Leadership: Wrangling The Retention Riddle


July 19, 2014: The U.S. Navy recently released data that confirmed what a lot of sailors already knew; some types of ships spend more time at sea than others. For the three years from 2011-2013 combat ships averaged 33 percent of their time at sea. Destroyers spent 35 percent of their time at sea. There were also great variations among individual ships, with some destroyers and cruisers spending over half their time at sea during this period.

Of course, this data is just about the ships. The navy is more concerned about how much time individual sailors spend time at sea. That is because the ships are in the navy for life while the sailors can decide every few years if they want to stay. The navy calls this retention and the more time sailors are at sea the fewer of them agree to be retained (stick around.) To improve retention the navy wants to keep ships at sea only 32 percent of the time and spread the sea time around so everyone eligible to be at sea does their fair share. 

As part of this effort earlier in 2014 the navy announced changes in its policy on maximum time at sea per cruise. Currently crews can expect to spend up to 10 months on a cruise. That is being changed to eight months. The navy pointed out that this was part of a continuous process of tweaking policies concerning how much time sailors will spend at sea.

There have been many earlier tweaks. Back in 2008 the navy adopted a policy of adjusting ship schedules so that crews spent at least half their time in port. This is called "dwell time." With some 60 percent of navy personnel married, dwell time is very important. The navy also eliminated its decades old policy of regular six month deployments at sea. These deployments were far away and kept sailors cut off from home. The new policy was to keep ships closer to their home port, the better to "surge" a larger number of warships in an emergency. In practice that meant that when ships did go out they might not return for 9-10 months. That was too long for both morale and maintenance.

In the past ships returning from a six month cruise usually required a month or so of maintenance and repairs in port, with a lot of the crew taking leave (vacation time). Military personnel get 30 days of leave each year. Thus ships returning from the old six month cruises were out of action for a month or more. The 2008 policy eliminated most of that and more ships are available all the time. The new 50/50 policy uses a lot of shorter trips to sea. Carriers only go out for a week or two at a time, so their pilots can get some practice. This keeps carriers and their escorts in readiness for long cruises.

This 2008 policy failed when the navy declared that growing tensions with Iran and China required a surge and has been hustling to find sailors and working ships to maintain a strong presence in the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific. Cuts in the navy budget in the last decade have caused other problems. Ship maintenance is being deferred, spare parts are not as available as they used to be (to keep a lot of weapons and equipment on ships running), and more and more sailors, especially experienced specialists, deciding that they have been pushed too far for too long were getting out. Many navy leaders wanted to cut back on sea time and allocate money saved towards improving maintenance, readiness, and retention (sailors staying in). Navy was ordered to find other ways to deal with retention and that continues to be a problem.

Even eight month cruises are pushing it in terms of damage done to morale and maintenance. Some air power analysts believe the U.S. could rely more on land-based aviation and feel that the navy is too hasty in deploying carriers for long periods so that this can help justify the expense of building and maintaining these huge ships and their escorts. In one way long cruises do make legislators (who approve the navy budget) aware that what they are paying for is out there representing. But the realities of morale and maintenance is causing the frequency, if not the length, of these cruises to shrink.





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