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.


Article Archive

Sea Transportation: Current 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 1999 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or 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. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close