Quality of Life at Sea

By Lieutenant Commander W. Boothe Higgins, U.S. Naval Reserve

The Problem

The Sharem and Keynote exercises involved coordinated antisubmarine warfare operations over extended periods. They should have been a welcome break from routine maritime interdiction operations for the ships, submarines, and aircraft participating; instead, the exercises exposed our Navy at the limit of endurance. From the perspective of the Abraham van der Hulst , U.S.-led command and control was choppy. Decisions by the antisubmarine warfare commander were frustratingly slow. Tasking often was unspoken or unclear. Even the simple task of arranging passenger transfers took several iterations to resolve. Everything became too complicated. From all accounts, it was a frustrating exercise for all of the units.

Antisubmarine warfare is a tough mission, and every ship has her bad days, but I believe the difficulties I witnessed are symptomatic of larger problems within the Navy. Consider the following:

  • Virtually every junior surface warfare officer (SWO) I spoke with during my trip seemed to be counting the days until he could leave the Navy.
  • The junior officer SWOs averaged three to four hours of sleep per night, and rarely at the same time each night.
  • The O'Brien has a nominal crew size of about 330. When I was on board, the crew was down to roughly 260.
  • A submarine executive officer told me it takes months to replace people on his boat when the transfer is unplanned. Sometimes, manning requirements are changed by higher authority to erase the shortage rather than finding a replacement.
  • The Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) recently submitted a casualty report for lack of manning in the propulsion plant because replacements could not be found in time for her deployment.
  • Current job statistics for new college graduates indicate an 8.3% increase in average starting salary since last year, with some receiving large signing bonuses. This type of growth has been going on for several years.
  • In the past ten years, the defense budget has dropped by 40% and the size of the armed forces by 36%. Yet military infrastructure has been reduced only 21% because of political impediments to needed base closures. To keep the Navy solvent, money that was supposed to be saved through base closures is being pulled from modernization initiatives. At the same time, the Navy and Marine Corps have been called on to respond to crises three times more often than during the Gulf War years.
  • Modernization initiatives and the plan to maintain a 300-ship Navy are badly underfunded.
  • It is virtually impossible to find a warfare-qualified lieutenant in the Naval Reserve right now—not only are junior officers leaving the Navy, they also are skipping right over the reserves on their way out.

These observations are significant for several reasons. First, they involve our frontline units. Organizational dysfunction should not be so apparent, especially during peacetime. Second, under these conditions, it is impossible that our officers and sailors are performing up to their potential. Third, administrative overload can affect the warfare mission adversely. For example, the Abraham van der Hulst's operations officer and I spent the better part of a watch trying to coordinate a small boat transfer with Cruiser-Destroyer Squadron 50 (CDS-50) and the O'Brien . During this time, we could not pay attention to the operational picture.

A Problematic Shipboard Organization

The U.S. Navy officers I met were dedicated and competent, so what was the problem? I contend that our process—manifested by our absurd working and living habits at sea—is the reason why these exercises were so frustrating. Our officers were too tired to think clearly and work efficiently. Our traditional shipboard organization needs overhaul.

Fatigue as a Way of Life . On board U.S. surface ships, sleeping typically is prohibited during normal working hours, namely, between reveille and taps. There appears to be no exception for night watchstanders. One morning, I listened to a JO lament this rule while he pounded down coffee to try to compensate for having missed a night's sleep completely. By contrast, on the Abraham van der Hulst , officers maintained a healthier lifestyle; many found time to exercise every day or to catch a nap or some sun on the deck for an hour or so after lunch. When I returned to the O'Brien, I found that a flu-like sickness was circulating through the CDS-50 staff. Some complained that they hadn't been on the weather decks during the entire ten-day exercise. Had there been a collision, grounding, plane crash, or ordnance handling accident, crew rest certainly would have been a contributing factor.

No one thought of this as unusual. The executive officer on one of the U.S. ships had advised the junior officers that this is just the way it is, "we train like we fight," or words to that affect. The advice went on to suggest that disgruntled junior officers should either get used to it or find another profession, implying that alternatives have been ruled out.

Lead (by the Nose) from the Top Down . Common practice places far too many decisions at the wrong end of the chain of command. Delegation is a time-honored privilege of rank, so why is it not used more often? For example: Why does the commanding officer need to be awakened in the middle of the night to hear that merchant traffic in a busy roadstead or strait approaches within 10,000 yards? Why are reveille, taps, and sweepers announced every day? Why does the captain need the eight o'clock report? More to the point, why do so many other key officers spend so much time preparing it?

There are thousands of other examples of routines that reflect top leadership involvement in routine matters. This contains an element of lack of trust.

Meetings Waste Time . We have far too many meetings in our Navy—piloting briefs, planning board for training, department head meetings, the executive officer's eight o'clock report preparation meeting, etc. On the O'Brien , it was not uncommon to be on the third meeting of the morning in the wardroom by 0800. Meetings can be a quick way to disseminate critical information to a large group; on the other hand, they are the least effective way of changing behavior or effecting training when the communication is predominantly one-way.

Distractions of the Propulsion Plant . No allied navy uses the U.S. Navy model of a commanding officer career path so immersed in engineering milestones. The commanding officer does not need to know how to program computers to be able to use the fire-control system properly. So why does he have to know the procedural requirements to conduct a hydrostatic test following maintenance on a valve to employ the propulsion plant to a tactical end? He doesn't.

To optimize the expertise of officers—and thereby increase efficiency—we should consider structuring officer career paths to separate engineering from tactical jobs, like the European navies do. Good engineers are not necessarily good tacticians, and vice versa.

Dedicated engineers could operate and maintain the propulsion plant much more efficiently. Continuing education could focus on new technologies and engineering management. Engineers would aspire to more complex propulsion plants, command of tenders and shore-based maintenance facilities, and management of research and development and acquisition programs. Tacticians could focus on operations, maneuvering, and tactics. Their continuing education would focus on more liberal topics such as war gaming, regional politics, and military history. They would aspire to command of warships.

Engineering and operational disciplines are fundamentally different, and frequently incompatible if you strive to be more than just good enough at both.

A European Navy Example

The Abraham van der Hulst is a modern frigate with luxurious accommodations, a state-of-the-art integrated combat system, and a very small crew (165). She seems to be an example of the Smart Ship touted as the future of our Navy—with one fundamental difference: The Dutch design is driven largely by quality-of-life improvements to counter recruiting shortfalls, whereas the U.S. design is driven by cost savings predicted from reductions in manning.

A number of other differences also stand out:

  • The Dutch officers appear to truly enjoy their work.
  • Engineering and tactical career paths are separate.
  • The Dutch officers are well rested. I was told that the Dutch have a saying, Sleep is a weapon.
  • There are few meetings on board. In fact, they are officially discouraged by the executive officer.
  • The Dutch wardroom is a sanctuary. The executive officer presides over the wardroom and the commanding officer usually enters only upon invitation. Mealtime is a time to unwind. For about 15 minutes mid-morning and mid-afternoon, the officers gather, without fanfare, for a cup of coffee and some camaraderie.
  • There rarely are announcements on board the Abraham van der Hulst . The daily situation report at noontime focuses on news from home as much as anything else. Tactical "word" is passed via point-to-point intercom to watchstanders, and other word is passed at mealtime.
  • The officers and crew of the Dutch Navy receive more formal education before reporting to the ship than U.S. Navy personnel. The operations officer was careful to differentiate between the professional education that they receive and traditional U.S. Navy training. Their equivalent of Surface Warfare Officer School sounded more like a two-year masters degree from our Naval Postgraduate School, but it also included a substantial apprenticeship period.
  • Virtually all "paperwork" is done electronically, usually while on watch.
  • There is a great deal more acceptance of ship automated capabilities. Notably, the entire engine room is automated and unmanned at sea. The helmsman relies on automatic pilot for course changes and station keeping, and there is heavy reliance on automatic sensors, alarms, and recovery systems for damage control.
  • The Dutch crews are very proficient. Decision makers—not phone talkers—are on the external radio nets. This was a primary reason why the U.S. Navy antisubmarine warfare commander appeared to be acting slowly—because the Dutch officers were used to talking directly to decision makers during their training by, and operational dealings with, the British Navy.
  • More emphasis is placed on pre-deployment workups and training. They run the ship hard—under warlike conditions—for several weeks to a month to develop initial proficiency. Then they maintain that proficiency at sea with fewer drills and exercises.

The Dutch Navy places a great deal of emphasis on quality of life at sea, with the not-so-hidden agenda of making the job rewarding. There are no training caldrons, gauntlets, or rites of passage carried out at sea. On the contrary, the wardroom seems to work together to minimize or eliminate all but the one unavoidable hardship—time away from home. One might argue that such a system would falter under the stresses of war, but the Dutch officer would proclaim that they would have their wits about them when conflict starts and be that much more prepared. My observation during a peacetime exercise was that they were very competent at getting things done right the first time.

I believe that the critical element here is time—to do a job right the first time; to study issues, reflect, and plan; to get needed rest. This time comes from removing all but mission-essential tasks and deploying ready to accomplish the mission.

The commanding officer of the Abraham van der Hulst summed up the crucial characteristics of the modern Dutch Navy: As the world economy improves, and the hopes and dreams of all citizens reach higher, the average naval officer will expect more compensation in the form of a better quality of life in exchange for the unavoidable sacrifice of time away from home. To retain the needed talent for the future, concessions have been necessary to make living at sea in the service of one's country an attractive career choice. Sound familiar?


We have finished reaping the savings from our traditional way of cutting systems and programs. It is time to do something revolutionary to improve the way we manage our ships at sea.

  • Admit officially that there is a quality-of-life problem on board our ships, then debate the issues with legislators and civilian policymakers until solutions are found. We need either to spend the money to sustain our people or disengage from some of our national commitments.
  • Establish crew rest requirements for key watchstanders in all naval professions, not just flight crews. Eliminate mandatory work/sleep schedules. Living at sea is a continuous process; daytime should not arbitrarily require everyone to be awake.
  • Redefine the role of the executive officer. The department heads should work directly for the commanding officer, and the executive officer's involvement should be limited to ensuring that they do. The executive officer would better contribute to the organization by fostering esprit de corps and preparing for command.
  • Study the shipboard organizations of our allies and our own Coast Guard.
  • Convene a Revolutionary Shipboard Organizational Experiment review panel consisting of officers from appropriate communities to study administrative requirements and departmental responsibilities. The panel should determine which requirements directly relate to operational readiness and statutory requirements. All others should be eliminated.
  • Eliminate all meetings that do not have: (1) a social purpose; (2) a specific official purpose; (3) a published agenda; (4) specified attendance; and (5) approval, in advance, by the department head.
  • While at sea, conduct training on the job. Training that cannot be done on the job should be eliminated or reserved for pre-deployment workups.
  • Statutory paperwork, such as inventories of weapons or controlled equipment, should be pushed as far down the chain of command as possible.
  • Let the department heads run the ship. Their performance could be measured against the departmental responsibilities delineated by the review panel.
  • Eliminate routine onboard announcements.
  • Restructure officer career paths to separate engineering from tactical jobs.

Our Navy's work ethic is a positive tradition, but it does not serve us well when it defies common sense, makes us ineffective, and potentially compromises the safety of our ships. The drawdown focused too heavily on end-strength numbers and not enough on appropriate management for a smaller Navy. We still have a 600-ship administrative system crammed into a 300-ship Navy. For the good of the service, it is time to reevaluate the things that keep us busy at sea.

In an article on reducing unnecessary workload at sea, Vice Admiral Giffin summed up the problem: "I still have to encourage them to get off the ship. It is our work ethic. They don't want to quit.... That is my point: Folks won't quit. We will work them to death if we are not careful.... Then some of them will leave."

Commander Higgins , a Naval Reserve officer, is commanding officer of a reserve detachment for Naval Submarine Support Facility New London, and previously served as an operations analyst with Submarine Development Squadron 12. A 1985 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, while on active duty, he served on the USS Plunger (SSN-595) and was a staff watch officer with Submarine Group 8. His civilian career has focused on the commercial nuclear power industry, including a brief tour with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He is now involved in advanced concept formulation for future submarine designs at Electric Boat Corporation.


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