Moving the Navy/CIVMAR Integration Experiment Forward

     The contributions of Civilian Mariners (CIVMARS) from Military Sealift Command (MSC) are normally associated with the Combat Logistics mission; however, recent experiments with USS PONCE and other hybrid-manned ships demonstrate a compelling case for further CIVMAR integration into U.S. Naval units.  MSC has been in existence since 1949 as an operator of non-naval government ships, in its current name and organization since 1970, and an operator of naval service support ships since 1972. The Navy first experimented with the assignment of CIVMARs to combatant ships in 2004, when MSC personnel were assigned to the USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20). Subsequent to that first trial the Navy has also re-assigned its Safeguard class salvage ships completely to MSC control and converted substantial parts of the ship’s complement of the tenders USS Emory S. Land and USS Frank Cable. Most recently the Navy assigned CIVMAR’s to the first Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) USS Ponce, formerly LPD 15 forward deployed in the Persian Gulf.  When the Navy decided to reverse the decommissioning of PONCE, the 360 billets were liquidated and the only means of manning the ship in haste were CIVMARs and Individual Augmentees (IA’s) from the Fleet. Ponce’s proven worth after one year of operations presents an attractive means for delivering capability at a reduced cost when considering Ponce is operating with 140 fewer personnel than the naval version of the Landing Platform Dock (LPD). Questions remain whether the low cost of employing CIVMAR’s minimum manning methods can help conserve Navy resources for other priorities?

     The first efforts to integrate CIVMAR’s into combatant naval vessel crews came in the early 2000’s as the Navy’s inventory of conventional steam-powered ships plummeted due to age and replacement ships employment of different propulsion systems. Many Civilian mariners are former naval personnel and have extensive experience in the operation of steam propulsion plants. They were considered an ideal choice to keep aging naval steam plants properly resourced and functional at a lower cost than current naval personnel who would require re-training to operate legacy propulsion systems. A 2005 report by the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) warmly endorsed the concept of using CIVMARs in a host of positions on combatant ships. The study also recommended that the Navy adopt many CIVMAR low cost/minimum manning techniques as a way to both improve U.S. warship maintenance and operation. The experiments on Ponce and other ships have tested many of the CNA report’s proposals. The results indicate some distinct organizational, operational, and cultural differences in the MSC and U.S. Navy. An updated version of the CNA 2005 report is in order. It should determine what strengths and weaknesses greater assignment of CIVMAR’s to combatant ships would bring, as well as consider what CIVMAR best practices the Navy might adopt in order to reduce costs but preserve combat efficiency.

     The CIVMAR community has a number of professional strengths. First and foremost, CIVMAR’s emphasize pre-planned and economical operations. “Routine” and “predictable” is entirely in line with their merchant background. Their mission is to move a ship and its cargo on as straight a line as possible from point (a) to point (b) at its most economical speed and do so with the bare minimum of fuel, personnel, and other resources. To meet these requirements, CIVMARs operate precisely and professionally in all ship handling and engineering procedures. Deck officers are licensed with a significant higher level of navigation skills than that of the standard U.S. Navy officer and engineering officers not only orchestrate and manage the engineering plants, but are hands-on operators who actually conduct many equipment repairs. CIVMARs are paid by the hour and are on the ship to work. The Commanding Officer of Ponce put it very succinctly as follows; “You will not find TVs in CIVMAR workcenters. They are “workcenters” not “entertainment centers…and when you pay by the hour, you manage by the hour.”

     The CIVMAR community also brings cultural disadvantages that make integration with naval personnel a challenge. The CIVMAR focus on regular, cost efficient operation does not always lend itself to the non-routine and unpredictable operations of a combatant warship. CIVMAR Engineering officers do not “tear down” equipment for inspection or as part of regular maintenance. They do not drill down equipment during casualty control drills,  shift equipment daily, or subject their plants to excessive changes in speed that are regular operating characteristics of warships. They are very proficient in damage control, but if an MSC ship suffers damage, the operating ethos is to save the ship rather than fight the ship. CIVMAR bridge officers and topside personnel are equally devoted to routine rather than multi-disciplinary operations. The bridge on an MSC ship operates with a fraction of the personnel assigned to a U.S. Navy condition 1 or even condition 3 watch, but the expectations for what that watch is capable of are significantly reduced. CIVMAR deck officers drive in straight lines. They are unaccustomed to steaming boxes or formation operations and they are not familiar with concepts like navigating swept channels and are unfamiliar with maneuvering to avoid missiles/torpedoes. The concept of having the Combat Information Center (CIC) disagree with their course and speed recommendations can be disconcerting to some CIVMAR Mates of the Watch (MOW’s). Some of these cultural divisions between MSC and USN are significant, and would require a good deal of patience and maturity on the part of both communities for effective integration within the lifelines.

     Despite these big differences, the CIVMAR experiment on USN ships to date has been generally successful, especially in getting further service life out of aging steam-powered ships. There are aspects of MSC operation from which the U.S Navy could certainly benefit. The MSC system of engineering watch standing and record keeping (both automatic and paper records) was sighted by several USN officers as more efficient and easier to use than current Navy procedures. A CIVMAR-style engineering watch organization might be beneficial on diesel-powered amphibious warfare ships like the Landing Ship Dock (LSD) class where consistent, most economical speeds are more the norm than in surface combatant vessels. Navy Officers of the Deck (OODs) and Navigators would benefit from the U.S. Coast Guard-tested standards of CIVMAR navigation knowledge. The Navy might consider the assignment of a CIVMAR navigator to smaller Navy ships in a role similar to the Master position of the days of sail. Such an officer would be subordinate to the executive officer and perhaps serve as the actual navigator and principle advisor to the ship’s commanding officer on all aspects of good seamanship. The amount of training potential embodied in this individual is enormous and benefits might include an enhanced knowledge of navigation at all levels of the ship’s company. A similar position might be considered for a ship’s engineering department in the form of a Maintenance expert along the lines of the old ship’s carpenter from the sailing navy.

     In conclusion, the U.S. Navy has proven success with using CIVMAR’s to gain additional service life from aging ships. Successful integration of these two different cultures on combatant ships remains to be seen, but the model seems to be working on the ships where it is currently employed.  Finally, the U.S. Navy should consider further exploiting the wealth of knowledge inherent in the CIVMAR ranks by assigning senior CIVMAR experts to smaller combatants as navigation and maintenance experts. The education benefit for all hands in such an assignment is substantial and might significantly improve naval standards for navigation and maintenance in smaller crews at minimum cost. The Navy should also commission a follow-up study to the 2005 CNA report on CIVMAR manning on Navy ships in order to re-assess those concepts in light of results from the experiments on Ponce, Mount Whitney, and the submarine tenders. The CIVMAR experiment has been useful, but needs a re-evaluation based on these recent experiences in order to move effectively forward.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. He posts here at CIMSEC, and at under the pen name of “Lazarus”.

3 thoughts on “Moving the Navy/CIVMAR Integration Experiment Forward”

  1. I think perhaps the author is looking at CIVMARs through naval lenses and has some of the history wrong? First off MSC CIVMARS started taking over sailor UNREP duties on the Erna Elizabeth back in 1972. The “recent” experiments aka hybrid crewing are really exceptional situations because naval auxilaries for a long time (since 1950s) have been fully crewed by CIVMARs plus MIDEPT (Military Departments) and MILDETs.

    Part of the value of the MSC crewing system based on merchant marine experience is that MSC has a “pool” of CIVMARs not assigned to ships but preparing to go onboard. MSC ships do not have apprentices but rather the crew are all journeymen. They as the article should have noted are all USCG licensed with additional training as required for specific ship types, and by the Navy such as ship protection. CIVMARs are salaried employees in the Excepted Service (not hourly).

    I was at MSC HQS before and during DS/S and I can tell you it was the merchant mariners who were skilled at steam plants not former naval personnel. Many of the old MARAD ships has steam plants and equally old engineers to operate them. Indeed to this day their are MSC engineers who keep their steam plant endorsements. Which also follows the merchant marine model of having deck and engineer officers on separate career paths. Deck officers can be Masters but Chief Engineers can not (unless they are dual licensed).

    The implication from the article that CIVMARs do not diverge from routine engineering is perhaps misleading? The MSC engineering practice is NOT to disassemble or strip down systems unless they are broken or analysis indicates rework is necessary. It is NOT driven by NSTM and maintenance cards.

    Likewise the “deck officers only drive in straight lines” is off the mark. First off when Romeo is flying one wants to drive straight. Secondly, there are many more ship types that CIVMARS serve on which require significantly complex ship handling. And there are naval officers onboard who advise the Mate on Watch how to conduct naval manuevers (while there are some CIVMARs who are also Naval Reservists and academy grads with those skills). MSC mates i.e. deck officers get more ship handling training up front than naval officers AND their license is “on the bulkhead”. Their culture is to drive the ship right using good bridge management skills and a small bridge team (and not someone back in CIC).

    It should be noted here that MSC CIVMARS are now performing the duties of old navy ratings like radioman and electronics tech, and there are CIVMAR Operations Chiefs and even Surface Rescue Swimmers.

    To me the MOST important characteristic of CIVMARs are their LONG experience with the ships they serve on. Many mariners go back to the same ship or class for years. They KNOW their ships!

    So it is not so much what CIVMARs can learn from the Navy as what the Navy can learn from MSC’s systems of crewing, ship management, and maitenance. I cannot wait to see USNS in front of some more ship types (T-LCC, T-AS, T-AFSB Ugh~) with FULL CIVMAR crews augmented as needed by integral MILDETS. I helped get two T-LKAs almost into service (a Borda story).

    Below is a good read about hybrid crew on “USS Ponce Crew – One Team One Mission” which can be seen in MSC’s Sealift newsletter at this link:

    “I see the great potential and value a hybrid crew like Ponce’s can provide the Navy,” said Rodgers. “It is not ‘the’ model, but ‘a’ model. We’re not better or worse, just different and cheaper with proven value to the AOR. We’re not perfect yet, but we are on the right trajectory. Commanding Ponce is a rare honor, and I’m privileged to lead a distinctive ship and such an extraordinary crew.” Capt. Jon P. Rodgers.

    For more on the history of the US Merchant Marine goto this link:

    1. As a former MILDET OIC, I think there would be a lot of lessons that could be learned on most USS ships. However, a typical CG has more people on a Sea and Anchor Detail than there are on a T-AE. While some of the reduced manning & requirements are being implemented into the LCS & DDG 1000 concepts, the Navy didn’t make all these requirements in a bubble. From Aft Steering to the person manning the Fathometer these “watch positions” were more than likely added as the findings from some investigation.
      It was not unusual to meet a CIVMAR that had spent more years on a specific USNS than most sailors spent at sea in their entire career. That’s the type of corporate knowledge that just can’t be taught during a sailors “Computer Based Training” courses.
      At the same time, because it is run like a business, you will see casualties wait until “normal work hours” for technicians that get a “two hour call-out” to fix something that is pretty simple. Along the same lines, a lot of topside maintenance was less than optimal compared to most ships – not involved in the minimal manning concept. Overall, I thought the CIVMARs did a great job, there were fewer people, but that also equated to fewer problems. They realized they were there to do a job and they did the job. Also, there is a lot less “middle-management” required when accounting for the difference in the maturity level of an average 40+ year old CIVMAR versus that of a teenaged junior sailor.

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