How Many Sailors Can Ships Afford?

By Vice Admiral Francis R. Donovan, U.S. Navy (Retired), Captain Maurice Gauthier, U.S. Navy (Retired), and Master Chief Stan Brown, U.S. Navy (Retired)

To put these numbers in perspective, the accepted figure of $40,000 per crewmember for a crew of 400 over the 40-year life of a warship is $640 million. At $100,000 per crewmember, the service-life manpower costs for that ship would soar to $1.6 billion. This makes manpower 40-60% of the in-service cost of the warship. This inevitably draws the budgeteers' attention, producing serious discussion of the cost of sailors. Rigorous examination of these costs is producing innovative experiments and fresh approaches to how and where we use sailors' skills.

Demographers forecast smaller populations of eligible young men and women to man the ships of the Navy after next. Increasing manpower costs and shrinking populations of candidates are moving the Navy toward more lightly manned ships. But there must be a balanced discussion of the Navy's manpower cost-reduction initiatives in context with other Navy resources.

The mandate for a smaller Navy is manifest, reflected in the downward pressure on the Navy's budget. We cannot ask our sailors to take up any more of budgetary slack and still expect to recruit and train them. The best-case Future Years Defense Program projects the Navy will receive only 50% of the ship-construction funds needed to achieve the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) baseline ship-force levels. Even the QDR force levels may not survive the next budget cycle. The fate of the Maritime Fire Support Demonstrator (arsenal ship) and CVX (next-design carrier) demonstrate the gap between the Navy's program and budget realities. Conventional wisdom argues that the force-level gap will have to be filled by savings from within the Navy's projected budgets.

Against this stark background, the Navy is challenging its bedrock assumptions and establishing aggressive cost-reduction goals across the chart of accounts. Traditional practices and processes are being subjected to rigorous scrutiny. Cost drivers are being systematically identified, challenged, reengineered, and—where possible—eliminated. Technology is offering faster, better, and cheaper ways to stand watch; fight the ship; and maintain, repair, and modernize equipment. The requirement for military specifications is being challenged and increasingly jettisoned. The naval warfighters' attention to doctrine and tactics is growing. The cycle of acquisition reform churns out new paper processes without affecting the real problem—unaffordable requirements. Meanwhile, the Navy is retiring ships halfway through their planned service lives because budgets do not support operating them.

The cycle of downsizing has ample historical precedent. History shows that budgetary downturns are characterized by intense inter- and intraservice competition for declining resources. This competition typically focuses on perceived priorities, with leaders staking out mission and budgetary turf.

As in the past, today's competition remains service- and platform-centric, focusing on incremental increases in capability, even when these capabilities exist elsewhere within the national arsenal. Parallelling the intra- and interservice competition for mission dominance and resources are the perennial uncertainties—where we will fight next, how we will fight next, whom we will fight next, and which of our weaknesses our least-likely adversary will exploit.

Downsizing and Reconstitution

This is the way things are, and efforts to break the budgetary gridlock of inter- and intraservice competition remain in a virtual deadlock. As the barons maneuver in competition for missions and resources, we must look for those competencies and capabilities that form our core resilience. These bedrock assets must be protected and preserved in the event that the fate of the republic depends on our ability to reconstitute the Navy to current or higher levels. There is an intuitive naval force level below which reconstitution becomes a slow and arduous process, exposing the standing force to crushing operational tempos and undue risk. How we downsize is just as important as where we bottom out in the down cycle.

The fundamental principles of flexibility and resilience must figure prominently in every trade-off discussion. Flexibility, arguably, is the most rational response to uncertainty. The essence of naval expeditionary warfare is an inherent ability to reconfigure existing assets rapidly to perform emerging missions on the fly. Ships, submarines, and aircraft provide the means, but the capability lies in the intellectual capital of seasoned, proven naval expeditionary warriors. Technology is pointing toward reduced development cycles for new ships and aircraft.

Nevertheless, 20 years of warfighter experience will take 20 years to accumulate—always. This experience is gained from those who have gone before; lessons are forged by error and recovery, producing the persistence that is characteristic of the naval warrior.

As we downsize and bottom out on the resource curve, we must focus on value, not cost. Anything or anyone today's Navy decides to eliminate from the drawing board of the Navy after next should be weighed against the cost and the time required for reconstitution. Balanced, thoughtful discussions of cost should include honest assessments of value, and any costs jettisoned must be examined in relation to the value that goes overboard as well.

The cost per crewmember should be on one side of the equation with the value receiving equal consideration on the other. The sailor is not an expense; the sailor is an investment that becomes increasingly difficult to replace as the apprentice becomes the journeyman and the journeyman becomes the master. Replacement or reconstitution of the likes of the Chief of Naval Operations or the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy is not a matter of an executive talent search in the Wall Street Journal . Such naval warriors are national treasures who took a generation to build, one experience at a time.

The Value of the Citizen-Sailor

The sailor's workweek is long. Frequently, six months or more pass between weekends at home. While at work, the sailor delivers value in countless ways. Unlike many of their Army and Air Force counterparts, the sailor is an operator-maintainer. Much of the Navy's legacy equipment is designed with this in mind. This results in maintenance-intensive equipment that relies on "free" labor to make it perform reliably. When not standing watch on the ship's equipment, he or she is repairing and maintaining that equipment. When not operating or maintaining the ship's equipment, the sailor either is receiving or giving training or passing on the knowledge, skills, and deckplate lore of how things really work.

Overseas ashore, the sailor is an ambassador of democratic values. Sailors not only project power, they project a credible slice of our unique democracy. They repair orphanages and extract beleaguered U.S. citizens from unstable foreign shores. The citizen-sailors have a global perspective, and can contrast our way of life on a personal level with family and civilian friends. When they return home, they can communicate the contrast between their way of life and others' from firsthand experience.

The process of converting civilian youths into master chiefs and master mariners is not smooth and continuous. We have attrition for a variety of reasons, but the Navy's loss is frequently the nation's gain. Whether attrition occurs after the first enlistment or at the end of a 26-year career, the United States is presented with a better citizen for the experience. This citizen-sailor brings highly valued ethics, values, and skills to the civilian marketplace. He or she can articulate the role of the Navy from personal experience, and vote on behalf of the Navy at the national level. He or she has a greater sense of America in the world and of the Navy's role as the enabler of America's might. The sailor is the informed and occasionally impassioned advocate of the Navy. Without this grassroots support, the Navy after next may be a far less capable garrison Navy. Obviously, the Navy cannot be a garrison force, with its ships in port and sailors on base. Virtual presence does not convey the will to influence and shape events ashore.

The value of the sailor endures beyond enlistment. The citizen-sailor knows how teams work and how to build and operate teams that value both the individual and the organization. These citizen-sailors continue to serve long after the uniform comes off. A large portion of the Navy's shore infrastructure is manned by men and women trained by the Navy in Navy ships and aircraft. The readiness enjoyed today is, in part, a dividend from the investments made in these former sailors. Off duty, these former sailors belong to the Fleet Reserve, the Navy League, and the Retired Officers Association. Their leadership skills bring them to leadership roles in groups such as the Rotary and Kiwanis. Statistics show that they tend to vote. What they learned through their service has made them more responsible citizens and better role models in their communities. Their growth from their Navy experience offers enduring value to the republic. They are living recruiting posters who remember and share the highlights of their Navy experience.

The Apprentice's Contract

The political message of a carrier's silhouette on the horizon is sustained by 5,000 sailors atop a very large pyramid of uniformed personnel. Entry-level apprentice seamen exchange their unskilled labor as mess cooks, compartment cleaners, litter bearers, messengers, and line handlers for the promise of skills, experience, and increased responsibility. Every command master chief serving today accepted this contract and made it work to the great benefit of the Navy.

Between one-third and two-thirds of the crew of a modern warship are nonrated. This large pool of labor brings both tangible and intangible benefit to the warfighting capability of the ship. Sailors provide one another's quality of life. Fifteen percent of a warship's crew is dedicated to providing high-quality, morale-building food service. "Ship-shape" is not an aphorism; it is the culture that underpins the basic quality of life at sea. Sailors also provide one another's safety of life in a relentlessly dangerous environment. These seemingly menial and labor-intensive tasks provide the rhythm of the ship, and the quality of one sailor's service to another sets great ships apart from good ships.

In addition to the labor-intensive tasks relegated to nonrated crewmembers, this labor pool provides endurance. Endurance during prolonged, heightened states of readiness requires depth on the bench. Endurance while operating in stressful environments—Arctic to equatorial—requires depth on the bench. Endurance, perseverance, and survival during major shipboard conflagrations or flooring require depth on the bench. These same demands for endurance also fuel attrition, and attrition requires depth on the bench. The question remains: When is the bench too deep to match resource realities?

Technology's Promise

Much shipboard work and watchstanding can be automated, and technology must serve the sailor by eliminating low-value, labor-intensive work and taking the man out of the loop where system performance, safety, and reliability are retained or improved. Proven dividends resulting from this type of investment constitute a real asset. Some measure of this asset belongs to the ship for training and career counseling aimed at increasing the skill levels and retention of the remaining crewmembers.

Contemporary ship-acquisition programs have set challenging manning-reduction goals. These programs acknowledge the relationship between smarter buying and the resultant cheaper owning, but no one yet has produced the algorithm that demonstrates the in-service cost return on early research and development and acquisition investment. Expectations are high. If a silver bullet is to be found, it must be cast during the requirements setting phase with all the stakeholders at the table, because cost-effective trade-offs demand their skills and insights. The focus on ship cost at delivery is shifting to total program cost, including ship decommissioning and disposal.

Despite the magnitude of the manpower cost driver, shipboard manning levels traditionally have not figured prominently in setting the requirements for Navy ship designs. In fact, until DD-21, manning levels have not been key performance parameters (KPPs), and for good reason. The KPPs validated by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council are derived from the Navy's Operational Requirements Document. This seminal acquisition document is developed by the end user, to whom manpower traditionally has been a free resource. From the user's perspective, larger crews provide more resources to draw on when shipboard operational, maintenance, and administrative workloads increase.

A large body of evidence buoys our optimism in predicting the benefits of technology. Spruance engine rooms were designed to be unmanned. For decades, most of these ships steamed with 12 people on watch in these spaces. The missing crew is added back in excess of the ship's design complement, late and expensively. Habitability and quality of life are compromised, and the law of unintended consequences begins its work on retention.

Establishing Crew Size

The principal factors driving crew size are the ship's organizational maintenance workload and the ship's Condition III battle organization. A typical Condition III battle organization requires more than half of the crew to be assigned to the ship's damage-control organization. Damage control is a manpower-intensive activity. Both the Smart Ship and the LPD-17 have shown that up to 20% of the damage-control organization performs command-and-control tasks. These tasks are being eliminated with relatively cheap, state-of-the-market technology. In the case of the LPD-17, the current projected shipboard maintenance workload reduction initiatives already have caused the maintenance-driven crew size to be about 24 crewmembers less than the crew size required to support the damage-control organization. The maintenance workload will continue to contract, so the focus must shift to rethinking the ship's damage-control organization.

In Smart Ship's first phase, an organizational paradigm shift was instituted without the benefit of technology. This rethinking of how crews perform their mission produced well over half of the ultimate Smart Ship manning reductions. It reapplied manpower in a more effective and efficient manner, within the constraints of the ship's 1970s design and installed equipment. At the completion of the second phase, the ship had identified about 75 billets for elimination, retaining about 18 of these for highly leveraged shipboard training efforts. The ship's commanding officer has stated that Smart Ship initiatives applied during the early developmental phases of a new ship class could produce two to three times the reductions attained in the USS Yorktown (CG-48). Thus, the philosophy that produced a 15% reduction in the Yorktown's manning could produce manning reductions on the order of 30-45% when applied to a new-start shipbuilding program. Ambitiously, DD-21 is seeking reductions of two-thirds or more. The gap between these two targets remains to be addressed—both technically and fiscally—in the research-and-development funding for DD-21.

Getting It Right

Recent manpower-reduction initiatives have reaffirmed that more proficient sailors, operating higher-quality equipment with greater levels of systems integration, will operate a ship more effectively and efficiently. When these truths are coupled with reinvention of the way we apply manpower on board our ships, we can attain a more effective naval force at reduced cost. The key is to approach the problem as a mandate for workload redistribution and high-yield technology insertion, instead of the current focus on achieving target crew sizes without the means to determine what the required investment is, and what the return on that investment will be. In other words, the objective should be reducing the total ownership cost, with operational readiness featured prominently in the metrics measuring success. For example, in the redistribution of the workforce, a cadre must be preserved with the charter of unit operational proficiency. Because as many as two-thirds of enlisted crewmembers are nonrated, developing operational efficiency is a primary function of the ship. As embedded training becomes the norm, each ship of the line will carry trainees, no matter what future successes in automation and workload reduction are attained. In many foreign navies, large manning reductions have come at the expense of sustainability.

Traditionally, ship-manning levels have been validated late in the ship-design cycle, and in the context of the ship's required operational characteristics and projected operational environment. The Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Forces (OpTEvFor), and the President of the Board of Inspection and Survey (InSurv) have statutory roles in assessing acceptability, operational effectiveness, and suitability of future ships. In many respects, they embody the conscience of the warfighter in the ship design, integration, construction, and test and delivery process. Traditionally, they are called upon to fulfill these responsibilities too late in the process to have a large effect on the design. Any discussions of manning levels, crew size, and life-cycle cost require the early, direct, and sustained involvement of OpTEvFor and InSurv. Both of these entities should have seats at the table throughout the requirements setting, concept development, and design process to ensure that warfighting, maintenance, training, and habitability elements are assessed early and kept in equilibrium through successful acceptance trials and operational evaluation.

In short, the figure of merit cannot be permitted to devolve to "souls on board." Experienced sailors are an investment, and we must ensure that we are developing national treasures, not just balancing a ledger book. In the value equation, the internal Navy debate requires a studied response to the question "What do we get in return for the cost of a sailor?" The comptroller relentlessly bores in on the true cost of a sailor because of the burgeoning logic that says manpower costs can be converted into assets for new ships and aircraft. This trade-off is accepted widely because acquisition programs historically have enjoyed a strong constituency. Their alluring promise of enhanced capability is fueled by the jobs they create in congressional districts across the nation and by the equity they provide to the shareholders in the defense industry.

Making the case for the intrinsic worth of the sailor always has been at the heart of leadership, whether the leader wears the uniform or is a veteran serving in the House, the Senate, or the Oval Office. Those voices must be heard and heeded in this debate.

Admiral Donovan retired in 1992. His last tours were as Commander, Amphibious Group Three; Commander, Naval Military Personnel Command/Deputy Chief of Naval Personnel; and Commander, Military Sealift Command. He is president of Designers and Planners, Inc., in Arlington, Virginia. Captain Gauthier retired in 1998. His last assignment was as the program manager for the San Antonio (LPD-17)-class shipbuilding program. Currently, he is the Chief Technology Officer at VSE Corporation, an Alexandria, Virginia-based engineering services company. Master Chief Fire Controlman Brown retired in 1997. His last two tours were as Command Master Chief in the USS Barry (DDG-52) and the Fleet Integration Coordinator with NAVSEA PMS 317 (LPD-17 Program Office). He currently works as a DoD contractor with Naval Sea Systems Command PEO TSC.

 

 
 

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