NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — A highly touted Navy program that swaps crews at sea may offer some benefits, but a new congressional report shows that trial runs have also produced poor sailor morale and ship maintenance problems.

The Government Accountability Office reported last Wednesday that the service also has not backed up its claims that rotating crews is a cheaper and better way to do business.

Investigators determined the Sea Swap Initiative could take a long-term toll on ships and dropped a heavy workload on crews. Many sailors in each of the focus groups complained about poor morale and quality of life because they had to spend more time maintaining the ships. Crewmembers aboard patrol coastal ships, for example, complained that they could not have any port visits because they were too busy tackling maintenance issues.

Sailors aboard the USS Higgins and patrol coastal ships disliked the swap so much that they reported “a strong desire to not participate on any more crew rotations implemented like their most recent experience,” the report said.

The GAO found that re-enlistments were generally lower on guided-missile destroyers that swapped crews compared with similar Pacific Fleet ships that didn’t swap crews, but the Defense Department wrote that the Navy found “significantly different” figures.

The report said rotating crews is a possible alternative to the traditional way of sailors leaving and returning with their ships. But investigators recommended that the Navy do a better job evaluating the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of swapping crews, establish standard procedures for rotations and make sure commanders share “lessons learned.” The Defense Department agreed with the suggestions and cited how changes would be made.

While senior Navy officials have sung the praises of Sea Swap as a way to save money and slash personnel, the latest report mirrored an earlier study by the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research and development group.

The center found that swapping crews had been successful, but the Navy should address morale and maintenance problems. Surveys showed that 84 percent of the crews who handed over their ship to another crew said participating in the swap was worse than expected.

The Navy started rotating crews about two years ago, when three Spruance-class destroyers began the first phases of the first rotation.

The Sea Swap Initiative involves deploying one ship for 18 months or longer and rotating crews. Here’s how it works: Instead of crews driving the ship back to the United States after a deployment, they fly home and a new crew is flown in to replace them.

By eliminating long transit times, the Navy says crews will have more time to execute their missions. The Navy has tested the concept with smaller ships but is looking at expanding the program to larger ships such as amphibious assault ships.

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