Could a Small Crew Have Saved the Stark--or the Samuel B. Roberts?

By Rear Admiral John T. Lyons III, USN
  • A wireless communications system for damage control was installed because of repair party communications difficulties. During the conflagration, the portable sound-powered phone circuit lines repeatedly melted on the hot decks, interrupting communications.
  • The Jaws of Life access tool was introduced because of difficulties in rescuing personnel from compartments.
  • The portable exothermic cutting unit replaced the oxygen-acetylene cutting outfit that was ineffective in cutting fire-fighting access.
  • Fire fighter's ensembles were found to be necessary because the extreme heat of the Stark 's fires severely hampered efforts of the damage-control teams.

Each of these pieces of equipment had been in use by civilian fire departments and rescue units years before the Stark was hit. Each one would have enhanced the crew's ability to combat the severe damage. Each subsequently has proved its value in our damage-control equipment inventory, some dramatically.

On 15 April 1988, while under way in the Gulf, the Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) struck a contact mine that blasted a 23-foot hole in the engine-room bilge. The blast caused almost instantaneous flooding to the waterline of the engine room and after auxiliary machinery room—buckling the ship just forward of the fantail—and roaring fuel-fed fires. There was concern that the ship might crack completely in half and sink, but the ship design, in-place damage-control equipment, and crew training saved the ship.

Once again, we responded by changing designs, improving damage-control equipment, and refining doctrine.

From a design standpoint, the main-shaft bulkhead seal on the Samuel B. Roberts proved inadequate; it shattered with the explosion, causing nearly instantaneous progressive flooding and loss of the after auxiliary machine room. As a result, a shock-qualified, self-acting seal is now in use on combatants.

Several of the new pieces of damage-control equipment, added after the Stark incident, were in use on the Roberts when she struck the mine. Many proved invaluable, including the damage-control wireless communications; the frigate, however, experienced some communications-system battery and antenna problems. Further changes were made because the real-life test showed that our initial solution to this problem was inadequate.

As sailors struggled to restore power to equipment serviced by switchboards nearly awash, the need for emergency electrical kits at each switchboard became obvious. They now are required. Emergency tag-out procedures were addressed as a result of questions raised on the Samuel B. Roberts , and we made other doctrine and training changes.

Ships always suffer damage from weather, collision, grounding, or hostile action, and the ships of a forward-deployed Navy must be able to control damage while thousands of miles from home port. Obviously, a continuing need exists to provide the best ship designs, damage-control systems, equipment, organization, doctrine, and training.

Learning from actual problems is invaluable. Anticipating problems and developing solutions beforehand, however, minimizes damage and—most important—saves lives. Unfortunately, three factors exist today that make it difficult to respond to anticipated damage-control problems:

  • First is our present damage-control material readiness. The Board of Inspection and Survey (InSurv) conducts material inspections of nondeployed ships to assess their ability to carry out their required operational capabilities. The capability applicable to damage-control readiness is "Mobility 3, Prevent and Control Damage." In 1997, 65% of all surface ships undergoing underway material inspections by InSurv had material problems that degraded this capability significantly (up from 50% in 1996). In 1997, InSurv found that 39% of all inspected watertight closures (doors, hatches, and scuttles) were in fact not watertight (up from 36% in 1996).
  • Second is the trend in Navy training. Time in training prior to arriving in the fleet is being reduced as a cost-saving measure and to reduce the tooth-to-tail ratio. [Ed. Note: see "A J.O. Looks at Readiness," Proceedings , September 1998, pages 84-88; and "The Failure of the Inter-Deployment Training Cycle," pages 123-25.] Formal training for shipboard personnel is being replaced by onboard, self-paced, computer-interactive courses as part of the shipboard training enhancement program (STEP).
  • Third is the budget. Most experts agree that the best we can hope for is a level defense budget corrected for inflation. Therefore, it will be very difficult to increase funding for damage-control equipment and training.

Despite these formidable impediments, we must anticipate and respond to a major new challenge: small-crew damage control. This includes new ships with small crews and ships in commission whose crew size has been reduced. The cost of personnel dominates the budget and limits funding for future ships and aircraft. One solution is smaller crews. The new land-attack destroyer (DD-21) is projected to have a crew of 95; in contrast, more than 70 sailors typically are assigned to the repair lockers on an FFG. The Navy also is working to reduce the manning of ships now in commission. The Smart Ship initiatives on the Yorktown (CG-48) and Rushmore (LSD-47) are introducing technology that will allow reductions in crew size.

Crew reductions affect four basic areas: watch standing, combat, maintenance, and—sometimes forgotten—damage control.

Preliminary Smart Ship results indicate that smaller watch teams can succeed only by applying today's technologies and abandoning some of our "traditional" watch-standing practices. (A limited number of watch standers is the standard in the Merchant Marine.)

In combat, leveraging technology (Aegis combat system, the revolution in command and control) again appears to be the answer to doing more with smaller crews. Although here we cannot rely on the example of our brethren in the Merchant Marine, civilian industry's success in executing repetitive tasks using computers and automation offers ideas.

There is considerable concern that small crews will not provide enough sailors to maintain the ships properly, particularly with the added automation equipment required to replace watch standers and assist in fighting the ship. Here again we may be able to use maintenance strategies and labor-saving techniques similar to the Merchant Marine. The use of commercial off-the-shelf equipment that we can replace quickly should mitigate some of the increased maintenance burden associated with automation.

Damage control is a different story—and we do not have the luxury of learning from the Merchant Marine. Although merchant ships have a minimum damage-control capability, they are not expected to go into combat. Nor can we find direct applications from civilian industry. Few industrial engineers consider the explosion of a 500-pound bomb when designing buildings or sizing a work force. It also is difficult to replace people with computers and automation when the variety of potential tasks is almost infinite.

We long have maintained that "every sailor is a damage-control man," and have overpowered shipboard damage through the tenacity, initiative, and size of our crews. On the Stark and the Samuel B. Roberts , sailors—lots of sailors—saved the day. Imagine those same casualties with smaller crews.

That we need a paradigm shift is a badly overused cliché, but in this case that is exactly what we need. Since before World War II we have, for the most part, controlled damage in much the same way as we do today. The damage-control organization, doctrine, and design of our ships (compartmentation, systems distribution, etc.) has remained basically unchanged. We assume the presence of large crews. In developing the ship designs, damage-control systems, equipment, organization, doctrine, and training for minimum manned ships, we must reorient our thinking to today's reality of fewer sailors.

For example:

  • Why do we need so many watertight fittings on our ships? Each Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class guided-missile destroyer has 348 watertight fittings; they are expensive and manpower intensive to operate and maintain.
  • If the tactical action officer can have complete real-time battle-space awareness, why can't the damage-control assistant have complete real-time damage awareness?
  • Tactically, we believe that our instantaneous response will give us leverage on the battlefield. Can we use instantaneous response to damage to limit its extent and minimize the assets we must dedicate to its control?
  • Why can't we build every space with its watertight integrity, ventilation, and extinguishing agent flooding controlled from Damage Control Central?
  • Why don't we include on our ship-wide local area networks video pictures of every space, continuous space status reports to Damage Control Central, and signals that would initiate damage control actions?
  • Should we assign sailors to repair parties in the battle organization of a small crew? Maybe we should designate a minimum number of sailors who do not respond when the ship sustains damage, e.g., the officer of the deck. Everyone else would perform planned damage-control actions until the damage is identified and contained.
  • Why can't every sailor on a small crew always carry a self-contained breathing apparatus, a small but extremely effective fire extinguisher, and a wireless communication device that (besides being used for daily business) can be used to talk to Damage Control Central?
  • Why don't we develop a special uniform for wear on small-crew ships that provides some of the protection and functionality of our fire-fighting ensemble? When sailors come on board why don't they don this shipboard gear, similar to the flight gear that flight crews use when they are on board their "air" ships?

Using the lessons of the past (but not the paradigms), we must rapidly come up with solutions to the problems associated with damage control on large, complex warships with small crews—recognizing that the solutions for a ship already in commission may be completely different from the solutions for a ship built from the keel up to have a small crew.

Some new equipment is on the horizon. A smoke ejection system is being considered for the new San Antonio (LPD-17) class. It is designed to keep the damage-control deck more tenable by using remotely controlled, electrically operated ventilation dampers to remove smoke. Water mist shows promise as a replacement for ozone-depleting Halo fire-suppression systems in main and auxiliary machinery spaces. Prototypes integrate damage-control plotting and sensor (fire, flooding, etc.) information into a ship-wide computer network to provide a total ship picture. These could evolve into a system, capable of remotely controlling fire mains, ventilation, ballast, sprinkler, and other components.

We must analyze objectively new ship designs, damage-control systems, and equipment to determine whether they significantly reduce our damage-control manning requirements , or are just enhancements to our present capabilities that will not support such manpower reductions. Any new-design systems and equipment must also be reasonably priced, logistically supportable, and easy to maintain. They must be extremely reliable in the harshest of conditions. Sailors' lives will depend on them.

New ship designs, systems, and equipment that take advantage of the latest technology are only part of the answer to small-crew damage control. We must ensure that our organization and doctrine are properly adjusted for smaller crews. It is probably impossible to design a system to respond automatically to the myriad of possible scenarios requiring damage control on a warship. The philosophy that "every sailor is a damage-controlman" will be even more important with small crews. We must give everyone in a small crew training that will leverage their ability to combat damage. We should ensure that everyone in a small-crew ship has in-depth , hands-on damage-control training in the ship's specific design, damage-control systems, equipment, organization, and doctrine before they report on board.

If watch-standing changes to allow smaller crews do not work, it will be apparent. The same is true of whatever maintenance procedures and strategies we develop, although it may take longer. Even the ability to fight the ship with a small crew should be relatively easy to test with our sophisticated onboard simulators and battle group exercises. Validation of small-crew damage-control solutions, however, will be very difficult. We have never developed a way to safely and effectively subject our ships, equipment, and sailors to the heat, noise, smoke, and general chaos that surrounds combating damage at sea.

Ships now on the drawing board and indeed many already in the fleet are going to have significantly smaller crews. The proper ship design, damage-control systems, equipment, organization, doctrine, and training must be in place the first time a small crew combats damage. This is our challenge—and failure is not an option.

Admiral Lyons is the president of the Board of Inspection and Survey.



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