navy has relieved the commander and executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, holding them culpable in a May fire on the vessel that injured more than 50 sailors and caused millions of dollars in damages to the nuclear-powered vessel.

Captain David Dykhoff, the carrier’s former skipper, and his executive officer, Captain David Dober, were dismissed by Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Robert Willard. In his final endorsement on a two-month Navy investigation into the fire on the George Washington, Willard directed the firing of the two officers. They were officially dismissed on Wednesday by Vice Admiral Thomas Kilcline, commander of Naval Air Forces.

As Navy Times reports:

Dykhoff was fired “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command and his failure to meet mission requirements and readiness standards,” Navy officials said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.

Dober was dismissed for “substandard performance,” according to the same statement.

Naval investigators found that the fire on the carrier was the result human errors that were easily preventable:

The investigation found that the likely cause of the fire, which caused $70 million in damage, “was unauthorized smoking that ignited flammable liquids and other combustible material improperly stored in an adjacent space,” officials said in the statement. “The fire and the subsequent magnitude of the fire were the result of a series of human acts that could have been prevented. Specifically, the storage of 90 gallons of refrigerant compressor oil in an unauthorized space contributed to the intensity of the fire.”

Obviously, the Washington’s skipper and the XO didn’t directly supervise the storage of their materials, or approve unauthorized smoking by crew members. But the fire happened on their ship, during their watch, and the Navy held them accountable.

The blaze occurred as the carrier was transiting from its old port of Norfolk, Virginia, to its new base in Japan. But the fire caused so much damage that the George Washington had to return to San Diego, where it is undergoing repairs.

Dykhoff and Dober weren’t the only naval officers to lose their jobs this week. Last Sunday, the commander of the landing ship dock USS Pearl Harbor was fired after a grounding incident on July 21st.

Cmdr. Xavier F. Valverde, a Bronze Star recipient who started his career as an enlisted sailor, was relieved by Rear Adm. Kendall Card, commander of the Peleliu Expeditionary Strike Group.
“Following a preliminary inquiry after a recent grounding incident in the Arabian Gulf, Rear Adm. Card expressed his loss of confidence in Valverde’s ability to command,” said a statement released by Naval Surface Forces in Coronado, Calif. “No injuries or damage occurred as a result of the incident.”

Command of a warship is the most demanding of jobs, and the Navy has always been brutally tough on its skippers, with no margin for error. And that’s the way it should be. Dykhoff, Dober and Valverde’s names will never appear on another promotion list, and their next assignment (should they decide to stay in the Navy) will be some back-water desk job, or perhaps an ROTC assignment.

The Navy’s handling of these matters provides an interesting contrast to the Air Force, and its disposition of last year’s nuclear mishap at Minot AFB, North Dakota. True, the USAF did fire five unit commanders--including the leader of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot and the commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, which controlled the B-52 that accidentally flew nuclear weapons between the two installations.

But, as we reported in a recent exclusive, the list of Air Force personnel punished in the incident was surprisingly short. The five commanders received Letters of Admonishment, a mild form of non-judicial punishment, while a Captain and four enlisted members were given Article 15s.

While the admonishment letters are supposed to end promotion chances for the former commanders, the degree of discipline imposed stunned many observers. After all, the officers were deemed culpable in the nation’s most serious nuclear accident in almost 30 years. Yet, all they received was an administrative slap on the wrist.

And, at least two of the officers sanctioned in the Minot mishap moved into important jobs after being punished. Colonel Bruce Emig, the fired bomb wing commander at Minot, now runs UAV programs for Air Combat Command (ACC) Headquarters, located at Langley AFB, Virginia.

Given the importance of drones in Air Force operations, Emig is now (arguably) one of the most important division chiefs on the ACC staff. There is also speculation that Colonel Emig’s new job might get him another shot at command. The nuclear transfer may not be a career killer, the thinking goes, because it occurred only two months into Emig’s tenure at Minot.

Meanwhile, the former leader of the Barksdale operations group, Colonel Todd Westhauser, was subsequently installed as Deputy Commander of the 608th Operations Group at the same base. On the surface, Westhauser’s new job might appear to be a demotion, but with the 608th handling operations for a numbered air force, rather than a wing, the move is a lateral one at worst.

Admittedly, both Emig and Westhauser still face long odds in regaining a command position. Still, that type of career resurrection is not without precedent in the Air Force.

Last week, we noted the retirement of Major General Larry New, who was fired as an operations group commander at Nellis AFB, Nevada in 1998, after a deadly helicopter crash in a squadron he supervised. But New went on to become a wing commander and earn two stars over the final decade of his career.

The professional rebound of Major General Mark Shackelford is even more dramatic. In late 2002, Shackelford was fired as Director of the F-22 System Program Office (SPO), after the fighter program incurred billions in cost overruns.

Yet, after a brief stint as a “special assistant” to a higher-ranking Air Force general (a “holding” position for senior officers on their way up—or out), Shackelford went on to jobs at the Missile Defense Agency and the Air Staff. Recently, he was selected for his third star, and reassignment as military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. The irony of that posting, in light of his SPO firing, cannot be overstated.

By comparison, we can almost guarantee that Captain Dykoff, Captain Dober and Commander Valverde will never hold another Navy command billet, or key staff position. That brutal efficiency of the Navy's system offers a lesson for the Air Force—if anyone cares to absorb it.


Mrs. Davis said...

Hard to tell who's more detestable. Call it the Oil Gulf.

JoeC said...

I guess Cmdr. Xavier F. Valverde didn't have enough brownie points in Washington to preserve him. I compare that with the commander of the USS America, who, back in 1974, was in command when the America grounded in the Chesapeake bay when returning to port and only received a delay in his promotion to admiral. That grounding cause the America's boilers to trip and required assistance by the tugs to get to the dock....hours late. The grounding delayed the America's next VA Capes cruise by a few days.

The ostensible reason for the grounding was "steering failure" and listed as such. What I heard was some lowly seaman turned the wrong valve and caused the 'failure'. BUT, I also understand that the good captain was attempting to pilot the vessel into the pier without the aid of the harbor pilot or the tugs.

I remember this because I was sitting on pier twelve waiting on the boat to pull in so I could report aboard. But the good captain I heard had already been select for promotion and had woven the right strings in DC to preserve his career.

So the commander (a mustang) in the article, lacking that important signet ring from the naval academy, didn't have the correct support group (good old academy boy's club) and will serve out the remainder of his contract assigned to count widgets for penance.

I hate politics.

Sandy Salt said...

There is a huge difference between today and 1974. The Navy is a totally different place where being a member of the Canoe Club no longer saves your behind. There are plenty of CC grads that get the ax as Commanders.

Stephen said...

I've always felt the Navy system was too draconian and is a peacetime system that punishes the risk-taking that is required in wartime. If you do nothing, you can do nothing wrong.

Omar said...

I agree with the blog author and Saddam Hussein because the gulf is Arabian not Persian.