Why The U.S. Navy Is Falling Apart
Three years ago, the U.S. Navy has suddenly realized that the readiness of warships to deteriorate to an alarming degree. Some 8 percent of them were failing inspections. Since then, it’s got worse. Now, 24 percent are failing inspections. Currently, about 20 percent of navy ships have failed readiness inspections or are unfit for combat. About 40 percent of ships at sea have one major system broken. About half of combat aircraft and helicopters at sea are not fully functional.
Admirals and staff officers scrambled to discover what went wrong. Turns out there was a lot wrong. Crew size has been shrinking, and the navy has not adapted its maintenance needs to this.
This is a trend that has been going on for over a century. In the early 19th century, a typical 3,500 ton “ship of the line” had a crew of 800-900 sailors. That was about 240 sailors per thousand tons of ship. A century later, capital ships had eliminated labor intensive sails and were running on steam, and lots more machines. The 12,000 tons pre-World War I battleship had a crew of 750 (62 sailors per thousand tons of ship).
But for the last century, not a lot of progress was made. The current U.S. nuclear carriers have 57 sailors per thousand tons of ship. But the new LCS gets that down to 25. Advances in automation, as well as the introduction of the combat UAVs in the next decade, will make the thousand sailor crew for a carrier possible. That’s ten sailors per thousand tons of ship, plus a lot of robots, and equipment built to require very little manpower to fix or operate.
That last innovation is already happening with warplanes, greatly reducing the man hours of maintenance required per flight hour. The navy has long since accepted those concepts for missiles (delivered in sealed containers, requiring little maintenance.) These are trends that have been building for some time, and show every indication of continuing.
Although these new techniques are expensive, so are sailors. Each one costs over $100,000 a year. For a carrier crew of 5,700, that’s over half a billion dollars a year. That buys lots of automation, and keeps a lot of people out of harm’s way.
The problem is that the civilian automation has not adapted well to military needs.