Reduced manning is the Holy Grail of the U.S. Navy for reasons that, frankly, elude me and have never made sense. Manning, of course, really means operating costs. Men cost money. That’s certainly true. The Navy presumably believes that if they can reduce manning costs they can buy more hulls which is what today’s Navy leadership believes is their reason for being. This is a somewhat dubious argument since manning costs come from a different budget line than ship construction. If manning were somehow, magically, reduced to zero, there would be no automatic, corresponding increase in ship construction funding. Sure, the Navy could go to Congress and make an argument for reallocating some/all of the now-zero manning costs into ship construction and they might well get Congressional buy-in, at least to some extent. The fact remains, though, that there is no direct link between manning and construction funding so the mindless, zealous pursuit of manning reductions makes no sense.
The fleet size is steadily decreasing so manning availability shouldn’t be a problem although I note a consistent shortfall in manned billets throughout the fleet for the last several years. I attribute that to poor manpower utilization rather than a lack of manpower.
All of this is interesting but is not the point of the post. The point of the post is that manning for a warship is not a very efficient operation. A warship is built for – that’s right – war. In war, we need extra manning over and above that needed to simply sail the ship. We need extra manning to conduct damage control, replace casualties during battle, and man battle stations that are not normally manned during non-combat situations. Carrying these extra men is, inherently, an inefficient process since they are only needed on those rare occasions that a ship is in combat. However, when that moment comes, those extra men are vital and may well make the difference between a sunk a ship and one that lives to fight again. They may also be the difference between a ship that can continue to fight hurt and one that quits at the first hit.
Consider the LCS, the poster child for reduced manning. The Navy’s official position is the ship cannot and will not fight hurt. At the first significant hit, the crew will abandon ship. Why? Well, setting aside the lack of survivability in the class, there simply aren’t enough crew to conduct effective damage control, replace casualties, and, simultaneously, continue to fight. Thus, the only option is to abandon ship. The Zumwalt is the same – a 600 ft long, 15,000 ton ship that will have to be abandoned at the first hit due to insufficient manning.
Well, maybe we can get by with reduced manning during peace time and increase manning during war. Setting aside the inability to simply “bump up” manning in a modern, high tech ship that requires years of training to master the various jobs, there’s the fact that combat is always just a moment away, even during peace.
In fact, combat isn’t even necessary to expose the dangers of minimal manning. For example, the
Port Royal ran aground, in part, because the lookouts
that should have spotted the danger were serving food in the galley due to
manning shortages. The Cole suffered a
terrorist attack and massive explosion while in port, during peace time. The two recent Burke collisions had
inadequate lookouts due to manpower shortages.
Manning a warship is a very inefficient operation but an absolutely vital one to ensure its ability to carry out the function it exists for. Manning is very inefficient but also very effective. A warship is not a business case and only idiots, such as Navy leadership, would attempt to design and operate one as such.
As a reminder, we once had a 600 ship fleet and managed to man it and yet, somehow, we can not afford to man a 280 ship fleet today? I trust you can see the logical inconsistency there and I don’t have to belabor it?
Consider the Samuel B Roberts (mine), Stark (Exocet),
(fire, bombs), Cole (bomb), and
Forrestal (fire, bombs) – each was severely damaged and all survived. The number one attribute that saved each of
them was manning – manning well over and above that required to simply sail the
ship during peacetime. Damage control
is, essentially, a manpower exercise and the more men you have, the better the
ship’s chance of survival. Enterprise
The Navy currently has around 325,000 active duty officers and enlisted personnel plus another 210,000 civilian employees. The fleet needs around 140,000 personnel to man the ships (280 ships at 500 crew per ship, as a wild estimate). Thus, the ship manning level is only around 43% of the total active duty personnel and 26% of the active duty plus civilian. So, even if every ship in the fleet could, magically, reduce its manning by, say, 20%, the manpower reduction would only be 28,000 which is only 9% on the active duty personnel and 5% of the total active duty plus civilian workforce. Thus, the savings would only be 5-9% - and for that, Navy leadership wants to hazard every ship by severely negatively impacting damage control and combat?
Manning warships is inherently an inefficient endeavor but combat, itself, is a poor business model and the manning of warships does not lend itself to good business case studies. The Navy’s attempts to run the service like a business are misguided and idiotic and the pursuit of reduced manning is leading the way down the path of stupid. We need to reverse this course and start manning warships for combat, not business.