The Elephant in the Room

Matthew G. Saroff
6 min readJan 2, 2022


As a part of of the US Navy’s fetish with reducing crewing to an absolute minimum, we have the Zumwalt class destroyers and the two types of Litoral Combat Ships.

The former was canceled after 3 ships out of a planned 32, and they are already retiring some of the LCS after less than a decade because they don’t work.

The problem is that for a major surface combatant, you need to crew for maintenance and damage control in combat.

Now the USN is planning to aggressively move into unmanned warships, which wiojld further magnify the problems they are already experiences.

This will not end well:

Two subjects are nearly inescapable in commentary about the U.S. Navy today. The first is the much-maligned, 15-year saga of the littoral combat ship (LCS), which has provided an unfortunate case study for interest group capture, misalignment of ends and means, cost overruns, and engineering failures.

The second subject is more hopeful: proposals for unmanned surface vessels that will deliver cost savings and increase the size of the fleet. As China leap-frogs the United States in raw numbers of ships built and deployed, this subject has acquired great urgency. It includes concepts such as human-machine teaming and autonomous swarming as proposed cost-effective solutions to the numerical asymmetry at sea.

Very little commentary, however, explicitly connects the two subjects. This is unfortunate because, while the LCS is not unmanned, it is further on the unmanned spectrum than any other U.S. Navy vessel in operational use, making it the closest real-world test case for future surface fleet architecture. In fact, the central argument for zero-manning — that removing sailors from ships will save money, allowing the Navy to purchase and field large quantities of vessels for distributed maritime operations — is exactly what the LCS program promised.

In the case of the LCS, this promise was a fallacy for two reasons. First, replacing sailors with technology reduced maintenance at the operator level, but increased it at the regional maintenance center and original equipment manufacturer levels. This raised costs overall, meaning fewer platforms could be purchased. Second, minimal manning made platforms less resilient. Fewer sailors meant fewer problems spotted, and less capacity to fix them while underway. Hence, if fielded in anything approximating combat conditions, the LCS would not remain effective for long. We argue that these two challenges are as — if not more — likely to occur on unmanned ships as they did on minimally manned ones.


Many of the early documents about and analysis of the LCS program stressed affordability, driven by optimal manning, rotational crew-deployment models, and reliance on shore support to reduce the overall life-cycle costs of the platform. There is a simple logic to this: Fewer personnel equals fewer habitability requirements — and hence greater room for combat systems — as well as reduced pay and fewer replenishments at sea.

But removing personnel from ships also means something else: more complex technical systems. Any unmanned piece of equipment is usually more complex than a manned machine assigned to do an equivalent task. This can make routine and corrective maintenance more costly, and also carries hidden costs by way of the high-level training required to conduct maintenance. The LCS was a case in point, as minimal manning drove procurement of systems that required technical expertise from the original equipment manufacturers.

With time, the projected life-cycle cost savings slowly began to diminish as core crew numbers increased by 25 percent, and the number of required shore-support personnel tripled. A similar dynamic is already playing out with early-stage planning for unmanned vessels. But even assuming that these are temporary speed bumps on the way to more mature technology, we can envision other areas where the deficiencies highlighted in the LCS’ minimal-manning model are unlikely to be alleviated by the zero-manning model.

In concept, the LCS manning model envisioned the transition of sailors, and engineers in particular, from a “maintainer-operator” role to that of “operator only.” However, the early LCS hulls faced many equipment casualties at sea, demonstrating the continued need for underway maintenance. Breaking the operator-only mindset proved difficult, as the original equipment manufacturers preserved their monopoly on expertise by keeping a close hold on the intellectual property — in the form of technical manuals, parts, and tools — necessary for maintenance and training. In other words, reducing maintenance at the operator level simply increased it at the intermediate and original manufacturer levels. Manning was not reduced, just transposed.

Of course, the transposition of personnel from the Navy to contractors increases the profit margins of those contractors, which increases the money that they have to create comfortable sinecures for retired admirals, so it’s a win-win for everyone except for the Navy and the taxpayer.


The LCS, for its part, has a famously poor record of resilience, an ongoing problem attributable in part to minimal manning. With fewer sailors onboard to inspect engineering spaces, for example, one hull type suffered repeated engine casualties that simply went unnoticed. Another particularly salient example was the USS Fort Worth’s catastrophic engine failure in 2016, which an investigation attributed to insufficient oversight over watchstanders, reliance on personnel to perform a task they were not officially assigned to and briefed on (such as starting equipment), and the ship’s leadership’s absence from supporting roles due to their focus on a separate engineering casualty. In endorsing the investigation, the commander of the Pacific fleet specifically highlighted the impact that the smaller crew numbers played in the casualty. This was three years after the Navy had already adjusted LCS manning requirements due to crew fatigue and watchstanding shortfalls.

The primary cause of the Fort Worth casualty was operator error, but the Navy has attributed most other LCS engineering failures to design flaws or installation mistakes. In these cases, the problems could not be fixed at sea by design: the LCS operational construct explicitly backstopped minimal-manning with the promise of shore-based contractor support for both preventive and corrective maintenance. As the late Sen. John McCain pointed out, casualties from poor design or installation would disrupt operations far less if the sailors could fix the problem while underway. And the LCS’ survivability testing, which measures a ship and her crew’s ability to “avoid, withstand, and recover from” damage sustained by rough seas or combat, suggests that its minimal crew size would inhibit damage control efforts.

That last bit is why I think that one of the reasons that the Zumwalt’s run was cut short was because it had a glass jaw: It had ½ the crewing of the Burke’s in a hull that was 50% larger, leaving no margin for the necessarily extremely demanding conditions of battle damage.

Warships operations require a different operating model is different from commercial ships. Additional crew is an asset for the former and a cost for the latter, as evidence by the example of the container ship Ever Given, which has a displacement 27½ times of the Arleigh Burk class, and has crewing 1⁄16 of the destroyer.

I think that both economically and socially we are increasingly unable to sustain this sort of wasteful procurement.