Maximizing Minimum Manning

By Lieutenant Johannes Schonberg, U.S. Navy

There’s no question that crew sizes have got to come down. We, frankly, are not aggressive enough in employing the technologies that allow us to take people off ships. It’s largely a cultural thing we’ve got to break through . . . and we can do it, I’m confident. In the past, we’ve had some initiatives underway but they had a hard time taking through. In my tenure I intend to be a little more on the bold side. 2

It is well understood that manpower costs are quickly becoming the Navy’s top expense and that manpower reductions through technological improvements would ease budgetary constraints. However, it is less understood how technological improvements integrate with the current Navy training pipeline for basic engineering ratings. In their 1999 research about future trends of naval technology, analysts Martha Koopman and Heidi Golding wrote, “Technological advances will require a more skilled, rather than less skilled, workforce and in that future sailors will have to understand the general principles in their areas of expertise, be technically literate, and have strong problem-solving, decision-making, and communication skills.” 3 While technological improvements are important, it is equally important to evolve the training construct with the investment in technology. Nowhere is this more evident than with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and upcoming DDG-1000 class. On the USS Freedom (LCS-1) and Independence (LCS-2), eight enlisted engineers operate and maintain some of the most complex engineering plants on the waterfront.

Re-evaluate Traditional Rates

While the LCS concept of operations specifies that all personnel be trained to fully execute their duties on arrival through an intense train-to-qualify process, operational experience shows that the traditional skills associated within a single rate are insufficient to operate and maintain the LCS plant with just eight sailors. Over the course of five years, the pre-commissioning/commissioning crew learned shipboard systems from contractors, naval architects, and trial and error. They learned that an engineering watch of only two personnel means every rate must be able to do the work of every other. Thus, the only damage-control rating on board the ship also participates in servicing and troubleshooting ship’s service diesel engines, just as the only electrician’s mate can troubleshoot and repair potable water pumps. To date, such hybrid sailors on board the Freedom have evolved through substantial on-the-job-training (OJT) to meet the needs of both minimum manning and maintaining one of the most technologically advanced engineering plants in the Fleet. Real-world experience demonstrates that traditional rates no longer support the needs of the Navy. Admiral Roughead predicted in 2009 “that the LCS is going to be a workhorse in the United States Navy,” which indicates that a paradigm shift must occur to support that future. 4

The current model of training enlisted engineers consists of short, often computer-based training before a new sailor is sent to the Fleet to gain “real” experience and knowledge. Junior sailors learn through OJT and personnel qualification standards, by standing under-instruction watches with running mates or senior watch-standers. The education is thus only as deep or shallow as the instructor can offer, depending on circumstances. In today’s high operational tempo, casualties and mission requirements often trump quality training, requiring that junior personnel stand aside while senior sailors affect repairs to meet time constraints. In that manner, the education of enlisted personnel and officers within the engineering field is often fragmented, incomplete, and highly localized.

Another factor influencing training is the platform to which a sailor is first assigned. With some rates requiring a sea-to-shore rotation of five to six years, an engineman on an aircraft carrier may become specialized in air conditioning, while another specializes in reverse-osmosis units. One of the only methods of mitigating such specialization in theory would be through the rating exam. But discussions with senior enlisted members of the test-creation board reveal that the exam is not designed to discriminate against technical knowledge. Even if it were, memorizing test banks does not equate to practical experience.

In the massive effort to support OJT for sailors on board ships, a guided-missile frigate may carry upward of 40 engineers at an annual cost of $3 million. 5 Of that number, 25–30 percent are in training. Over a 30-year lifespan, the Navy will have spent about $90 million in overall support of that OJT program—almost $70 million more than manning an LCS with eight qualified engineers. While the numbers in the latter case look attractive on the surface, is that model sustainable?

Cross-Training, on the Job

Operational experience with the Freedom gives tremendous insight into the strengths and weaknesses of supporting a highly technical engineering plant. As noted previously, Freedom and Independence sailors who have followed the OJT model as plank owners had years of trial-and-error experience. The Freedom conducted an operational deployment to South America with the precommissioning/commission crew. It was successful in part because of the extensive cross-training completed by the original crew through OJT. All engineer rates stand the same watch, repair the same equipment, and respond to casualties.

With only one watch-stander in the plant at any given time, it is imperative that the electrician’s mate be familiar with diesel and gas-turbine engines and the engineman in turn be familiar with electronics and wiring. As the Freedom starts to lose her plank owners, it is becoming apparent that traditional rates are entirely insufficient to support the same level of operation, troubleshooting, and maintenance. Unfortunately, contractors cannot support the ship while she is off the coast of Colombia conducting drug interdictions, which means that either enlisted engineers have the ability to affect on-station repairs or the ship has to return to port.

Without a solid train-to-qualify program, if two new sailors arrive lacking prior training or fundamental engineering knowledge they become a burden for the remaining six members of the department. That effective reduction in manning at the same time puts the entire engineering plant at serious risk of decreased maintenance and mission readiness. Normal watch duties, collateral duties, maintenance, and casualties will prevent the six qualified watch-standers from adequately imparting required knowledge to the two unqualified individuals, resulting in a downward spiral of increasingly less-capable sailors. With that loss of knowledge come increased maintenance costs due to more operator errors, poor completion of planned maintenance, and lack of job satisfaction.

It is apparent that simply reducing manning to eight enlisted engineers with the OJT construct is completely inadequate for the minimally manned LCS. But the answer is not simply adding more engineers to the crew. The consequence of that decision can be seen in a study of guided-missile frigates and mine hunters. The report’s conclusion: Minimum manning was incompatible with engineering readiness. 6 Commander Randy Garner, a former CO of the Freedom often said, “The question shouldn’t be ‘Is eight engineers the right number?’ but rather, ‘How do we make eight the right number of engineers for LCS?’”

The Maritime Academy Models

It is time to evaluate and change the training and rating system to keep the Navy up to standard and within budget. The Freedom carries a civilian chief engineer as an adviser and assistant to keep Lockheed Martin apprised of the ship’s performance. His knowledge and expertise—gained by riding the ship from construction to operational deployments—often prove critical to the ship maintaining mission readiness. In comparing the training and knowledge of the civilian marine engineer to that of the enlisted sailors, one can only conclude that the Navy is losing hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment downtime by not training such sailors in the fundamentals of engineering, cross-training on different equipment, and teaching each to critically think and solve problems.

In the Merchant Marine, engineers are trained through two-to-four-year technical schools that teach engineering fundamentals in conjunction with providing hot-plant experience. Engineering students at California Maritime Academy take four years to learn the fundamentals of chemistry, gas-turbine engines, engineering physics, thermodynamics, electrical circuitry, control systems, fluid mechanics—even English composition. Each summer, those students spend 60 days at sea to gain that hot-plant experience. At the end of their four years, they are eligible to take the U.S. Coast Guard’s Third Assistant Engineer exam and from there proceed to their next duty.

A semester at Cal Maritime costs $8,280, a four-year cost of $66,240. For a crew of eight, that amounts to an investment of just $530,000, plus $2.3 million for pay over that span, based on a third-class petty officer’s annual pay. 7 Overall, the engineering department on board the LCSs would be run by eight proficient engineers for four years at a cost of $3.7 million (combining both school and graduated pay for each rate).

Compare that with a $12.3 million dollar price tag for four years with 40 engineers with minimal training on board a comparable guided-missile frigate. In that scenario, the Navy not only achieves a four-year savings of nearly $8.7 million in salary alone per littoral combat ship, it gains increased engineering readiness, decreased maintenance costs, and positions sailors who leave the Navy to do so as skilled technicians ready to enhance the civilian workforce. Increasing a sailor’s competence also meshes with Admiral Roughhead’s vision of making the Navy a “Top 50” workplace.

The Tiered-Training Approach

While such a paradigm shift seems incomprehensible, the model already exists in maritime academies and also within the Navy, in the form of the nuclear pipeline for enlisted engineers. A comprehensive 18-to-24 month training pipeline for those sailors—including hot-plant training—ensures that sailors walk aboard prepared to contribute. The success of the program is evidenced by the Navy’s 50 years of successful, incident-free, nuclear operation.

Similarly, using the civilian merchant-marine model, ships have operated for decades embarking only 8-15 engineers. True, merchant vessels aren’t warships; the missions do not match. Nonetheless, it is difficult to argue that eight cross-trained engineers aren’t better suited to a wartime environment than eight rated sailors lacking redundancy, among them being just one damage-controlman, one electrician’s mate, or one electrical gas-turbine specialist.

One model for bringing recruits to the LCS and DDG-1000 programs fully trained would be to use a tiered-training approach. In total, a sailor would have a two-year training pipeline. Basic assumptions include a four-year tour—with an option to up that to six years after graduating the hot-plant training—retention bonuses, and a rating in a single engineering specialty, with promotions based on additional Coast Guard engineer qualifying. To retain the platform-specific knowledge, initial graduates would be required to specialize in a platform to most effectively apply their competency to operate and maintain engineering equipment. For future discussion, it is hard to argue that all platforms, legacy or future, wouldn’t benefit from professional engineers.

The training pipeline might look like the following: (Recruiting would be done through testing similar to what is used for the nuclear-power recruiting process.)

• Tier 1 (18 months): Nuclear-style training program with courses similar to a traditional maritime academy, interspersed with virtual-based trainers, hands-on training, and introductions to the hot-plant.

• Tier 2 (6 months): Ship specific hot-plant operation and training for specific qualification standards, such as engineering plant technician, readiness control officer, etc. Options on graduation include additional two-year enlistment, promotion, and a bonus akin to a Zone A reenlistment bonus.

• Tier 3 (36 months): Shipboard watch-standing and preparation for U.S. Coast Guard 3rd Assistant Engineer Qualification.

• Tier 4: Qualify as 3rd Assistant Engineer with a commitment for an additional three years of commitment. The Navy pays for exam and attaches advancement and a Zone B bonus.

Students unable to complete the training would be sent to fulfill the needs of the Navy in other capacities, such as legacy platforms or rates more suited to their talents.

Budgetary constraints are most likely to mount for the immediate future against the Department of the Navy, forcing multilateral reductions. Through a paradigm shift as outlined here, evolving training to match technological advances, the surface Navy can make eight engineers the right number and realize tremendous benefits—$3 billion in savings over 30 years, increased mission readiness, decreased maintenance costs, and increased job satisfaction. 8 In that way we can truly produce more from less, maximizing minimum manning.

1. Figures based on Military Composite Standard Pay and Reimbursement Rates, Fiscal Year 2011, Department of Defense.


3. Martha Koopman and Heiding Golding, “Optimal Manning and Technological Change,” Center for Naval Analyses, July 1999.


5. Military Composite Standard Pay and Reimbursement Rates.

6. Melvin A. Schwartz, “Austere Manning in the Guided Mission Frigate (FFG 7 Class): Lessons Learned,” Naval Personnel Research and Development Center, San Diego, April 1981.

7. Military Composite Standard Pay and Reimbursement Rates.

8. Ibid.

Lieutenant Schonberg is a surface warfare officer in the USS Freedom (LCS-1). He received the Admiral Arleigh Burke Surface Warfare Operational Excellence Award in 2010 for assuming the role of operations officer as a first tour division officer in the USS Thach (FFG-43) while deployed with Carrier Strike Group 7.

Lieutenant Schonberg is a surface warfare officer in the USS Freedom (LCS-1). He received the Admiral Arleigh Burke Surface Warfare Operational Excellence Award in 2010 for assuming the role of operations officer as a first tour division officer in the USS Thach (FFG-43) while deployed with Carrier Strike Group 7.

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