Electronic Weapons: Electronic Charts Slow To Arrive


May 2, 2007: Two years ago, the U.S. Navy is finally entered the digital age for navigation. That was when the first all digital navigation system was installed on the cruiser USS Cape St. George. Called the Voyage Management System (VMS), it uses 29 CDs containing the 12,000 paper nautical charts that are normally stored in several large filing cabinet. Recently, the second VMS was installed on a nuclear submarine (SSN), the USS Oklahoma City.

Originally, the plan was to have all U.S. Navy ships equipped with VMS by 2008. That didn't work, as lots of little technical problems were discovered as other ship classes were surveyed in preparation for a VMS installation. Now the target for fleet wide installation is 2009.

Commercial ships typically have VMS installed when the ship is built. There, the VMS operates with a high-tech bridge where nearly everything is automated. Most warships are way behind in this kind of technology. Submarines are particularly in need of this kind of automation, because space is very tight.

VMS is part of the Smart Ship Integrated Bridge System, which will eventually automate and computerize many of the tasks performed to run the ship. VMS was developed from systems used on commercial ships for over a decade. Several other navies have also made the switch. A planned upgrade will put all the electronic charts on one high density DVD, as well as a high capacity hard drive. The electronic charts contain more information than the paper charts, and are much easier to use, and, more importantly, update. Since the 1990s, space satellites have been surveying the oceans, and providing a flood of data for updating charts. The inability to update charts quickly enough was the main reason for the submarine USS San Francisco hitting an undersea mountain in early 2006. If the USS San Francisco had VMS over a year ago, and the electronic charts had been promptly updated (the sea mount was spotted by satellite in 1998 and 2004), the collision would not have happened. The navy believes that several groundings over the past decade would have been avoided had VMS been installed.

The cabinets full of charts won't be discarded until Smart Ship computers and terminals are installed throughout the ship, so that others who need to use those charts can access them electronically. With VMS, navigation is much easier, and accurate. The users like it, especially the younger sailors who take it for granted that all documents will be available electronically..


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