It Is All About the Sailors

By Captain John P. Cordle, U.S. Navy (Retired)

I commanded two warships in my Navy career: an Aegis destroyer and an Aegis cruiser. I still recall the rough numbers of enlisted personnel assigned to these two ships. The USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) had approximately 295 enlisted when I arrived in 2001 (about a year after commissioning, so still living off the “fat” of a commissioning crew); the USS San Jacinto (CG-56) was manned to 265 (for a major command, initially manned at close to 400, we claimed the mantra of “worst manned cruiser”) and worked up to 293 the day we deployed.

The number on board the San Jacinto drifted down from then on, eventually settling at around 285 for the rest of my tour. While we were able to accomplish the missions assigned, including an inspection by the Board of Inspection and Survey (InSurv), I recall being chastised by the InSurv assessor about the condition of my close-in weapon system mounts, while he acknowledged that the division was manned at three of six technicians.

My gunnery chief suggested an innovative solution to our manning dilemma: place one mount in layup to focus on the other one, then swap them and get them both up to speed before deployment. My operations officer recommended we send a casualty report (CasRep) on the ship’s reduced self-defense capability, which we did—with the cause listed as “divisional manning is insufficient to conduct routine maintenance.”

This earned me two phone calls. The Surface Type Command (TyCom) staff called to ask me what I thought I was doing, misusing the CasRep system to “whine” about manning shortages. The next call was from my carrier strike group commander, a fighter pilot, who said “Nice job—I would never fly my plane if the maintenance chief told me he could only accomplish half of the maintenance on it with the people he had.”

The San Jacinto survived the deployment, and my penance for constant complaining about manning was to be assigned as the force manning officer at Surface Force, Atlantic, the first time a surface warfare officer captain had occupied this post. I set about changing the world. This lasted about a week, until my first dose of reality. One of our ships was deploying without a chief boatswain’s mate (BMC). My boss, the admiral, declared this “unacceptable,” so I ran to Fleet Forces, called Navy Personnel Command (BuPers), and got the same answer at every turn: “lack of distributable inventory” made a relief unavailable.

So, we had to solve the problem at the TyCom level by doing exactly what I hated as a commanding officer—we had to “rip to fill” the billet, which means taking a BMC from one ship—normally one in the maintenance phase—to replace the missing chief petty officer on the deploying ship. This practice, called “cross-decking,” is the only means available at the TyCom or immediate-superior-in-command level to alleviate a near-term manning shortage. The real answer to manpower (the billet structure) and manning (the assignment of personnel to those billets) lies far higher.

After Optimal Manning was repealed, the next hill to climb was the Operational Fleet Response Plan (OFRP), designed to support longer deployments and more forward presence than the existing Fleet Response Plan (FRP) by bumping up and “freezing” manning levels at the beginning of the basic phase, instead of just before deployment. A “necessary condition” to support this plan was increased fleet manning—but that was not funded, and the results were predictable. By increasing the required manning levels for a larger part of the cycle, gaps were shifted to other ships and exacerbated for those not forward deployed or using the OFRP process. Math is unforgiving, and there are consequences for ignoring it—or not acting on it. Is it better now? Yes. But that misses the point—there is a ways to go before the actual requirements are met on time and without the “churn” in both crew makeup and personal lives of our sailors caused by cross decks and temporary assignments to fill gaps.

School of Hard Knocks

My experience as the N1 (force manning officer) started with a tour of all “Manning Compass Points”—Office of the Chief of Naval Operations N1, BuPers, Navy Manpower Assessment Center, TyCom, and Fleet Forces. At each point, it was made clear where the problems were—somewhere else. What I learned over my time as the N1 and chief of staff is that there are enough challenges to go around and a lot of good people working on the issues, but with a sense that the real issues are too hard to solve or that, as a line officer, “I just wouldn’t understand” the challenges. I did my time, fought my battles, and failed to change anything.

For this reason, and in the light of the findings in the recent U.S. Fleet Forces Comprehensive Review (CR), it is time to provide some retrospective and recommendations for those in the arena. Years ago, we were challenged to fix the “top snipe” problem—a persistent gap in the senior engineering enlisted billet (typically senior chief petty officer) on board most ships—and given 90 days to find an “Apollo 13–like” solution. We stood up a large working group and discovered a couple things:

• There were not enough E-8s in the Navy to fill each billet, so they were being cross-decked for inspections and deployment, and many retired at that level.

• Promotion rates were near zero because all the master chief billets were ashore and were occupied by individuals with 22 to 28 years of service.

In addition to the standard answer—a financial incentive—the group came up with three possible solutions:

1. Increase the allowance for senior engineering chief petty officers to accommodate expected losses.

2. Change the sea-shore rotation to push more senior engineers to sea.

3. Designate the billet as an E-9 billet and invite all serving E-9s to go to sea—or retire.

We also had a fourth option: Live with the status quo. Guess which one was selected? (Hint—little has changed.)

Tough Decisions Ahead

Despite the fact that the body of the CR mentions “manning” and “manpower” more than 90 times, as a former commanding officer and force manning officer, I found the action items in this area of the report wanting. Relegated to a footnote in the appendices (page 143) is this: “Gaps at sea have increased from 1,500 to 6,500 in the past year—this will get worse before it starts to get better in 2019.” This is (based on 275 ships) an increase from 5 gaps per ship to 20.

This echoes the two recent GAO reports that list manning gaps and underresourcing as key causes of decreased readiness. Yet, when the action items are summed, only one is aligned to manning, and it is to conduct another study on two ships for a year. This recommendation comes despite the recent GAO report stating that the last time a two-ship study was conducted, the sample size was deemed too small to draw any conclusions. In addition, increasing manning from 92 percent to 100 percent is one of many factors (some much more influential) that could influence the outcome—and may even point in the wrong direction.

As an example, consider a study conducted as part of the top snipe initiative in which I participated. The group compared ships’ performances at InSurv, expecting those with gaps in this key billet would do worse.

The opposite was true—the four ships with gaps performed better than class average. We discovered, however, that we had been duped—a single, very strong senior chief assigned to an amphibious squadron had spent the three months on each of these four ships prior to the inspections—almost a full year on temporary duty—to pull them through. A separate initiative measured radar performance across a dozen ships and found a strong positive performance correlation based not on the number of personnel assigned to the work center, which was relatively consistent (about five), but on their cumulative years at sea—and thus radar experience—which varied from 8 to more than 20. Numbers tell only part of the story when people are involved; this lesson is can be lost in manpower and manning discussions and calculations.

To man an additional 40 ships at 300 personnel per ship, the Navy must increase end strength by thousands of people. Recent policy changes to accommodate circadian watch rotations and increase crew endurance are a wonderful and necessary step, but without increases in manpower and manning, they will be tough to implement and sustain and may cause commanding officers to take risks in other areas. If ever there was a time for drastic change, it is now.

Here are a few recommendations:

1. Fix OPNAVINST 1000.16L. There are enough studies to show that the Navy work week should be 67 hours as opposed to 70 and, to realize sustainable circadian watch rotations on board ship, that the number of watch teams must be changed from three to four. This will add people and costs to ships, but these could be offset with reductions in required watch stations and maintenance through continued advances in automation. Stop studying it, and just do it.

2. Focus ships’ manning documents on sea tours as opposed to paygrades. When Optimal Manning and Top Six Rolldown hit the fleet, initially they had the effect of reducing bodies on ships, but they had a more durable negative effect—they increased the number of “first-tour” enlisted billets, thus reducing the amount of seagoing experience. Examine the manning to put the experience on ships. For example:

• Designate work center supervisors as a second-tour enlisted billet and detail sailors into it by name. (LCS already is going this route.)

• Designate three billets as “critical” with a paygrade of E-9 (master chief): top snipe, combat systems maintenance manager, and 3M coordinator. Returning these experts to sea will yield immediate results in training, proficiency, and leadership.

• Examine rotating pools for key skill sets that are difficult to maintain outside certain phases of the OFRP (e.g., air intercept controllers). This approach already is used in some areas.

3. Man to requirements, not “distributable inventory.” Manning math is simple. If I want a sailor in a seat 24/7, I need three humans. If I want to account for training and transit, illness, and attrition, I must add a fourth. To support a sea-shore rotation of 50/50, I need a total of eight. Require four watch sections, and the number becomes ten. Tough math, but the numbers do not lie.

4. Report reality. Current reporting systems, like the Defense Readiness and Reporting System-Navy, produce “rollups” that hide problems. If a gap is filled by a cross-deck or temporary fill, do not report the billet as “filled” and move on. This a Band-Aid; it will not stop the bleeding. Force reports should include what is not being done (planned maintenance, training, etc.) because of manning gaps and should capture the impact on individual sailors so it is visible to leadership. This may result in a system that is more responsive to unplanned losses and attrition at a level above TyCom.

5. Beef up TyCom N1. Detail a post-major command captain into the force manpower/manning billet at each surface TyCom. A periodic injection of “saltwater” direct from the fleet would keep pressure on the manpower community. This would be a great position from which to fleet-up into the chief of staff billet after 18 months.

Most of my other recommendations are in the GAO studies, though of the 11 recommendations made to date, only one has been acted on. To be fair, however, many are less than a year old and work is being done.

It Is All About the Sailors

In my days as the N1 and chief of staff, I would try to speak in defense of ships and commanding officers when they tried to point out the consequences of manning shortages. It was tough to get detailed impact beyond the occasional anecdote—partly because ships and staffs made do and found creative ways to address the shortages and meet the mission. But today, ships—and staffs—have better tools to quantify the workload, so there are ways to take these discussions from the anecdotal to the analytical.

The recent reviews from Fleet Forces, the Secretary of the Navy, and GAO discuss manning programs such as Optimal Manning, Top Six Rolldown, and Perform-to-Serve and how they led to a “perfect storm” around 2010, and the steps taken to undo the damage of these well-intentioned but disastrous decisions. What is lacking in all these discussions is an honest look at the problems created by shipboard manning gaps and recognition that without significant changes to the way the Navy sets manpower requirements and the methods used to recruit, train, and distribute personnel, nothing will change.

A recent U.S. Naval Institute Blog post described the old approach as “scarcity based”—looking at what we have available, not what is required.1 It is time for the Navy to use modern tools to conduct calculations, test results, realistically approach the problem, and fund the required solutions.

On my wall hangs a small wooden ship’s wheel, the 2011 Epictetus Award. It states, “Anyone can hold the tiller when the seas are calm.” The manpower seas are stormy, but I believe the right people are in place at this critical time to put the rudder over “right full” and make drastic positive changes.

Change is hard, and the mirror is not always kind. I keep thinking back to a day in the commanding officer’s cabin with my close-in weapon system work center supervisor as he showed me the daunting planned maintenance system load. With tears in his eyes, he explained that he and his team were working 15-hour days just to keep up and finding it impossible—and how he was sorry he let me down. No shipmate—I let you down. We can do better

1. CAPT Adam Guziewicz, USN (Ret.), “ ,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, 1 February 2018, 

Captain Cordle retired from the Navy in 2013 after 30 years of service. His active-duty assignments included director of manpower and personnel for Commander, Naval Surface Forces Atlantic, and command of the USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) and USS San Jacinto (CG-56). He is the 2010 recipient of the U.S. Navy League’s Captain John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership.

Listen to a  Proceedings Podcast  interview with this author about this article below:



Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

18 January - Presentation

Fri, 2019-01-18

Jim Howe

18 January - Presentation

Fri, 2019-01-18

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

As an independent forum for over 140 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