The Navy has made crew rest on surface ships a top priority. A well-rested crew is more effective and will execute dangerous at-sea evolutions more efficiently and safely. However, while more sleep-friendly watch rotations and other initiatives have improved crew rest, it still is nearly impossible to get enough sleep on a routine basis while deployed.
While the USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG-81) was deployed in 2020 and 2021, supporting operations in the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility, she spent more than 230 days at sea and made only six port visits. Operations were extensive, traveling approximately 60,000 nautical miles.
One consequence of such a high operational tempo and being underway for so long is that officers and sailors stand watch twice a day for months at a time. Four hours on watch, with eight hours between shifts during which they have other duties, is the norm for many, while the lucky few have three hours of watch and nine hours between. More often, however, they are stuck with six hours on watch and six hours off watch, often called “port and starboard,” and it takes a brutal toll on the body.
Fatigue often plays a role in a collision or grounding, as the Comprehensive Review conducted after the fatal 2017 USS McCain (DDG-56) and USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collisions documented. This led the Navy to institute a set of watch rotations based on the body’s circadian rhythm, in which sailors stand watch the same times each day, usually one in the morning and one in the evening, and adjust the ship’s daily routine to align with this rotation. Sailors on three of these rotations—the 0300–0600/1500–1800, 0600–0900/1800–2100, and 0900–1200/2100–0000 watches—are theoretically guaranteed seven to eight hours of sleep each night between watches. The fourth section—the 0000–0300/1200–1500 watch team—is unique, however, in that their sleep schedule is not aligned with the ship’s daily routine. Instead, they must rely on a “split sleep” schedule, with a 1700–2300 sleep period of six hours and a 0300–0700 four-hour nap, depending on the sailor.
In addition to the hours on watch, there are many other events interlaced into the daily routine: flight operations (which occur most days), training events, preventative and corrective maintenance, meetings, engineering drills, navigation and seamanship drills, air-defense drills, exercises with allied partners, zone inspections, berthing inspections, uniform inspections, maintenance spot checks, and so forth. With all these requirements, combined with watchstanding, eating, and exercising, there is not enough time for sailors to get the required amount of sleep on a deployed ship.
A Flawed Study
The Naval Postgraduate School produced a Crew Endurance Handbook that describes several circadian watch rotations and gives examples of ship’s schedules and routines. The main problem with the study behind the handbook, which has been given to the fleet as the prime example of how the schedule should be executed, is that it accounts for only six hours of ship’s work per day in addition to watchstanding. In a vacuum, that should suffice, but when requirements such as inspections, meetings, and naval exercises are added, those six hours for routine work can be cut to three or four hours, and sometimes as little as one. Departments and divisions cannot function effectively when their sailors and officers can devote just a few hours a day to the routine work of a ship; thus, the work gets done at the expense of sleep.
The following is an average day for an Arleigh Burke–class destroyer division officer on the 0300–0600/1500–1800 watch: Wake at 0145 to start the prewatch walkthrough at 0200. From 0200 to 0230, tour central control station, combat systems maintenance central, and the combat information center to get an overview of the current engineering, combat systems, and tactical situations. At 0230, report to the bridge and conduct a 15-minute turnover with the watch team and assume the watch by 0300. After being relieved at 0600, eat breakfast and start the workday. From 0700 to 1100, conduct routine division officer work, including training and studying, acquiring personal qualification system signatures, completing divisional administration, administering warfare programs, handling email correspondence, attending meetings and planning boards, conducting collateral duties, supervising divisional maintenance requirements, and conducting spot checks. From 1100 to 1300 is reserved for physical exercise and lunch.
From 1300 to 1400, the daily operations and intelligence briefing is presented. Most days, this brief only lasts about 30 minutes, but on deployment with different evolutions being conducted each day requiring a brief, this meeting can and usually does last about an hour. At 1400, the watch process repeats—the division officer starts the pre-watch walkthrough to be on the bridge by 1430. By 1745, the division officer has been relieved from watch and quickly has dinner, then is in bed by 1815, hopefully sleeping until 0145, for seven and a half hours of sleep. The Crew Endurance Handbook does not account for the time spent preparing for watch, a noteworthy omission.
The four hours from 0700 to 1100 are not nearly enough time to conduct the full-time job of leading a division. When in port, division officers usually work from 0700 to 1700 (an eight-hour workday with two hours for lunch and exercise). Division officer tasks and responsibilities do not stop while underway. And while on deployment, rarely is there an “average” day on board. The wide range of operations that ships conduct underway, such as replenishments, flight quarters, strait transits, man-overboard drills, general-quarters drills, gun shoots, joint and multinational exercises, and sea-and-anchor details while entering and leaving port, interfere with the standard workday. These evolutions occur every few days at least, and sometimes every day.
Room for Improvement
The Navy’s current policy on crew rest is contained in “Comprehensive Crew Endurance Management Policy” (ComNavSurfPacInst 3120.2A), which provides an individual risk management (IRM) tool that assigns risk values to individuals based on fatigue and helps identify evolutions with elevated risk. We used it effectively on the Winston S. Churchill, but shipboard leaders still must pay attention to help sailors avoid a fatigue-related mistake. The IRM tool is not fail-safe.
Given the constraints, the Winston S. Churchill prioritized sleep and resilience in nearly all scheduling decisions, at least for the ones we could control or influence. Events and meetings were constrained to between 0830 and 1100 and 1230 and 1600, to keep evenings reserved for sleep. We encouraged sailors who stood watch at night to “sleep in” for a few extra hours in the morning, providing more flexibility and opportunity for the crew to get a full rest period. We also made every attempt to have two days off per week with no meetings or drills in the schedule, to allow time for rest and to catch up on work put off during other days that week. Another innovative mitigation was implementing three teams for zone inspections, so inspecting officers participated only once every three weeks.
In addition to what can be done on the ship, higher echelon commanders can do more to improve crew rest. Some suggestions include:
• Reduce administrative requirements for sailors and officers, especially during the sustainment and deployed phases of the optimum fleet response plan.
• Continue to push for fully manned ships, especially when they are deployed.
• Fund billets for officers strictly to stand watch (an officer of the deck standing eight hours of watch a day should be considered a full-time job). The Royal Navy does this.
• Limit collateral duties (which often require more work than the primary duty) to allow chief petty officers to manage just a single program and do it well.
• Update the Crew Endurance Handbook to account for prewatch tours and turnover.
The “Comprehensive Crew Endurance Management Policy” requires sailors get a minimum 7.5 hours of sleep and not work more than 12 hours per day. While the instruction is a step in the right direction, it is hard for commanding officers to comply with the policy without more resources. For example, some equipment or competencies, such as antisubmarine warfare evaluator, require special training and qualification to operate or perform, and if only two sailors on board are qualified (or allowed to be qualified), they must stand port and starboard watches to operate such equipment, leaving almost no time for other duties. In addition, the nature of a circadian rhythm watch schedule, which commanders must implement, requires more than 12 hours of work a day and often at least 15 hours of continuous work. In the earlier example, a division officer wakes at 0145 and stays awake until 1815 that evening, a 16- to17-hour day. The new instruction acknowledges that “as the time continuously awake exceeds 16 hours, performance begins to drop.” On the Winston S. Churchill, we found that workdays exceeding 16 hours were often unavoidable.
Implementing the recommended changes could allow sailors and officers more time for sleep, increasing morale and, potentially, retention. In the case of officers, the Navy might not have to pay surface warfare officers more than $100,000 to retain them for department head tours. The surface navy has made progress since the Comprehensive Review was published, but until the excessive administrative requirements and manning shortfalls can be adequately adjusted, sailors and officers will continue to operate without enough sleep.