Monday, March 5, 2018

The Optimal Manning Experiment

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,


  1. A navy may save on fleet personnel if it stops behaving like a navy and more like the cost-driven civilian shipping lines.
    It could treat jobs on board of ships as a career instead of a step in a career.
    Imagine a crew that works together for five years, with almost no fluctuations (and 40% of the year at sea, 10% of days on-shore work) - and then 80+% re-enlist to do the same job for another five years.

    You'd have a crew of experts with much higher competence, productivity and versatility.
    40% of the time at sea would be plenty, for the average sailor would have completed all standard exercises a couple times already and hardly anyone would be green.
    The cohesion, identity and esprit de corps would be gigantic.

    1. "A navy may save on fleet personnel if it stops behaving like a navy and more like the cost-driven civilian shipping lines."

      Okay, you got me on that one. I thought this was going to be another bad "lets run the Navy like a business" comment but you then offered up an intriguing idea.

      I can see a few problems with the concept, though.

      -People have to have somewhere to go as they advance in rank. Otherwise, to take it to the extreme, after several years with no turnover all the enlisted would be Petty Officers and you'd have PO's cleaning toilets.

      -Turnover also allows new ideas to come in to the group. Without it, nothing new occurs (sometimes a good thing, sometimes bad).

      -In war, unlike civilian shipping, losses occur and you have to shuffle personnel around to make up losses. A broader base of experience for the average sailor would be beneficial.

      On the other hand, you outlined some benefits to your concept.

      Maybe there's a hybrid solution that can combine the best of both approaches?

    2. It's actually a widespread problem that applies to programmers and developer engineers (just examples) as well. They learn teht heory, they learn on the job, they become real good at it - and then they move on (to team leadership, project leadership, management, or becoming self-employed which means much of the time doing something else but their core skill).

      That's because of the stupid idea that you need to rise up, climb up the ladder to improve yourself economically.
      A smarter organisation can keep people at the job they're great and very much needed at by making it attractive in the long term.
      A rise in pay, a rise in prestige, emphasis on teambuilding up to the point where the expert doesn't want to leave his friends etc.

      Ideas - I wouldn't bet on good ideas coming from newbies, though I see that an expert coming from another ship may import a good idea. I would rest the drive to extremely high competence rather on free play exercises and competitions in relevant matters.

      In wartime you lose more ships than crews. I don't see personnel problem for conventional navies there because I don't think wartime shipbuilding will matter.

    3. You kind of touched on the main problem. People generally want to do more and more as they gain experience. They want new challenges. They want more responsibility.

      What do you tell the guy who initially comes on board as the toilet cleaner and, after five years, because there is no significant turnover, he's still cleaning toilets? No amount of money is going to make that a satisfying job.

      One aspect of becoming good at a job and then moving on is that the person should be identifying talent among people who would replace him so that when he moves on there is someone equally talented to replace him.

      As I said, your concept of extended crew associations is intriguing and I wonder if we can find a hybrid version that addresses the problems but retains the benefits?

    4. I tell his superior that professional footballers play the same game on about the same position for 20 years of their life and I only demand five from his subordinate.

      There's no all-round perfect hybrid, ever.
      We always end up with the same question when there's a proposal to leave the status quo, to shake off the path-dependent outcome in favour of an alternative:

      Do we reform when there's a net benefit in reform or do we complain about the downsides and stay conservative, missing out on the greater benefits?
      Armed services are most of the time under very little pressure to improve themselves, and end up being very conservative, reform-unfriendly or do fake reforms.

    5. To expand on your football analogy, the football player can become the best at his position, command incredible salaries, make all-star teams, retire after five years and be financially set for life, and, most importantly, can become a free agent and go where he wants - none of this would be possible under your concept. I think what you'd see is a massive voting with the feet and retention would plummet for all but the few that started on top.

      As I said, your concept is interesting but it needs some refining.

  2. Maybe creating internal and external prestige for the experienced job. Just trying idea, I expect most of them being bad, but I like the challenge.

    Having elite fleet maybe (not just commando). Honor and the socials status going with it is a strong motivator, especially in the army (the marines as you said, used to use it to attracts people). more title/ranking for seniorship in privates.

    Also germany in between ww1 and ww2 planning for expansion trained their every NCO and officier for 2 ranks about their real rank. Granted infantry is easier to scale (especially if you have vast reserves), but in war, many bad NCO/CO are fired, and if the lower ranks are already trained, all the better. And it goes with the elitism motivation of before
    (USA have no more mass conscription, so it can compensate, and if USA had the industrial base, it could help expend the navy quickly in a few years arms race/war of attrition).

    But the prussian system was granting lot of independence to NCO/CO(with had its good and bad side, more flexiblity but less unity of command, the opposite of Napoleon system in a way). More autonomy for experienced NCO might be a hybrid of the system of highly centralized, decentralized.

    Maybe a system a la google of experiment time. You talked many times about doing more experiment with ships. It could be a reward for the most creative/best worker crew to man such ships. We want the smartest feedback of such experiment. And having to try new tactics, new tools, give feedback, help R&D, can be a motivator.

    In the opposite of less staff, have more reservist, and overmanned ships where the senior crew trained the reservist. (but that depends if staff or crew is seen as the bigger constraint in expanding quickly the navy, after if ships is a bigger constraint, a small reserve would still give some marginal jobs with more rewards). On the plus side, it also allow more redundancy on personal.

  3. In WW2 the Army had Tech grades for some enlisted. The old "TEC4". Maybe something along those lines. Let the pay increase for time in grade increase up to 10 years or so. A guy competent in his job, but with no ambition. You are always going to get some churn, always some E1s to clean the head.

    1. Something similar was proposed in the 1970s. IIRC it was to have each enlisted person hold two grades--a technical (T) grade and a leadership (E) grade, with pay dependent on a combination of the two. Each individual's T grade had to be equal to or greater than the E grade, but one could be a T9E4 and make more money than the T6E6 in charge of the work center.

  4. When the calculations are done as to the number of productive hours per person it invariably doesn't account for the extra time it takes someone above to train the person below them. What this leads to is that those who should be spending much of their time training others to be their replacement don't because it is simply more time efficient to DIY. This has been observed in many industries where productivity gains have been enforced without thought about the long-term consequences.

    Accountants invariably place little value on the time and cost taken to train people for future opportunities because it inflates the costs in the present for no gain in the present. The long view is needed if this is to work in the long term.

    I worked for a fast food chain in my teenage years. As a key trainer for more junior personnel, when I was on shift my "productivity factor" was set at 0.8, with the understanding that I would be focussing my energies on developing the newbies into fully productive crew. It could be worthwhile thinking through how much productivity can be extracted from the crew if you want them to learn. The fleet model that says that crew are fully trained on shore and arrive at a ship ready to go is completely false, and only leads to issues down the track with poor or patchy training that leads to inevitable spectacular failings as all the small deficiencies add up.

    1. Excellent observation about the inherent inefficiency of training.

  5. The aviation and submarine communities never really bought into the minimal manning craze. I suspect it's because they did their homework and recognized that any savings was ephemeral.

    1. That's an interesting observation. The question is, is it true or just an artifact? For example, you can't really downsize or optimally man an aircraft. The manning (pilot) is fixed. You can cut on the maintenance side, of course. I don't know if that's happened or not.

      I note that the nominal Virginia class crew size is slightly larger than the LA class so the sub community, apparently, didn't optimally man. Assuming they didn't, I wonder why not?

      Interesting observation.

    2. Youre right that you cannot really cut aircrew in a squadron. But most of the manpower in a squadron are maintainers, not aircrew.

      You could (theoretically) cut the number of maintainers per squadron. As far as I can tell, that was never seriously considered.

      I suspect it's because the aviation community 'did their homework' to figure out how many hours and people were needed to ensure aircraft maintenance was done right. And put it in writing.

      The aviation and submarine community are both very focused on human systems integration (HSI). They rightly recognize you can only work so many hours in a day before you start to make mistakes.

      The surface community simply doesn't think that way. They don't recognize any practical limits with respect to fatigue. Just work harder is their attitude. As a result, they are more willing to take manpower cuts.

  6. "The truly stunning aspect to this is the complete absence of common sense exhibited by the Navy in their minimal manning experiment."

    for me this hits the nail on the head. If this was just an 'expiriment' then I'm fine with it. Honest.

    But it was an idea that we just pulled out of our arse and made design decisions for ships currently starting production without knowing how it would work.


    It's design and planning by wishful thinking.

    In my job helping to design workflow and systems one of the key, unavoidable steps, is bringing in the users and having them work the workflow in a production like lab. You always find out what in your glorious plan works, what doesn't, and sometimes that you might need to scrap it entirely.

    Nowadays though I run into more and more people who want to skip that and just dump tear up the carpet, put down astroturf, and call it good.

    I dont' know much about NAVSEA nowadays, But I seem to remember reading about the Navy spending a lot of time, and work on test ships, designing new systems. Internal armor; Dahlgren guns, Radar, turbines, hybrid electric... a lot of this stuff got a lot of test work done in the yard before they started designing classes of ships around them.

    I'm so angry at this because the Navy is taking billions and just pi$$ing it away on untested ideas.

  7. My only quibble with your assessment is the idea that Big Navy had no idea how this would play out. As you stated;

    "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."

    The same is true for the ADM's that conceived of min-manning requirements. The results and failures would be someone else problem

  8. One argument witch you can ask every proponent of the so called minimal manning

    What do we do with a major fire on board ?

    Ask then and see they're reaction .

    1. I suppose you never tried that.
      For the answer is that there's an entire second watch for damage control - half of the crew.

  9. It seems like there are 2 gradual, not sudden, m oves you can make to lessen manning. 1 Proven technology breakthrough. 2. Personnel management where you tighten up communities within a community. There seems to be a need for communities within the surface community. Those who drive and navigate the ship stay at it. A general common community that is going to keep the ship out of trouble.

    1. We already have the technology to reduce manning to zero, if we want. However, reduced manning comes with drawbacks. Do you see the problems with reduced manning? Assuming you do, where do you set the manning target?

  10. Replies
    1. I'm guessing you're referring to the NATO Frigate Replacement (NFR-90) program? Was there a particular aspect or point about it that you wanted to make?


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