When the Blue crew of the USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) returns home, the Gold crew will be waiting to take their place and head back to sea. Adopting a similar two-crew concept could help the surface Navy save money, optimize ship on-station time, and accomplish more sailor training.
The United States places a hefty responsibility on the shoulders of its Navy. It must be constantly on alert, worldwide, for any event that would compromise national security. This is no easy task, but the Navy is doing it in exemplary fashion—from destroyers to carrier strike groups, from the amphibious ready group to the Silent Service’s ballistic-missile submarines, the fleet stands ready. Of all these fleet elements, however, only the ballistic-missile submarines, the “boomers,” seem to maximize the potential of their platform.
Boomers have significant operational commitments, but the amount of time they can remain at sea is limited only by maintenance and the endurance of the crew. To take advantage of this, each submarine has two crews: Blue and Gold. Every three months, the sub returns from patrol, swaps crews, and shortly heads back to sea. This enables each boomer to remain on station longer than any surface ship could.
Surface ships typically go out on six-month deployments and return after being relieved by another ship. Upon returning, the ship most likely will enter an extended maintenance period, followed by the long process of certifying to return to deployable status. Over the 27-month deployment cycle, only six months are spent deployed. This is unacceptable. Ships belong at sea.
The surface force could take a lesson from the Silent Service.
In 2003, the USS Higgins (DDG-76)and USS Benfold (DDG-65) embarked on an experiment. The Higgins, on station in Fifth Fleet in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was required to remain at sea to fulfill operational commitments. To avoid overtaxing the Higgins’ crew, the Navy decided her crew would swap with the crew of the Benfold midway through. The Benfold would remain in port in San Diego, and the Higgins would remain steaming. This experiment was phenomenally successful, with the Higgins remaining on station for a total of 21 months, with multiple other crew swaps.
This begs the question: if the Higgins can fulfill both her and the Benfold’s operational commitments by swapping crews, why keep the Benfold? The Benfold could be decommissioned, saving the Navy time, manpower, and money. Applied across the fleet, this potentially could enable the Navy to reduce the number of ships it keeps operational while maintaining the same operational commitments. Crew swapping would enable the Navy to do more with less, and to have each ship live up to its full potential. Ships are expensive; they should be used to their maximum potential.
Implementing crew swapping across the fleet not only would allow ships to increase their operational tempo, but also would create more training opportunities and decrease the operational tempo of the sailors manning them. While the Blue crew is under way, the Gold crew can accomplish valuable training, sending members to schools that they otherwise would not be able to attend because the manpower could not be spared. At the end of their cruise, the Blue crew is relieved by the fresh, rested Gold crew, and the mission is accomplished at significantly reduced cost.
Crew swapping does create some concerns. Personnel issues can arise such as a sailor with a critical Navy enlisted code no longer being cleared for sea duty. With two crews conducting maintenance, it is possible the annual or more extensive maintenance may not be accomplished correctly or on schedule. Sailors may grow lax not working consistently in the shipboard environment. These are issues that can be overcome by proper management. More sailors may be able to hold that critical enlisted code, for example, with the increased availability of training. Maintenance can be scheduled with both crews in mind. Perhaps new training can be developed to keep sailors sharp and ready to deploy, even while off hull. Like any new program, there will be growing pains. Ultimately, however, it will result in a stronger Navy.
Ships in port do not project power. Having too many ships in port wastes resources that could be directed elsewhere. The Navy should change its policy to implement crew swapping in the surface fleet.
Petty Officer Everett enlisted in the Navy in December 2012 and currently serves on board the USS John P. Murtha (LPD-26).