Thursday, March 09, 2006

Big boats and big risks

Babble on.

It seems that the British and French are going all Concorde-in-flat-grey on us:

Britain and France finally signed the deal to build three new aircraft carriers. This followed several years of negotiations. What's surprising about all this is not the large size of the carriers (about 58,000 tons, the largest ships ever for both navies), or the unique cooperation (two of the carriers are British, one is French, and both nations will cooperate on design and construction, with the Brits taking the lead.) No, what is amazing about all this is the aggressive plans for automation. These "Queen Elizabeth" class carriers are planning on having a ships crew of 800 (or less) and an air wing complement of 600 personnel. Currently, you need a ship crew of about 2,000 for a carrier that size. The reduction in size of the air wing personnel is even more aggressive.

Ambitious doesn't cover the half of it.

Warships have a lot of unique functions, like damage control, and manning many systems for high alert, and combat, situations. Some crew reduction ideas are pretty obvious, like installing conveyers to help move supplies when ships are replenished at sea, or even when in port. Many maintenance tasks can be eliminated by using materials that require less effort to keep clean, and are just as safe as those used in the past. It's also been noted that many maintenance tasks can be left for civilians to do when the ship is in port. Most navies has also not kept up on automation. There is still a tendency to have sailors "standing watch" to oversee equipment that, with the addition of some sensors, can be monitored from a central location. If there is a problem, a repair team can be sent. But in the meantime, thousands of man hours a week are saved, and another few dozen sailors are not needed.

I've never done more than a day-outing on a warship. But I do know a great many folks who have spent years of their life on big grey ships, and from what I understand, ships don't always work tickety-boo. Electical systems go on the fritz, fires break out, bad things happen. And the first people to respond to those bad things are those on watch in the affected area.

My concern with reducing manning levels isn't that fewer sailors couldn't handle the ship perfectly well in normal operations, it's that they couldn't handle the ship if a large number of things went wrong all at once.

On an automated ship, I'd worry about overload. Smoke in the engine spaces, send a team. Man overboard, send a team. Explosion on the port side, send a...what, no teams left to send?

Remember, warships are built for war, which is exactly when things tend to go wrong in multiples. In situations like that, too much automation can be as crippling as too little.

I'm sure people far brighter than me, and with far more of a personal stake in the success of this move have already thought this problem through and are working on solutions. But it still makes me nervous. Best of luck to them, and I'm sure the navies of the rest of the world will be watching.

Babble off.


At 9:49 a.m., Blogger Chris Taylor said...

Increased automation will be a good thing for the RN, and naval forces in general.

For example, the Virginia-class guided missile cruiser, commissioned in 1976, had a complement of 578 crew. Seven years later, the first of her sucessors are commissioned, the Ticonderoga class. They are much more capable ships of similar size, and require only 364 crew. Did the loss of those 214 crew impair the Tico's warfighting capabilities? Not a bit.

In fact, if you look at the Tico link, you'll see a nice set of graphics which will identify the positions that were consolidated and eliminated by automation. The USN managed to reduce GQ-condition bridge and engineering watch-standing to what would have been considered below-skeleton-crew levels beforehand.

This will be a good step forward for the RN, assuming the French connection doesn't SNAFU it somewhere.

At 11:04 a.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Chris, I get that. But there's a bottom end to the downsizing efficiencies. At some point your ship's complement becomes too small to do the job, because while you can automate process, you can't automate creative solutions.

I figure they're smart enough not to cross that line, but that's the worry.

At 1:19 p.m., Blogger sirbarrett said...

I don't think I'd like living in a boat, especially if it was half automated. The good old days were the days of sailing ships, on the wide open sea, holding the steering wheel yourself. And I agree, there's only so much you can do when every procedure has been pre-programmed on an excel sheet.

At 11:01 a.m., Blogger Ghost of a flea said...

While I cannot imagine they are much brighter, it was the good folks at RAND who carried out the first study of reduced complement size as part of a broader set of questions how to reduce aircraft carrier acquisition (and whole-life) costs:

A point of consideration cited: "Operational commanders may be reluctant to accept smaller complements because they would reduce the margin for error in situations threatening ship safety."


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