Long ago, the Navy committed to minimal manning as a cost savings measure. They later changed the phrase to “optimal manning” as a public relations measure, presumably believing that “optimal” sounds better than “minimal”. Regardless of the terminology, it was an attempt by the Navy to operate ships as if they were business cases. This was stupidity on a platter and most outside observers said so and have continued to say so.
The LCS was trumpeted as having a minimal, nearly non-existent, crew that could perform miracles, assisted by copious levels of automation. The claim was that the LCS would have a far, far smaller crew than a Perry class frigate. Even though the Navy denied that the LCS was a direct replacement for the Perry, they didn’t hesitate to draw direct comparisons between the two ships when it served their purpose. But, I digress … Of course, the LCS minimal manning failed miserably. The core crew size has been increased. The shore-side maintenance support crew has been significantly increased. The degree of contractor support has been markedly higher than anticipated. Overall, the LCS “crew” size is on par with the Perry or, most likely, larger. Worse, because the LCS was sized and designed for minimal manning, the ability to add crew is severely limited. The ship’s hotel services: food and water storage, berthing spaces, heads, galley space, showers, etc. are pretty much fixed and every additional crew member cuts into the ship’s endurance which was only two weeks to begin with. Currently, the LCS is likely only good for around 10 days endurance, at best. That’s not really a problem since most LCS’s break down in less than 10 days at sea – oh no, he didn’t just say that, did he? Way to pile on the poor, hapless LCS! I apologize, that was inappropriate. Moving on …
The Zumwalt and Ford have been designed with minimal manning and it remains to be seen whether those crew sizes prove workable or not – spoiler alert: they won’t.
Earlier attempts at variations of minimal manning, in the form of crew sharing/swaps, ended in failure as the affected ships suffered from poor maintenance due, presumably, to the associated lack of bonding between ship and crew and the natural human tendency to put off dirty jobs knowing that the crew would be leaving shortly and the problem would be the next crew’s responsibility. Unfortunately, the next crew had the same natural human tendencies and the ships suffered.
The Navy also implemented an intentional policy of routinely and systematically shorting fleet billets for many years. Partly, this was simple incompetent personnel management and partly it was a desire to operate smaller crews even on ships that were not designed for minimal manning. This could actually have worked had the Navy simultaneously increased funding for shore side support measures but they didn’t and the resulting poorly maintained ships were completely predictable.
And, finally, there’s the complete disconnect between the minimal manning to operate a ship during routine, peacetime sailing and the manning needs of a ship in combat. Extra crew are needed for wartime combat stations, watchstanding, damage control, and casualty replacement. These requirements did not make it into the Navy’s business case.
So, that’s a brief summary of the history and current situation regarding minimal manning. Now, we have a GAO study of the practice and it’s fascinating.
Hey, just out of curiosity, how did the Navy think they were going to be able to reduce crew size and continue to operate ships with the same amount of work needing to be done but now with less people to do it? It can’t be done, you say? Well, the Navy found a way. What they did was ingenious in an incredibly stupid way. They merely and arbitrarily increased the theoretical amount of work an individual sailor could do – if each sailor can do more work then you need fewer sailors, so the Navy thought.
“To further drive down ship crew sizes, the Navy changed workload assumptions and the equation used to determine manpower requirements in 2002. For example, it increased the Navy standard workweek from 67 to 70 productive hours per sailor, which further reduced shipboard manning by up to 4 percent.”
There you have it – stupid beyond stupid. The fact that sailors weren’t physically capable of the calculated increase in workload didn’t matter to the Navy. All that mattered was that on paper they could justify reducing crew sizes. The only puzzling aspect was why the Navy didn’t just increase the standard work week even higher. Why not 90 hours, or 150? If you’re doing something that stupid, you may as well go all the way!
The Navy claims that personnel costs are the major contributor to a ship’s operating costs. Thus, the desire to reduce crew size is understandable, if ill advised. Setting aside the negative effects on maintenance, readiness, and combat capability, did the Navy’s efforts to reduce crew size actually achieve its desired goal of decreasing operating costs? According to the GAO report, the opposite occurred!
“Ship operating and support costs—the total cost of operating, maintaining, and supporting a ship, including personnel, operations, maintenance, sustainment, and modernization—increased during the optimal manning period and have continued to increase for most ship classes … “ [emphasis added]
What???? How could reducing crew size and, thus, personnel costs, increase overall operating costs? I mean, the overall operating costs have to go down, right? No. Here’s GAO’s explanation.
“… increases in maintenance costs offset reductions in personnel costs.”
Well, there’s great big, “duh!”. Everyone with an ounce of common sense could anticipate that. If you take away crew and allow maintenance to suffer, you’re going to pay a heavier price down the road in increased maintenance – and that’s exactly what happened. Worse than that, the policy resulted in many ships being retired early, decreasing the fleet size during a time when we’re desperately trying to increase the fleet size.
Even the Navy has belatedly acknowledged that its minimal manning efforts produced effects the opposite of what was desired.
“Navy officials acknowledged that the reduced crew sizes during the optimal manning period, along with reductions in shore support, may have yielded short-term cost savings, but also increased maintenance costs over the longer term, in part because reduced crew sizes resulted in maintenance being deferred, which developed into more costly issues that had to be addressed later.”
Again, a thoroughly predictable, common sense result that surprised no one but the Navy.
Okay, so the minimal manning experiment was an abject failure. The Navy has restored at least some of the reduced manning so that should decrease the increased maintenance costs, right? Again, no.
“In all cases, maintenance costs are above pre–optimal manning levels …”
This suggests that once you damage a ship by deferring maintenance, the damage is permanent and the increased maintenance costs are irreversible. The Navy irreparably harmed the fleet with its idiotic minimal manning experiment.
The Navy also discovered, to no one’s surprise, that by reducing crew size they had to depend on contractor supplied maintenance to a greater extent. Contractor costs are higher than captive Navy sailor costs so the result was higher overall ship operating costs due to the increased dependence on contractors. Another resounding, “duh!”. Everyone but the Navy could anticipate that one.
The GAO report goes on to cite example after example of the negative impact of minimal manning and one aspect after another that the Navy failed to realize and account for. At this point, it would just be beating a dead horse for me to continue documenting all this.
The truly stunning aspect to this is the complete absence of common sense exhibited by the Navy in their minimal manning experiment. You don’t have to be a Ph.D personnel and operations analyst to recognize simple, common sense cause and effect relationships. That the Navy failed to do so, repeatedly, is a scathing indictment of Navy leadership that has continued to this day. The recent Burke ship collisions and groundings were, in part, cause by shortages in crew size. While the minimal manning experiment officially ended some time ago, the effects linger and the Navy is still trying to operate ships with too few crew even for basic safety during routine evolutions.
Minimal manning was an embarrassing failure of epic proportions and needs to be reversed. Every ship in the fleet is undermanned and needs larger crews. The theoretical cost savings from reduced crew sizes have been proven to be illusory and increased costs have actually resulted. Crew shortages contributed to two Burke collisions which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Where are savings?
(1)Government Accountability Office, “NAVY FORCE STRUCTURE Actions Needed to Ensure Proper Size and Composition of Ship Crews”, May 2017, GAO-17-413,