Monday, March 30, 2020

Force Design 2030

The Marine Corps, meaning Commandant Berger, has issued the force design document, Force Design 2030 (FD 2030), describing the changes that the Commandant intends to make.  I won’t bother reciting the litany of changes as they were documented in the previous post (see, "The Marine Corps Is Now Redundant").  Suffice it to say that the Commandant has decided to drop firepower in favor of maneuver and data.  Let’s analyze the document. 

The first thing that jumped out at me was the Commandant’s personal impetus for the radical changes he intends to make.  We are all shaped by our experiences and it is natural to wonder what experiences shaped this Commandant to the degree that he believes a wholesale remake of the Corps is called for.  Well, he lays out what motivated him.

That prioritization was the result of my direct participation in five years of naval and global war games while the Commanding General of I MEF, Commander of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, and Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration. Those war games helped shape my conclusion that modest and incremental improvements to our existing force structure and legacy capabilities would be insufficient to overcome evolving threat capabilities, nor would they enable us to develop forces required to execute our approved naval concepts. (1)

So, the primary driving force that shaped the Commandant’s views is five years of war games.  This leads to a couple of thoughts.

It would have been nice to see a nod to history as a driver/shaper of his views since he has no actual peer level combat experience to draw on.  Why not draw on the lessons of those who did experience peer combat?  Now, I’ve got to be fair and acknowledge that the purpose of the FD 2030 was not to detail the Commandant’s life story and all the things that have influenced him so he may well be a student of history, however, the military, today, seems not to study history and seems to have no desire to partake of the lessons of historical combat and, lacking a specific nod to history from the Commandant, I lump him into the same category.

War games are wonderful tools, however, they suffer from one huge weakness and that is that the value of the game is a direct reflection of the value of the opposing force that is programmed into the game.  In other words, garbage assumptions in … garbage results out (GIGO).  Unfortunately, the military has a reputation for unrealistic games with pre-ordained results.  Were the Commandant’s five years of gaming a series of well designed, accurate, open, free play exercises or were they the usual scripted, pre-ordained games?  Is the Commandant’s basis for overhauling the Corps founded on good war games or the usual GIGO games?

Troublingly, assuming that the Commandant wasn’t playing these war games by himself, why is he the only one to come to the conclusion that the Marines need to be radically overhauled?  Of all the game participants, he’s the only one who has come to that conclusion, at least publicly.  Did everyone else draw the wrong conclusions and only he drew the right one?  That’s possible but not likely.  You’ve got to wonder if the Commandant is the outlier.

Now, just because he’s the only one to reach his conclusion does not necessarily mean he’s wrong.  Having a solitary, contrary position in the face of institutional opposition is kind of the definition of a visionary.  However, it’s also kind of the definition of a lunatic.  So, which one is the Commandant?  I have my opinion and you can form your own.

Finally, my colleague over at SNAFU website raises the question of war games and asks how bad the results must have been to motivate the Commandant to embark on such radical changes?

The war games that led to USMC Force Design 2030 must have been awful...

War games obviously showed us getting smashed...or in a fight so hard that it stunned participants. (2)

SNAFU’s take on the war games is thought provoking, for sure, but there may be another explanation.  Instead of the games demonstrating that the Marines were ‘smashed’, I think it’s far more likely that the games demonstrated that the Marines, in their current form, simply weren’t needed and played no significant role.  That would, indeed, stun the Commandant because that would be a direct threat to the Marine’s relevance and budget slice.  A budgetary threat would induce a survival instinct reaction in any modern general and I suspect the Commandant’s restructuring response is more about restructuring the Marines to be budget relevant than to be combat relevant.  That the two may (or may not) go hand in hand is just fortuitous. 

Moving on …

One concern I’ve had from day one of the Commandant’s tenure is the degree of insularity that he has manifested.  This reshaping of the Corps is his and his alone.  He has actively discouraged and limited input from any other source than himself.  This breeds an inevitable “emperor’s clothes” mentality.  We see this demonstrated in the Commandant’s initial efforts:

Phase I focused on problem framing, began in July 2019, and centered on a small operational planning team (OPT) that worked directly with me to establish an initial visualization of the future force … (1)

Noteworthy is that the Commandant did not range out to seek input but, rather, concentrated inward with just a small group whose thoughts and actions he could control – ‘a small operational planning team that worked directly with me’. 

Another troubling aspect of the FD 2030 related to the suspect nature of the war gaming is the lack of actual exercises supporting the conclusions already drawn.

Limited experimentation has been conducted upon discrete elements of the future force utilizing approved naval concepts, to include some carefully constrained tests of the ability of the F-35B to operate and be sustained from austere, undeveloped landing sites.

A single, limited-objective experiment addressing aspects of the organization, training, and equipment of a Marine infantry battalion was conducted … (1)

So, suspect war games and limited and constrained real world exercises are the foundation of this radical change?  Does that seem wise?

To be fair, the FD 2030 acknowledges the need for further exercises.

We will need to conduct full-scale, empirically-based experimentation of the future force in realistic maritime and littoral terrain. (1)

Unfortunately, the course has already been set.  The Commandant has already begun the overhaul of the Corps and future exercises will be too late to alter the trajectory.  The exercises should have been conducted prior to committing to the overhaul, not after.  Again, this demonstrates that the Commandant has already made up his mind and done so with scant, reliable input from any source other than his own experience.

Berger notes that F-35 numbers are, as yet, unknown.

I am not convinced that we have a clear understanding yet of F-35 capacity requirements for the future force. (1)

I assume this means that the Commandant is not yet sure how many F-35s he wants.  This seems slightly at odds with his stated plan to reduce squadron numbers from 16 aircraft to 10 unless he’s possibly anticipating further cuts?

Berger goes on to state that ‘ground tactical combat vehicles’ will undergo further reductions not identified in the initial cuts.

Addressing land based anti-ship missiles which will become the focus of the Marine Corps under the Commandant’s plan, he had this to say,

This requirement is based on one of the more well-supported conclusions from wargaming analysis conducted to date. (1)

That Berger believes this to be one of the more well-supported conclusions from the war games suggests to me that the games were pre-ordained to produce this result.  The illogic of the concept would seem to be evident from any realistic war game so the strongly positive result suggests that the games were not realistic.

For decades, the Marines have been focused on a replacement for the venerable AAV and have finally settled on the ACV despite proclaiming that the era of amphibious assaults is over.  If amphibious assaults are a thing of the past, why does the Corps need ACVs?  The logical discontinuity, here, is breathtaking.  Berger, at least, seems to recognize this and states that Amphibious Combat Vehicles (ACV) will be reduced by some unspecified number.

One fact from Berger’s document comes through with absolute clarity and that is his commitment of the Marine Corps to a concept of distributed operations (DO).  Addressing the notion of a redesigned infantry battalion, he notes,

We must conduct more live-force experimentation to ensure our proposed design results in a truly DO-capable force. (1)

His focus is unerringly on distributed operations.

Now, here is a breathtaking summary of uncertainty.

I am not confident that we have identified the additional structure required to provide the tactical maneuver and logistical sustainment needed to execute DMO, LOCE and EABO in contested littoral environments against our pacing threat. While not an afterthought by any means, I do not believe our Phase I and II efforts gave logistics sufficient attention. (1)

Berger acknowledges that the foundational sustainment of penny packet forces, in enemy territory, may well be inadequate.  This is exactly one of my primary objections to the concept.  Despite his doubts, he has already fully committed the Corps to the concept !!!!!!!  Essentially, he’s saying, I’m not sure this can work but we’re going to do it anyway.  This is not rational thinking.

What happens when Berger’s own commissioned study produces results he doesn’t like?  He responds, thusly,

The Phase II IPT seems to have produced an incrementally improved version of today’s 3-ship ARG/MEU. This vision falls short of our future needs. We cannot accept or accede to recommendations for incremental change or better versions of legacy capabilities … (1)

His own study produced a result he didn’t want so he’s ignoring it.  This man is accepting no outside input that is not exactly in line with his own thinking.  This is dangerous.

What does Berger need in the future to support his objectives?  For one, more war gaming.  However, it will be carefully controlled, pre-ordained gaming.

To further refine and develop our understanding of force design changes, I am directing the immediate implementation of an intensive program of iterative concept refinement, wargaming, analysis and simulation, and experimentation. I will be personally involved in and responsible for setting priorities and ensuring that necessary resources are made available for this effort. (1) [emphasis added]

It is clear that Berger is not going to allow any war game to produce a result that does not support his vision.


What makes analyzing this Commandant a challenge is that he’s not completely wrong.  If he were a total idiot then it would be easy to analyze his failings and write him off as a crackpot.  However, much of what he observes in the world and much of what he says is spot on.  His analysis of the challenges and shortcomings of the current Marine Corps force structure is largely correct.  Where he fails is in his solutions to those problems.  In other words, he sees the problem but fails in the answer.

Along with his recognition of China as the main threat, here’s some more examples of his observations that are absolutely correct:

“… an array of low signature, affordable, and risk-worthy platforms …”

“…create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration …”

“…foreign humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and noncombatant evacuations do not define us – they are not our identity.”

“There is no avoiding attrition. In contingency operations against peer adversaries, we will lose aircraft, ships, ground tactical vehicles, and personnel. Force resilience – the ability of a force to absorb loss and continue to operate decisively – is critical.”

If only his solution was as good as his analysis of the problem!

We’ve discussed the enormous degree of fantasy involved in believing that you can insert, supply, and operate sea control forces inside enemy territory without the enemy observing and destroying you.  I have yet to hear the Commandant explain how this can successfully happen.  In fact, he explicitly acknowledges that the logistical support for such operations is likely inadequate and yet he is fully committed to the concept.  This is not rational.

Commandant Berger comes so close to being exactly what the Marines need in a leader and yet he falls so far short of the right answer that he will ruin the Marines as a relevant, capable fighting force.


(1)”Force Design 2030”, Department of the Navy, Mar-2020

(2)SNAFU website, “The war games that led to USMC Force Design 2030 must have been awful...”, posted by Solomon, 28-Mar-2020,

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Marine Corps Navy

As you know, in a time of war, the Navy is tasked with sea control and uses various equipment such as ships and aircraft (Airborne Early Warning – AEW, electronic warfare – EW, etc.) to accomplish that task.  Oops … I’m sorry, I misspoke.  I meant to say that the Marine Corps is tasked with sea control and uses various equipment such as ships and aircraft (Airborne Early Warning – AEW, electronic warfare – EW, etc.) to accomplish that task.  Uh … wait a minute … I think I just confused myself.  They can’t both be tasked with the same mission, can they?  That wouldn’t make any sense, would it?

Of course not!  A closer look reveals that the Navy uses their aircraft for specific tasks such as command, control and communication, early warning, persistent fires, escort, electronic warfare, reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition.  In contrast, the Marine’s will use their aircraft – meaning the proposed MUX (a very large, unmanned, Group 5 (like the Reaper, Global Hawk, or Triton) UAV – for specific tasks such as command, control and communication, early warning, persistent fires, escort, electronic warfare, reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition.  Whoa!  I just had the strangest feeling that I just typed the same thing twice but I couldn’t have, could I, because the Navy and Marines have two different responsibilities, don’t they?  Don’t they?

So why did I just type the exact same list of specific aircraft tasks for both services?

We know the Navy uses E-2 Hawkeyes, EA-18G Growlers, MQ-8C Fire Scouts, P-8 Poseidons, Triton UAVs, various helicopters, etc. to accomplish their specific aircraft taskings.  Apparently, the Marines only need the MUX to accomplish the same thing.

The MUX program – formally the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Expeditionary – was meant to be a Group 5 UAS, the largest of the categories with highest altitude and greatest endurance. It would cover seven missions: command, control and communication; early warning; persistent fires; escort; electronic warfare; reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition … (1)

What’s more, the absence of the MUX is the only difference between a full-fledged carrier strike group and a Marine carrier strike group, formerly called a ARG/MEU !  I know, I was surprised to hear that, too, but here it is,

The MUX program was intended to help the Amphibious Ready Group and Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG/MEU) team operate more like a carrier strike group. With the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter coming online at that time, the major gap between a carrier air wing’s capabilities and what the Marines could bring to the fight was an airborne early warning capability the Navy has in its E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. MUX would fill that role, the Marine Corps envisioned. (1)

The Commandant wants UAVs installed on his ships quickly.

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger wants to see UAVs on ships soon.

“In the next 10 years, the quickest way – the commandant wants to go quick on this – this quickest way will be some sort of land-based high-endurance that can be based and still be able to provide the surface force, the amphibious force the capabilities that we would call ‘quarterback,’ or some sort of node that can provide 24 hours on station time, it will have all the networking and early warning and electronic warfare capabilities that they require for that type of thing,” Rudder [Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Aviation Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder] said. (1)

The Commandant also wants his ships to be able to handle any UAV, at any time, to do anything.

“In the future, we have to get to a point where an aerial vehicle can take off of this ship, any ship, go do its mission, land on that ship over there. Change payloads, launch, do another mission, land on a third ship. We’re nowhere near that right now. We’ve got to get there,” he [Commandant Berger] said. (1)

Berger also plans to alter the Navy’s unmanned tanker, the MQ-25 Stingray, into a family of tankers.

He also said he wanted to spin off the Navy’s MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based tanker into a family of systems that included a UAV that could operate from an amphibious assault ship that hosts the F-35Bs. (1)

The Commandant is also going to develop unmanned ships for the Marine Corps navy.

… since Berger took command in July, the Marine Corps has proposed developing a Long-Range Unmanned Surface Vessel (LR-USV) to support the Expeditionary Advance Base Operations concept … (1)

So, there you have it – the Marine’s vision of their future fleet … uh, I mean the Navy’s vision of the … uh, I mean the Marine’s directives for the Navy’s vision … uh, I mean the Commandant’s direction for the Navy … uh, I don’t know what I mean.  I’ll wait for the Commandant to tell me what I mean.

The Commandant is heavily invested in his own private air force and now, I guess, he’s turning his attention to his own private naval fleet.  The Secretary of Defense or the President needs to severely rein in the Marines.  They’re running amok, fueled by arrogance and budgetary desperation.


(1)USNI News website, “Marines Ditch MUX Ship-Based Drone to Pursue Large Land-Based UAS, Smaller Shipboard Vehicle”, Megan Eckstein, 10-Mar-2020,

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Marine Corps Is Now Redundant

Marine Corps Times website is now confirming that the Marines are planning to significantly dial back their combat capability (1) to the point that they will only be able to function in very low end threat scenarios or in only peripheral capacities in higher threat scenarios.  Here’s the details, as summarized in a graphic posted at SNAFU website (2) :

As shown in the graphic, the Marines are significantly cutting back on firepower – you know, the stuff that lets you win in combat.  
  • A complete combat organization that has no tanks?
  • An amphibious combat organization with no bridging capability?
  • A combat force with almost no artillery?
That is some serious insanity being demonstrated there!

The only aspect of the Corps that is being increased – and it’s a huge increase – is land based anti-ship missiles.  Clearly, the Commandant views the Marine’s main mission, now, as sea control which, as we’ve discussed, is an idiotic concept that is simply not viable.  Even the F-35/aviation side of the Corps is going to take a substantial hit.  Previous Commandants sacrificed the ground element to promote the aviation side and now it appears that, too, is fading, all so that the Commandant can attempt to take over a Navy mission in a bid to remain budget-relevant in the face of the China threat.  The irony is that the sea control mission will actually make the Marines irrelevant. 

The only other missions the Marines are now capable of are very low end, very light infantry work.

The Marines are no longer a viable warfighting force.  They are a peacetime police force.  This Commandant has, in the stroke of a pen, relegated the Marines to irrelevance.  There is nothing that the new Marine Corps will be capable of that can’t be executed better and faster by the Army.

This Commandant has done what our enemies could not: eliminate the Marine Corps as an effective fighting force.  It breaks my heart to say this but this is the final nail in the coffin - the Marine Corps is now redundant and should be disbanded. 


(1)Marine Corps Times website, “The Corps is axing all of its tank battalions and cutting grunt units”, Shawn Snow, 23-Mar-2020,

(2)SNAFU website, “Very good summary of @CMC_MarineCorps force design from @WSJ”, 23-Mar-2020,

Monday, March 23, 2020

Ford Design Considerations

Reader ‘Joe Taxpayer’ brought to my attention a fascinating YouTube video showing a presentation by Capt. Tal Manvel, USN (Ret),  the program manager of the Ford during the design period.  He provides an accounting of the design process and the reasoning behind the various decisions.  His presentation is quite informative and, within limits, brutally honest.  I say, ‘within limits’ because he clearly has enormous bias that prevents him from seeing some of the glaring conceptual problems with the Ford.  On the other hand, he is quite candid about some mistakes that he made. 

Here’s some of the interesting points that were presented.  All quotes are taken from the video presentation noted in reference 1.

The Ford design (the Future Carrier, at that point) began with a ‘core/critical capability’ statement.  Manvel believes this is what enabled the Ford to succeed (succeed???? see … bias!) as opposed to the LCS which never had that and that’s why the LCS has problems, in his opinion.

I would say this is a point of departure.  LCS never had this and that’s why it’s the problem that it is.

Manvel stated that the E-2 Hawkeye was the key to the air wing and the carrier’s effectiveness and it can scan and control a 250 mile diameter area.  This point has come up frequently in our discussions with some commenters believing that airborne radars have ridiculously large and precise coverage areas.  We see from this that the coverage area is actually fairly limited.

USS Ford - Flawed Design Process

The original Analysis Of Alternatives (AOA) looked at small, medium, and large carriers with air wings of 40, 60, and 80 aircraft (types and numbers were not specified).

Initially, very serious consideration was given to a STOVL carrier design.  STOVL was ultimately dropped from consideration for two reasons:
  • The lack of E-2 airborne command and control (again emphasizing the importance that is placed on the E-2; this should be a warning to the UK and other small/light carrier schemes!)
  • The F-35B was determined to have half the range and half the payload
We threw out STOVL only for two reasons:  no E-2 … and also this - and this is what I learned about STOVL – STOVL [has] half the range, half the payload.  Remember that about STOVL and [when] you see your next Marine Corps aviator, remind him of that.

This should be an informative piece of data for all the F-35B and ‘light carrier’ proponents out there.  While manufacturer’s claims for the F-35B are grandiose the reality is that under actual operational conditions the F-35B is a severely ‘crippled’ aircraft and the light carrier concept is extremely limited in capability.

Referring to carrier design, Mr. Manvel noted that flight deck design was paramount.

That’s where you start with aircraft carriers – making sure you can land all that you launch.

Air wing size was predicated on defensive aircraft needs.  In a high threat environment (high Battle Space Dominance, BSD – why does the Navy always feel the need to make up fancy terms for simple concepts?), like a conflict with China, it was determined that 20 F/A aircraft in fighter configuration were required for defensive needs.  A medium threat environment, like the British encountered in the Falklands, required 14 aircraft.  Of course, tankers, EW, and AEW are also required.  This defensive needs analysis eliminated the 40-aircraft air wing because it didn’t have the resources for strike operations AND defensive needs.  Again, this eliminates the ever popular light carriers from consideration.

The program used a Desert Storm operations model to evaluate and compare medium and large carriers and based the conclusions strictly on sortie rates.  This is a completely invalid approach since this is not even remotely how carriers will fight in a peer war.  This smacks of a pre-ordained conclusion and a search to find a model that would support that conclusion.  This also illustrates the program’s obsession with sortie rate, for unknown reasons.  No one who has studied carrier combat operations would consider sortie rate to be a very important factor and yet it was the overriding factor in the Ford decision making.  This demonstrates that the people involved in the decision making, and Navy leadership in general, have no clue about actual combat requirements.  Baffling.

Note:  GAO has demonstrated that Ford’s sortie generation rate claim is invalid and fraudulent because of the unrealistic assumptions used to calculate the rate.

Manvel claimed only an 8% difference in cost between medium and large carriers and only 13% difference if the air wing is included.  This seems highly suspect and it should be noted that the medium carrier that was used for comparison was also nuclear powered which is not how anyone else compares large carriers to smaller carriers.  In such comparisons, the smaller carriers are, inevitably, conventionally powered.  Again, this seems like data being manipulated to support a pre-ordained conclusion.

The minimal cost differential was explained by noting that all the ancillary equipment (catapults, arresting gear, radars, maintenance shops, etc. were identical and, therefore, cost the same.  This is why ComNavOps’ ‘smaller’ carrier design sacrifices some equipment like elevators, catapults, and radars – and a nuclear reactor!

From other data sets that were presented, it was noted that the cost differential between the large nuclear carrier and a medium conventional carrier was 36% - a much more substantial difference even without any sacrificed equipment.

The choice of nuclear power for the Ford was based on two factors: unrefueled range and a claimed 3x increase in generated electrical power for nuclear.

Manning was identified as far and away the largest factor in the 50 year life cycle cost estimate.  In light of the recent manning post that I did, someone is going to have to explain how that statement can be true.  Interestingly, manning costs are broken down into direct and indirect costs, whatever those are, and each contributes around half the total cost.  Clearly, someone is playing accounting games.

The Ford’s 50 year life cycle cost in FY99 dollars was estimated to be $27B.

Nuclear manning was determined per the following (which should inform some recent discussions about a the nuclear ‘penalty’ in extra manning!):
  • Enterprise had 8 reactors and required >180 watchstanders.
  • Nimitz has 2 reactors and requires >100 watchstanders.
  • Ford has 2 reactors and requires <25 watchstanders.
Clearly, there is no great manning penalty for today’s nuclear plants.

Mr. Manvel acknowledged that he made a mistake by consolidating and eliminating radars and replacing them with the Dual Band Radar.  It created a software system that was simply too complex and unnecessarily capable and, indeed, the Navy has now abandoned it.  He acknowledges a $1B overrun due to this mistake.

“The ship’s radar is too robust.”

This is what ComNavOps said from day one.  A carrier, surrounded by several Aegis escorts as well as E-2 Hawkeyes and with only fairly short range defensive weapons, just doesn’t need a highly capable radar.  In fact, in combat the carrier will generally operate under EMCON and not use any radar.  Therefore, any basic radar will do!

Manvel acknowledges,

The radar on the ship, on an aircraft carrier, isn’t the most important one, it’s that [radar] in the E-2.”

For the Marine Corps LHA ‘light carrier’ proponents, Manvel had this to say.

“This idea that an amphibious assault ship can replace carriers is nonsense.”

The very large port side, aft sponson is for a plasma arc trash disposal unit.  ????

A stealthy carrier design was developed but it contained several severe operational problems imposed by the stealth requirements.  He presented a small scale model of the concept.  This was incredibly fascinating all by itself.

Manvel did not want the Advanced Arresting Gear but NavAir forced it into the design.

In summary, as I noted, the entire design effort seemed pre-ordained and designed to produce the pre-ordained result.  It seems as if the Navy wanted a bigger carrier going into the design process and made sure that every comparison and analysis supported that desire. 

There was no relevant operational analysis performed and when the only factor considered was sortie rate, obviously the bigger carrier comes out on top – but that’s not how carriers fight.  I’ve wondered from the start how any analysis could conclude that shrinking air wings (nearing half the size of early Nimitz wings!) leads to a larger carrier.  Well, this fixation on sortie rate would appear to be the explanation.  It’s telling, and quite disturbing, that the only operational analysis – flawed as it was – was for the carrier, itself.  None was performed for the air wing and the types of missions it would need to perform in war.  Had that been done, the entire Ford program would, presumably, have come to a crashing halt when it was realized that neither the F-18 nor F-35 were capable of performing future peer war combat missions (both lack the range, endurance, and payload).  The entire value of a carrier is its air wing.  To fail to analyze and account for that air wing is professional malpractice.

Capt. Manvel’s biases are on full display in the presentation.  Of course, bias, alone, does not mean the holder of the bias is necessarily wrong, it just means that the holder is blind to alternatives.  In this case, some of Manvel’s biases are correct but some are wrong – badly wrong.  That he considers the Ford to be a success demonstrates the depth and scope of his biases!

Regardless of the above, the presentation is fascinating and informative.  It sheds a great deal of light on some of the baffling Ford design decisions.  I urge you to view the presentation for yourself.


(1)CAPT Tal Manvel, USN (Ret), the first Navy Program Manager for Future Carriers, discusses designing the Ford-class aircraft carrier on 7 January 2015 at the US Naval Academy Museum's Shifley Lecture Series

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Manning Myth

The Navy has been on a manpower reduction crusade for a couple of decades now – yes, I use ‘crusade’ in the religious context since the Navy’s fixation on reduced manpower borders on a religious zeal to find the Holy Grail of zero manning.  Manpower reduction has been used as the rationale for retiring perfectly good ships with significant service life remaining, the foundation for badly flawed ship designs and support concepts (LCS, Zumwalt, and Ford, for example), the disastrous minimal manning fad of the last couple decades, and the entire movement towards unmanned platforms.

Let’s take a closer look at the manpower issue (see, “NavyManpower History”).  A good starting point, as always, is history.  The table below shows the Navy’s manpower since the end of WWII and breaks out the officer and enlisted numbers.

Navy Historical Manpower (2)
Percent of Total
Percent of Total
Total a
Officer-Enlisted Ratio
1 : 9.3
1 : 8.5
1 : 7.6
1 : 7.2
1 : 7.1
1 : 6.3
1 : 5.8
1 : 5.2
2017 (3)
1 : 4.9
2018 (3)
1 : 5.0
2019 (3)
1 : 5.1

a The Navy also pays for an additional 1%-2% of non-officer/enlisted personnel

There are a couple of striking aspects that jump out of the table.  One is that despite the Navy’s claims of manpower shortages and costs, we somehow, inexplicably, managed to operate a 600 ship fleet in the Reagan era (1985, for example) with a total manpower pushing twice the levels of today’s Navy.  And yet, today, we don’t seem to be able to afford half the ships and can’t afford half the manpower.  Does that seem logical?

Also striking is the steady increase in proportion of officers.  Compare the current 16% officers to the WWII level of 9.5%.  This figure is somewhat skewed by non-officer/enlisted additions to the total manpower.  A more revealing way to look at this is to look at the officer to enlisted ratio.  In WWII it was 1 officer for every 9 enlisted (1:9.3) and today it is one officer to 5 enlisted (1:5.1).  We’ve almost doubled the ratio of officers to enlisted!  Want to save some manpower costs?  Reduce the officer corps to the WWII level of around 9.5% and get that ratio back to around 9 enlisted per officer!

We’ve almost doubled the relative number of officers since WWII.  Have the enlisted personnel gotten steadily stupider so that they require more supervision?  I don’t think so.  The growth of the officer corps parallels the explosive growth in the number of Admirals that we’ve so derisively noted on many occasions.  Our officer ranks are artificially and uselessly swollen and overloaded.  I hear constant complaints about too many young officers with the result that none of them receive the training, watchstanding, and shiphandling time they need to develop. 

In 2014, Adm. Thomas Copeman addressed the impact of manpower shortages on fleet readiness and acknowledged a shortfall of 8,000 sailors or 15% of the fleet’s billets.(1)  Simple arithmetic tells us, then, that the fleet billets totaled 53,333 (8000 / 0.15 = 53,333) or an average crew size of 190 sailors (53,333 / 280 ships = 190 sailors per ship).

Using the estimate of 53,333 sea billets and the 2010 total manpower size of 324,400, we see that only 16% of the Navy is at sea !  That’s 271,000 land based (324,000 – 53,333 = 271,067) and only 53,333 at sea.  Does this seem right?  Certainly, we need shore support but does it seem right that 84% of the Navy is land based?  Isn’t that called an army?  Want to save some serious big money?  How about a deep dive into the jobs performed by the 84% of non-sea based naval personnel?  I don’t have a breakdown of the types of jobs and number of people in those jobs but common sense tells me that there’s a whole lot of unnecessary jobs being performed.

Here’s a wild analysis.  Let’s say we have 40 land-based naval facilities and each employs, say, 100 people.  That’s 4000 people.  Compare that to the 271,000 land based personnel that we apparently have.  Make whatever modifications to my assumptions you want.  It won’t begin to approach justifying 271,000 land based naval personnel.

Here’s some more wild analysis.  The Navy has around 230 admirals.  I have no idea what size staff an admiral has but assuming each has a staff of, say, 20, that’s a total of 4600 personnel who do nothing but wait on admirals.  Want to save some manpower costs and get more sailors to sea?  I don’t even need to spell out the answer to that question, do I?  At around 190 crew per ship, the admiral staffs are equivalent to the manning of 24 'average' ships !!!!!!!!!!!

What does all that manpower cost?

From the Navy 2018 Personnel Costs (includes base pay, retirement savings, allowances, etc.)
  • Officer budget: $8.5B for 53,250 officers  == $159,624 per officer
  • Enlisted budget: $18.6B for 268,123 enlisted == $69,402 per enlisted

Why are manning costs so important to the Navy?  According to the Navy, it’s because personnel costs are a major part of a ship’s annual operating cost.  Secretary of the Navy Modly describes the problem,

For example, the average per-hull operating cost in the fleet today is about $2 billion, which is twice the per-hull cost of operating the fleet in the 1980s, Modly said.

“We have to reverse that trend,” Modly said. “We have to be more distributed.” [ed. Huh?  ‘distributed’?  What does that mean and what does it have to do with operating costs?]

The cost of retaining crew members and providing services for the crew member families is part of why per-ship operating expenses are increasing.

“The cost of caring for families is increasing,” Modly said. “It’s hard to buck that trend. It is what it is.”

One solution is reducing the number of people on ships. The challenge is increasing lethality while reducing the number of people required to run a ship, Modly said. The result can be more lightly-manned ships, but with more highly trained crews. (4)

Wow!  It costs $2B per hull per year?  Yikes!  No wonder the Navy wants to reduce the personnel costs.  They must be most, or least a significant portion, of the operating costs, right?  Let’s just do the math and see how bad those personnel costs are.  We earlier determined that the average crew size per ship is around 190.  We saw that the 2018 cost for an officer was $160,000 per year and an enlisted was $69,000.  So, taking into account the officer to enlisted ratio we’d get an average personnel cost of somewhere around $80,000, I’m guessing without doing the math.  Just for fun, let’s go way bigger and assume an annual personnel cost of, say, $250,000 per sailor.  For 190 people, that’s an annual personnel cost of $47.5M.  My gosh, the Navy wasn’t kidding.  That’s … uh … wait a minute.  Compared to the $2B total operating cost per ship, the personnel cost is only 2.4% of the total.  That’s almost insignificant.

I recognize that the annual personnel cost is a squishy number and depends on what you choose to include/exclude.  For example, base salary is obviously included but what about meals, medical and dental care, travel expenses to/from duty assignments, mail service, uniform allowances, and so on.  Some would seem legitimate to include, some would seem ridiculous, and some would seem debatable.  That’s why I picked the $250,000 number.  Even doubling that would still only put the personnel costs at 4.8% of the total ship operating cost which would still mean that it’s almost insignificant.

All of this leads us back to the personnel deployment question.  The personnel costs for ships are minor, however, the personnel costs for the total Navy (including the 84% land based) are substantial at around $27B.  This, again, screams at us to deep dive into that 84% land based component and see how much of that is really warranted.  If we could cut half of the land based positions (yes, this means getting rid of the people whose job is to develop and present gender sensitivity training and the like!), we’d save on the order of $11B per year !!!!!

Setting that aside, SecNav Modly is suggesting that one solution is reducing the number of people to run the ships.  He said, ‘more lightly-manned ships, but with more highly trained crews ‘.  Didn’t we try exactly that with the LCS and it failed spectacularly?  We were left with ships that couldn’t perform even minor repairs at sea, had to spend inordinate amounts of time in port for scheduled repairs, were unable to perform even routine maintenance, were overworked and overstressed, and the ship had to be designed to be abandoned at the first hit due to lack of damage control personnel.  And you want to try that again, SecNav?  Do you recall the definition of insanity, SecNav?

So, what we’re seeing is that, in the past, we consistently managed to operate and fund a much larger Navy and naval manpower, had a more efficient manpower model (officer to enlisted ratio), and were able to fully man twice as many ships as today.  Further, we see that 84% of the today’s manpower is land based which just screams inefficiency and waste.

I think the Navy is just using manpower costs as a scapegoat for gross negligence and inefficiency.


(1)Navy Times website, “3-Star: Sailor Shortage Threatens Surface Navy's Readiness”, Sam Fellman, 14-Jan-2014,

(3)Department of the Navy Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 Budget Estimates

(4)USNI News website, “Navy $40 Billion Savings Effort Linked to Force Structure Assessment”, Ben Werner, 21-Feb-2020,