January 23, 2012
January 23, 2012
Back To Sea Swap?
CNO orders review of crew rotations to help ease burden on fleet
By Sam Fellman
In a crowded hotel ballroom Jan. 10, the Navy's top officer startled the leaders of the surface fleet, past and present, with two words: Sea Swap.
It was the first notice for most that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert has asked for a review of rotating crews through deployed ships and other platforms as a means of confronting the fleet's stark future: heavy tasking and shrinking funds. In doing so, Greenert wants to revisit crew swaps, a concept that was shelved for destroyers after three experiments conducted over the past decade, the first pair of which ended in 2004.
Admirals held up these experiments as a success afterward, but they were sharply criticized by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, which said the hull swaps had degraded the ships' conditions and damaged morale. Re-enlistment rates dropped for crews onboard compared with other ships, according to the GAO report. After another experiment in 2007, the Navy abandoned Sea Swap.
Alluding to some of this heartburn, Greenert joked that Sea Swap was a "swearword," but said the defense secretary's staff had called for a study of whether it could be done, with what platforms and in what context.
"We need to look at Sea Swap again, look at rotation of crewing and see what does that get us, how hard is it," Greenert said at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium, held in Arlington, Va. "It's much more complicated than even it used to be, but we need to unveil that."
The review is not limited to ships. In a speech the next day, Vice CNO Adm. Mark Ferguson said the review would consider "various platforms, not just surface ships."
Crew swaps are one possible solution for the Navy's stretched fleet. By keeping a ship on station for a year or more -- as was done in the pilots -- the Navy can keep an asset in theater longer. Time spent transiting is reduced, and fewer ships are needed overall to get the same amount of time on station. With Sea Swap, the fleet needs fewer ships and sailors, proponents have argued.
To be sure, crew rotation is not new. Crews rotate now on coastal patrol craft, Ohio-class submarines and mine countermeasures ships. And littoral combat ships, the putative future backbone of the fleet, will have rotational crews. But for the rest of the fleet, Sea Swap represents radical change: It divorces the crew from its ship.
Naval analysts and former Navy officials are open to bringing back Sea Swap but cautioned there are many challenges from infrastructure to culture in order to make it successful. Many stressed upfront that this should not be done on the cheap. And the program has downsides, one analyst said.
"There are some complications associated with it," said Don Birchler, an economist at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Va., who has studied the pilots. "Things like crew morale took a bit of a hit; seemed that people didn't particularly care for that."
Another challenge, he added, was turning over a ship "in a good, working order for the next crew." The Navy would get a lot more operational time from its fleet if Sea Swaps were standard, Birchler said, but factoring in the added maintenance infrastructure and support costs would likely make the savings moot.
Because it is so early in the process, the Navy was short on details.
"We'll do a study of rotational crewing this year. This falls in line with the sailing directions and the defense strategic guidance," said CNO spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez.
The review hasn't begun yet and will not consider aircraft carriers, said Hernandez, who was unable to say which platforms the review would look at or who was conducting it because details were still being worked out. "It's prudent that we go and look at things that allow us to be more effective and efficient as we operate forward," he added.
Crew rotation is an important element of the plan for littoral combat ships, of which the Navy plans to build 55. Right now, blue and gold crews rotate through one LCS hull. But the plan is to shift to new rotations at some point when there are more ships in the class.
In the new plan, there will be four crews for every three hulls, with one ship deployed at any time. The core crews of roughly 40 will rotate through four-month deployments onboard. Each hull will spend about 18 months deployed straight. The plan is to base several LCS hulls in Singapore.
But crew swap had seemed limited to this context. Indeed, Greenert's Sea Swap comment at SNA seemed to be news to many of the officers and executives in the audience.
More than a half-dozen current and former officials contacted by Navy Times were hard pressed to explain what the review was or where it was headed; none of them had heard about it previously.
Rotating crews could be an approach for the ballistic-missile defense mission that is ramping up in 6th Fleet, suggested two former flag officers, who requested anonymity to protect their business relationships with the Navy.
Four BMD-capable ships are to be based in Rota, Spain, by 2015, but it isn't clear whether all or any of these crews will be homeported there. Officials are considering whether to build additional housing for the crews and their families, a 6th Fleet spokesman has said.
Since 2000, the Navy has tried three Sea Swap pilots. Four crews rotated aboard the Spruance-class destroyer Fletcher, which spent two years deployed; it was decommissioned in 2004 after it returned. And three rotated through the destroyer Higgins, which spent 18 months deployed, before returning to home port in 2004. Three years later, in an effort to gather more data, the Navy tried again. Three crews rotated through the destroyer Gonzalez.
These experiments yielded data and criticism. They've also created a long set of lessons learned and an institutional skepticism among current and former surface leaders. One former official said these hard-won lessons must be confronted to make any new initiative successful.
Behind the blue and gold rotations of Ohio-class sub crews, there is an enormous -- and expensive -- infrastructure, said this former Navy official, who was familiar with the Sea Swap pilots. Rotational crews may be the right answer for ships, he added, but asked: Is the Navy willing to spend the money on infrastructure and increased maintenance costs that Sea Swap will mean?
The rotation plan also needs improvement, he said. On Ohio-class subs, for example, two crews trade the ship back and forth. Because of this, crews get familiar with gear and can learn all the ins and outs. And if there's a problem, a crew member knows his counterpart. Shared custody leads to a sense of ownership that was missing in the destroyer pilot, where crews rotated through a deployed ship instead of back and forth, the former official said.
One former ship CO agrees with that assessment.
"The SSBN system works because both crews own their ship equally," retired Capt. Jan van Tol, who commanded three warships, wrote in an email.
But the surface fleet's crew swaps have tended to rotate so that a crew rarely goes back to the same ship. "Thus," van Tol continued, "there is no lasting commitment to the specific ship."
Still, van Tol said Sea Swap has many advantages: lower fuel costs, more time on station, and less wear and tear from transits. He added that crew swaps have worked fairly well on smaller ships with fewer crew members and less sophisticated equipment, such as MCMs and PCs.
Van Tol, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said the "least bad" crew swap option is a two-ship, two-crew model. One crew is forward-deployed while the other is at home, training. The only downside is the shortened time at home, which would likely be "hard to sustain with a volunteer force over time," he said.
Meeting the maintenance mission
Maintenance is the biggest hurdle to overcome if Sea Swap is to become standard in the fleet, said Birchler of CNA. The pilot had relied on a small team of contractors to fly out and fix broken gear, but much more, including more repair money and facilities, would be needed if this was to become standard.
In order to make Sea Swap work routinely for deployments, Birchler said in an interview, "You're going to have to build a different maintenance infrastructure around the world in different places so they can have avails, possibly even major avails, in different parts of the world."
Sea Swap doesn't have to be limited to ships and Ohio-class subs, Birchler noted. Other platforms are possibilities: aircraft carriers, attack subs and even air wings.
Adm. John Harvey, head of Fleet Forces Command, said the review was "looking at a lot of things," in a brief interview after his SNA speech.
"Well, how do you keep ships on station longer? Maybe through Sea Swap, we can do that," he said, characterizing the previous pilots as limited and not offering too much guidance. "We just did one on the East Coast, [Higgins and Fletcher] on the West Coast, and that was sort of it and we walked away from it.
"I think it requires a heck of a lot of intelligent work to understand what we can do in this day and age, with the ships we have, the requirements we have, to put it together and move from there," he continued. "There's a lot of work to do."