Aug 06, 2023

The Elephant in the Engine Room

In her 2022 Coast Guard strategy, Commandant Admiral Linda Fagan charges the service with being “brilliant at the basics” to “advance our mission excellence.”1 Though maintaining the surface fleet for peak operational availability is not specifically listed in the subtenets of “basics,” in a seagoing service with 2,100 ships and boats, it arguably could be the top item. But as the Coast Guard’s change in asset complexity gathers momentum, the basics are not as basic as they used to be—and the service is nearly a decade overdue in adapting to this reality.

The Coast Guard is aware that the surface asset classes coming online have roughly four times as many pieces of equipment installed as the classes they are replacing. The service is beginning to understand the effects of four times as many shipboard points of failure and orders-of-magnitude-more logistics support requirements. Senior leaders are hesitantly embracing the reality that the new ships also are more technically complex, with industrial IT systems connecting every pump, purifier, compressor, and propulsion component.2

However, the service has not embraced the training investment and skills required for the engineers (enlisted and officer) who come with these complicated and interconnected assets. On-the-job platform training via qualification packets is no longer sufficient, and the culture around shipboard maintenance needs a sea change as well.

Already, in the national security cutter fleet, the costly effects of insufficient institutional maintenance knowledge are manifesting in the following spiral:

• Cutter crews avoid performing substantial planned maintenance on individual pieces of equipment while underway for fear of being anything less than fully mission capable when tasked with a new and urgent case. Decades of this are gradually yielding a culture of onboard operating engineers rather than hands-on maintainers—a culture reinforced when secondary watchbill duties constantly pull engineers away from working in the machinery spaces.

• Those operating engineers come home from a long patrol and want—reasonably—time to rest and recuperate after prolonged separation from family and friends. However, cramming all but the most routine upkeep into heavy in-port maintenance periods (performing all the work that was not done on patrol) drives long, intense workdays that are more exhausting than deployments.

• This lack of an in-port work-life balance results in a mix of two mindsets. The first is the so-called rental car mentality, in which contracted maintainers are practically tossed the keys while cutter engineers address pop-up equipment issues, take leave, or go to schools. The second is the “my ship” mentality, in which organic Coast Guard labor is not allowed to perform work without direct crew oversight and cannot accomplish that work because there are not enough adequately qualified crew members around to provide oversight.

• And then there is the inherent tension when crew members take their in-port time to recuperate, because this means they miss participating in the heavy maintenance actions that breed deep familiarity with prime movers and other critical components—an experience and instruction gap that gets worse when factoring in that formal training is often hard to obtain, not given on the same version of the specific equipment, or simply nonexistent.

• The result is a crew trained only in the superficial operation of a complicated vessel and yet tasked with keeping it fully functional for months underway with insufficient available labor hours, inadequate training, and increasingly complex systems.

• That crew is saddled with a lot of unfamiliar and less-than-reliable equipment, which leads to added stress, anxiety, a decrease in the attractiveness of sea duty, and select-and-direct assignment of engineers who have never been on the platform before, including at the most senior levels.

• The resulting crew stress and anxiety result in a widespread decrease in overall confidence in the ability of maintainers to perform significant work without a manufacturer’s tech rep on site or on call, which rolls the spiral back to where this list started.

There are individual technicians of tremendous skill in the fleet; however, their dwindling numbers mean that those who remain must absorb an inordinate amount of their ship’s troubleshooting burden, rendering their sea tours a sustained onslaught of hard problems and impending crises. Burnout is inevitable, and this downward spiral is already in motion—a fact evidenced by the falling attractiveness of sea duty and the council formed in 2021 to address this very problem. As the Coast Guard has sailed on with its increasingly outdated training levels and capability expectations, the collective or average level of institutional surface asset maintenance knowledge is falling.

That is the elephant in the engine room: the yawning gap between the knowledge major cutter engineers are equipped with and the complexity of the equipment they are charged with maintaining. Until the Coast Guard embraces the much deeper and broader skills its shipboard engineers need to maintain modern ships, the gap will continue to widen, degrading mission excellence, devouring budgets, and decimating morale.

Much discussion about approaching the new complex asset reality is centered around providing more robust off-platform support, ranging from services supplied in homeport to augmented-reality troubleshooting with shore technicians anywhere in the world. While it feels like this aligns with the “brilliant at the basics” subtenet to “reduce the burden of sustainment, administrative, maintenance, and logistical requirements on our front-line units to enable greater focus on building readiness, proficiency, and resiliency,” it is counterproductive. Failing to equip Coast Guard engineers with adequate skills and capabilities will perpetuate a downward spiral of frustration, fear of the not-understood, ever-increasing demands for mission support, lowered expectations by mission support of crews’ capabilities, and rising occurrences of both preventable and seemingly inexplicable equipment casualties.3

The way to address the elephant is to encourage cutter engineers to take ownership of and be more involved in the maintenance and operation of their ships. Fear of the unknown in machinery is expelled with hands-on education and understanding of internal processes and functions. Successfully applied, the correction results in crews addressing minor issues early and properly before they blossom into major casualties.

Shore-based support, no matter how extensive, does not have the same skin in the game as engineers getting underway on the cutter and will not, with few exceptions, exhibit as much ownership as a crew. Given this, the service must change its approach to shipboard engineering and maintenance all the way to the cultural level. To this end, the following actions could help cultivate and preserve the knowledge and skills required to maintain the Coast Guard’s new surface fleet:

• Implement quasi-specialization of engineering rates. In an approximation of the aviation mechanic model of qualifying a mechanic on a specific platform, engineering rates could be encouraged to stay within a certain category of assets during their operational tours to hone skills. One possible breakdown would be small boats/small engines, medium engines (many black hulls and patrol boats), and large engines/major cutters. Another could be by engine manufacturer, since the Coast Guard has several brands that repeat through various sizes, while others focus on auxiliary machinery such as pumps and refrigeration units, which tend to be similar across most surface assets.

Regardless of execution, such a concept would help preserve the personnel training investment in limited-availability technical schools for specific manufacturers; members who have attended during a first tour would bring that knowledge back over subsequent tours. Anecdotally, platform specialization is already happening by self-election in some communities, but the service could incentivize it or make it a best practice.

• Bring electronics technicians (ETs) into the engine department. Though mostly focused on combat systems, the ET rating has skills that would lend themselves well to the varying industrial electronics and communication networks of modern engine rooms. Electrician’s mates, who currently handle automation and controls, are spread thin among sensors, control cabinets, and basic lighting upkeep; devoting ETs to complex machinery monitoring systems would be a natural fit. This concept already is in small practice—the USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) uses a control group division with an ET who focuses on the extensive automation required to operate her diesel-electric and turbine plant.

• Relax the silos. Ask any machinery technician to check a fuse and they will rightfully look at you like you have grown two heads. But the answer to why the diesel will not start may lie in the control cabinet, or it may lie in the fuel lines. Rather than engineering divisions semi-jovially competing to throw problems over the fence to other shops because “it’s electrical” or “it’s mechanical,” rates should be encouraged to work together when troubleshooting to help foster better understanding of the ship’s vital systems.

• Shift away from rote memorization. As onboard engineer knowledge and skills get progressively lower, the Coast Guard is effectively working its way toward writing procedures for every conceivable maintenance action and equipment failure emergency. This is an impossible task. Instead, the service must teach its engineers to interpret equipment behavior, sensors, and physical evidence to tailor maintenance actions and emergency responses. The Coast Guard must empower its engineers to do so by giving them more exposure to system designs and relevant engineering concepts, in both academic and hands-on formats. This is not to abolish all procedures, but to reduce cultural dependency on them and the inability to recognize when real-life situations deviate from scripted responses.

• Dive deep with the experts. One way to breed the requisite deep understanding of installed equipment is for a ship’s crew to work alongside original equipment manufacturers and their representatives doing tear-apart depot maintenance. While the Coast Guard lacks the size and geographic concentrations to replicate the Navy’s method of embedding manufacturer representatives in its regional maintenance centers, there is still an opportunity when technicians are on board for crews to work alongside on major projects. This has the potential to reduce labor costs per contract as well as build intrinsic knowledge of complicated systems—but it requires commitment to full workdays, which are often 10 to 12 hours long and can run 7 days a week on critical repairs.

• Give more to get more. Long days in homeport are one of the reasons sea-duty attractiveness is declining, so the only way to ask more from cutter crews is to give more in return. This is where the service should make uncomfortable changes; namely, major cutter engine department billets should be double-encumbered, with one full set of engineers on board and one full set ashore at any given time. Much like other countries’ sea services and the bulk of the world’s commercial fleets, the expectation would be for full days (12 hours, 7 days a week) for a period on board (30–90 days, depending on the cutter class), complemented by a “payback” rotation of equal duration ashore wherein the members receive well-earned “comp time.”

There are many obstacles to achieve this legally and optimally, but spreading this crew rotation across underway and in-port periods would enable engineers to give their all underway, learn alongside contracted technicians from equipment manufacturers in port, and still have the ultimate “bonus” enticement: extended free time to rest, reengage with loved ones, and recuperate. Compensatory time would need to be as untethered as possible to be alluring; no standing duty, no condensed workdays—just a little bit of admin, the occasional formal school, and basic accountability when not on leave.

It may be necessary to lay up a small percentage of assets in class to have the numbers for even an experimental version of this idea. The temptation is to assert that the service is already short of engineers and forecasting a dearth—it can hardly afford to double the number of billets required. But Coast Guard members are voting with their feet in increasing numbers—either within the service to other fields or outside the service entirely. Operational availability has not yet begun to officially trend downward for the most expensive class in the fleet, but it is sustaining at great financial and human-capital expense. Make no mistake—the will to bear this burden is diminishing with each successive generation of both shore-based and shipboard engineers.

• Maintain more on the go. As proficiency develops, crews should become more comfortable taking down equipment that has backups to perform maintenance while underway. Over time, with deeper knowledge and training enabling more in-stride maintenance (underway or away from homeports), it may be possible to increase the operations-to-dwell ratio to the point at which even operating fewer assets in a class results in greater average operational availability at a lower dollar cost.

As an aspiration, note that most of the world’s largest cruise ships—with even more varied equipment maintained by roughly the same number of engineers—operate 50 or more weeks per year. With the right training and crewing strategy, high operational availability could be achieved on fewer assets, and without burning out the engineering force.

The burgeoning maintenance costs and falling levels of fully capable operational availability are not entirely a result of ship-design choices. Nor is the decrease in sea-duty attractiveness for engineers simply a result of a generational shift from arduous duty.4 The only way the Coast Guard can get brilliant at the new basics of shipboard maintenance is by institutionalizing a higher standard of engineering knowledge across the board and boldly adapting training and assignment processes. If the service cannot train its people to the level of its equipment, the elephant in the engine room will grow until it sinks the surface fleet.

1. ADM Linda L. Fagan, Commandant, USCG, U.S. Coast Guard Strategy (Washington, DC: U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, October 2022).

2. U.S. Coast Guard Naval Engineering Centralized Annual Training, April 2023.

3. 2022 WMSL-418 Cutter Engineering Reports and A Hollow Force (anonymous).

4. Ryan Pallas, “The Sinking Ship of Theseus: Adapting the U.S. Military to the Modern Family,” War on the Rocks, 22 March 2023.

Commander Barrion joined the Coast Guard Reserve in 2006 after graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. She holds a first engineer’s license in the steam and diesel propulsion modes and currently is on active-duty supporting the Coast Guard’s largest cutters.

Acknowledging the ElephantShrinking the ElephantCommander Barrion