Reduction gear lubricating oil levels carried low enough to cause failure of clutch components. Neglected feedwater dosing necessitating the complete renewal of auxiliary boiler tubes a year after the last retubing. Undetected saltwater intrusion in a main diesel sump destroying all main bearings and an entire crankshaft. Improperly applied mechanical clutch engagement devices destroying a segment of the propulsion train designed to last the lifetime of the ship.
These recent failures highlight a critical flaw in the structure of Coast Guard engine departments—namely, that frequent rotations and lightly trained engineer officers place too much of the burden of technical expertise on a handful of senior enlisted and warrant officers. The overall health of the cutter’s machinery soars or sinks by the competence or incompetence of those in a few key billets. This sets up the machinery for inadvertent mistreatment when hull-specific knowledge is lost in between turnover gaps; subjects some crews to time wasted on small problems that escalate when improperly addressed; and drives operating costs to more than $4,800 per hour under way.1 To reduce costly failures and ensure a high level of overall machinery health across rotating crews, the Coast Guard must borrow a concept from the commercial shipping industry: a chief engineer.
Many cutter engineer officers would argue that they are chief engineers, but compared with a licensed mariner, this does not bear out. While a Coast Guard engineer officer may have majored in management, operations research, or design-focused naval architecture and marine engineering, a civilian chief engineer will have studied marine engineering with a minimum of 300 hands-on cadet sea days incorporated into undergraduate time. A Coast Guard engineer officer likely has completed a student engineering tour and possibly served as an assistant engineer officer on a similar platform, but a civilian mariner is eligible for the chief position only after serving at least 1,080 days on board commercial vessels as an officer in charge of an engineering watch.2 An engineer officer has leadership, administrative, training, and professional development responsibilities, whereas a chief engineer has no leadership obligation and is solely focused on “the mechanical propulsion and the operation and maintenance of the mechanical and electrical installations of the vessel.”3 The roles are not the same.
A Tale of Two Engine Departments
There are essentially two ways to crew a ship: using the military model, with technical expertise residing in the mid- to senior-enlisted ranks, or the civilian model, with technical expertise residing with the licensed officers and assisted by the unlicensed ratings. In the military model, there are large engineering departments with extra bodies, many of whom are in training. Officers stand watch, oversee divisions, write reports, and handle administrative duties while learning engineering practices; enlisted members perform maintenance and repairs but segregate tasks among engineering ratings, often needing two or even three ratings to work together to complete a single maintenance procedure card.
Commercial vessels are crewed at absolute minimums, with the engine department staffed with as few as seven personnel in some instances, all fully qualified as a condition of employment and standing either four-on/eight-off watches or working days with overnight alarm duty, depending on the modernity of the plant. This leaves no room for specialization. An officer in charge of an engineering watch is responsible not only for his or her watch but also for any work performed. Unlike the military counterpart, an engineer will execute the job from start to finish with his or her own hands, with a wiper or cadet helping to clean parts, but still shouldering the responsibility for the results when the equipment goes back into service.
This means commercial mariners, who have no obligation for leadership development or anything other than being a competent engineer, spend all their underway time on diesel engines, pumps, water makers, air compressors, heat exchangers, oil purifiers, motor controllers, and all manner of welding, pipe fitting, and machinist skills. Advancement of a commercial license is not by board or panel. It is achieved by a sequence of exams and three years of greasy, sweaty, wrench-turning engineering accumulated during voyages typically spread out over a decade.4
Reexamine the Coast Guard Way
Civilian and military methods derive from different considerations, but the military approach has not changed as technology has evolved from mechanical relays to networked programmable logic controllers. What exists now is a twofold problem: increasingly complex equipment, and an officer corps with engineering knowledge development as just one among many responsibilities.
A look at the main engines of the national security cutter compared with those of older cutters neatly summarizes the expanse of the changes. Where smaller and older cutter engines have mechanical governors, cam-driven fuel injection, a pair of turbochargers, and push-button start and stop, national security cutters sport digital governors without mechanical backups; fuel systems that automatically cut banks of cylinders out at low load; five high- and five low-pressure turbochargers activated and deactivated in conjunction with engine speed; and a proprietary control system housed in ruggedized computer units spanning the main engine room and engine control, where operators click their start-and-stop commands from the engineer-of-the-watch chair. The engine operating system interfaces with the machinery control system through multiple network loops, taking a troubleshooting engineer through four of the traditional ratings—machinery technician to electrician’s mate to electronics technician to information systems technician—in the course of diagnosing the failure of a click to produce the desired action of the main engine.
Not only is the equipment complex, it is legion. Most commercial vessels have two or three seawater pumps; national security cutters have five. In addition to standard fuel, seawater, and air systems, military-unique missions add requirements for high-purity watermakers, dedicated pumps for aviation fuel, cooling skids for electronics equipment, and more. The number of individual pieces of equipment tracked for configuration management on the larger classes of cutters is in the thousands.
The Coast Guard has tried to compensate for this with robust shoreside support for these assets, but there still is an ocean between mission support and an underway cutter. Compounding this harsh reality is the fallibility of the service’s current ship-to-shore communications. With the Arctic, Antarctic, and Far East missions these cutters are performing, even with good communications, the difference in time zones and full inboxes can delay responses by hours. When a casualty is in progress, the only meaningful resources a cutter has are the ones on board. These precious minutes are when a chief engineer becomes a tremendously worthwhile investment.
Bring Together the Best of Both Worlds
Coast Guard ships are complex, and it takes years of hands-on work to develop a deeply technical engineer. If the Coast Guard does not believe giving up that time from other officer duties and career wickets is worthwhile, then adding a chief engineer is the logical answer.
Implementing the additional, nonmilitary member is then the next hurdle. It is tempting to look to the structure of the Military Sealift Command vessels, which adds mariners hired as federal employees to a Navy crew; but that construct uses no active-duty personnel in the engine department and defeats the cross-training benefit.
Given the typical structure of a cutter engineering department, it would be easy to insert a chief engineer between the engineer officer and the division chiefs, with no supervisory function or career influence over those officers. The chief engineer would work with the engineer officer and use the maintenance requirements list to prioritize planned maintenance and to incorporate and track unplanned maintenance noted by regular rounds of the machinery spaces. The engineer officer and division chiefs would then divide the work, with the chief engineer taking any highly complex or sensitive projects for personal effort and using them as training opportunities, when appropriate, for engineering-rated chiefs and student engineers. This practice would help counter the widely held notion that junior officers need not handle tools or struggle through stripped threads and rounded bolts to learn shipboard engineering
The civilian chief engineer also could conduct engineering practice-and-principle training specific to the equipment on board the vessel or specific maintenance procedures and delve into monitoring, controls, and operation, broadening the skills of the naval engineering corps. When the Coast Guard is offering bonuses to entice that specialty to stay, bolstering the training and confidence of junior naval engineers could improve retention both in the specialty and in the service.5
Commercial vessels and major cutters both have a nearly 365-days-per-year working status. Though cutters spend more time in port than commercial vessels do, the time at the dock is two-blocked with “availabilities”—work done by a combination of ship’s force, shoreside organic support, and contractors. The major difference between commercial and military operations in this regard concerns the expectations of the port engineer.
For the Coast Guard, port engineers are very junior officers who have a two-year student engineering tour to prepare them for overseeing expensive, time-critical industrial work of every sort. On the commercial side, a port engineer typically is a licensed engineer who has sailed at least through a first assistant engineer’s license and has years of sea time. During commercial port stays, the chief engineer and port engineer work together to ensure the highest quality of work from contractors and to prevent small but important items from slipping through the cracks. Under the new structure, Coast Guard availabilities could be the same, with the port engineer junior officer coordinating and inspecting work with the aid of the chief engineer’s years of experience and the engineer officer’s knowledge of Coast Guard processes.
It is unreasonable, however, to expect a chief engineer to work and live on board 365 days a year. In this, it is best to emulate the commercial construct—each ship has two chief engineers. One is ashore on vacation while the other is on board. This allows the year-round operation of the vessel with engineers who come back to the same engine room repeatedly for years, if not decades, building a repository of ship-specific procedural knowledge and equipment history.
While a 180-day work year may sound luxurious to a military member, the precedent is well-established, and some maritime unions can provide qualified engineers to the Coast Guard, ensuring there always will be a replacement. This could be achieved through a long-term contract, which would put the cutter chief engineers on the same footing as the unmanned aircraft system operators in terms of combatant status, or through a hiring agreement and process similar to the one used by Military Sealift Command when bringing on civilian mariners. This would encourage less transience but raise some questions about eligibility for augmentation of the Navy in times of war.
Adding a civilian chief engineer to major cutters has the additional benefit of bolstering U.S. military sealift capability. As Maritime Administrator Rear Admiral Mark Buzby noted in his 2018 testimony before Congress, “There continues to be a shortage of mariners who have the credentials and experience to serve in senior-level positions [including] chief engineers. . . . One of the contributing factors for this projected shortfall is the declining pool of U.S.–flag ships that employ these mariners.”6 Adding a dozen or more ships’ worth of senior engineering positions to the paltry 185 U.S.–flag vessels still sailing is a worthwhile cause.7
Recent engineering failures have cost the Coast Guard millions of dollars, reduced operational availability, and sounded an alarm that should be heeded. The nature of marine engineering, even within the military, has changed. The knowledge required to maintain and operate cutters is much greater than it was 50 years ago. However, the approach to training naval engineers has remained largely the same. It is time to address the problem with more than minor alterations to the status quo. The budget is not big enough to ignore the problem.
1. U.S. Coast Guard, Surface Forces Logistics Center 2019 Annual Report (2019).
2. Professional Requirements for National Engineer Officer Endorsements, 46 CFR § 11.510–516 (2013), law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/46/part-11/subpart-E.
3. Definitions in subchapter B, 46 CFR § 10.107 (2013) law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/46/10.107.
4. Hearing on Mobility and Transportation Command Posture, 115th Congress (2018), maritime.dot.gov/sites/marad.dot.gov/files/docs/newsroom/congressional-testimony/9876/hearing-mobility-and-transportation-command-posture.pdf.
5. ALCOAST COMMANDANT NOTICE 103/19—FY20 Workforce Planning Team Results—Naval Engineer Officer Interventions, https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USDHSCG/bulletins/25d9315.
6. Hearing on Mobility and Transportation Command Posture, 115th Congress (2018).
7. USDOT Maritime Administration, Vessel Inventory Report February 2020, maritime.dot.gov/sites/marad.dot.gov/files/pictures/DS_USFlag-Fleet_20200218_Bundle.pdf.