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I'm trying to create a realistic composition of a mildly futuristic diesel attack submarine with API based on a Stirling radioisotope generator. The idea is that thanks to automation it's possible to use only a tiny crew, which makes such a small boat less overcrowded and increases its endurance.

Yes, it seems that the whole idea is not pure SF as Soviet Alpha Class (Лира) (yes, I know it's nuclear) was first planned for 16 offices in the early '60s. Then, as usual in design phases, the boat grew and it's intended crew expanded to 31 men. Nevertheless, it seems that the idea wasn't so practical as they made subsequent attack subs with much bigger crews (example Akula first 73 men, in later variants 62).

However, right now Swedes with their famous Gottland class are more than happy to lurk in Baltic with crew of ~25. So some downsizing was actually fine.

The question, then, is whether one could find any data on exact crew composition of modern attack submarines? (The point is not just to find the minimum crew, but also to find exactly where corners were cut during the downsizing, and to be able to show which functions were sacrificed.)

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  • $\begingroup$ It would be useful to know who's Submarine we're discussing. Also a word of caution - every ship to feature "minimum crew / high automation" has ended up turning into a high tech overbudget boondogle that ultimately gets cancelled or dramatically scaled back. Some idea of the physical dimensions, tonnage and any special systems would also help a lot $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2019 at 8:17
  • $\begingroup$ @AdamCoville: A Gotland-class submarine is a conventional diesel-electric submarine with a supplementary air-independent propulsion system. It displaces 1600 tons submerged. It has a crew of 5 officers and 20 to 23 men. The crew is not really that small for the size of the boat. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 1, 2019 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ @AdamCoville Interesting. May you link me the source(s) for this persistently overpromised automatisation? $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Jun 1, 2019 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ nationalreview.com/2016/12/… Probably the most dramatic example would be the US Zumwalt class Destroyer. I believe at one point the even tried to automate the galley. Big Navy was convinced that investing in bells and whistles like that up front would reduce the lifetime operating costs. In the end they just had a lot of buggy technology and not enough crew to manage the ship in battle or a damage control scenario (damage control is also automated). Lose electrical power and it’s game over. $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2019 at 4:56
  • $\begingroup$ @AdamCoville and worse, a lot of the systems aren't even delivered yet but the ships are entering service, without key systems and with not enough crew to replace the automation that never became available (as many of those systems were canceled to cut cost, without implementing crew quarters and stations to replace them). $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Jun 3, 2019 at 10:16

4 Answers 4

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My diesel submarine could sail from the port and safely navigate sea with 25% of the crew for a limited period of time, in case of an emergency like a hurricane. (naval ships can ride out some hurricanes in port, but are always safer at sea). The endurance was limited by the ability of the crewmembers to get sleep.

The limiting constraint on operating in a war-fighting or patrol capacity is to have enough crew to man battle stations and damage control in case of a casualty.

For battle stations, 100% of the crew is awake, and all stations with the exception administrative and supply are manned. Anyone not manning a station is in the galley, on my sub, constituting a damage control team and relief for the crew on battle stations.

For patrol duties, where the submarine is effectively on a war footing, the limiting constraint is to have enough qualified watchstanders to fill the 24-hour rotation.

The CON has the most number of crew members on a watch. On my Korean era diesel sub, we had 3 planesmen, 1 Chief of the Watch, 1 Officer of the Deck, 1 Control Officer, and 1 Quartermaster. The planesmen manned two stations and the third ran coffee and errands for the COW, CON, and OOD, and relieved the other two planesmen. The CON and OOD can be stood by one officer in a pinch.

Typically planesmen are formed from the seaman gang, a group of non-rated sailors attached to the Weapons Department. They handle lines when the boat comes in and out of port, form damage control teams, and help out the cooks when the ship is underway.

The Engineering Depart was the second most populace station with 1 Engineering Watch Officer, 2 Engineering watchstanders, 1 Engineman, and 1 Rover. In a pinch, the EWO can be one of the Engineering Watchstanders.

For stations like Radio and the Torpedo Room, the minimum number of watchstanders for any station is 2 -- one awake and one asleep, or at least, not on watch, every six hours (for US submarines)

Some stations like Sonar require multiple watch standers rotating through manning the equipment for brief periods of time since they couldn't concentrate on interpreting sounds and tracking targets for the entire watch period. So a minimum crew for a Sonar department would be 4 -- two per watch.

For at sea operations, only the store keep was important from the administrative departments.

The Galley had 2 cooks and 3 food-cranks helping prepare and serve food. Both cooks and cranks could go down to 1 stander each.

My submarine had a complement of 90. We could sail under duress and stay away from the port with 25 people for a few days. For a typical patrol, we could function with 60 crew members -- we had a 2-month endurance that could be extended to 90 days by stacking food cans on the floor of berthing. Our limiting constraint was water since diesel subs have limited capacity to distill seawater into potable water. We only took showers once a week, and then they got wet, turn off the water, lather, rinse, no repeat. And, didn't do laundry.

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  • $\begingroup$ This answer would be improved with some actual totals; I'm still not sure what the total complement of your sub is. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jun 1, 2019 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Erik, added crew complements of my Barbel class diesel submarine $\endgroup$
    – EDL
    Jun 1, 2019 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ I love how one can come to Worldbuilding for advice on fiction, and get absolute fact, in the first person! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jun 2, 2019 at 23:22
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Crew 134

Regrettably, this is the nuclear version, not the diesel version, but I suspect the crew complement is nearly identical because, diesel-vs-nuclear, you need about the same number of people to keep the engine running.

From Submarine 101

Submarines play a central role in my books, so I thought it’d be a great idea to provide an introduction to the U.S. Navy’s nuclear powered submarines from someone who served aboard four different ones.

In other words, this is real, practical data and the linked website is full of a whole lot more information than just crew complements.


Crew Complement

Fast Attack submarines have a crew of around 134, broken into about 120 enlisted and 14 officers, while SSBNs have an additional 16 enlisted and usually an additional officer. (Crew size varies between class and over time, so don't hold me to it, but the above gives you an idea.)

The officer "wardroom" is comprised of the:

  • Commanding Officer
  • Executive Officer (second-in-command)
  • 4 department heads: the Engineer Officer or "Eng", responsible for the nuclear reactor, the propulsion plant, and all basic mechanical and electrical systems, the Navigator or "Nav", responsible for the navigation and radio divisions, the Weapons Officer or "Weps", responsible for the submarine's torpedo, sonar, and missile divisions, and the Supply Officer or "Suppo", although many have not broken the habit of calling the man responsible for serving the pork and beans, "the Chop".
  • The rest of the officers are junior officers on their 1st submarine tour.

The enlisted personnel are broken down into the following divisions:

Engineering Department

  • Auxiliary (non-nuclear Mechanical)
  • Electrical
  • Mechanical
  • Reactor Controls
  • Reactor Laboratory

Operations Department

  • Navigation
  • Radio

Supply Department

  • Culinary Specialist (Cooks)
  • Supply

Weapons Department

  • Torpedo
  • Sonar
  • Fire Control
  • Missile (on SSBNs)

There's also a Medical Department headed by a Corpsman, and I'll talk about that at the end in the section titled "When Things Go Wrong."

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Note that DE subs tend to require smaller crews than do nuclear powered ones, due to the DE power plants requiring fewer people to keep them running than their nuclear counterparts.

Also, nuclear boats tend to be intended for longer range/duration patrols than are DE powered boats, making for larger boats with more systems that require more people to keep them running (and of course more people means more redundancy in case some of them become (temporarily) incapacitated due to for example disease or injury during long patrols).

Some crew figures of real submarines of different eras: DE:

  • 1940s: German Type VII: 50 (typical)
  • 1950s: US Tang class: 82
  • 1960s: Dutch Dolfijn class: 67
  • 1970s: Dutch Zwaardvis class: 67
  • 1980s: Soviet Kilo class: 52

Nuclear:

  • 1960s: Soviet November class: 105
  • 1970s: UK Swiftsure class: 116
  • 1970s: US Los Angeles class: 129

Mind that ever increasing automation is bringing down the number of crew on both nuclear and DE boats, but the relative difference remains.

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The German Type 212 submarine uses hydrogen fuel cells for AIP & a marine diesel engine. They have a complement of 5 officers and 22 men. But I don't know what each person's job is. My guess, same as the Gotland-class submarines, they cannot desalinate water, perform electrolysis, have less repair capabilities, and fewer weapon options.

Civilian research submarines need much few people because they lack weapons and their missions tend to be only a few hours.

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