Navy Turning Civilian Support Vessel Into Warship


bet you were cuter than poop

yeah, that’s the excuse they all use


The way you laid it out against long term costs sounds reasonable but does the cost analysis hold up in the details? In other words does it assume civilian crew would work for less? Without the great medical and pension what is the incentive to work for less? Would crew size remain the same or same material readiness to be delivered with less resources? Human nature comes into it too, when you have different groups within the same crew it can invite accurate or groundless comparisons on working conditions. A wiper gets paid more than a rocket technician and they eat in the same messroom? Pseudo sociological BS or a real concern? The same thing goes on various merchant ships though. Devil in the details as usual. Interesting perspective thanks for the insight.


I’m not arguing for or against anything here. I’m only trying to recall the contents of documents I read when I was on USS PONCE as a civilian officer that explained what was permitted, prohibited and why. These were written by lawyers and cited international laws, agreements and treaties going back to WWI.

If the master were equal to the CO then this wouldn’t meet the requirement of ‘military discipline.’ The ship and crew would be illegal combatants. Like it or not it is what it is.


There’s many studies on this. For example, Google ‘Replacing Military Personnel in Support Positions with Civilian Employees’ from the Congressional Budget Office. It’s short, dry and lays out the case well.


In the event of any conflict the CIVMARS will get veteran status like our WW2 mariners and I would imagine if this policy continued there would be a lot of career merchant seaman that will need healthcare and if they work long enough they will get a pension. Maybe there would be less of them…at first.


The master should at least have the final authority on collision avoidance and be the one who is called when the OICNW is in doubt. If not then they need to not refer to him as the master.


Who says anything about working for less? The point was that even though civilians get paid more they wind up costing less over a lifetime.


This is an excellent point. I was on two hybrid crew ships, USS PONCE (amphibious) and USNS COMFORT (hospital) and the differences were striking.

On PONCE everyone was subjected to the same conditions. The unlicensed/enlisted lived in open berthing, shared showers and heads and ate together. The USN/civilian officers had their own little staterooms and also shared showers/heads and ate together. (Only the CO, master and CHENG had private showers/heads.) Liberty wasn’t an issue because we all had liberal shore leave. I think there was an acceptance by the USN that their benefits (including ship-shore rotation) balanced with ours (pay).

COMFORT was another thing entirely. There the military officers/enlisted lived in open berthing with shared showers/heads. Most civilian mariners had their own staterooms with private showers/heads. The military ate in one mess, the civilian mariners ate in another part of the ship. Liberty was restricted for military, and started off liberal for civilians but was soon restricted to appease the military who thought our liberty was unfair. The relationship there was openly hostile. Each thought the grass was greener on the other side and resented it. It was awful.

So in my experience it wasn’t pay/benefits that caused conflict. It was living and liberty. Everyone needs to be subject to similar living and liberty conditions.

And everyone needs to eat together. Odd as it sounds a lot of conflict gets smoothed over when you can mix and chat over a meal. Issues get resolved and experiences can be shared that way. We can explain to the military the good and bad things about being civilian mariners.

But you’re right to suspect there were issues.


In the 19th century Royal Navy the captain was the Commander in charge of the mission and the sailing master was responsible for safe navigation. Maybe that’s what they have in mind. Based on continuous screw-ups as evidenced by the Fitz, the Navy could use some help in the navigation department. As to DeckApe’s comments I remember when I was with MSC that many Navy types definitely thought the grass was greener on our side mostly based on our salaries and went with MSC when their Navy time was up.


On the other hand, back in the day, almost every civilian maritime officer also held a reserve commission in their respective nation.


I found the legal briefs. But as it’s not marked for distribution I won’t quote them. I will mention some of the public documents the authors cited. (That should be okay, I hope!)

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea art. 29, Dec 1982 defines a ‘warship’ as:

a ship belonging to the armed forces of a State… under the command of an officer duly commissioned… and manned by a crew under regular armed forces discipline

For the United States ‘regular armed forces discipline’ means being subject to UCMJ.

Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War art. 4, Aug 1949, and Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of the Armed Forces at Sea art. 13, Aug 1949, recognise that a State engaged in armed conflict may lawfully authorize civilians to accompany the State’s armed forces during armed conflict.

As long as the civilians don’t participate in belligerent acts of hostility they are protected. If captured they are prisoners of war and treated as such. If they partipate in hostile acts they receive no legal protections.

During WWII US merchants were armed with self defense arms. The ‘majority’ of WWII merchants armed were manned with Navy Armed Gun crews. Merchants did not partipate in belligerent acts. Armed merchants excercised the right of self-defense.

WWII Merchants that conducted belligerent acts were converted to a ‘warship’ under The Hague Convention No. VII of 1907. In more modern times other countries followed this pattern, i.e. UK during the Falklands War.

The conclusions were that a ship of State conducting belligerent acts must be registered and marked as such, under military discipline and under the command of a commissioned officer. Civilians may accompany the ship as long as they do not participate in belligerent acts.

That’s pretty much it.


I guess I am. I’m figuring there is a certain level of pay above which the calculus of operating
/manning costs does not balance out the lifetime costs. Without knowing what impact on manning levels would be planned during a conversion of a warship and assuming that a lack of benefits, longer deployments (maybe not, sounds like they spend a lot of time preparing in port or on short runs to train?), and perhaps worse living conditions would somehow demand a premium in terms of what pay a merchant mariner would accept to take the job and moving the calculation away from savings. Guess I worded it strangely “work for less” from the employers standpoint or low enough to make the calculation work.

Anyway a moot point once I’m home I’ll google Deck Apes suggestion. Sounds like the home work has been done already.

The practical points of merging the cultures on single ship sound managible as well, again as Deck Apes personal experience suggests. Assume there are ways to iron out those difficulties.

The issues of command are outside my expertise but enjoying reading you guys’ take on how that would work.


It would be good to see more openings for civmars, but not sure that engineering department would be a direct walk-on.

In the late '60s I was an enlisted nuclear reactor operator, i.e. a standard saturated steam plant. As an engineering officer in the '70s and '80s, I was qualified on 600- and 1200-psi steam plants with “D”, “M”, and pressure-fired boilers, and finally on gas turbine plants. Been retired from the USN for 24 years and almost all those steam plants are gone, with only a few older conventional steam ships remaining.

Most newer naval vessels are COGAG, CODAD, or CODOG, and almost all have CRP propeller systems. Power generation prime movers are diesel or gas turbine, with waste heat boilers for service steam generation. Lots of special power generation and distribution, e.g. 400MHz.

I have no experience with merchant ship engineering plants, but certainly understand all the engineering issues with the El Faro, as well as the descriptions of the diesel propulsion plant that I read about in the many posts about ACX Crystal. No USN ships with that type of big, slow diesel propulsion.

This is not meant in any way to disparage the knowledge of the Chiefs and A/Es out there. Only to note the difference in current systems and the possible obstacles to a simple walk-on.


The 2 Submarine Tenders have “blended crews” as well. I believe the top individual in the MSC hierarchy is referred to as the “OIC”. Liberty call in Subic was not equal in the past.
Personally, I find the whole thing awkward but workable.


Yes, sailing masters. Maybe merchant mariners should just be granted warrant officer status on the ship?


Perhaps studying a bit of history might be helpful and the idea wouldn’t seem so OUTRAGEOUS.

Captain, Master, Mates, O my!


After the first Kuwait war MSC chartered my civilian ship to bring goods to the US troops in the PG. The MSC ships didn’t dare to enter the PG and stopped at Fujajrah and off loaded their containers that were then put on my ship. I then had the opportunity to visit some old, dirty MSC rust buckets and I was happy having nothing to do with those wrecks. I invited the MSC people to my ship and they were impressed of the spotless condition. Actually, container ships are very easy to maintain. Only problem is grease dropping from the shore cranes.


But also back then, the young Mids and Lt.s were drilled in seamanship and navigation by the sailing master. Even though the Master and his mates were experts, the level of seamanship amongst the commissioned officers was much better than it is today. The exam boards for Lt. We’re roughly the antiquated versions of today’s license exam.


Yeah, and it was even delivered pre-rusted.


yeah, I certainly wouldn’t expect to walk on as the CE or 1AE (or its equivalent), but I think if they did a qual program like they did when I was in the navy, I’m confident we MMC holders would get up to speed pretty quickly. After a while, you’d have a pipeline of trained guys that would be ready to move up to the 1AE/CE roles.

The key from the Navy’s end would be to have the pay and onboard environment attractive enough so that the guys that have gained the training and experience on that specialized equipment stick around. Otherwise, it’s constantly retraining new people.