FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Near the end of his 30-year Navy career, John Cordle was director of manpower for Atlantic surface forces and oversaw 20,000 sailors and officers on 72 ships.
One of the lasting lessons Cordle said he took away from that job was a realization that policy decisions about manning are “almost generational in nature.”
“The chief billet that you cut today is a chief petty officer you don’t create two years from now, who doesn’t become a senior chief, who doesn’t become a master chief,” he said. “And so when you reduce the number of billets today, that reduction takes a decade to work its way through the process.”
Today’s Navy, plagued in recent months by two deadly collisions and other costly groundings, is paying the price for ill-advised or poorly implemented initiatives in the past two decades, say former Navy officers and policy experts.
Among the fumbles during those years were eliminating basic surface officer classroom schooling, downsizing manning across the fleet that has led to 100-hour workweeks for some, filling positions with lesser trained sailors and prematurely ousting a substantial batch of senior enlisted sailors by the Navy’s retention board.
The Navy’s legacy of manning missteps haunts plans to increase the service’s number of vessels from 276 to 355, said John Pendleton, the Government Accountability Office’s director of Force Structure and Readiness Issues.
“In our view, the Navy has to be more analytical and, frankly, honest about its personnel needs as it plans for a bigger fleet,” Pendleton said in an email response to Stars and Stripes.
“But we found that the Navy has plans to grow the number of ships while actually decreasing Navy personnel over the same period,” he said. “This does not make sense.”
“Many of the minimal-manning concepts the Navy tried — and that are now being reversed — are baked into the design of new ships such as the littoral combat ship, the Zumwalt-class destroyer, and the Ford-class aircraft carrier,” Pendleton said.
“Put simply, the Navy developed crew size targets for its new ships based on assumptions that technologies would enable smaller crews,” he said. “However, crew sizes on most new ship classes have grown over time as anticipated workload reductions from new technologies have not panned out in the real world.”
Capt. Michael Junge, a military professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., traces the roots of many of the Navy’s present woes to the years after the U.S. sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. The pace of naval operations accelerated through Adm. Vern Clark’s tenure as chief of naval operations during that period.
“Clark was heading in the direction we are in today, but Clark’s focus was that we have to fix maintenance problems,” Junge said. “If we get the maintenance wrong, then everything else falls apart.”
By the time Adm. Michael Mullen became CNO in 2005, deferring ship maintenance had become the wartime norm, he said.
Had the lapse of properly maintaining ships been an isolated problem it might not have snowballed into the dilemma the Navy faces today.
But a series of disastrous manning and training changes were layered atop it.
In 2003, the Navy did away with the Surface Warfare Officer School Division Officers Course, which the Navy had been sending its new officers through for more than 30 years to learn the basics of seamanship and other ship operations.
Instead of that 12 to 14 months of training and specialty programs, new officers began reporting directly to their ships with packets of CDs for self-paced, self-taught learning.
“This change would have significant negative effects moving forward into the decade,” Navy expert Steve Wills wrote last year in an article for the Center for International Maritime Security, a nonpartisan think tank based in Maryland.
Students surveyed “generally had a negative opinion” of the new system and many felt “ill-prepared to lead their divisions,” Wills wrote.
In 2010, then-Fleet Forces Commander Adm. John Harvey called the CD-training method a “flat-out failure” during a House committee hearing.
Harvey had commissioned an independent probe of the state of the Navy’s surface force, a panel headed by retired Vice Adm. Phillip Balisle.
Among the many damning conclusions of the so-called Balisle Report, was that the self-taught schooling “did not enable officers to arrive on board ships with the correct baseline knowledge of surface warfare fundamentals,” which placed a heavy training burden on many other officers.
The Navy has taken steps to reinstitute some classroom training, but the careers of a generation of surface warfare officers were built upon that failed system.
A far more damaging and long-lasting initiative, experts agree, was “optimal manning,” a scheme intended to “improve efficiency across the Fleet by providing the right people, with the right skills, at the right place, at the right time,” the Balisle Report said.
The initiative cut more than 4,000 sailors from surface ships, the report said. Guided-missile destroyers that had averaged 317 personnel in 1998 had only 254 by 2009.
The Top Six Roll-Down initiative was introduced in 2006, allowing junior sailors to be assigned to billets usually filled by more senior sailors.
The Balisle Report noted that the net result of Top Six Roll-Down was a dwindling onboard “level-of-knowledge and experience to provide leadership and qualified technical oversight” for more junior sailors.
Junge, the Naval War College professor, recalled commanding a ship 10 years ago on which the leading gunner’s mate was an E3 seaman just six weeks out of boot camp.
“That was the only gunner’s mate I had,” he said. “It was an [amphibious ship] and we didn’t have major weapons systems, but the ship had been designed to have a half-dozen folks led by at least a chief petty officer.
“I’m hearing from friends right now where a command master chief job has been empty for six months. At this point, if you’ve got somebody who’s incompetent you’re better off to keep them because they’re a warm body. And if you fire them, it’s going to be months if not years before the job gets filled again.”
The Navy phased out most of optimal manning between 2010 and 2014, but its effects linger.
“That’s four years when they did some pretty deep cuts,” Cordle said. “That notch could very well be working its way through the ranks.”
Earlier this year the GAO reported that crews in all but one class of Navy ships are still smaller because of a longer workweek instituted by optimal manning.
The increased workweek from 67 to 70 “productive hours” per sailor “further reduced shipboard manning by up to 4 percent,” the GAO said.
“Taken cumulatively since 2002, this three-hour change has had widespread implications ranging from maintenance overruns to crew fatigue,” Cordle wrote in an August article in Proceedings Magazine. “When multiplied by 240,000 enlisted sailors over 15 years, millions of man-hours were added to the shoulders of our ships’ crews.”
Another cause of significant manning shortfalls for the surface fleet in the past several years has been bottlenecks in specialized schooling for technical jobs on ships, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., and a former strategic planner for the Navy.
The diversity of configurations of weapons and fire-control systems on surface ships has burgeoned with innovation and upgrades, leading to a dilemma of getting correctly trained people to work that equipment, Clark said.
All of these systems have their own schooling pipelines, he said. “What happens is when you have 14 different fire-control technician pipelines, you can only run any one of those schools a limited number of times per year.”
“If you are on a ship that needs a particular [classification of] fire-control technician, they may only have a school that you need to qualify your guy once or twice a year,” he said. “So on your ship you might have a bunch of fire-control technicians that don’t have a school or have the wrong school.”
Clark also pointed to a 2012 decision by the Navy to force about 3,000 enlisted sailors out of the service because “there was a perception that we were going to be overmanned in those enlisted ranks.”
The assessment, however, was flawed and the Navy is now “trying to catch up with its end-strength goals,” he said. “The surface fleet is where that’s been felt most acutely.”