The Navy Cannot Afford Large Crews

By Captain George Galdorisi, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Cost of Manpower?

Manpower makes up the largest part of the total ownership cost (TOC) of military systems. In 2009, the Defense Business Board concluded, “Manpower and entitlements represent the first of five primary defense cost drivers for the Department. Fully loaded, people cost over half of the baseline budget. Current military manpower cost is over $120,000/person/year. Fully loaded healthcare costs are approaching $60 billion per year for current health care and future retirees. These costs are increasing as a percentage of available funding, and will increase at a faster rate in a constrained budget.” 2 According to a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report, military personnel expenditures rose from $74 billion in 2001 to $159 billion in 2012, an increase of almost 115 percent. 3  Focusing on the Navy, one study concluded, “Since 1985, the Navy’s total operating budget has declined by approximately 40 percent and ship count by 45 percent; however, the operations and support (O&S) costs (consisting of personnel, maintenance, consumables, and sustaining support) have remained constant during this time. Personnel costs comprise over 50 percent of O&S costs, and these personnel costs have been growing more rapidly than other costs.” 4

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted, “The cost of a ship’s crew is the single largest cost incurred over the ship’s life cycle.” But this same study also suggested the Navy has not moved out quickly enough to reduce manpower on ships of all types. 5

Reducing manpower on ships as a primary means to reduce total ownership cost has been an important imperative for Navy leadership for more than a decade. Successive CNOs have made optimizing manpower a priority. In 2006, then-CNO Admiral Michael Mullen, explained:

My long-term goal is to eliminate the need for jobs and not just keep moving the work around from one part of the workforce to another. In the long run, I am anxious to invest in the technology to take the work out. We have a tendency to look at what it takes to get a program out the door. We don’t think too much about what the life cycle cost is. It’s “Can I build it?” I would like us all to be mindful of what it costs to operate whatever we are building for whatever its life is going to be. . . That is why I am so excited about the reduced manpower potential of the DD(X) [previous designation for the DDG-1000]. That process needs to apply in lots of areas. 6

Five years after Admiral Mullen’s remarks, CNO Admiral Gary Roughead noted some of the cultural barriers to achieving this goal. “There’s no question that crew sizes have got to come down,” he wrote. “We, frankly, are not aggressive enough in employing the technologies that allow us to take people off ships.” 7

Despite these studies and a desire on the part of Navy leaders to reduce manning, manpower costs continue to increase. The reason for this may sound counterintuitive, but in the main the Navy has infused advanced technology into its warships. As this technology has become more advanced, the demand for skilled personal has grown. The Navy must recruit, train, and retain technically skilled personnel who are in high demand in the civilian economy.

An Innovative Solution

This dark scenario does have a silver lining. The Navy  does  know how to reduce crew size in a way that protects warfighting capability and day-to-day readiness. The  Zumwalt  class was built with manpower savings engineered in, which the Navy can apply to all future ships.

Although earlier reports were critical of the Navy’s overall efforts to reduce manpower on ships, a GAO report did single out the  Zumwalt -class program as an excellent example of manpower-reduction efforts, noting, “The Navy’s use of human systems integration principles and crew-size reduction goals varied significantly for the four ships GAO reviewed. Only the ( Zumwalt -class) program emphasized human systems integration early in the acquisition process and established an aggressive goal to reduce crew size. 8

For the  Zumwalt , the Navy started with “zero manning” and conducted detailed, comprehensive, functional analyses of required manning, personnel skills, and end-strengths. The goal of these initiatives was to have no fewer and no more crew members than needed to operate, maintain, and fight the ship safely and reap reductions in ownership costs.  

The Navy drew on military, industry, and academic best practices in human dynamics, human factors engineering (HFE), and human systems integration (HSI) to build a 15,000-ton warship that needs less than half the crew of an  Arleigh Burke  (DDG-51)-class ship. These same processes can help plan the manning of tomorrow’s Navy.  

The  Zumwalt  is the first warship to capitalize on groundbreaking human systems integration work. Because the ship had explicit key performance parameters (KPP) for manpower, DDG-1000 raised the bar for future Navy ships. The initial manpower KPP objective called for 95 people in the crew and the air detachment. Although this KPP was overzealous, it served as a forcing agent for all hardware and software functions that had anything to do with manpower. Almost from the start, the DD-21/DDX/DDG-1000 program took human beings into account, equal to hardware and software design, engineering, and acquisition.  

In the  Zumwalt  class, for the first time, the Navy embraced requirements for manpower for the total crew. As the program evolved, the team determined that an expanded crew of 114 could not accomplish all tasks. The current crew of 148 represents the culmination of years of effort. Increasing manning from the original 95-person crew is not a failure because it represents sound analysis and optimized manning at its best.

Some might second guess whether such a large, advanced warship can operate with a crew of 148, but this crew size reflects extensive analysis and due diligence by the Navy and its industry partners and years of deliberate, incremental testing of fleet sailors manning DDG-1000 combat systems.  

What made manpower reductions possible was that Naval Sea Systems Command (NavSea) ensured manpower key performance parameters were integrated into ship design decisions at the earliest stages of the design process. This change made manpower reductions a forcing agent for the way the ship was designed. Said another way, the Navy did not man an already-designed ship with enough sailors to keep it functioning, but designed the ship around the sailors.

Crewmember workload was addressed in detail from the outset and the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) for crewmembers to perform more than 18,000 distinct tasks were addressed and analyzed. Not surprisingly, watch standing was the largest consumer of crew hours. NavSea and the industry design team addressed crew workload and functions in a 60-hour combat scenario, as well as in a 60-day operational scenario, validating manpower requirements against typical and most-likely operational environments DDG-1000 would face.

More Than Manning

The  Zumwalt  class represents a breakthrough in Navy manning that goes beyond mere numbers. By building the ship around a discrete number of sailors, the Navy-industry team enabled the crew to be more efficient and   effective. This is important because a compelling body of evidence shows that the major root cause of human error and system failure is not designing the system in terms of the capabilities and limitations of the human. 9  The  Zumwalt  points the way ahead and demonstrates how well-conceived and fully justified manpower reductions can be made in the context of generating significant TOC savings while delivering increased warfighting capabilities and readiness.  

These initiatives can present a game-changing breakthrough for tomorrow’s fleet. The  Zumwalt  can be the herald for a new paradigm of a Navy populated by warfighters able to make better decisions, faster, with fewer people, and fewer mistakes––and at a cost we can afford. Indeed, as the Navy takes stock of lessons from the 2017 ship collisions, leadership likely will assess that a robustly manned ship does little to mitigate deadly mistakes. Conversely, a ship with a right-size crew, enabled by better technology, may well be a safer ship. But this change will only   occur if the Navy is willing to make reduced manning a KPP of all future ships, aircraft, command centers, and autonomous systems.  

The analysis and due diligence required to determine the right size of a unit’s complement is not fast nor cheap. It is crucial, however, to ensuring the Navy remains viable. Rather than thinking of manpower as an unlimited resource, the Navy must take the opposite approach and design ships and other hardware around the human, and make humans the most valuable resource––because they are. DoD acknowledged this several years ago in its HSI directive, noting, “The goal of HSI is to optimize total system performance, minimize total ownership costs, and ensure that the system is built to accommodate the characteristics of the user population that will operate, maintain, and support the system.” 10

The Navy has established the right infrastructure and processes to do this––now it needs to operationalize the effort. This endeavor must begin with requirements generation on the Navy staff, and then it must transition quickly to the Navy’s research and acquisition communities. The initial signs are promising.  

Sustaining Tomorrow’s Navy

The Navy does not need DoD or congressional action or approval to initiate efforts that can reduce substantially manning in the Fleet and total ownership costs.  

The DDG-1000 offers an example of how the Navy can use emerging technology to substantially reduce manpower on its ships. Now it needs to embed those best practices into the way it builds all ships. Technology insertion using sound HFE and HSI offers the potential to realize significant savings in the fleet, reduce total ownership cost, and recapitalize the Navy.

Before the Department of Defense, the Congress, and the American public ask why the Navy has not adopted proven techniques to reduce manning and lower costs, the Navy must embrace reduced manning as an important key performance parameter in its acquisition equation. This is the only way to build a sustainable Navy.


1. Robert Spindel et al., Naval Research Advisory Committee Report, “Optimized Ship Manning,” April 2000 (Washington, D.C. Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, 2000).  

2. Arnold Punaro et al.,  Decision Making in a Fiscally Constrained Environment  (Washington, DC: Defense Business Board, 2009).

3. “ Costs of Military Pay and Benefits in the Defense Budget” (Washington, D.C.:  Congressional Budget Office,  2012).  

4. See, for example, Naval Research Advisory Committee Report: “Optimized Ship Manning,” April 2000, Department of Defense Report to Congress, or    “Implementation of Recommendations on Total Ownership Cost for Major Weapon Systems,” and James Hinkle and Terry Glover, “DDG-51 Reduced Manning Study – Phase I The Concept: Executive Assessment,” and “DDG-51 Reduced Manning Study – Phase II The Plan: Executive Assessment,” briefings prepared for PEO Ships.  

5. “Military Personnel: Navy Actions Needed to Optimize Ship Crew Size and Reduce Total Ownership Costs,” GAO-03-520 (Washington, DC: United States General Accounting Office, 2003).

6. “Chief Concerns: Interview with CNO Mullen,”  Government Executive , May 2006.

7. Phillip Ewing, “CNO: Reducing Crew Sizes a Top Priority,”  Navy Times , 27 March 2008.

8. “Military Personnel: Navy Actions Needed to Optimize Ship Crew Size and Reduce Total Ownership Costs.” See also Tom Bush, Robert Bost, Trish Hamburger, and Thomas Malone, “Optimizing Manning on DD-21,” Proceedings of the Association of Scientists and Engineers (ASE) 36th Annual Technical Symposium, 23 April 1999.  

9. Alexander Landsburg et al., “The Art of Successfully Applying Human Systems Integration,”  Naval Engineers Journal,  May 2008.

10. “Department of Defense Human Systems Integration Management Plan” (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2009).  

Captain Galdorisi  is a retired naval aviator who began his writing career in 1978 with an article in  Proceedings . He has written 12 books, including  The Kissing Sailor , published by the Naval Institute Press, which proved the identity of the two principals in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous post–World War II photograph.  

 
 

 
 

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