WASHINGTON – The Navy has fired a dozen commanding officers this year, a near-record rate, with the bulk getting the ax for offenses related to sex, alcohol or other forms of personal misconduct.

The terminations, which follow a similar spike in firings last year, have shaken the upper ranks of the Navy, which has long invested enormous responsibility in its commanding officers and prides itself on a tradition of carefully cultivating captains and admirals.

Over the past 18 months, the Navy has sacked nine commanding officers for sexual harassment or inappropriate personal relationships. Three others were fired for alcohol-related offenses, and two on unspecified charges of personal misconduct. Combined, they account for roughly half of the 29 commanding officers relieved during that period.

STANDARDS APPLY OFF-DUTY

Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, called the increase in firings “bothersome” but said the Navy was duty-bound to uphold strict behavioral standards, even when commanders are off-duty.

“The divide between our private and professional lives is essentially gone,” he said in an interview. “People can engage in the debate — does it really matter what a commanding officer does in their personal life? We believe it does, because it gets right to the issue of integrity and personal conduct and trust and the ability to enforce standards.”

Capt. Donald Hornbeck, commander of a destroyer squadron attached to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, was fired April 23 while deployed in the Arabian Sea after Navy officials said they found evidence of an “inappropriate personal relationship.”

Four days later, the Navy cashiered Cmdr. Jay Wiley, the commanding officer of the USS Momsen, a destroyer, citing “misconduct,” according to a Navy statement.

Military officials did not elaborate on the alleged transgressions. The Navy Times newspaper, citing an anonymous naval source, reported that Hornbeck was found to have had a relationship with another officer’s wife and that Wiley’s problems involved alcohol and inappropriate behavior with a sailor under his command. Neither Hornbeck nor Wiley responded to requests for comment.

April was a particularly tough month for Navy commanders. On April 11, Cmdr. Timothy Murphy, a squadron commander at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state, was fired after he was cited by police for driving under the influence, according to a Navy statement. Two other commanders were sacked the same month for on-the-job performance woes.

None of the fired Navy commanders named in this article responded to requests for comment submitted through Navy public affairs officials.

ARMY COMMANDERS DISCIPLINED

The Navy is not the only military service dogged by poor performance in its upper ranks. The Army has relieved or disciplined three brigade commanders this year who were en route to — or returning from — war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One case involved Col. James Johnson III, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, whom the Army fired in March for “inappropriate conduct” after his wife accused him of having a long-term affair with an Iraqi mistress, according to an Army statement and divorce papers. Johnson declined to comment through an Army spokesman

“It would be silly to say I wasn’t concerned,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the Army chief of staff, told reporters recently. He said the Army was re-assessing its command selection process to rate officers based on feedback from subordinates and peers, instead of just superiors.

The Navy’s rash of firings has stirred special anxiety, however, with some officials and analysts characterizing the problem as a leadership crisis.

Since January, the Navy has booted a dozen commanding officers and temporarily removed a 13th, pending an investigation. At that pace, the Navy will match the record total of 26 commanders it fired in 2003.

“It’s a phenomenally high number,” said Norman Polmar, an Alexandria, Va.-based naval historian who has served as an adviser to several top Navy officials. “There is something seriously wrong.”

He said the trend is a clear sign that the Navy’s screening process for promotion is flawed. “Perhaps we don’t have the best and brightest,” he said. “It’s also the naval leadership’s responsibility,” he said, to ensure that commanders are qualified and to articulate appropriate standards for officers.

SMALL PERCENTAGE AFFECTED

Navy officials said they have been consistent and rigorous in holding their commanders responsible.

In an interview, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said he didn’t think the firings illustrated a broader problem, noting that only a tiny percentage of the roughly 1,500 commanding officers in the service have been affected.

“We hold absolute standards of conduct and if you breach those, you’re going to be relieved,” he said. “But I don’t see a pattern, and I don’t think it’s an epidemic in that sense.”