Surface Forces: November 22, 2002


The U.S. Navy has finally faced the need for smaller crews. There has been a sailor shortage since the 1990s. The end of the Cold War and a booming economy has made it harder to recruit. Moreover, an increasing percentage of sailors are 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. 

Over the last year, 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 have been at sea for several months and the plan is 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 World War II 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, the crew size is now half what is 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 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 if 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 smaller crews survives a severe damage control incident in combat. 


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