Sea Transportation: When Fewer Sailors Is Better
October 11, 2006: For the last three decades, the U.S. Navy has been converting its "train" (unarmed supply, repair and maintenance ships) to be run largely by civilians. While the U.S. Navy has about 280 combat ships in service, there is another fleet of 185 support ships. The "civilianization" of these ships taught the navy that a lot of practices, used in running civilian ships, would work in the navy. The big change was the use of smaller, but more capable, crews, and the use of more automation. The navy, for example, found that, as it converted support ships from military to civilian crews, crew size typically was cut by 50-70 percent. While the civilians got paid more, they were actually cheaper, saving millions of dollars per ship each year, in payroll alone. There were still some sailors on these ships, about ten percent of the crews, and these were sought after billets. The Military Sealift Command ships had much better accommodations for the crews (everyone had their own room, although more junior personnel shared two man rooms), and things operated much more smoothly because many of the "sailors" were guys who retired after twenty years in the navy, to take these jobs. The high experience level prevented a lot of things from going wrong in the first place, and led to problems being fixed much more quickly.
When Military Sealift Command ships converted to civilian crews, the ships often had lots of new equipment installed, stuff that was standard on most civilian ships. This included a lot of automation in the engine room, and on the bridge. Instead of having sailors standing around watching equipment, most of that was done by computers hooked up to sensors. A few sailors could keep an eye, and then some, on every aspect of ship operation. If anything went wrong, dozen of experienced sailors were available for deal with it. Over the years, the navy noted that, even when there was a major catastrophe (as would be the case from combat damage), the smaller civilian crews on Military Sealift Command ships were able to cope. Because of all that experience, the navy is now moving forward with the same degree of automation on warships.