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In response to back-to-back deadly collisions, Navy rethinks ship bridges to help prevent future accidents

USS Fitzgerald docked at Tien Sa port in Da Nang, Vietnam. (Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

The Navy plans sweeping changes to bridges and control systems on its ships to increase crew efficiency and help them avoid collisions like those that killed 17 sailors on the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain.

Bridges are being revamped in response to these two deadly accidents that occurred in busy western Pacific waters two months apart in 2017 — accidents that Navy investigations later deemed avoidable.

Bridge equipment will be upgraded to improve navigation and situational awareness, with the aim of eliminating blind spots and assisting bridge crews in reacting safely to nearby ships, especially in dense traffic.

Navy officials have given no timeline for when the overhauls will begin or be completed, saying the new technology is still being developed.

Last month, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran sent a memo to Congress saying the Navy was following 93 recommendations in two 2017 reports identifying problems that led to the fatal wrecks. Inconsistent bridge configurations, which can confuse sailors, were among the problems listed.

Bridge equipment and training will be standardized as much as possible so sailors transferring from one type of ship to another — whether it’s an aircraft carrier to a destroyer or from a cruiser to a fast-transport vessel — will operate similar controls and not have to be retrained.

Standardization will include throttles that control a ship’s speed, steering, radar and other navigational systems as well as training simulators.

“Across ship classes there are marked differences,” said Bryan McGrath, a defense consultant who commanded the destroyer USS Bulkeley in the early 2000s.

Ships within the same class also can vary, McGrath said, recalling that the destroyer he commanded differed from another one he boarded, including the throttle control, radar and how the steering wheel turned.

Sailors from the cruiser USS Antietam who were assigned to the McCain didn’t know how the McCain’s bridge equipment worked, the Navy’s accident report said. Gaps in sailors’ training about equipment and procedures contributed to McCain’s collision in August 2017 with an oil tanker in the Straits of Singapore, it said.

Some of Fitzgerald’s crew members also didn’t know how to operate bridge equipment, although in this case they were mostly inexperienced sailors assigned to their first ship and never properly trained, according to a ProPublica report.

“People are key here,” said Don Inbody, who commanded the dock transport ship USS Duluth in the late 1990s and is now a Texas State University political science professor. “Always have been and always will. Train them with experienced people watching them.”

Blind spots

Back-to-back fatal collisions of destroyers in 7th Fleet sent shockwaves through the Navy, spurring criminal hearings and investigations into what went wrong. High-ranking naval leaders were reprimanded, fired or nudged into early retirement.

The Fitzgerald was impaired by malfunctioning radar. The ship’s main navigational system was run by outdated software that couldn’t properly convey information from the program used to track nearby civilian ships, said sailors testifying at court hearings.

One radar device wouldn’t automatically show ship traffic, requiring a sailor to punch a button 1,000 times an hour to keep refreshing the screen, according to an internal review reported by Navy Times. Its radar tuner was broken and covered with tape, preventing the sailor from adjusting the screen for a clear display of nearby ships.

A sailor testified at a hearing that just before the collision he saw five ships and none of them appeared to be close. One officer on watch that night said the commercial ship seemed to come out of nowhere.

The ship wasn’t spotted until a technician pointed a video camera in its direction.

McCain’s accident reports don’t indicate bridge equipment failures other than a radar system that an officer said was rendered useless by chaotic clutter.

The McCain’s main problem was the lack of coordination between the commander, deck officers and crew members, including after the commander ordered the throttles and helm operated separately – an unorthodox request that caused confusion, Navy reports say.

In the Fitzgerald’s case, Inbody said, bad judgment and a growing reliance on electronics were as much to blame as poor equipment. Officers shouldn’t forget basics such as glancing out a window, walking around the deck and keeping a hand-written “maneuvering board” to plot the ship’s movements, he said.

The broken radar should’ve prompted the captain to double the on-deck lookouts, Inbody said.

“Proper seamanship would have avoided the accident,” he said.

Where to start

The Navy is working toward standardizing equipment, the general bridge layout and simulators used to train sailors, said Colleen O’Rourke, spokeswoman for Navy Sea Systems Command, or NAVSEA.

The new layout, displays and controls will be designed based on feedback from sailors who operate the systems, O’Rourke said. It will include improving the helm console, throttle control and navigational radar as well as developing new operating procedures – all of which will simplify training and streamline the work required to pilot the ship.

New software will be installed that will provide a common electronic charting for sailors navigating ships. The changes will become part of future fleet training and certification, she said.

NAVSEA is consolidating its technical and acquisition divisions under its larger surface fleet branch, Team Ships, to manage the new systems’ design and integration across all ship classes, O’Rourke said. The move is intended to strengthen oversight during the transition.

The next step, McGrath said, would be to install navigational systems that give sailors voice warnings about an approaching ship or a hard-to-see hazard such as a jutting rock. Unmanned ships have these types of sensors and transmitters, so the technology could be used on manned ships, he said.

With ship traffic quadrupling worldwide in the past 25 years, the Navy should use all the technology available to help sailors safely transit crowded seas, he said.

The Navy also should develop a way to put radar, charts, surface navigation and other data on one display so a commander coming onto the bridge doesn’t have to walk around to view different screens, said a retired ship captain, who asked to remain anonymous because of his civilian work with the Navy.

“You could call that a glass cockpit,” he said.

Technology can go a long way to eliminate the risk of human error, but it can only go so far.

In both the Fitzgerald and McCain incidents, communication broke down, Navy reports say.

Fitzgerald’s deck officers and its combat information center failed to impart crucial information about nearby ships to the bridge crew and watch commander. A console to help the bridge crew and combat center share information was cannibalized for spare parts.

On the McCain, an officer who had split the throttle thrusters, so each operated independently on both sides of the ship, never informed the commander of this measure.

That played a key part in the accident when sailors increased speed on one side of the destroyer rather than both sides, causing it to veer sharply into the path of the commercial ship that struck it.

New technology can reduce the possibility for human error but it can’t eliminate it, the retired captain said. Unless ships go unmanned, sailors must talk to each other, he said.

“You can minimize the human factor to a point,” he said.


© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

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