- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

ABOARD THE USS CORONADO — Chief engineer Andrew Busk wears jeans and a T-shirt to work, and he doesn’t salute when the captain walks by. Although Mr. Busk is in charge of the engine room of the U.S. 7th Fleet’s temporary flagship, he isn’t in the Navy.

But Mr. Busk could be the look of the Navy’s future.

Reflecting increasing pressure to cut costs and shift personnel to where they are most needed, the USS Coronado recently sailed into Yokosuka, the fleet’s home port just south of Tokyo, with a mostly civilian crew in an experiment officials say could have broad implications for the way the Navy staffs its ships around the world.

Stretched thin by tight fiscal restraints and the demands of supporting operations in Iraq and elsewhere, the Navy is streamlining its forces and rethinking its deployments. As part of the changes, it is cutting nearly 8,000 personnel for an estimated annual savings of nearly $1 billion.

The Coronado experiment fits right in with the streamlining motif.

Though the top command, weapons and other key positions are reserved for military personnel, civilians outnumber military sailors on the San Diego-based Coronado 153 to 117. The size of the crew is also significantly smaller about 200 fewer than usual.

Officers say the crew reduction was possible mainly because of the experience the civilians bring with them. Though most Navy ships carry many young sailors still learning how to do their jobs, the civilians aboard the Coronado are seasoned mariners who often can do the work of several trainees.

“If they want to save money, we can do the job cheaper and more effectively,” Mr. Busk said, adding that he was able to cut the Coronado’s engine room staff from 18 to three by increasing automation and cutting redundancy.

Unlike their enlisted counterparts, civilians can be let go as soon as they are no longer needed. Though they are paid about twice as much as people in uniform, they don’t get many of the military’s benefits, including its retirement package.

The program is patterned after the use of mainly civilian crews on supply ships, tankers, tugboats and other vessels in what is called the Military Sealift Command. One of the command’s main missions is to position dozens of ships off the shores of trouble spots around the world to supply military operations.

“More than 100 ships combine sailors and federal service employees,” said Coronado Capt. Chris Noble.

But the use of civilians on warships challenges some deep traditions.

Coronado Master Chief Petty Officer Bill Porter noted that, unlike merchant marine ships, the Navy has to plan for the risk that crew members may be killed in combat, and have crew ready on board to act as a backup. For that reason, officials say, they do not plan to send the leaner, mixed crews on combat missions.

“The Navy has some fat built in by design,” Master Chief Petty Officer Porter said. “The end product may be that this is not efficient for every ship in the Navy. It’s not so much can we reduce our manning, but should we?”

Capt. Noble said the presence of the civilians, who have brought up the crew’s average age significantly, has changed the general feeling on board.

“I’ve had people with Type II diabetes, heart attacks, a pacemaker,” he said. “As long as you’re able-bodied, you can be a civilian mariner.”

Even so, the arrangement already has shown great potential, although the pilot program is still under way, Capt. Noble said.

“It’s a whole different culture,” he said. “But it feels right.”

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