Keeping the Navy Ship Shape: Assessing Lessons from the Past

Dreadnoughts of the German High Seas Fleet. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most prominent challenges confronting today’s Navy is lack of manpower. Despite calling for an increase in fleet size to 355 ships, the Navy has struggled to keep enough sailors to maintain operational readiness for the 285 ships it currently has. While tackling manpower issues may not possess the allure that operational planning or research and development do, history has proven it to be one of the most important considerations for navies both in peace and at war.

In 2017, those of us outside the Navy were shocked by the tragic collisions that left the USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain crippled and 17 sailors dead.[i] However, we should not have been surprised. After years of sequestration, the Navy, like all military services, had been forced to make painful cuts. In doing so, it attempted to replace sailors with technology through “Optimal Manning” experiments. The results, of conducting these experiments on ships originally designed in the 1980’s, were disastrous. On the night of the collision, the USS Fitzgerald put to sea with a crew of 270. According to ProPublica, the Navy standard for an Arleigh-Burke Class Destroyer is 303.[ii]  The burden this placed on the personnel deployed at sea cannot be understated. According to a Government Accountability Office report from 2017, sailors at that time worked an average of 108 hours per week.[iii] On the night of the Fitzgerald’s accident, the officer of the deck had managed just one hour of sleep in the previous 22 hours. The conning officer, a 25-year-old ensign with just “a month’s time at sea,” had “worked 19 hours without a break.”[iv]

To its credit, the Navy has worked hard to address some of these issues. Still, many remain. In July of this summer, Proceedings Magazine published an article written by Petty Officer Third Class Nathan Martin. Martin describes how “Sailors who ordinarily would never dream of violating procedure are, when under strict deadline, encouraged to gundeck maintenance.”[v] In other words, officers push enlisted men to take shortcuts, ignore required maintenance, and skimp on inspections, in order to ensure operational demands are met. This was certainly the case on the Fitzgerald: “The Fitzgerald skipped or shortened four planned maintenance periods during the spring of 2017 — due to the Navy constantly issuing orders for new missions.”[vi] Worse still, manpower clearly remains far below optimal levels. In February, US Fleet Forces Commander Admiral Christopher Grady testified that the Navy had 6,200 unfilled billets at sea.[vii] Incredibly, this number represents progress.

Naval culture values learning at sea, independent command, and (like all military services) a “can do” attitude. In the cases of the Fitzgerald and McCain, this attitude may have cost 17 sailors their lives. 

Cautionary Tales

The Battle of Jutland demonstrates that in wartime, the costs to gundecking and shortcuts will be even greater. At the start of the battle, Vice-Admiral David Beatty rushed towards the German fleet, leaving behind his most powerful ships and failing to coordinate with his superior, Admiral John Jellicoe. Perhaps he felt this was the embodiment of the Nelsonian spirit of the Royal Navy. Regardless, he charged headlong into the jaws of the German High Seas Fleet. This decision would cost the Royal Navy two battlecruisers and over 2,000 lives.[viii]

However, VADM Beatty’s most grievous error had come before he had even left port. Beatty had encouraged rapidity of fire, rather than accuracy, to his crews. This meant that when they weren’t polishing copper pipes and meticulously cleaning their uniforms, they were training to fire as many rounds as possible in the shortest period of time. This encouraged shortcuts. “Every impediment to the movement of cordite between the magazines and guns which could be unshipped or clipped back out of the way, was so treated.”[ix] As if this were not enough, “Over-eager ammunition-handlers stacked ‘ready use’ charges in magazine passages and in exposed positions behind the secondary guns.”[x] The results were horrifying. HMS Indefatigable was the first to suffer when her magazine exploded, causing the massive ship to sink within three minutes. The incredible explosion was largely due to the lack of safe practices in the gunnery spaces, and only two of her crew of 1,019 survived. HMS Queen Mary was the next to suffer this fate. A similar explosion in her forward magazines split the ship in two, and she sank with the loss of all but nine of her crew of 1,275.[xi]

The Royal Navy also failed to exploit technology. They had access to reliable signals intelligence when planning for battle but did not use it. The Admiralty’s Director of Operations, Captain Thomas Jackson, failed to confer with the intelligence personnel because he “disliked the miscellany of gifted amateurs” who worked there “and resented the notion that such people could contribute anything of use to naval affairs.”[xii] This episode would only be the beginning of the Royal Navy’s technological failings at Jutland. While all their ships were equipped with wireless telegraphs (W/T), Beatty did not use them. Instead, distrustful of the new system, his communications officer chose to use signal flags. This was in spite of a standing order that “in the presence of the enemy, all signals were to be made by flags, searchlight, and wireless.”[xiii] This culminated in a grievous error, in which the most powerful ships in Beatty’s squadron, the forces of the 5th Battleship Squadron, were delayed in arriving at the battle. When they did arrive, another communications breakdown led to a British maneuver where every single ship turned on the same point (a turn in succession). This allowed the whole German fleet to concentrate their fire on that single point, as each ship passed through. Jellicoe would later say that if Beatty had obeyed his orders regarding communications, the German fleet “would have been annihilated.”[xiv]

In the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Navy exhibited similar flaws. Advancement for Russian Officers relied on a strict calculation of “specific terms spent at sea, available vacancies, and recommendations by superiors.”[xv] The goal behind this system had been to ensure that the officers which advanced in rank were those most experienced and qualified. However, its practical result was to encourage officers to become more focused on bureaucratic tasks and meeting deadlines. Rather than focus on training their men and ships for battle, which could expose flaws, or conduct earnest efforts to ensure their ships were in a ready state, Russian officers were concerned with “external appearances and the superficial completion of service requirements.”[xvi] To the Russian officer in 1904, “avoidance of blame was more important than technical competence or imaginative enterprise.”[xvii] As a result, Russian Naval operations during the Russo-Japanese War were characterized by a lack of initiative throughout. The Japanese dictated the war at sea, and this was the source of their victory.


One cannot simply compare the challenges faced by the US Navy today with those of the Royal Navy in World War One or the Russian Navy in 1904 at face value. However, the leaders of the US Navy in 2019 should look to the past for lessons.

The Russian officer of 1904 skimped or shirked on badly needed training because he was afraid that a mistake made by his crew during exercises could spell the end of his advancement. According to PO3 Martin, American officers today “ensure maintenance personnel know that they are being told to gundeck maintenance or repairs without receiving the word-for-word orders to do so” because those officers have “a commitment to a schedule that is passed down” to them. Martin argues “The mess would not give these orders without pressure from above.”[xviii]

Enlisted sailors should not be placed in a position where they must skimp on needed maintenance in order to meet deadlines established by their officers. Those officers should not be placed in a position where they must choose between operating at unacceptable levels of readiness or risking their career to tell those above them that they cannot comply with the missions they have been given. However, the demands the U.S. places on its Navy are not likely to be reduced either, so there will be no easy answers. Readiness must remain a focus for policymakers when considering defense spending. Former Secretary of Defense Mattis did an admirable job returning the focus of military spending to restoring readiness. This is an initiative that should not be left behind by the current or future administrations. We will never achieve perfect readiness, but we must strive to sustain high levels of readiness in all our military services.

For the Navy specifically, one option that could provide a long-term answer to manpower challenges is an increased willingness to embrace unmanned platforms. These could allow the Navy to deploy presence overseas, have limited manpower requirements, possess superior endurance, and potentially operate at less cost in the long term. While it is unlikely that the Navy would be able to deploy vast fleets of drone ships in the future, by networking an unmanned vessel into fire control and navigation systems of larger manned ships, the navy could augment its capabilities without needing larger, more manpower intensive, and more complex hulls. 

Culturally, this may not be the easiest change to embrace. The Navy’s identity is at sea, not in a desk chair. However, it appears that the Navy has done an admirable job of adopting this new technology. There are already two Large Unmanned Surface Vessels (LUSVs) being tested at sea, and the Navy announced $2.7 Billion in funding for LUSV programs in its 2020 Budget.[xix] Furthermore, in May of this year, the Navy stood up a “experimental squadron” to better understand what can be achieved with unmanned systems.[xx] This offers a strong hope for the employment of these platforms in the future.

However, the Navy cannot forget that (for now at least) its most important element will be its personnel. Manpower and readiness issues represent the greatest challenge the fleet faces, and no amount of excitement around strategic concepts or capabilities can cover it up. The twenty-first century presents new challenges and exciting opportunities, but at its core, the Navy is still centered around the human being, just as the Royal Navy was in 1916, and just as the Russian Navy was in 1904.


[i] “The Inside Story of an American Warship Doomed by Its Own Navy,” ProPublica, February 6, 2019,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] NAVY FORCE STRUCTURE Actions Needed to Ensure Proper Size and Composition of Ship Crews, Research Report No. GAO-17-413 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2017),19.

[iv] “The Inside Story of an American Warship Doomed by Its Own Navy.”

[v] Nathan Martin, “Improving Maintenance Culture to Retain Sailors,” Proceedings, July 2019,

[vi] “The Inside Story of an American Warship Doomed by Its Own Navy.”

[vii] Mark Faram, “How the Navy Got to Be 6K Sailors Short at Sea,” Navy Times, March 25, 2019,

[viii] “Battle of Jutland,” Commonwealth War Graves Commission, accessed September 26, 2019,

[ix] Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2012), 47.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid, 72.

[xiii] Ibid, 97.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Nicholas Papastratigakis, Russian Imperialism and Naval Power, Military Strategy and the Build-up to the Russo-Japanese War (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2011), 53.

[xvi] Ibid, 53.

[xvii] J.N. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05 (New York: State University of New York Press, 1986).

[xviii] Martin, “Improving Maintenance Culture to Retain Sailors.”

[xix] “Navy Claims a Strong Technical Foundation Ahead of Testing New Classes of Unmanned Ships.” USNI News, September 9, 2019,

[xx] Allen Cone, “Navy’s Zumwalt Destroyers to Join Drone Ships in New Experimental Squadron,” UPI, May 23, 2019,

One thought on “Keeping the Navy Ship Shape: Assessing Lessons from the Past

  1. This gun-decking is a product of a generational failure and a drift apart from traditional naval leadership training (deployed, not in a classroom) and promotion metrics.
    Having lived from Calendar thru Phase maintenance planning, both during peace and war, and 25 year old aircraft that were full mission capable putting fused bombs on target first pass, naval officers should be evaluated based on performance deployed, not during dissociated tours such as PG school.

    Those ships that were struck by other vessels had nothing to do with their maintenance or gun-decking; but were a direct result of sub-standard training and supervision the general command climate on the bridge, lack of leadership at the lowest levels, and a lack of seamanship that even the basic Officer Candidate receives in ship handling classes and actual practical training. Where were the watches? What good is AIS or any other automated system if the weak link remains the sailor at the helm, and how do we qualify surface warfare officers these days?

    I have had worked both 3M systems in my day, and know the difference in attitudes towards deferring maintenance in the air and surface warfare communities. But I do know that the ship’s CHENG and the Aviation Maintenance Control Officer are the impetus for their respective maintenance efforts. But the Chief Petty Officers put the attention to detail and drive the quality and training within their areas and crews they are responsible for.

    We need to return to the traditional promotion system for our officers and senior enlisted, the innate dedication to duty throughout the ranks, and realize that simulators and classroom training do not make a ship handler anymore than an aviator. The most important element in our weapon systems or performance of our duties is the one between a sailor’s ears.

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