In a rare burst of candor from the Navy’s tight-lipped submarine service, a former Trident submarine commander and the admiral who stripped him of command have gone public to defend their actions.
Rear Adm. Paul Sullivan, commander of Submarine Group 9, said Wednesday he removed Cmdr. Michael Alfonso from command of the USS Florida on Aug. 11 after months of growing discontent over his performance by senior crew members.
“This ship was heading into dangerous waters and I needed to take decisive action,” Sullivan said. “The trend in morale and climate were negative and declining.”
Bangor officials who asked to remain anonymous said Sullivan spoke out in part to quash rumors that the decision to remove Alfonso stemmed from some unspecified incident while on patrol.
“There was no incident,” Sullivan said.
Alfonso, who has appealed his removal to higher naval authorities, released a statement Wednesday defending his performance.
Alfonso, a 25-year Navy veteran who began his career as an enlisted man, assumed command of the submarine’s “Blue” crew last September.
Trident submarines are manned by two separate crews, identified as the “Blue Crew” and “Gold Crew,” each with its own commanding officer. The two teams take turns operating the missile submarines on 70-day patrols in the Pacific.
Beginning before the Florida’s departure on patrol in March, Sullivan said, some officials said they were troubled with what appeared to be problems in Alfonso’s ability to forge a coordinated team among his crew.
Sullivan said he knew morale on the ship had plummeted when he saw the crew disembark upon their return to Hood Canal on June 6. He told reporters the mood was “despondent” rather than upbeat at having completed a 70-day mission.
A week later, on June 13, Bangor chief of staff Capt. Dave Moussette led a survey team of senior enlisted chiefs aboard the submarine for a snap “survey” of the commander and crew, Sullivan said. The officers, senior enlisted chiefs and a cross-section of the entire crew filled out a detailed questionnaire on morale issues.
Sullivan’s conclusion was that “morale is significantly declining even though the ship’s performance is satisfactory.”
Sullivan said he could not go into details of the allegations against Alfonso in order to protect the former skipper’s right to appeal the administrative removal.
But he said both the Florida’s executive officer and senior enlisted chief petty officer - two vital members of a submarine’s command hierarchy - had told inspectors they felt estranged from Alfonso. A number of senior enlisted men said they intended to leave the Navy as a result of their experiences under Alfonso’s command, Sullivan said.