Right-Sizing Navy Ship Crews

Operating and maintaining the Navy’s ships is a 24/7 job. Having the right number of sailors onboard with the right skills is crucial for keeping the fleet in prime condition and for ensuring that sailors aren’t being overworked.

Today’s WatchBlog explores how the Navy mans its ships—and how it can improve to meet the needs of its growing fleet. Read on and listen to our podcast with John Pendleton, a Director in our Defense Capabilities and Management team, for more details.

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Do we have enough sailors?

While the Navy has a process to calculate how big a ship’s crew needs to be, and what kind of skills the crew needs to have, it may be underestimating how many sailors it really needs to run its ships. And fewer sailors means more work for the whole crew, as well as a potential backlog of work that isn’t getting done on time.

Figure 1: Navy Processes for Determining Manpower Requirements and Manning Ships(Excerpted from GAO-17-413)

We recommended that the Navy reexamine its ship crews for a number of reasons, including:

  • A Navy study found that sailors were working as much as 20 hours more than they’re supposed to in a week, and that’s not even counting the time they’re expected to spend on training and other duties. With only so many hours in a week, that means sailors have to cut into their rest or other downtime—creating potential hazards for both safety and morale.
  • The Navy also didn’t consider the amount of work sailors are expected to do while ships are in port. When a ship comes in from sea, sailors are expected to refresh their training and take leave, which leaves fewer sailors aboard to tackle all the work that needs to get done while the ship is docked.

Getting it right for a growing fleet

Having ship crews that are the right size is even more important now because the Navy wants to grow its fleet to 355 ships—a 30 percent increase. To meet past demands and to try to save money, the Navy experimented with reduced ship crew sizes, but this backfired. As personnel costs dropped, maintenance costs went up by tens of millions of dollars and the condition of Navy ships worsened.

Changes in Average Annual Personnel and Maintenance Costs from Start of Optimal Manning Period through Fiscal Year 2015(Excerpted from GAO-17-413)

Despite past missteps, the Navy doesn’t yet have a handle on how many more sailors it will need to properly man its growing fleet, which has major cost implications—about 70 percent of a ship’s total life-cycle costs are for operating and supporting it, and this includes personnel costs.

To learn what more the Navy must do to right-size its ship crews and identify the full costs associated with its larger fleet, check out our full report.


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