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Nothing new here

Machines may replace crew on Royal Navy’s warships of future
The proposed multi-role support ships could need a crew of about 100, a quarter of the total on today’s vessels

We do, after all, use guns these days rather than boarding and fisticuffs.

Machines replacing human labour is normal.

38 thoughts on “Nothing new here”

  1. Nonsense

    Support vessels do not have crews of 400

    Virtually no warships have crews that size

    Every class of warships has fewer personnel than it’s predecessor

  2. Current Type 45 destroyer: about 8,000 tons displacement, 190 crew.
    Replaced the Type 42s; 5,000 tons and 250 crew.
    Before that, we had the County-class: 6,000 tons, about 500 crew.
    And postwar we’d built the Daring-class, 3,000 tons and 300 crew.

    Crew are expensive: not just to recruit, train and retain, but to build into ships. They need space and facilities: not just for comfort (you wouldn’t be allowed to keep prisoners today, in the messdecks of a Type 42) but for safety.

    One thing the RN is ahead of the US at, is getting crew size down; partly by technical innovation, partly just because we expect our sailors to be versatile.

    It was a while ago, but visiting a US missile cruiser (the Khe Sanh it turned out that her engine rooms – four gas turbines, nothing scary or complicated – had a large round-the-clock monitoring team, with a number of sailors whose job it was to each watch one instrument panel, and call the alarm if any gauges showed anomaly; nothing else. Apparently automated systems “weren’t trusted” compared to having sailors spend eight hours a day each (so, three needed for each station) staring at the dials waiting for something to happen.

    On the RN ship I was based on, HMS Manchester, the Deputy Marine Engineering Officer and a couple of stokers made regular rounds of the mostly-unmanned engine rooms (also four gas turbines, albeit a different configuration) and had an automatic system to alert them if there was a problem: and the junior stokers had a lot of “actions on” to deal with minor issues, like telling the Bridge “we’re taking the starboard Tyne down for ten minutes for a compressor wash” which on the US ship had to go all the way up to the command team for approval: on a British ship, a killick (leading hand, equivalent to an Army corporal) could make it so unless overruled.

    (Another point from the Times article is that we haven’t had sailors painting ship for decades: we stopped using bucket-and-brush paint, with “if you’ve got nothing to do, get a needle gun and an paintbrush” a long time ago. Modern naval paint is advanced polymer (like epoxy resin) that’s tougher, longer-lasting, provides much better protection… and needs to be applied by specialists in a controlled environment. Hence why you see warships tented up in Portsmouth to be repainted)

  3. I was under the, perhaps misguided, impression that warships were deliberately overmanned in order to provide replacements for casualties received when in action.

    Maybe it’s just due to Civil Service manning-levels after all.. 🙂

  4. Warship complements are finely judged to meet all likely necessities and missions

    They are not over manned

  5. Not missing a chance, as ex-embarked troops, to revive this quote, almost on topic:

    No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned… a man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.

    Samuel Johnson

  6. Men in jail had access to Sodomy and the Lash but not Rum.

    US carriers have about 6,000 mariners on board. At some point in the proceedings the support staff must outweigh the active sailors.

    Apparently though, they no longer have stokers shovelling the uranium into the furnaces, but use pellets in hoppers. So there is a saving in labour there.

  7. In the movie ‘Battle of Britain’ the point was made that it was losing the pilots that was the problem, not the planes. In the future there probably won’t be dozens of bryclreem boys, just a few blokes in a bunker at RAF Waddington

    This was something lost to technological advance a few years ago (and political / service infighting). Makes the hairs on my arms stand up:

  8. Asimov again: The Feeling of Power. Robotic controlled military battleships and missiles are too expensive, so they replace the expensive robots with cheap, expendable humans.

  9. @ottokring

    US Navy practices are different, their carriers are steam ships which attract a huge engineering team, not helped by their lack of automation.

    Many of the 6000 are related to servicing/launching/deck handling and rearming/fuelling the air group

    Currently those tasks cannot be automated

  10. One of the reasons for the high manning levels on US warships is the heavy emphasis on damage control in-depth. In the end, this comes down to larger numbers of live bodies. Not saying it’s justified or sensible, but that’s one reason why.
    Another reason is the imbalance between the number of officers vs the number of shipboard slots available to them. A shipboard assignment is a vital ‘punch’ on the ticket of a career officer, and the net effect is that far-more executive authority is reserved for officers only, to justify their roles on board. As others have observed, many activities that are left to senior enlisted in other navies are jealously-guarded by officers on US ships to preserve their roles and functions on board.



  11. “Every class of warships has fewer personnel than it’s predecessor” isn’t entirely accurate, as @Jason Lynch’s figures show, due to changes in what’s expected of ships in successive classes. Destroyers have trended up in size which has somewhat offset the downwards pressure on personnel. They’ve ended up far bigger than they started out, but with a similar number of personnel to where they were before WW2, after going through a period where complement had grown substantially as the ships did.

    If anyone wants some context to Jason’s figures, the clipper Cutty Sark (launched 1869 and preserved in Greenwich) had a displacement of 2,134 tonnes; Nelson’s HMS Victory (launched 1765 and preserved in Portsmouth) was 3,556 t; the ironclad HMS Warrior (launched 1860 and also preserved in Portsmouth) came in at 9,284 t. That gives a rough idea how much destroyers have grown since the inter-war period. In terms of some preserved cruisers, destroyers have long gone past the 4,287 t of HMS Caroline (launched 1914, preserved in Belfast) but British ones are still some way short of HMS Belfast (launched 1938, preserved in the Thames) at 11,553 tons. The ill-fated Zumwalt class, which the Americans consider a destroyer, has reached 15,907 t though. That’s not all that far short of the revolutionary 1906 battleship HMS Dreadnought.

    The Royal Navy’s first [torpedo boat] destroyers were tiny. The first ordered, the original HMS Daring (launched 1893), displaced 292 t fully laden and had a complement of 46-53 and the first delivered was HMS Havock (also 1893), displacing 279 t with a complement of 46. Compare these to the 8,500 t of a Type 45 and a modern destroyer is 30 times larger! Though with only four times the crew. The River class built 1903-05 might be the first RN destroyers in the modern sense, but even they only brought the displacement up to 580 t and the complement to 70.

    Among the final pre-war orders were the Admiralty M class, built 1914-16, which brought the displacement up to 1,118 t but the complement was still only 80. Displacements and complements continued to rise during WWI. One of the last destroyers completed in time to serve in WWI was HMS Voyager launched 1918, a late war design (W class) displacing 1,470 tons full load and with a complement of 119.

    Destroyers continued to grow larger and more capable in the inter-war period. The A class built 1928-31 displaced up to 1,819 t with a complement of 138; the powerful Tribal class built from 1936 displaced up to 2,560 t with a complement of 190. It’s at this point that personnel become comparable to a modern destroyer, but the displacement was still under a third of a Type 45.

    Jason covered everything post-WW2. But as a mid-war design I’ll throw in HMS Barfleur, launched 1943 and the only Battle-class destroyer to see action in WW2. She displaced 2,325 tons standard / 3,430 tons full load, and had a complement of 268. On the other hand the Weapon class were designed as a smaller counterpart of the Battle class, with HMS Battleaxe (launched 1945) displacing 1,980 tons (standard) / 2,825 tons (full) with a complement of 256 (other ships in her class lowering this to 234). So I don’t want to suggest every class was always followed by a larger one; the RN was historically (though not since WW2) content to have quite different sizes of destroyer on order, partly since some shipyards couldn’t make the larger ones. But the overall trend was towards increasing weight and manpower and this continued right through to the post-war guided missile destroyers Jason listed. It’s only in the last few generations that complements have fallen despite rising displacement, though the ratio of man to machine was obviously turning in machine’s favour before that.

  12. Keep in mind that the early destroyers (pre-WWI) were designed for really short range. You could sleep in them, but it was really uncomfortable – as in you had a chance of getting water on you if the sea was rough.

    USS Zumwalt is supposed to have a 4400 mile range, which is likely well over 100 hours of cruising. In other words, there’s quarters, and they’re about as comfortable as you can have on a warship. If you get wet while sleeping, it’s a practical joke or it’s sinking.

  13. Another thing to remember is that in the past frigates and destroyers had tasks , originally to hunt down torpedo boats, later as anti submarine screens or escorts for bigger ships.
    Even in the 1980s there were specialised ships such as the Leanders for ASW or the 42s which were primarily anti aircraft with ship-to-ship capability.
    Now a destroyer is expected to take on every possible role, including attacking the enemy’s mainland. Thus they are now the size of WW2 light cruisers with a third the crew.

  14. I think the point is that babies have always used technology to drive down the numbers of crew members

    This isn’t a modern feature

    Crews are scoped at what is required and there are no passengers, and all opportunities are taken to reduce numbers

    The Times article is nonsense

  15. Bloke in North Dorset

    Its not just the 2 navies that have a different approach to the use of manpower. As a Royal Signals radio technician I’d be responsible for the whole system: transmitter, receiver, any crypto equipment, cables, aerials, masts and anything else needed to keep equipment serviceable.

    When I was in Germany in the early ’80s we had some American kit that came in one air transportable box, about 5′ tall by 3′ by 3′. I wasn’t allowed to do anything to it other that just check its was connected and set up correctly. It failed once so I had to take it to Rammstein to get repaired. The American workshop there has one person for each of those pieces of equipment.

    I don’t know who was more amazed: me at the number of people or them that one person would be expected to maintain everything.

    On the plus side their training turn around was very quick, measured in weeks. Our basic radio training was 9 months at Catterick for adults recruits or 3 years at the apprentice college for boys, then another 9 months to get to Class 1 Sgt, as I was then, so not quick and easy to replace.

  16. Heh. Pops told me the answer the weight thing decades back. County Class, sure, they’re destroyers. But the politicians had said that the RN just wouldn’t need cruisers again so they weren’t going to pay for any. So, RN designed a cruiser and called it a destroyer.

    Repeat down the classes and years.

  17. @BiND 3:41

    I used to work with a chum who had been in the Army and had gone on a joint exercise with the US army. He got talking to one of their soldiers who proceeded to show off his kit. When it came to discussing his rifle my pal asked how long it took to disassemble and clean it. The reply was “I dunno, I’ve got a guy who does that.”

  18. But the politicians had said that the RN just wouldn’t need cruisers again

    Tasks and roles again. The RN was to be a NATO/Cold War fleet, hence the Harrier carriers, which were supposed to operate close to the European mainland and interdict Soviet ships.

    Falklands and the Gulf Wars rather buggered that thinking.

  19. This is a long-running trend.

    Classic ‘age of sail’ muzzle-loading long guns needed a crew of, what, 8, just to operate one gun (was it 6 or 8? I should have read enough Patrick O’Brien to know)

    Breech-loading guns needed a smaller crew, because you didn’t need to pull them in to load and run them out again to fire.

    Now we’ve got auto-loaders which need, what, 1 or 2?

    Or has it got to the point already where one man can operate several guns? If not, it won’t be far away.

  20. @RichardT: 5/6 crew operating the integrated targetting system controlling several guns/weapon systems in a well-protected war-room in the case of dutch dessies.
    Dunno about the UK/US setups.

  21. Yeah, didn’t want to suggest that earlier destroyers had equivalent roles or capabilities to the earlier ones. The opposite in fact, the ever increasing burden of capabilities was driving the increased size. I think there are stories of WWI admirals bemoaning how huge the destroyers of WW2 had got, but they were now expected to operate across the Atlantic and protect escorted vessels from submarines, aircraft, fast attack craft… and German destroyers were even larger, some twice the size of British ones.

    @Otto, “they are now the size of WW2 light cruisers with a third the crew” – Town-class light cruisers had a complement of about 750 (HMS Belfast, as flagship, more like 800) so without exaggeration you can opt for “quarter” rather than “third”. Extraordinary really.

    For comparison with the Yanks: a more like-for-like comparison with the Type 45 than the Zumwalt might be the Arleigh Burke class Flight III, somewhat larger than the type 45 (displacing 9,496 long tons) but a complement of 380, so about double. In fact that complement isn’t much different to the WW2 era Allen M. Sumner or Gearing classes (both about 350), or the Cold War guided missile destroyers of the Spruance class (334) or Kidd class (348). Does make the RN’s reductions in manpower requirement look much bigger in comparison.

  22. Bloke in North Dorset

    Mr Womby,

    I guess he wasn’t infantry or elite forces as being able to strip and clean your weapon quickly is central to staying alive, but sounds about right for the rest of their army when I served.

    The difference being everyone in the British army is a soldier first and gets issued a personal weapon and it is their responsibility to keep it clean and serviceable. One of the tasks of the duty sergeant in a lot of units I served in was to accompany the armourer as a random sample of weapons were stripped down and checked and woe betide anyone if their personal weapon was found to be dirty.

  23. Hello Anon

    I was thinking of the 1930s 6″ Leanders that were about 9,000 odd tons and would have a complement of 550-650.

    The likes of the Belfast or Jamaica had indeed a far greater complement.

  24. On the subject of crew complements and writers failing to understand numbers, I think it’s been calculated from in-canon numbers that the Starship Enterprise would have one person per thousand cubic metres, and it would be a miracle to actually meet anybody.

  25. @BiND 5:15

    You just jogged my memory of 20 years: I now remember the American soldier was a radio tech.

  26. Jgh.. Well yes.. But the Enterprise-class, as an armed exploration vessel, had a hella lot of gear on board that would not “Accommodate Crew”…

    The dish holds *all* of the Quarters and sundries, the rest is engines, weapons, equipment, storage, hangars, etc… and their service corridors. Oh, and the combat command station…
    So While the Enterprise is big, its effective volume that is actually built for people to hang around in is relatively small.

  27. The dish of the Enterprise-D has about 9 *million* square feet of floorspace….. and a crew of 625. That’s 14400 square feet per person – a square 120 feet on each side. In comparison, that’s 25 times the size of my flat. source

  28. Yes… And it contains its own impulse propulsion system, life support and artificial gravity generators, power core, the main shuttle hangars, escape pod bays, auxiliary shield projectors, phaser projectors and their power banks, auxilliary photon torpedo launchers, storage, a complete village worth in offices, labs, entertainment and all the stuff you need to y’know…. Do Things and prevent Cabin Fever. And all the corridors and infrastructure to connect and power all that.
    There’s canonical blueprints and all of the D, y’know…

    There’s a difference between total floor space and effective floor space. Don’t be Spud…
    It’s roomy enough to be comfortable for long times, but it’s not got the endless acres of Real Estate your calculations come up with.

  29. TW @ 3.59, “Repeat down the classes and years”.

    I remember the development of HMS Ark Royal during the seventies and eighties, specifically that she was a ‘through deck cruiser’ and not an aircraft carrier.

  30. In comparison, the World Space Patrol Fireball XL series were ( will be ) 300 feet long and carry a crew of three plus a robot co pilot.
    Most of that is engine and weapons.

  31. … and Dan Dare and Digby operated their rocket ship with just the two of them (not sure how big it was, though) 🙂

  32. 1. What ships are they running *now* with 400 person crews? In the US, we have famously overweight-for-class ships and an Arleigh Burke destroyer has about 300 – which is pretty normal for a cruiser (which the AB basically displaces as much as). Then there’s a big jump to the carriers at 2,500 crew. Amphibs might have 400 – if you count air detachments assigned to them for deployments.

    2. The US has already done this experiment – it didn’t work out very well. There’s still a massive problem with the automation (it likes to break down) and you still have a ton of maintenance – and no, it can’t all just be done while the ship is in home port by civilian contractors.

    3. Lastly, the reason warships have such large crews is *redundancy* – what do you do when someone is sick or dead?

    As a personal anecdote, I served on an FFG-7 class frigate. These were designed in the 1980’s and came with autopilots and chairs for the helm station. The chairs were cut out by the first post-commissioning crew and the autopilot was never used except when we were bored and wanted to test if it still worked;)

  33. Also, we practice damage control to a level not done by the majority of other navies. To do that you need the bodies on hand.

    In the end, you can certainly get a 300 person crew down to 50-75 – if you accept that you’ve eliminated most of your resilience and that the ship will spend 9 months of every 18 laid up for maintenance and fold like wet carboard the first time it takes a missile hit.

  34. @Aggers

    “What ships are they running *now* with 400 person crews? In the US, we have famously overweight-for-class ships and an Arleigh Burke destroyer has about 300 – which is pretty normal for a cruiser (which the AB basically displaces as much as).”

    For the Flight I and Flight II Arleigh Burke class that’s right but haven’t the new Flight IIA and Flight III bumped this up to 380? See e.g. and

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