Big boats and big risks
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.