Attrition: USN Personnel Shortage


January 20, 2024: The US Navy, like most other navies, is suffering from a shortage of new personnel, causing a problem with providing ships with enough sailors. It is increasingly common for warships to be stuck in port because there is no crew available. This is an international problem; more navies are finding that without conscription it’s difficult to obtain enough men willing to spend weeks or months at sea. After the Cold War ended in 1991, a growing number of nations dropped conscription. Serving on warships became a less acceptable activity for young men. Even fewer women were willing to serve on a ship.

By 2024 the American navy was unable to supply personnel for 22,000 entry level jobs, known as billets in the navy, on sea going ships. Currently the navy has 145,000 billets in sea going ships, which means a 16 percent shortage navy wide. The navy is also under political pressure to keep as many ships at sea as possible, which requires that ships with crew shortages go out, and that means necessary maintenance is not carried out on those vessels.

The U.S. Navy has had problems with growing personnel shortages since the 1990s. The end of the Cold War and a booming economy made it harder to recruit. Moreover, an increasing percentage of sailors were married, and frequent 3-6 month tours at sea have induced many married sailors to leave the navy in order to spend more time with their families.

During the last decade, several ships have been fitted with more automated gear, and many remote sensors, so that one sailor can check the performance of multiple items of equipment without moving around a lot. A closer look at what a lot of sailors did resulted in a reorganization that eliminated a lot of chores and reorganized others to take less time. Improved communications, particularly shipboard access to the internet, made it possible for a lot of administrative jobs to be done ashore. As a result of this, several destroyers and cruisers had their crews cut by about twenty percent. These experimental crews were at sea for several months before it was clear that the plan was working. This is important, as the proposed designs for new classes of warships call for even smaller crews. Many ship designers are urging crew sizes of a hundred or so sailors for destroyers and cruisers. Even carriers are looking to shed about a quarter of their 5,000 sailors and aviators.

Crew size has been falling since the late 1940s even without any special attention being paid to the problem. New maritime and electronics equipment has become more automated, and the navy tends to have the most modern equipment. During World War II, destroyers tended to have over a hundred crew per thousand tons of displacement. Even without the current reforms, crew size is now half what it was during World War II. In addition, the navy was forced to pay close attention to smaller crew sizes in one class of ships: submarines. While modern subs are four times the size of their World War II counterparts, and full of much more equipment, crew size has only doubled.

Surveys of sailors and a close look at the way things were always done revealed that there were many useless chores being performed just because it was always done that way. Eliminating these improved morale and reduced crew size. While the smaller crews mean more work and responsibility for sailors, there's also more living space. In new ships, there will be even better accommodations, as well as more space for weapons and supplies.

One thing that still bothers sailors is whether the smaller crews will be able to handle the heavy workloads encountered in combat, especially damage control. As crews have shrunk since World War II, this has not proved to be a problem. Damage control gear has also gotten more effective. But shrinking crews from nearly 400 to less than a hundred won't be a proven move until one of these lesser manned ships survives a severe damage control incident in combat.

These crew shortages began with submarines, which required crews to live and work in a confined space for weeks or months at a time. The crew shortage led to more navies with submarines that could not go to sea because no crews were available. Most of the navies suffering from this problem belonged to nations with smaller populations or a large number of illiterate citizens.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close