The British Royal Navy has learned a valuable lesson about reduced crew size, it often does not work. Case in point was the experience with their Type 23 frigates. These entered service in the late 1980s and had smaller crews than were normal for a ship that size. What made this work was a new system that provided additional maintenance personnel when the ship returned to port, to get the work done that the smaller crew could not handle at sea. But between when this plan was approved and when the ships entered service the navy budget suffered unexpected cuts and the special maintenance program was one of the items that disappeared. The understaffed crews were ordered to do the best they could, but the Type 23s always suffered from maintenance and crew morale problems. New British warship designs will allow space for larger crews, even if smaller ones are actually used, just in case.
Each 4,900-ton Type 23 has a lot of gear to be maintained. Each one is equipped with eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles, a 114mm (4.5-inch) MK 8 main gun, 30mm close range guns, several types of 7.62mm machine-guns, four torpedo tubes (and 24 anti-submarine torpedoes), and the Sea Wolf anti-aircraft missile system. They can also carry a medium-sized helicopter and lots of electronics. Three of the 16 Type 23s built were later sold to Chile.
It’s not just the Royal Navy that is having these problems. Five years ago the U.S. Navy began to realize that the readiness of its warships was deteriorating to an alarming degree. Some eight percent of them were failing inspections. Since then, it's gotten worse, with many more ships failing inspections or going to sea with major systems inoperable.
Admirals and staff officers scrambled to discover what went wrong. Turns out there was a lot wrong. Crew size has been shrinking and the navy has not adapted its maintenance needs to this. This is a trend that has been going on for over a century. For example, 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 many more machines. The 12,000 ton 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 new LCS gets that down to 25. Advances in automation, as well as the introduction of the combat UAVs in the next decade, will make possible reducing crew size for an aircraft carrier over 80 percent (about a thousand sailors). 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 little 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 a lot of automation and keeps a lot of people out of harm's way.
The problem is that the civilian ship automation has not adapted well to military needs. That came at the same time the navy was facing major budget cuts (which crippled efforts to make ship automation work on a warship) and sailors were spending less time in the classroom (where they would learn how to make the automation work). Currently, the navy is over half a billion dollars short in what it believes should be spent annually for ship and aircraft maintenance. A lots of navy cash is going to building new ships, to replace aging Cold War era vessels.
Then there were the leadership problems. Before the Cold War ended, if the navy found itself with a fleet-wide maintenance problem, they would ask the chiefs (Chief Petty Officers, the senior NCOs who supervise the sailors) to find the truth. That no longer works. Over the last decade officers have been less inclined to ask their chiefs much. The "zero tolerance" atmosphere that has permeated the navy since the end of the Cold War has led officers to take direct control of supervisory duties the chiefs used to handle. The chiefs have lost a lot of their influence, responsibility, and power.
The problem is that, with "zero tolerance", one mistake can destroy a career. This was not the case in the past. Many of the outstanding admirals of World War II would have never survived in today's navy. For example, Bill "Bull" Halsey ran his destroyer aground during World War I but his career survived the incident. That is no longer the case.
Another problem is that officers don't spend as much time at sea, or in command, as in the past. A lot of time is spent going to school, and away from the chiefs and sailors. For example, while the navy had more ships in the 1930s, than it does today, there were fewer people in the navy. That's because, back then, 80 percent of navy personnel were assigned to a ship and had plenty of time to learn how to keep it clean and operational.
Then again maybe not. This is all just a bunch of scuttlebutt from the chiefs. Are they really the solution as they were in the past? They may not be consulted, or listened to, as much as in the past. But they can't help but notice things. It's what chiefs do. And what the chiefs notice is not enough people and money (for spare parts) to keep the ships in shape for combat.