Good Riddance to Rotational Crews

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As a disclaimer, I never served in a rotating crew, but I had the occasion to work with many who did and to see them in action while in senior staff positions and as a trainer. Despite several attempts to execute this model, each class of ship has found it unsustainable. The challenges of rotating crews strike to the heart of ownership—that key motivator that makes us keep coins, hats, and Zippo lighters from ships in which we served long after we move into retirement. Ships are not rental cars to be driven fast and turned over to the next person.

Some of the challenges I observed with rotational crews include:

·      Executing planned maintenance

·      Executing routine functions such as physical readiness

·      Documenting repairs—both needed and conducted

·      Maintaining crew situational awareness during turnover

·      Filling personnel gaps with sailors from the other crews

The case for rotating crews is based on manning and math. Historically, the most expensive component of a ship is the crew. Each additional person increases expenses—not just salary but also health care, retirement benefits, and training—which add up to the life-cycle costs of the ship. By rotating crews, the overall number of Navy personnel can be reduced, and ships can stay forward-deployed for extended periods.

But there is more to it than the math suggests. Surface force attempts at rotational crews did not adequately capture or apply lessons from the submarine force. Many do not recognize that the dual crewing of ballistic-missile submarines is an effective but expensive proposition. Higher operational tempos are achieved at a premium cost in manning, maintenance support, and training infrastructure. The surface force’s rotational crewing concepts did not adequately account for the unusual level of support—such as large staffs for continuity and maintenance support teams for forward-deployed repairs that are beyond the ship’s force capabilities—its ships would require. In some cases, these support structures were planned but never fully funded or implemented, leading to a host of issues as ships were left to fend for themselves. As the littoral combat ship (LCS) transitions to a blue-gold crewing model, the chances of success will diminish if lessons from the submarine force are not understood and addressed.

There are even bigger downsides to rotational crews that rarely are considered. Many of us joined the Navy “to see the world.” Port visits are one of the things that make deployments both endurable and special. Rotating crews only saw the world through an airplane window, as they flew over places like Palma and Malta to join the ship and relieve the incumbent crew. This affected morale and likely reduced retention. Even flying the incoming crew to a “liberty point” as a group on the way to the ship proved less satisfying.

On rotational crews, I too frequently saw how lack of ownership left ships’ programs neglected or in disarray, tools and equipment missing, and routine maintenance and minor repairs left undone. This sometimes resulted in outright animosity between two otherwise professional sailors when one individual felt he had been set up for failure by his immediate predecessor.

To make matters worse, deep maintenance was not performed on the ships during prolonged periods of forward deployment, and when these ships came home, it showed. Even now, almost a decade later, port engineers have traced current material issues back to the deployment cycle of ships when they employed rotational crews.

Innovation is important to a learning organization, and good organizations not only tolerate the occasional failure but also learn from it. Experience has taught us that rotational crews do not work. They degrade morale and material condition and undercut pride of ownership. It is time to say good riddance to rotational crews forever.  

Captain Cordle retired in 2013 after 30 years of service. He commanded the USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) and USS San Jacinto (CG-56). He is the 2010 recipient of the U.S. Navy League’s Captain John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership.

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