Sunday, October 21, 2012


A decade or two ago the Navy embarked on an ambitious stupid program of minimal manning intended to reduce one of the major costs associated with operating ships, the crew size.  Driven exclusively by financial spreadsheets, this effort totally ignored the impact on shipboard maintenance, onboard skillsets, morale, combat, and damage control.

Consider the example of the Perry class frigate, USS Stark (FFG-31), which was hit by two Iraqi Exocet missiles in 1987.  The initial hit caused 37 deaths and 21 injuries.  Only heroic damage control efforts by the crew kept the ship afloat.  Follow up interviews and reports made it clear that the number one attribute that saved the ship was the size of the crew - the number of bodies available to conduct damage control for an extended period.

Here's a list of the crew size for several surface warship classes, expressed as the ratio of crew to ship displacement - in other words, how many crew per ton of ship.  The higher the number, the larger the relative crew size. 

Perry FFG,     205 crew,   4200 t,   0.049 crew/ton
Burke DDG,    281 crew,   6900 t,   0.041
Ticonderoga,   400 crew,   9800 t,   0.041

Intuitively, one might expect the ratio to be a constant;  the expectation being that it takes a fairly constant number of crew per ton of ship to operate the ship.  Indeed, that appears to be the case with a constant ratio of 0.04 crew per ton of ship.

By comparison, here's the LCS core manning.

Freedom LCS,   40 crew,   3000 t,   0.013

That's a 67% drop in relative manning!  Admittedly, modern automation has reduced the crew requirements but that's still a huge drop.  One cannot help but wonder about the impact of such a drop on maintenance and fatigue levels.  Sure enough, the Navy acknowledged that the crew size was too small and has increased the core crew to 60 which gives the following,

Freedom LCS,   60 crew,   3000 t,   0.02

That's still half the traditional relative manning.  One is still left to wonder about the impact on combat operations and damage control.  There just won't be enough sailors to absorb combat casualties and conduct effective damage control.  Perhaps that's one reason why the LCS is not built to be survivable - because the Navy recognizes that the crew is insufficient to fight the ship and conduct damage control?  Still, treating a half billion dollar (or more with modules) ship as a throwaway is not exactly being fiscally responsible, is it?

Crew Size - More Important Than the Navy Realizes
 Well, presumably the Navy has learned it's lesson about minimal manning.  Before we conclude, though, let's look at the announced manning of the Zumwalt, DDG-1000, as reported in Wikipedia.

Zumwalt DDG,   142 crew,   14500 t,   0.01

That's 75% lower than traditional and 50% less than even the beefed up LCS!  Yikes!  Zumwalt will be the least manned ship in the fleet.  As with the LCS but even more so, one wonders about the ability of the crew to conduct combat operations, absorb casualties, and conduct effective damage control.  Does the Navy view a $4B, 600 ft, 14500 ton cruiser as a throwaway like the LCS?  Did the Navy really learn a lesson from the LCS, or not?

Now, let's be fair - the Navy may well increase the manning of the Zumwalt as they did with the LCS but let's also be fair and acknowledge that a one minute thought exercise about crew size would point out the absurdities of crew size this small.

In a peacetime world with no possibility of combat or damage, manning could be significantly reduced with no negative impact.  Merchant ships run with very small crews, for instance.  However, there's no such thing as peace - the Stark has hit during peacetime, as was the Cole.  Warships, as the name implies are built for combat and are always a moment away from combat and damage even in peacetime.

The Navy needs to start recognizing that they aren't a business trying to turn a profit.  They're a combat organization that doesn't lend itself to analysis by spreadsheet.  Come on, Navy, learn the lesson and man up!


  1. I often wonder if "Damage Control" is a sensible idea.

    When was the last time a ship was hit with serious firepower and the crew managed to both save the ship AND the ship was returned to action on a reasonable time frame?
    Like, quicker than a new one could be built.

    If 140 crew men save the ship 50% of the time, I have to wonder, would it not make sense to build 50% more ships and stick half of them in warehouses.

    Obviously, things like the Carriers are national treasures that cannot be discarded easily. But I'd argue the crew is far more valuable than the ship for almost anything else.

    Maybe we should consider salvage, rather than save?
    Sealed and floating VLS and Radar units?

    One more point.
    Thicker armour, additional water tight bulk heads ect, all add weight, but dont really require any sort of crew interaction.

    I'm an outsider on these sort of issues.
    But I think like this.

    Lets imagine, the UK and Argentina are back at war over the Falklands.
    The is preparing to land its ground forces, and sets up its air defence destroyers to protect the landing ships.

    Theres three options
    Make no changes.
    Double up the crews to try and save any damaged ships.
    Half the crews, order them to set autonav for shallow water and abandon ship at the first hit they arent absolutely sure they can deal with.

    1. This was the idea that lead to the LCS. It doesnt work. The modern weapons systems cost to much and the ships themselves take to long to build and also cost to much.

      We have been assuming like asses that war is going to be over in a week like it has been with less powerful enemies...

      So we build for absolute power for 5% of the war and plan for a short war like the Europeans....Except we dont have anyone to beg bombs from...

      With large crews comes flexability just like large ships.

      There are other possibilities. Include extra birthing and other space for crews during hightened times of war. They can be trained fairly quickly. It takes a year or more to build and work out a DDG and years for Carriers.

    2. Regarding your question, the examples of the frigate Stark which ate two Exocets and was returned to service and the Aegis cruiser Princeton which suffered two mines and was returned to service and the amphibious ship Tripoli which also struck a mine and returned to service. The most recent example is the submarine Miami which suffered a catastrophic fire in drydock. Repairs have been estimated to cost $500M. A new sub, which would have to be a Virginia, costs $2.5B so repairs are quite a bit cheaper than building a new sub. Unfortunately, I don't the inflation adjusted repair costs for any of the other ships relative to their initial construction costs.

      Warehousing of ships against the possibility of loss? I've got to admit that's an idea I've never heard before. The cost would be staggering. Consider the Burke DDGs. Building, say, four extra would cost $8B. You can repair a lot of ships for that!

      As far as a planned abandonment of a damaged ship, there are a few practical and human aspects to it. Frequently, ships lose power when damaged and can't proceed to shallow water. Also, it's quite common, almost the rule, for damaged ships to be out of reach of assitance for extended periods. Given the temperature extremes of the water (survival times sometimes measured in minutes) and the possible presence of sharks or snakes, I wouldn't want to be the crew that's designated for premature abandonment. It's rare (somewhere around never) that a ship's crew can abandon ship and all wind up neatly in lifeboats.

      As I said, I can't back it up with actual data but I strongly suspect that repairs are almost always cheaper than new construction.

    3. True - both of those ships (TRIPOLI and PRINCETON) were brought back into service. But it took 1-2 months of drydock time.

      Perhaps a more relevent question is whether or not those two ships could've returned to service in sufficent time to participate in combat operations.

      In my opinion the idea behind a small, disposable warship for the littorals (i.e. Streetfighter) wasn't a bad one. It was just horribly conceived and bastardized into LCS.

  2. @ComNavOps - another excellent (and quick!) post. Your point about damage control is especially sound. I'm sure your familiar with the old saying: "every sailor is a firefighter." If you put yourself in harm's way (as warships are wont to do) you're going to take casualties; this does not seem to be allowed for in peace-time orientated manning levels designed to save costs. Automated systems are well and good, but here's an extract of the Wiki article describing the sinking of HMS Sheffield in 1982: "The Exocet missile which hit Sheffield did not detonate, but the missile severed the high-pressure fire main on board. The resultant fire caused by burning propellant ignited diesel oil from the ready-use tanks in the engine room, and other inflammable (should say flammable) materials used in the ship's construction." It was a lucky hit which took out the ship's fire fighting capability. Not even a crew of 280 odd (in a 4800t hull) were sufficient to fight the fires and fumes - and the missile didn't even explode. I wonder how well modern automated systems would stand up to actual battle damage.

    @TrT - do unexploded bombs count? HMS Antrim, May 1982 - hit by a 1000lb bomb, successfully removed, patched up and back in the firing line a few days later.

  3. I see this trend in naval construction in Western countries: Find ways to save money at all costs. Anything to lessen the price, whether it is for the vessel itself or the life-cycle expenses.

    Look at the lighter, civilian standard construction of ships like HMS Ocean, the Absalon, or the Mistral class LHDs. The LCS is the American example. Less displacement usually translates to less cost; as the politicians see it.

    Life cycle costs can be as expensive as the ship itself over a 20-30 year timeframe. The great hope is that all the "unnecessary manning" can be trimmed away like fat on a steak.

    The problem is that when a warship is hit or damaged like the Sheffield or the Cole then all the "extra" crew and heavier construction can make a difference between survival and sinking. During the USS Samuel Roberts service from 1986 to the present, there was only that time in 1988 when she hit a mine, that all the "extra" crew and hull strength was needed.


  4. I'm not saying dont build strong ships, but even ten crewmen is a huge cost over 20 years.
    Would Sheffield have survived, if it had a secondary fire main?
    Or if it had more discrete water tight compartments?

    Manpower is expensive.
    Life time costs of the T42s are 75% operating costs to 25% construction

    "@TrT - do unexploded bombs count? HMS Antrim, May 1982 - hit by a 1000lb bomb, successfully removed, patched up and back in the firing line a few days later."

    I dont know, do they?
    Would 50 men, more or less, have mattered either way?

    1. TrT, you ask whether a few men more or less matters in damage control. The only way I can answer that is to suggest reading all the accounts of WWII ship damage as well as the relatively few modern accounts (Stark, Cole, Roberts, Princeton, the various Falklands ships, etc.) and the most common denominator in the cases where the ship was saved, is manpower for extended and extensive damage control. Of course, some ships have more damage than can be dealt with and they sink. In those cases, no additional amount of crew would have changed the outcome. In many other cases of minor damage, the ship was never in danger of sinking and fewer crew wouldn't have posed any additional risk. But, for the ships that are moderately to severly damaged, manpower makes all the difference.

      Consider also, the element of continued combat. This is illustrated repeatedly in WWII. A ship is damaged and a large chunk of the crew turns to damage control. Because the crews were large enough, a core of crew was still available to continue manning the weapons and continue fighting. This scenario played out repeatedly around Guadalcanal and on the picket lines around Okinawa when fighting off Kamikazees. There was nowhere for the ship to go to do a controlled abandonment and the enemy didn't stop coming just because the ship was damaged. There was no choice but to continue to fight. That requires a larger crew than is required to simply sail the ship in peacetime. That's just the reality of naval combat.

      Compare that to the LCS. If an LCS takes damage, there will undoubtedly be casualties - there always are. An already too small crew is instantly even smaller. They just won't have enough bodies to do damage control and continue to fight the ship. The same is going to apply to the DDG-1000 which is even more undermanned on a relative basis.

      Does this make sense to you?

  5. Great post...

    You forgot the San Antonio Class:

    360 crew/25,000 tons = 0.0144 crew/ton

    Just slightly more that the LCSs!


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