The Bow Ramp

Saturday, July 02, 2005

What'll we do with the Gunboat Sailor...?

This relates to a couple of posts here and here, over at Chapomatic.

As it says on my sidebar, I consider myself to be a "spitkit" sailor--Spitkit meaning a small vessel. Despite ending my Navy career on the USS Ranger (CV-61) an aircraft carrier, I managed to spend about 9 years aboard REALLY small ships and craft.

I started talking about the new Littoral Control Ship (LCS) a couple of months ago here, but didn't get around to the next part of the story. As Chap and others have pointed out, the Navy has a tendency to shed itself of smaller ships. When money is tight, the Navy has traditionally cut back on the number of ships in it's inventory and built more capability and endurance into each one; hence the larger size. This strategy has worked well in peacetime where the mission is more about presence. Unfortunately, there comes a point where you don't have enough hulls to cover all of your commitments. As has been said many times, quantity can be a quality of its own. Additionally, not every mission requires a major combatant. It’s easier and more efficient to use a hammer than a sledgehammer when driving nails. Save the sledgehammer for busting concrete.

There are a number of factors in play that drive the numbers vs. capability mix. Money is a huge factor. The various communities (advocacy groups) are another. I would like to spend some time discussing another factor that I have not seen mentioned before. That factor is the personnel system. Look at the large officer communities in the Navy (submariners, aviators, surface types.) An officer will spend multiple tours gradually learning his or her trade. The typical commanding officer of a ship or squadron has spent decades getting there. The higher you go, the fewer billets there are. There are a lot of really great officers that are forced out by a system that is cruel by necessity.

Now, it takes time to learn any trade. Operating and maintaining a small ship is quite a bit different from how you do it on a larger one. Fighting them is very different. One of the great benefits the Patrol Gunboats homeported in the Med back in the ‘70s had was teaming up with their Greek counterparts. They had a wealth of experience that we could tap into. Back then, we would always be tasked as the “bad guys” during fleet exercises. In the U.S. only exercises, the head bad guy was usually either the Submarine Commander, or the fixed-wing Aviation Commander. Whenever we came under their control we got killed (soon and often.) On the other hand, during the NATO exercises, we would be under the control of the Hellenic Patrol Forces Commander – major improvement! The difference was that the Greeks knew how to deploy us in the best fashion.

In the past (since WW I,), a small combatant with a crew of 20-40 people has traditionally been commanded by a Lieutenant. He would have been in the Navy maybe eight years and served as a Division Officer and probably a Department Head on a Frigate or Destroyer. He would spend two years as the skipper, and then move on and never be associated with small combatants again. During that tour, he would have to learn a great deal about the employment of small combatants; which are used and handled quite differently from their larger sisters. He would also have to unlearn quite a few things as well. Just about the time he stopped being dangerous, away he went; back to his “real” career. For a Department Head or XO, the story was similar, except they didn’t have quite as much to unlearn. Enlisted folk were a bit different. There, you might be able to coax two or three tours on small-boys (depending on your Rate/NEC) before facing the same thing—seniority takes you out of the game, because (a) Congress has decreed that you are either promoted or discharged. And (b) there are very few senior enlisted billets aboard small ships, and no senior officer billets at all.

Today, the Navy is planning on commissioning relatively large numbers of the Littoral Control Ship (LCS.) These ships will be as large as a WW II Destroyer, but will have a very small crew. I haven’t seen the manning documents, but I’d guess five officers, tops. You could start someone out as a Department Head and the next tour maybe 30% of them could stay on as Executive Officers, with a follow-on tour as Commanding Officer—if you wanted to kill their career. Under the present system, you would have to rotate people in and out with the rest of the fleet to give them any competitive chance with their peers under the current promotion system. I know from experience. Deviation means death. The people in Washington don’t know you from Adam

The lesson learned from the above is that you can’t just fill a billet on a small combatant with a warm body from the fleet and assume that everything will be fine. To have a truly effective (i.e. the kind that won’t get killed as soon as the shooting starts) force of small combatants, you must be able to build up and maintain a large pool of personnel that stay in that community for possibly their entire career. Unfortunately, you can’t do that with our current personnel system.

Creating a separate warfare community for enlisted personnel might be beneficial. On a crew that small, enlisted personnel need to be cross-trained in other specialties at least as much as submariners do—if not more so. A First Class OS who had spent his whole career in a CIC the size of a broom closet would not be competitive against a First Class on a Cruiser when going before a selection board, because the one on the small-boy would not have the leadership experience of the other. The only way to protect his chances of promotion would be to have the quota a warfare community would grant him. Then he would only have to compete against his peers in the small-boy community.

One possible solution for the officers would be to do what the Army has done with their ships (yes, they have a lot of them) and place warrant officers in charge. This would need a lot of attitude adjustment to work in the Navy. Any ship that is armed with a large caliber gun and missiles can do a lot of damage. Historically, the Navy placed commissioned officers in charge of warships. The more capable the ship was, the higher the rank of the commanding officer. However I don’t see a Commander as the CO of a ship with a 30-40 man crew. Also, it is a big prestige thing to have that Command Pin on either breast of your uniform. As I said, it’s just a thought.

Whether the Navy plans for it or not, placing a large number of LCS or other minimally crewed ships in service is liable to create some waves in the personnel system with positive and negative consequences for our Navy men and women.

Hopefully, this post will draw some fire and generate some discussion on the matter.