Surface Forces: Toasters Take Over


p> October 22, 2007: The U.S. Navy is moving increasingly towards small, no, make that very small, crews. Not just the 75 men on the new, 3,000 ton LCS (Littoral Combat Ship), but a thousand sailors for a 100,000 ton aircraft carrier. Not immediately, but in the next decade or so. Meanwhile, the new Ford class of nuclear powered carriers is reducing crew size 17 percent (to 4,700). But based on three decades of experience with shrinking crews on combat support ships, and commercial shipping in general, the navy believes it has a reasonable shot at running a large carrier with a thousand sailors.

This all began back in the 1970s, when the U.S. Navy began converting its 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 much 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 now 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, dozens 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.

This is a trend that has been going on for over a century. In the early 19th century, a typical 3,500 ton "ship of the line" had a crew of 800-900 sailors. That was about 240 sailors per thousand tons of ship. A century later, capital ships had eliminated labor intensive sails and were running on steam, and lots more machines. The 12,000 tons pre-World War I battleship had a crew of 750 (62 sailors per thousand tons of ship). But for the last century, not a lot of progress was made. The current U.S. nuclear carriers have 57 sailors per thousand tons of ship. But the LCS gets that down to 25. Advances in automation, as well as the introduction of the combat UAVs in the next decade, will make the thousand sailor crew for a carrier possible. That's ten sailors per thousand tons of ship, plus a lot of robots, and equipment built to require very little manpower to fix or operate. That last innovation is already happening with warplanes, greatly reducing the man hours of maintenance required per flight hour. The navy has long since accepted those concepts for missiles (delivered in sealed containers, requiring no maintenance.) These are trends that have been building for some time, and show every indication of continuing. Although these new techniques are expensive, so are sailors. Each one costs over $100,000 a year. For a carrier crew of 5,700, that's over half a billion dollars a year. That buys lots of automation, and keeps a lot of people out of harm's way.

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