It turns out that the the collision between the USS John S. McCain Alnic MC in the Straits of in August 2017 was largely an artifact of the new navigation that the Navy had installed to reduce crewing.
This is not a surprise. The US Navy has aggressively attempted to reduce crewing in an attempt to free up money for the latest and (not so much) greatest tech.
For example, the 16,000 ton Zumwalts have a crew of 175, (it was originally supposed to be less than 100), and the previous 9,000 ton Burke DDGs have a crew of 350.
The Zumwalts have nonfunctional guns, have suffered repeated breakdowns, and, given the parsimonious crewing, probably has a glass jaw.
And now, the Navy’s fetish has equipped the Arleigh Burke class destroyers, which work, albeit with a lot of sailors, are crippled by the automated steering system they have installed:
Dakota Bordeaux had rarely traveled outside his home state of Oklahoma before he joined the Navy in February 2017. He’d certainly never seen the ocean.
But only four months later, Bordeaux was standing at the helm of the USS John S. McCain, steering the 8,300-ton destroyer through the western Pacific. Part of the Navy’s famed 7th Fleet, the McCain was responsible for patrolling global hot spots, shadowing Chinese warships in the South China Sea and tracking North Korean missile launches.
It filled the high school graduate with pride.
“Not many people of my age can say, ‘Hey, I just drove a giant-ass battleship,’” said Bordeaux, 23.
To guide the McCain, Bordeaux relied upon a navigation system the Navy considered a triumph of technology and thrift. It featured slick black touch screens to operate the ship’s wheel and propellers. It knit together information from radars and digital maps. It would save money by requiring fewer sailors to safely steer the ship.
Bordeaux felt confident using the system to control the speed and heading of the ship. But there were many things he did not understand about the array of dials, arrows and data that filled the touch screen.
“There was actually a lot of functions on there that I had no clue what on earth they did,” Bordeaux said of the system.
A 19-year Navy veteran, Sanchez had watched as technicians replaced the ship’s traditional steering controls a year earlier with the new navigation system. Almost from the start, it caused him headaches. The system constantly indicated problems with steering. They were mostly false alarms, quickly fixed, but by March 2017, Sanchez’s engineers were calling the system “unstable,” with “multiple and cascading failures regularly.”
But a ProPublica examination shows that the Navy pursued prosecutions of the two men even as its investigators and those with the NTSB were learning that the navigation system, if it hadn’t technically malfunctioned, had played a critical role in the deadly outcome in the Pacific.
Its very design, investigators determined, left sailors dangerously vulnerable to making the kinds of operational mistakes that doomed the McCain. The Integrated Bridge and Navigation System, or IBNS, as it was known, was no technical marvel. It was a welter of buttons, gauges and software that, poorly understood and not surprisingly misused, helped guide 10 sailors to their deaths.
Despite its issues, the IBNS operated for years without major incident. Navy sailors did what they have always done: They found ways to make do with an imperfect technology.
The NTSB put it plainly: “The design of the John S McCain’s touch-screen steering and thrust control system,” the board found, “increased the likelihood of the operator errors that led to the collision.”
The Navy investigators, for their part, determined that the system’s “known vulnerabilities” and risks had not been “clearly communicated to the operators on ships with these systems.”
In the end, though, the Navy punished its own sailors for failing to master a flawed system that they had been inadequately trained on and that the Navy itself came to admit it did not fully understand.
The Navy has committed almost half a billion dollars to build the navigation system and install it on more than 60 destroyers by the end of the next decade — the entire fleet of the tough, stalwart warships that form the backbone of the modern Navy. Yet no one responsible for the development or deployment of the technology has faced any known consequences for the McCain disaster.
A number of current and former Navy officials remain convinced the navigation system should never have been put to use. And they worry about the Navy’s slow pace in installing a new, improved version.
“The IBNS has no place on the bridge of a U.S. destroyer,” said one former senior Navy officer with direct knowledge of the McCain accident. “It’s not designed to have the control that you need to navigate a warship.”
Seriously, our military is increasingly pursuing a path in which combat readiness is a distant second to procurement.
Whoever decided on the format needs a stern talking to.