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Navy’s promotion system struggling to root out unfit commandersHow would Admiral Nimitz have been dealt with in today’s Navy?Under the current Navy evaluation system, one number and one checkmark in the right place will make or break an officer’s promotion chances.

Retired Navy Capt. Jan van Tol believes that system is flawed and doesn’t produce the best officers for promotion.

Fitness reports have ratings scored from one to five on leadership, tactical performance and other traits. The promotion candidate’s cumulative score better be higher than the average score a senior commander normally gives, or the candidate won’t advance, said the retired surface warfare captain and former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

The most critical part of the report is a row of blocks rating an officer’s promotion potential from two career-killing grades to the three most important: “promote,” “must promote” and “early promote.”

The written portion could be a tiebreaker, but it pales in comparison to the promotion block and to the cumulative average, van Tol said.

“Regardless of the official Navy propaganda, the rest of the fitness report is basically pretty words or fluff,” he said.

A ship captain is limited in his choices and must rate his officers against each other. If the captain has four department heads, he could give out one “early promote,” one “must promote” and two “promotes” — the last two of which aren’t likely to generate promotions.

“The difficulty, of course, is that there is now no way for [command screening] boards to know whether a given ‘promotable’ officer was an outstanding officer among a group of other outstanding officers or whether an ‘early promote’ was just the least bad,” he said.

“This leads to the miserably dysfunctional result that it is much better to be the only good department head on a lousy ship or the only good commanding officer in a lousy squadron than to be among a bunch of really good peers.”

His solution would be to remove the promotion boxes from the Navy form.

Van Tol recalls being evaluated differently as a minesweeper captain in the early ‘90s, before the promotion block was used.

“Back then, you used the right phrases to convey the proper meaning,” he said, “so that you knew the captains and flag officers would get it on the promotion board.”

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