Ed Note: The post below was written by a mentor of mine from the Chief’s Mess, who has asked to otherwise be anonymous in this post. I will say nothing else, and let him take it from here.
Navy manning policy cycles through phases so regularly it could be best described as a soap opera “As the Pendulum Swings.” First was the Reagan Era build up, then a Clinton Era “peace dividend” drawdown. With Donald Rumsfeld came “faster, leaner, more lethal,” and the twin monsters of “Optimal Manning” and the infamous “Top-6 Roll-down.” Broken ships and ineffective crews were the result. Now the revealed Word from Washington is that the Optimal Manning Experiment is over. ADM Greenert’s statement of “we’re going to effectively migrate, reconstitute in a way, the surface fleet afloat,” is encouraging, but the actions needed to meet his goal of sustaining the fleet seem distant, if not impossible given the corporate track record.
The Balisle Report recommended that over 6,500 billets be restored to the fleet. Only 2,200 were approved, with another 3,900 slated for FYDP accessions. The fine print never makes the headlines in All Hands, or the Navy Times. At this time we are told to cut the Navy by 9,000 Sailors. We have to cut solid performers who happen to be in overmanned ratings, while we should cut those who don’t meet standards, or are marginal performers at best. Why must we do this? Because personnel costs, and the billions of healthcare dollars those personnel require for readiness and recovery, are “eating us alive.” Leadership chants the mantra of “people are our most important resource,” but the reality of where the Navy is putting its money is clear. The Naval Vessel Registry lists 245 active hulls as of June, 2011. The same registry lists 268 Flag Officers: 243 Active, 22 Active Duty for Special Work, and 3 Full Time Support. Last time I walked the Naval Station piers, only three ships had broken an Admiral’s Flag at the masthead. Merging Second Fleet into Fleet Forces Command is supposedly one such “cost savings” designed to optimize the Fleet. But, no Flag billets were harmed in the merger. With President Obama announcing a drawdown of 33,000 combat personnel from Afghanistan, and Congress clamoring for further cost savings, it is only a matter of time before budget pressure on incoming Secretary of Defense Panetta turns the magnifying lens on our “greatest asset,” Deckplate Sailors.
Division officers and Leading Chiefs rarely have time, much less energy, to spend on the fine print in the “big picture.” Getting through the training cycle with often less than 70 percent of their required Sailors, often inadequately trained, to meet all the tasking given down by their Commanding Officers is an 18 hour a day job. Mandatory training days, meetings, and pre-meetings, operational briefings, watchstanding, and documenting every Sailors performance and attendance is a job in itself. Additional time to train, mentor, supervise maintenance, preservation, professional development all comes from somewhere – sleep time most likely, which NAVMAC cheerfully points out is eight hours a day – but in reality is maybe five or six.
What the spreadsheet wizards at OPNAV N1 and BUPERS missed in their calculations is a vast amount of time and work that is always needed, yet seldom calculated in manpower estimates. How do they account for the hours preparing for a 3M spot check, only to have the inspector reschedule because of a surprise visit from ATG or the Squadron Chief of Staff? Trite promises such as “civilians will do surface preservation when in port,” to justify the loss of half your deck department force, ring hollow. Standing up additional Force Protection Condition (FPCON) requirements drain away both production, and stamina. My last ship stood up FPCON CHARLIE measures in a CONUS maintenance availability because Second Fleet enforced a requirement written for “non-Navy controlled ports.” If there was ever a port controlled by the Navy, it is Norfolk Virginia. Yet that is what we did for 18 months–until leaders with the best interest of the crew proved it was hurting production far more than ensuring security. Lest anyone be ignorant, every VIP or Flag Officer visit adds another 4 hours of field day to the ship’s workforce; time also needed for training, preventive and corrective maintenance. More time is lost checking up on the contract repair teams that require quality inspection time equal to the time spent on the repair itself–another thing not factored into NAVMAC’s computer. A couple years ago I went to a conference to discuss the “standard Navy work week.” After several days of reality based discussion, the whole meeting was round-filed because our input would have increased the documented hours – and thus full time billets required – by 30 percent. “Not the answer we were looking for you to endorse,” was the message, and we went home to our ships. What safety procedures could be changed to reduce manning? Could we get by with less wing-walkers when moving aircraft? NATOPS categorically said “no,” and had safety statistics to prove it. Could we add the three hours of CNO mandated physical training to the work week calculation? No, because it would create a need for more billets. The message was clear – we want to reduce head count – don’t confuse the system. Dilbert seemed very apropos.
Manning requirements are estimates. When designed, they are one number. After built, they are usually less, because N1 is looking to save money for N4 to buy missiles. After being in service for a while that number drops again. Congress lowered the authorized end strength, or “boots on ground” requirements exceed two whole Carrier Battle Group’s worth of Sailors. Someone gets a medal, for reporting those ships stay “mission ready” despite manning shortfalls. It’s just a SHELL GAME.
Your ship must be at 90 percent or better manning to deploy. You have 75 percent. Calls are made, hands are shaken, and golf course diplomacy secures the critical NEC and general labor is sent TAD to the ship – for 90 days or so – enough to show the TYCOM you are at manning requirements. But this plus up is not really a fix. TAD Sailors in critical specialties don’t end up on the Force Protection watchbill. They often don’t end up in the repair locker. Sometimes, they don’t even stand duty. Because they are special – it’s in “the deal.” They often don’t use chipping hammers, needle guns, or paint brushes either.
Your division’s work is supposed to be done by 35 Sailors. The Ship’s Manning Document (SMD) calls for so many Sailors of different ranks, NEC and specialized schools. Odds are, You won’t have them. Due to “funding constraints” the Billets Authorized (BA) is only 30. If your command is lucky, the Navy Manning Plan (NMP) allocation might equal funded billets. Often, the time your Division’s share of NMP might be only 20. Either way, your division is still not going to have all 35 Sailors. First, some will be on terminal leave. Some billets will be gapped either from the Sailor being LIMDU, or ADSEP for discipline issues. Secondly, some billets may seem filled, but the Sailor is TAD away to required schools (that never seem to get completed) en route to your command. Depending on the billet they are designated to fill, some Sailors need up to nine months of schools AFTER reporting aboard for a 3 year tour. Lastly, the open wound of Individual Augmentation festers on your Watch, Quarter and Station Bill.
When a message tasking your ship to provide a critically needed NEC E5-6 with a perfect record, security clearance, and long enough PRD to meet the Noble Eagle mission timeline is likely to grab your divisional LPO, 3M Workcenter Supervisor, or the ONE and ONLY Sailor with that NEC needed for mission critical maintenance. You might have two on paper, but the other sailor is LIMDU or TAD to a critical school for another couple months. So, you protest. You send up your impact statement to RECLAMA. Your protest falls on deaf ears since the Commodore is going to HAVE to send someone, and dammed if it’s the guy from his flagship.
Optimal Manning was supposed to streamline training to “just in time” pipelines that provided fully trained Sailors to ships at the right time, so no loss of readiness occurred at PCS time. It’s a pipe dream. The Sailor you are losing has years of experience with that equipment, which is guaranteed to be slightly different from another ship of that class. The new guy is very likely to be junior, or not quite fully recovered from LIMDU, or missing the pipeline training. The last 30-60 days of the outgoing Sailor are focused on THEIR moving off. The arriving Sailor might not report for weeks or months after he transfers. End result is you’ve lost six months of effective production from that billet and everyone else in the workcenter, duty section and ship needs to work that much harder.
Optimal Manning never seemed to hit the Wardroom as it did Mess Deck or Goat Locker. My last ship was designed for a complement of 23 officers. Most of the time we had 40 officers on deck, and a few more off TAD, IA, or other places. It was sickening how many titles started with “A.” Yet, officers need training, and the best place for that is at sea. But many officers without portfolio cab give the XO heartburn, so they all get some job. VBSS officer, Anti-Terrorism Officer, Fire Control Officer, Weapons Officer, Magazine Officer, and other such lofty titles were given the Ensigns, despite the requirement for those billets to be held by second-tour division officers or department heads.
If the Navy needs to save money on personnel costs, I suggest it start with the Wardroom, and then move on from there. I would have a more effective ship with 25 officers, and use the cost savings to retain 30 more blue jackets. If the Enlisted Retention Board is kicking out Sailors who made Senior Chief Petty Officer in less than 14 years, simple fairness suggests we explore ALL options. Lengthen sea tours for officers to develop them further, rather than an 18 month sprint to the next ticket punch. Increase the time in grade from ENS to JG, and JG to LT. Since it’s an automatic promotion, it cannot “hurt their career.” Do we really need all 268 Admirals on the current (and future) payroll? Could all the limited duty officers be as effective as Warrant Officers? Many could, and it would save money for other programs.
My take is this: When 23 of your 40 officers are LT or senior, almost no junior officers are left in duty sections to stand watch, get leadership experience, and master their craft. Being a commanding officer is a grueling slog with professional pitfalls surrounding you. Spending a few more years moving up the chain, especially as a junior officer afloat for 3 year sea tours, 3 years in grade, would give current CO’s the TIME they need to develop them. With the XO fleet up to CO on many ships, that XO/CO will now have the time on board to see that process through, rather than a 14-20 month snapshot.