Navy Turning Civilian Support Vessel Into Warship

so now we really do have USS ships with both uniformed crew and civmars. But who answers to who?

you can’t have both a master and a CO…can you?

1 Like

I want to say the USS Trenton (maybe USNS?) has a MSC navigation, deck, and engine room crew and the uniformed navy people did the other stuff that was left. The Puller I think will be replacing it as a “forward afloat staging ship” for the special forces and their secret squirrel stuff.

The Puller is/was here in town. When it first showed up it was sporting MSC stripes on its stacks and USNS Puller on its stern. The stripes and USNS markings have been painted over.

Both are named in the announcement.

Relationship not described. Perhaps “Commander” and “Sailing Master”?

“Chesty” Puller would be proud.

Back to the chain of command used on the USS Constitution.

1 Like

I was on USS PONCE with a USN/Civilain crew so I’m qualified to answer this.

The CO is the senior most person on the ship. The civilian master, civilian CHENG and USN executive officer report to the CO. (The CHENG does not report to the master except in administrative matters i.e. crew, but not operational.)

This is a breeding ground for awkward conflicts. However once the chain-of-command is understood it’s simple to work under.

One odd point: the licensed, civilian watch officers are not in the master’s chain of command while on watch, although in practice they mostly are. In the event of conflicting orders the CO’s shall be followed.

A grey area was liability. For example, if the CO were to order the civilian watch officer to take action that resulted in an accident would the watch officer be liable for obeying? Would the master be liable for an action of his deck officer who wasn’t in his chain of command at that moment?

I don’t recall the lawyers rushing to answer that question.

(BTW, we called the CO ‘captain’ and the civilian master ‘ship’s master’ to keep it simple.)

1 Like

GOODFUCKINGLORD! this is exactly what I expected which is simply BS! why have a master at all if he is under the CO’s authority because then he isn’t the master anyway…I don’t know what he is other than just another big paycheck that Uncle Sam has to mail every month…

there should be no CIVMARs on a warship because they are not uniformed military…PERIOD!

1 Like

Having the CO over the Civilian Captain is a recipe for disaster and a quick way to get the Civilian Captain screwed. I can see it now a Civilian Court will be trying to hang the Captain because something happened and the Navy will disavow and wrong doing by the Navy CO and the Court will stress that the Captain is the Captain no matter what and the Jury will eat it up!

Actually, civilians replaced a greater number of USN. Civilians cost more per day but less per lifetime if you factor in things like retirement, education, family support, and so forth. Having a ship’s master and CHENG to oversee well over a hundred seagoing civilians isn’t the waste you may think.

There’s a good financial and operational argument that can be made for replacing many of the seagoing USN positions by civilians on warships. You can google a bunch of studies on that point. A good one is ‘Applying Civilian Ship Manning Practice to USN Ships’ from 2005. I think that study is taken to its logical conclusion with a more recent CBO report titled ‘Replacing Military Personnel in Support Positions with Civilian Employees.’

I don’t blame you for thinking that chain-of-command is unusual but it’s not historically uncommon. I’m sure you remember that in our naval history ships were often commanded by naval officers but manned by civilians.

Besides, at the rate things are going the only seagoing jobs left open to American mariners might just be on warships and naval auxiliary.

As long as legally it’s a war ship and the master has zero lability.

I say the master should be in overall command of the vessel except for tactical situations and the Navy CO should report to him.

1 Like

(I’ve been trying to find the briefs on SMS but the AFSB(I) links are gone. PONCE is being decommissioned soon and the replacement ship doesn’t have the links. So I’m recalling this part from my poor memory.)

A warship must be under ‘military discipline’ to be protected under a bunch of international war agreements and conventions. This means the senior person has to be military. If the ship isn’t under ‘military discipline’ they are not protected. Therefore the CO must be above the master.

(If I recall correctly, some of these conventions date back to WWI.)

Civilians can work on a warship (or on a military base or convoy) and be protected under international conventions as long as they are non-combatants. That means as a civilian I can navigate, work in the engine room, cook, aid the wounded or do administrative duties but I can’t do something aggressively hostile such as push a button that fires a weapon, or load a weapon that is fired in aggressive hostilities.

If a civilian does something aggressively hostile they become illegal combatants and loose their rights and protections.

None of that mitigates a civilian’s right to defend himself, his ship or other ships in his convoy that are traveling together for mutual protection. He just can’t go out and attack someone.

Maybe someone else can explain it better.

It is different than what we are used to but the chain of command that we use on merchant ships is not all simple in practice.

For example the master calls the bos’n direct to clear the anchors, then the second mate shows up on the bow for mooring operations and is in charge of mooring ops. After all fast the bos’n goes to work for the chief mate for cargo ops (on RO/RO). If the chief eng needs something moved on deck he might tell the bos’n directly and the bos’n would just let the chief mate know what he was doing etc.

It all happens seamlessly without confusion but the underlying logic to the chain of commond might be difficult to understand for someone not used to it.

Another example is the mates working directly for the captain in the wheelhouse but for the C/M on deck.

I don’t know how Bosuns feel about this, but Machinists and Fitters who get projects from both deck and engine sides sometimes feel like they are doing two people’s jobs. I’ve heard more than one say that they prefer to be on a ship that has one fitter for the deck and another one for the ER.

Why not commission the real captain in order to satisfy the rules of war and call the Navy guy a “tactician” who assumes full command when entering an officially declared war zone or when military action is required.

So the agreements say a nation who signed on to these agreements must treat another signed nation’s military personnel a certain way and civilian non-combatants another way. Think of WWII in Europe. Breaking these agreements is a war crime.

Those agreements don’t say how to treat illegal combatants such as ISIL, al Queda, or American civilian mariners who launch rockets at another signed nation.

The chain-of-command isn’t to mitigate confusion or increase efficiency. It’s to provide legal protections to the military and civilians on board.

There are some civilians on USN ships but these tend to be few. What has been proposed here and there is replacing some USN with civilians in jobs like specialized technology.

I recall a few years back some talk about putting civilian engineers on warships. The idea was that civilians would be better trained and more experienced (and cost less). They wouldn’t promote out, and wouldn’t have sea-shore rotations where their skills would atrophy. This could mitigate some of the problems the newer ships are having.

Think how much we pay an enlisted sailor to cook. A culinary specialist spends most of his or her career attached to shore. After twenty years we pay retirement for life. Plus the GI bill, medical, their family, relocation and housing to name a few. What if we replaced culinary specialists with civilians? The cost savings would be big.

Anyhow, I hope you get the idea. Turning a whole ship over to civilians except for the war fighting parts would save a fortune.

I am not denying this fact nor opposing it outright…it is only the chain of command issues and operational responsibilities that concern me in this situation.

if the CIVMAR master is “equal” to the commissioned CO and commands all the civilian mariners on the vessel when fine but with master answering to the CO then I say BULLSHIT! The only time the relationship between the CO and master might swing to the CO is if the ship is under attack when the CO takes fully command but operationally, the master should NOT be under the CO’s authority or HE IS NOT THE MASTER!

now, I can use the drillship model to explain how this works. An OIM/rig manager might be fully in charge of all operations which involve the rig and rig floor and the master in charge of everything else if the master is not filling the OIM’s position. Normally, the master becomes the “person in charge” by letter designation but if there is a situation requiring the say well control decisions, unless he is very well versed in well control, he defers to the OIM and toolpushers to command the response and prays they know how to fix the mess. However, the OIM and master operate daily independently supporting eachother. They meet every morning with senior officers to discuss the day ahead but they sit directly across the table from eachother as two equals. Or that is how it is supposed to be.

My experience of using civilian, merchant ships as warships is almost fifty years old but as I was in charge of the transformation, I know how it worked. The ship owner was simply ordered to hand over the ship to the Navy as per law, rules and regulations and was duly paid. The merchant flag was taken down and navy flag was raised. Then my team got into action and transformed the civilian ship into an armed, navy mine layer. We fitted mine rails, guns, better communications, etc, in 24 hrs. As the civilian Master/crew didn’t know anything about mine laying, where to load and offload the mines and firing the guns, they were replaced by people who know. I stayed ashore and just watched the developments. If any civilian seaman was asked to remain aboard, he was simply enrolled as a navy sailor.
I was not enlisted. I was just doing normal military service required by every law abiding citizen, and it was more fun doing it as an officer than a soldier digging holes in the ground.


Must have been one of the many times the Swedes were chasing foreign submarines in their waters. Not with much luck I must add. The only time they caught one was when a Russian sub run aground in Swedish waters after a “Navigational error”:

No, it was a big, joint airforce, army, navy exercise September/October 1970 with WP, NATO and Finland invited as observers and as a navy officer in a smart uniform I was just obeying orders, i.e. transform this Swedish merchant ship (a coaster) into an armed mine layer in 24 hrs. It was succesfully done! A couple of months later I left the country for good and I have transformed, up-graded and repaired plenty merchant ships of all sorts after that. The Swedish Navy was at that time just rusty wrecks and it couldn’t find a submarine in a bathtub. But it was good at laying sea mines.

Damn, this is a good point. Maybe they will open up Eng. Dept. positions to civilians…I wouldn’t mind going back on the boat for a 90 day trip. I damn sure know a lot more now than I did then.