Commentary

Bring Back the Troop Ships

by Kevin P. Burns

U.S. Army, Europe (USAREUR), is composed of 60,000 soldiers, most of whom are assigned to units in Germany. Under current rotation policies, one-third of these personnel are moved each year, although the exact makeup will change since there are differences in tour lengths. USAREUR Regulation 612-1 states that each incoming soldier will attend 2 weeks of in-processing before reporting to his unit. The primary goal of the in-processing is to provide the unit with a soldier who is aware of the political, social, and moral environment in Europe; has been introduced to key foreign language phrases; is physically fit and medically qualified; and is fully supplied for his position.

Example of a cruise ship that could be used as an in-processing facility that would transport the soldiers and their families to Europe.

Currently, local personnel provide in-processing at the base support battalion (BSB) level. However, during the 12 workdays of instruction and processing, only about 60 hours of actual instruction and processing take place. The remainder of the time is spent moving to in-processing facilities and waiting for instructors. Furthermore, the soldiers typically are housed away from the in-processing facility, resulting in a large amount of commuting time.

To avoid the delays inherent in the current system, a new (yet old) concept may be worth exploring. As the saying goes, "Everything old is new again." Perhaps it is time to dust off the old files, update them using modern technology, and implement them to save money by using ships to transport soldiers and their families to Europe.

In-Processing Can Be Improved

I have made several assumptions about how to improve the current system. The first is that the best way to avoid lengthy commutes is to billet arriving soldiers in the facility where the in-processing takes place. This allows the soldier to spend more of his time actually in-processing and learning and less time on the road. Housing soldiers at the in-processing facility would allow the learning day to be lengthened and the indoctrination period to be shortened.

The second assumption is that technology may be used to process soldiers more quickly, particularly in the supply arena. The Army currently has soldiers come to a central supply facility to be issued Table of Allowances (TA)-50 field gear. This is issued by size from a central facility within the BSB, resulting in long lines and frequent waits while the gear is assembled and checked. Moving the troops en masse through the supply facility either creates long waits or results in staffing inefficiencies if the staff is sized to meet cyclical peaks. Levi Strauss & Company has introduced an automatic sizer that measures the customer as he stands in a booth in his underwear. A laser is run up and down his body, taking measurements and relaying them to a computer. These measurements allow a computer to custom-fit clothes to the customer. Such a system could be used to measure the soldier and transmit his measurements to his assigned unit, allowing his TA-50 issue to be prepared accurately before his arrival at the facility.

The third assumption is that soldiers would like the opportunity to have their families with them during in-processing and that the families also should be given an orientation. Thus, the in-processing facility should be large enough to accommodate at least three times the number of soldiers being processed. Since about 500 soldiers arrive in Europe each week, the facility needs to accommodate 1,500 people (soldiers and families).

Finally, the current cost of travel and a 16-day orientation for one soldier and two family members (one spouse and one child under 12) is about $5,690. Using a facility that is capable of lodging the entire family and reducing the number of in-processing days to 8 would save the government $1,920 in per diem costs.

The New (Old) Proposal

Based on these assumptions, here is my proposal: Bring back the concept of troop ships, but update the concept to one of quality for the soldiers and their families.

Having been on a number of the older troop ships, I know it is not beneficial to the soldier or to the Government to advocate that the Government own and operate them. In the spirit of outsourcing, I suggest that the Government contract with a cruise line for cabin spaces aboard their vessels. A contract could be awarded for cabin spaces for 1,500 people, with a few restrictions to ensure quality is maintained. The contract would include several conditions. The ships must operate under the U.S. flag and in conformance with U.S. laws and regulations. Spaces will be set aside for classroom use for in-processing and orientation. Soldiers and their families will be treated the same as all other passengers.

No more than 60 percent of the cabins will be reserved under this contract; the remainder will be available for commercial passengers. Voyage length will be 10 days or less.

Benefits to Using Cruise Ships

There is only one U.S. flag cruise line that operates ships capable of carrying 1,500 passengers. According to its publicly reported financial figures, it is making a profit with an average cabin cost of around $400 per day (based on two passengers per cabin). Using that figure as a base means that a cruise of 10 days can be estimated to cost $4,000—or $1,333 per person (based on assigning a family of three to a cabin). Realistically, a figure of about $1,500 per person is better, as family size will vary.

Conducting the in-processing on the vessel during the voyage means that the entire in-processing, transportation, and pay costs for a family of three would be about $5,000 for the 10 days, saving some $690 per family. Moreover, the soldier could see more of his family during the processing period, the family could be better educated about Europe, and the whole family could have some fun in the process.

By coordinating shipping schedules, soldiers could arrive licensed to drive in Europe, pick up their personal vehicles at port on arrival, and drive away immediately. Jet lag would be eliminated. The newer classes of cruise ships also do not have the problems with motion sickness that were endemic on the older ships. Facilities aboard the cruise ships are far more comfortable than most Army facilities.

On the Government's side of the equation, the financial savings pale in comparison to the advantage of having a fully indoctrinated replacement available 6 days earlier. Three ships could replace 25 orientation centers, reducing the staffing from the number needed for 25 centers to that for 3 centers. Training courses would be standardized throughout USAREUR. Working with the vessel operator, national defense features could be incorporated into the ship so it could be used as a command and R&R (rest and recuperation) ship during a contingency. Transportation would be arranged at group rates.

By operating under the U.S. flag, the Government would help revitalize the U.S. Merchant Marine, provide jobs to U.S. citizens, and ensure that the cruise ships used operate at a very high standard. There also are several benefits to calling for a large percentage of the passengers to be commercial, including revitalizing an industry and, more importantly, ensuring that regular cruise ship enticements and standards are provided.

Limiting the voyage to 10 days would allow for 8 days of in-processing and 2 weekend or off days.

Obstacles

Several obstacles must be overcome in implementing a program such as this. The current order-writing system is not geared toward arranging for a specific date for orders. Many orders say "travel on or about" a date, which could make it difficult to schedule cruise ships for transition to Europe. BSB commanders and current in-processing center personnel will want to maintain control of their facilities and will resist change.

Travel by sea is associated with the old cramped troop ships, seasickness, and slow boats. The newer cruise ships are none of these, of course, but the perceptions remain. Facility costs will not decline immediately as ship facilities are converted to use for military in-processing.

USAREUR provides in-processing for incoming soldiers at sites throughout Europe. Because of the time involved in the process and the numerous locations of the training facilities, program costs are high. The Army has an opportunity to consolidate training facilities and lower the Government's costs, cut the time a soldier is away from the unit, and provide a better trained and equipped soldier to the unit. To save money and time, the Army could provide in-processing facilities on board contract ships that would transport the soldiers and their families to Europe. In other words, bring back the troop ships in an updated mode.

Kevin P. Burns is the Transportation Officer for the 417th Base Support Battalion in Kitzingen, Germany. He has a B.S. degree in marine transportation from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and an M.B.A. degree in finance and marketing from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.