Can a Minimum-Manned Ship Survive Combat?

By Captain Pierre Vining, U.S. Navy

The Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigate was designed to provide a small, capable, multimission escort with a substantially smaller crew than the FF-1052. Some gains were made by using easier-to-operate systems that required fewer watchstanders and by automating some aspects of the ship. More significant reductions were predicated on establishing a robust shore infrastructure to do the bulk of the ship's maintenance. But the shore structure never fully matured, forcing much of the burden back on the ship's force, inadequately sized to sustain it.

The Smart Ship project cost about $10M and resulted in a 12% reduction in crew size. This relatively successful experiment led a move to backfit the remaining Ticonderoga (CG-47)-class cruisers with a similar, though somewhat less comprehensive (and thus less expensive) suite. It may take as much as seven years of operation with the reduced crews to recoup the estimated per-ship cost, but in that period, information technology will have advanced about three generations. Thus, at least one additional costly update probably will be needed.

A successful effort for designing a minimum-manned combatant requires close examination, not only of the peacetime crew workload, but also of demands during combat. Characterizing the workload in the two environments will reveal manning reductions applicable to each, so a prioritized list of enhancements can be created. Such prioritization is essential, and it must be done in two different ways.

First, as the FF-1052 experience shows, features that reduce the workload in one environment may aggravate the problem in the other, or may reduce the ship's operational resilience to an unacceptable extent. Reducing system redundancy will lower maintenance and upkeep, but it also could affect the ship's battle worthiness, leaving the commanding officer in combat having to augment battle damage repair teams at the expense of diminishing his ability to bring the ship's weapons to bear on the threat.

Second, the Navy cannot afford every desired improvement, so the features must be ordered by cost benefit. There are two driving forces involved. Some may require research and development (R&D) funds—an increasingly scarce commodity. Some of the features that ultimately will reduce total ownership costs will result in higher purchase costs. But naval ships are expensive items intended to be in service for several decades; putting quality into the ship at the outset will increase its availability by reducing the amount of time spent in refit.

Where Can Cuts Be Made?

One of the first steps in identifying the crew's workload is to break down the normal workday for an average sailor, to identify the primary tasks assigned, and to determine how much time is spent on each. Once the higher-level task categories are selected, the next step is to determine how much time sailors spend at each. Assessing watchstanding is relatively straightforward; watch bills can be reviewed, and simple math yields the number of man-hours per day spent on that task. From that point on, the effort becomes more involved.

One simple approach to evaluating the preventive maintenance is to use the data from the ship's Planned Maintenance System (PMS). Multiply the man-hours for a given Maintenance Requirements Card (MRC) by the number of pieces of equipment on which it must be performed; normalize that figure based on periodicity (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.); and calculate the results. But the man-hour figures on the MRC do not include all time costs-e.g., collecting the necessary tools, materials, and parts; doing the required paperwork; isolating the work site; restoration. We need structured plans to insert some reproducible rigor into data collection.

Two elements are critical to determining the corrective maintenance workload. First, some insight into the failure rate of equipment must be obtained. The Navy's Casualty Reporting (CasRep) system does not capture all failures. A more comprehensive resource is the Navy's Maintenance Data Collection System (MDCS), which tracks more of the repairs and some of the actual time spent on each. But it, too, is incomplete. A survey approach, similar to the one outlined for preventive maintenance, is needed to account for the overhead.

The daily routine is only one part of the total picture. All drains on the crew's time—all-hands evolutions, laundry and food service duties, off-ship training, and more—must be included in the analysis. Ultimately, the "routine" workload must be incorporated with these other levels of examination, set in some sort of benchmark timeframe (man-hours per week/quarter) to be of value. Daily workload probably would include the following:

Watchstanding . Smart Ship addressed ways to reduce watchstanding requirements modestly. Improvements to ship control systems used on the bridge drove immediate benefits, as did the use of remote sensors and warning systems to mitigate or eliminate the need for some roving watches. That was a good start, but more must be done. One personal-computer-based system currently used for aircraft carrier sea trials provides the Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW) a block diagram of the plant with key parameters continuously displayed on a color monitor. At a glance, the EOOW can get a snapshot of how the entire propulsion plant is performing, greatly aiding in casualty control. It also is a superb training resource.

Preventive and Corrective Maintenance . Automating more of the maintenance administration certainly will help. Use a regional database for equipment tagouts. Often, used tagouts can be developed, approved, and then stored in the database for easy retrieval. The computer also can print the necessary forms and labels for the tags. In an 18-month aircraft carrier overhaul, for example, the system cut the number of individual tags hanging by nearly 80% while simultaneously improving safety and control. But simplifying the administrative tasks can only do so much. There also must be a significant reduction in the number of required maintenance actions, and there are really only a few paths to that end:

  1. Reduce equipment redundancy.
  2. Shift responsibility for the maintenance to a shore facility. The FFG-7 experience and concerns about "ownership" make fleet sailors uncomfortable with this notion.
  3. Reduce the frequency and/or scope of the maintenance on a piece of equipment. This can be risky as well, but there are ways to mitigate that risk.

Machinery condition monitoring systems, linked to a central computer, not only reduce watch requirements, but can be reliable predictors of impending failure. Earlier identification can lead to repairs that avoid the additional damage resulting from a later, catastrophic failure. Another way to reduce maintenance is to adopt a completely new design. For years, the Navy has used reduction gears and long shafting to transfer the power from relatively high-speed main engines to the screws. Based on recent work with superconducting, direct current homopolar motors, and generators, these heavy, expensive units could be eliminated if a ship were designed with an integrated electric power system. Because these units are markedly easier to maintain than those presently in use, even further reductions in manning might be made. This technology brings many other benefits to the ship that are beyond the scope of this article.

Training . Training is essential in understanding the crew's workload. For a minimum-manned ship, the training burden will increase. Each of the fewer men and women on board will have to be qualified more broadly, and that will mean more direct (actual instruction and learning) and indirect (administration) training time costs. These added hours must be brought back by further reductions in other tasks. If the ship design ignores this imperative, the demands placed on the crew by the other tasks may well consume the time they need to prepare for war. Adequate facilities in the new ship are necessary. These include networked video classrooms; easily reconfigurable multipurpose spaces to serve as classrooms; support for self-paced, computer residence training courses; and a centralized, automated records system to support the increased number of individual qualifications.

Cleaning and Preservation . Cleaning and preservation consume an inordinate portion of the crew's day, and assessments of the time spent on them have been grossly understated. Ask any group of sailors what part of their day is longest and least satisfying, and most will point here. Unfortunately, the data are incomplete. More of it, collected in a statistically meaningful way, is central to the task at hand. Cleaning and preservation are voracious man-hour consumers. They include, but are not limited to:

  1. Filtered and conditioned supply ventilation. Reducing the quantity of dirt, debris, exhaust and salt spray entering the ship makes the ship easier to clean. The ship's resistance to chemical and biological attack also is improved.
  2. Deck covering materials. Use skid-resistant stainless steel instead of terrazzo and ceramic tile in washrooms and galleys. It is durable, easier to sanitize, and can withstand flexing of the ship's structure.
  3. Painting systems. Interior and exterior coating systems exist that make the ship much more rust-resistant. Powder coating technology has been used very successfully for watertight doors on weather decks.
  4. Internal arrangements. Significant gains can be realized from some relatively minor efforts to reduce the number of objects attached to bulkheads in the spaces.
  5. Materials selection. The guiding principle must be shrinking total ownership costs rather than making the initial purchase cheaper, and a balanced cost tradeoff study is necessary. Examples of short-sighted choices in today's ships abound: galvanized steel for plumbing vents and bilge piping systems (rusts rapidly), aluminum vent ducts (flimsy, aggressive corrosion in salt air), ferrous fasteners in nonferrous seawater systems (galvanic corrosion). The intelligent long-term choice becomes clear when the material replacement and labor costs, the disruption to the ship, and the loss of operational time during replacement are added to initial procurement costs. Even small component materials can have a large effect on workload, such as choosing copper fiber over carbon for electric motor and generator brushes. The designers must ensure that these small details do not escape their attention.

Outfitting . Use materials that can sustain the shock loading of battle damage as well as the daily vibration and wear-and-tear of shipboard life. Porcelain fixtures do not belong in a warship. Laminate-faced particle-board table and countertops are damaged easily. Stainless steel is better for both applications; more expensive initially, but more durable. There are other steps that can be taken to reduce the cleaning and preservation workload for the crew, and there are ready sources for ideas to meet that challenge, especially in the civilian sector.

In addition to these daily workload items, some routine tasks on the ship require a large portion of the crew to complete, including underway replenishment, stores onload, ammunition onload/offload, line and ground tackle handling for entering or leaving port, food service, and other all-hands evolutions.

Cruise ships routinely arrive in port, disembark up to 2,500 passengers and their baggage, reprovision, refuel, and embark the same number of guests for the next trip in fewer than ten hours. Building larger passageways and automated strike-down systems leading to automated storerooms and collocating the strike-down points on the weather deck with the receiving rigs for underway replenishments can improve efficiency dramatically.

The entire food-service process—from the ways food is packaged and delivered to the ship, to storage and movement within the ship, to preparation—must be examined in detail. Commercial kitchens use easy-release coatings (such as Teflon) extensively for many surfaces to reduce the amount of grease used in food preparation. Their use has streamlined cleanup dramatically—and as any repair division officer will confirm—less dependence on oil and grease for cooking also reduces the number of plumbing problems in the galley, because the drain lines do not get clogged as often. Handling of food-contaminated waste also must be addressed.

Learning from History

Naval leaders from John Paul Jones to Arleigh Burke have stated firmly that warships are intended to "go in harm's way" and are "designed to fight." Those ships must have crews that can carry the fight to the enemy, keep fighting when some are killed or disabled, and save the ship when struck by hostile fire. Combat manning needs do not lend themselves to the sort of deconstruction outlined earlier, but there is a wealth of historical information about ships in grave peril, providing a qualitative backstop—a reality check on the prospect of sending a ship into combat with a crew size based only on normal peacetime metrics.

Okinawa—6 April 1945 . The Okinawa campaign, spanning three months, saw the first wide-scale use of stream raids of cruise missiles (a part played by kamikazes) against a naval force. Twelve of the 15 destroyers (DDs) and destroyer escorts (DEs) sent to the bottom were put there by kamikazes, and the majority of the 118 DDs and DEs damaged in the battle suffered that fate from the same source. On 6 April alone, ten were hit and survived, seven of which sustained major damage. About 25% of their crews on these seven were killed and wounded, but they were able to save their ships.

Tonkin Gulf—29 July 1967 . On the USS Forrestal (CV-59), stray voltage ignited a Zuni rocket, which flew across the flight deck, torching several aircraft with full combat loads of fuel and ordnance. In the initial minutes of the fire, three 750-pound bombs detonated, blowing four large holes in the flight deck and decimating several fire teams. It took 14 hours to extinguish the fire, which destroyed 25 aircraft and killed 134 men.

Persian Gulf—17 May 1987 . The USS Stark (FFG-31) was struck by two Iraqi Exocet missiles, turning the ship into an inferno. A minimum-manned ship, the Stark lost 37 sailors in the attack—nearly 20% of her crew. The fires took 16 hours and the efforts of five additional units to extinguish. The reflashes continued for three days.

Persian Gulf—14 April 1988 . The USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) struck a mine and nearly was broken in two, her keel fractured and twisted. Flooding from the two gaping holes blown in the hull threatened to send the ship to the bottom. It required the entire crew to weld and lash the two halves of their ship together, saving her to fight another day.

Virginia Capes—8 May 1990 . Basic engineering drills had been completed just before sunrise in the USS Conyingham (DDG-17) when a fireball drove the fireroom watch team out of the space and filled the entire ship with thick smoke in less than two minutes. Like the Stark and Samuel B. Roberts , the aluminum superstructure of the ship melted in some areas as the fire nearly burned the ship in half.

These history lessons should remind ship designers and decisionmakers that they are producing an instrument of the national will intended not only to inflict damage, but to maintain that capacity when struck herself. Combating major fire and flooding on a warship are all-hands evolutions. The crew rapidly can reach the limits of their endurance, and having a smaller crew exacerbates that problem. Some additional margin must be inserted into the design to support a crew large enough to fight the ship and to bring the ship home after battle damage. A thorough analysis of events such as those sketched above must be part of establishing the design requirements for any warship.

New Technology Needs Fewer People

Although combat operations and efforts to control ship threatening damage in peacetime provide a floor below which manning cannot prudently be lowered, some gains can be pursued. Two examples follow:

Weapons manning . The Mk 45 mount is unmanned, but at least eight people are required in the magazine and at the control consoles. Automating the ammunition handling functions could reduce the number of personnel required markedly.

Damage control . Install firefighting systems, remotely operated from several locations throughout the ship, possibly activated by sensors in the space as well. Automatic watertight closures, piping isolation, and dewatering systems—again remotely controlled—must be used to buy response time for the crew. Remote, rapid electrical isolation, providing the ability to secure power to any zone throughout the ship would be necessary as well. These systems would have to be particularly robust and damage resistant, and most would have to operate in the absence of normal electrical power.

Unfortunately, these automated features come with a stiff cost in added complexity. That adds to the maintenance workload and can multiply the ship's vulnerability in combat. If the ship's survival in combat depends absolutely on the proper functioning of a system, that system must be absolutely reliable.

The lethality of today's antiship weapon systems greatly negates the worth of armor plating. Warships are not impervious to battle damage. That ought to lead designers and decisionmakers to make the damage-control, soft-kill (decoys, electronic countermeasures), and hard-kill (guns and missiles) systems more stalwart for new ships. For hard-kill systems, the reverse has occurred. Fiscal constraints imposed on new ships procurement have, in some instances, persuaded decisionmakers to skimp on hard-kill systems precisely when the ship's survival depends on them even more.

The destroyers and destroyer escorts used the only combat-proven effective own-ship protection system for countering an air attack: multiple hard-kill systems presenting a layered defense. Even considering improvements in fire-control systems, the design philosophy is as valid today as it was 50 years ago. Taking a narrow view of recent naval operations has led some to the erroneous conclusion that ships can avoid damage in combat. The Stark and Samuel B. Roberts routinely are dismissed as either anomalies or as acceptable losses. This dangerous rejection of the lessons of naval history is even more unsettling when one other trend is considered. Current Navy force levels are at their lowest point in this century, and the loss of a single unit poses a significantly greater decrement to a battle group's striking power. Those few ships that remain must be more survivable.

Sending a warship to sea with a smaller crew presents a series of interrelated challenges for the design engineer, and for the decisionmakers who will establish the operational requirements for the ship. It is imperative that the manning reductions be measured against the true standard: Can the ship sail into combat, hit the enemy with heavy blows and tight precision, absorb the inevitable damage and casualties warfare inflicts, and prevail in the next day's battle? Only then will the long-term interests of the nation—and those of the sailors on those ships—be served adequately.

Captain Vining is a 1973 graduate of the Naval Academy, and has commanded a Knox -class frigate and has served extensively in Nimitz -class carriers, most recently as reactor officer in the Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69). In his current assignment as Assistant Chief of Staff for Surface Warfare Programs at Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Force, he oversees operational testing on new surface platforms and weapon systems for new and existing surface ships.


More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting

Wed, 2014-04-16

U.S. Naval Institute members and supporters are cordially invited to attend the 2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting...

View All

From the Press

Guest Lecturer

Sat, 2014-04-19

Guest Lecturer

Sat, 2014-04-19

Captain Bernard Cole

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership