In the original plan, the littoral combat ship (LCS) was to be manned according to a 3-2-1 model: three crews to man two ships, with one ship on deployment. Now the manning model revolves around the concepts of blue/gold crewing and a training ship for each LCS division. These changes are intended to optimize the time an LCS can spend deployed, but the upcoming selected restricted maintenance availability for the USS Milwaukee (LCS-5) and the recent deployment of the USS Detroit (LCS-7) from Mayport, Florida—the first East Coast LCS deployment—will expose flaws in both concepts. Frank discussion and a willingness to move away from entrenched positions will help the Navy choose a better way to man and train these versatile platforms.
In the blue/gold concept, two crews of approximately 70 sailors alternate to man the ship. This is designed to give the off-hull crew dedicated time to rest, retrain, and recertify before its next on-hull period. Once an LCS deploys, a crew rotation is expected roughly every five months.
In the training-ship concept, the Freedom-class LCSs stationed in Mayport will be divided among three divisions, with each division focused on a different core mission area: surface warfare, antisubmarine warfare, or mine countermeasures. One ship in each division will be a dedicated training ship with a single, permanently embarked crew of approximately 110 (though manning on the two current training ships is far below that number). That expanded crew will support five in-port duty sections, compared with the three sections a blue/gold-manned ship can support, and four underway watch teams, compared with a blue/gold ship’s three. In this arrangement, the training ship’s mission is to serve as the platform on which all the off-hull and precommissioning crews in its division can certify as they prepare for their next on-hull cycle, similar to the way prototype submarines are used for the surface and subsurface nuclear communities.
Problems with Both Concepts
The manning challenges of the blue/gold concept are becoming more apparent with the Detroit’s deployment. Last year, there were approximately 6,200 unfilled afloat billets across the Navy. The inability to fully man ships has its most serious impact on small ships, where many enlisted ratings have only one billet. When those billets are gapped, the ship requires a temporary solution to operate safely at sea. Prior to the Detroit deployment, LCSs on both coasts routinely used sailors from the off-hull crew to fill gaps and keep the on-hull crew on station and able to execute all tasks. That model was sustainable because nondeployed ships had to perform only basic, short-duration missions such as combat-systems ship qualification trials. In a deployment cycle, though, the off-hull crew will be fully engrossed in a mandatory reset and retraining cycle to prepare for its next on-hull period. To get both crews of the Detroit fully manned for deployment required moving more than 30 sailors from other LCS crews. Taking off-hull sailors to fill on-hull gaps is robbing Peter to pay Paul, creating a cycle of short-term solutions that adds personal and professional stress to LCS sailors.
To compound the LCS manning challenges, the first training ship, the Milwaukee, will start its first post-delivery restricted maintenance availability at the end of fiscal year 2020 and will be removed from operational status for at least eight months. The proposed solution is to transfer her crew to another LCS, transforming that ship into the training ship and transferring its blue/gold crews to the Milwaukee for the duration of her availability. LCS sailors are accustomed to fluid schedules, but this will be the first time the Navy has swapped three entire crews across two hulls. Problems with the rotational crewing of coastal patrol ships, mine countermeasures ships, and guided-missile destroyers in the failed “sea swap” experiment 15 years ago suggest that the crew shift will not be good for the ships. There is a direct relationship between a crew’s sense of ownership and the ship’s material condition. In addition, in the past year operations have proven that any LCS can be used for off-hull crew training and certification.
The Single-Crew Advantage
Given these severe manning challenges, it is time for the LCS fleet to move to single crews for all ships. Based on data from the two available training ships, the evidence to date supports a single LCS crew of 100 to 120 sailors. The other three ships in a division can rapidly merge their blue/gold crews to maximize unit cohesion. The shift will stress the berthing limit, but that can be mitigated in the short term by adding berthing modules. In the long term, berthing allocation can be redesigned during future drydocking availabilities.
Moving to a single crew will have immediate positive effects. It will negate the need to pull sailors from other ships to fully man the next LCS to deploy. Squadron- and division-level staffs, freed from having to provide oversight and training for off-hull crews, can focus solely on supporting their ships and streamlining the train-to-qualify process that delivers “ready” sailors to the LCS fleet. A single large LCS crew will be able to sustain a five-section in-port duty rotation and alleviate the antiterrorism/force-protection watch support requirement away from home port.
Single-crewed LCSs will not be able to perform the same level of onboard maintenance as larger combatants, but those 30 or 40 added sailors will be able to handle some of the tasks currently performed by contractors. Fewer shore-based civilians will need to follow an LCS on each deployment.
Single-crew manning will eliminate the need for a training ship in each division, making three more ships available for operational tasking. It will also do away with the steep learning curve facing each off-hull crew as it prepares to recycle back onto a ship. A single crew will be large enough to manage its own training through normal shipboard operations and by leveraging the LCS Training Facility’s state-of-the-art capabilities. There will be no further need for the unique LCS Training Manual, and LCSs can be evaluated and held to the same Surface Force Training and Readiness Manual training cycle standard as the rest of the fleet, shortening the timeline for LCS integration into standard carrier strike group missions.
A single-crew LCS will come with costs and challenges. For example, with blue/gold crews rotating every five months during the ship’s deployment, the capability currently exists to ensure crews receive training specific to an upcoming deployment region and mission. But every other class of surface ship manages to deploy with a permanent, single crew ready to accomplish all tasking. Why does LCS need to be different?
Now is the time to alter course and establish sustainable, repeatable processes for the LCS community. With the seven Freedom-class LCSs of LCS Squadron 2 and Surface Division 21 already in Mayport, there is a clear path to implement the single-crew model for manning and training all ships based there.