The U.S. Navy is still trying to fix the problems that led to three warship collisions in 2017. While the recent (March 2021) steering mishap in the Suez Canal, that closed the Canal for six days, put the spotlight on the problems and risks the helmsman (sailors trained to actually steer a ship) encounter, the Suez Canal case was different because when moving through canals or entering a port the navy will use professional pilots employed by the canals or ports to guide ships in and out. Canals and ports are special cases and local knowledge and experience are needed to prevent collisions with other ships or land. The latter is usually underwater rocks, sand bars or the shallow waters outside the designated shipping channels. For warships there are unique situations on the high seas that require pilot-level skills. This includes maneuvering close a supply ship to take on fuel and other supplies while both ships are moving. They there are more common difficult situations like moving through a busy strait or shipping channel at night or in bad weather. During severe weather of any sort, an expert master helmsman is needed to deal with the steering. The actual steering has always been handled by a helmsman, which is not an officer rank but a job requiring a lot of skill and experience. The helmsman is supervised by an officer (the officer of the deck). In extremely risky situations a master (more capable) helmsman is used while a safety officer is added to the bridge team and sometimes the captain is present as well, to watch over the officers and sailors maneuvering the ship through crises situations like a storm or passage through a narrow and busy shipping channel at night.
Warships only have a few master helmsmen, usually no more than four for the largest ships, like 100,000-ton nuclear power aircraft carriers carrying a crew of 5,000. There are over a dozen regular helmsmen on board because at sea the ship requires a helmsman on duty steering the ship 24/7. This is done in four hour shifts or “watches” and a helmsman may stand watch as a helmsman one up three times a day depending on how many helmsmen are available.
Helmsmen belong to a job category (Quartermasters) who are responsible for navigation, which includes steering the ship as well as keeping track of where the ship is at all times. The Quartermasters job has changed a lot in the last few decades as more warships adopt innovations like GPS navigation and a ship version of autopilot. These new techs are usually adopted by navies only after they have proven themselves on commercial ships for years. Commercial ships have always used smaller crews and were quick to adopt automation successfully. That meant commercial ships larger than a nuclear aircraft carrier are operated by crews of 30 or 40 officers and sailors. The difference between warships and commercial vessels is the amount of experience the crews have. On commercial ships most of the crew are career professionals with over a decade of experience. Even these commercial ships require one of more master helmsman on board and career merchant sailors know that qualifying as a master helmsman results in more pay and an easier time getting and keeping a choice ship assignment.
In navies the most experienced sailors are promoted to supervisory positions leaving jobs like master helmsman available to junior (less than five years’ service) sailors. There is no shortage of sailors wanting to try out for the job of master helmsman and spend a year on board learning the skills needed while on the bridge either observing or steering under the supervision of a master helmsman. These young master helmsmen often choose not to make the navy a career, even if they do, will probably be promoted out of the helmsman job. Despite all that experience, unless you regularly stand watch as a helmsman, you lose your expertise.
A master helmsman spends most of their time just doing the work of a regular helmsman. Difficult steering situations, called “special evolutions”, occur infrequently and usually don’t last more than a few hours. An average master helmsman will be called on to handle a special evolution 30 to 40 times a year, and that includes that fact that quartermaster sailors usually spend 30-40 percent of their time on shore duty. There are highly realistic ship steering simulators, some available for PCs to learn the basics or experience emergencies. These first showed up decades ago to train commercial ship crews but navies eventually adopted them. One thing that is not simulated is the unique motions a ship goes through during various special evolutions and being able to sense and interpret these ship movements is what separates master helmsmen from regular helmsmen. Experienced petty officers and officers recognize these subtle vibrations or movements of a ship during a special evolution and that’s one reason why experienced officers supervise the bridge crew during the most critical special evolutions.
Meanwhile the U.S. Navy is still working on solutions to avoid more of the disasters like the three that occurred in 2017. A combination of problems on the bridge were responsible for these three collisions and inadequate sleep for the crew, especially those serving on the bridge was a key factor. Lack of sleep diminished alertness to possible problems, like collisions with other ships. In all three accidents the alertness of the bridge was compromised by chronic lack of sleep. The problem was that the existing regulations did not work in practice. In 2017 sailors were supposed to get seven hours of sleep every 24 hours. Because of the watch schedule sailors had four hours on watch (at work) followed by eight hours of rest or performing other duties. The old regs suggested that sailors get their seven hours of sleep in two increments; five hours plus a two-hour nap. That rarely worked and most sailors were lucky to get the five hours and they did not get it at the same time every day because the watch schedule ignored the difficulty in falling asleep if your work schedule was constantly changing. The new rules stipulate that sleep be at the same time of the day for each sailor and that conditions in the berthing (living quarters) for the crews take note of that and keep things quiet down there so sailors are able to get to sleep and not be jarred awake frequently. This fatigue issue and why it persisted so long raises another issue; the quality of NCO (Chief Petty Officer) and junior officer management and leadership. That’s a separate issue here but an increasingly common one with the many problems the navy has encountered since the 1990s.
The accidents that caused damage to three ships within an eight-month period led to the deaths of 17 sailors and it took some time for the 7th Fleet leadership to determine what was going on. The first accident, in January 2017, involved the cruiser Antietam running aground while leaving an anchorage in Tokyo Bay. The damage to the ship was not great and Antietam was repaired and back in service by the end of 2017. The captain was relieved and there was some mention of poor training for the crew members on the bridge, who were in charge of lifting anchor and heading maneuvering the ship out of the harbor to the open sea. Things got worse in June and August with two 7th Fleet destroyers colliding with commercial ships at sea. These two collisions left 17 sailors dead and all were apparently related to lower readiness levels, overwork and crew fatigue in these two ships. This was later found to be common throughout the 7th Fleet.
This time the result was two collisions involving Burke-class destroyers (the Fitzgerald and McCain) with one of them fatal. These two destroyers had some of the worst readiness and training ratings in the entire fleet. These ratings exist to spotlight ships and crews, that need the most attention from senior leadership, especially the fleet commander. That was not happening and since the new Secretary of Defense was a retired (in 2013) marine general with firsthand experience with what was going wrong in the navy, the admiral responsible was held accountable in the traditional way and within weeks of the August collision, was relieved as 7th Fleet commander. Note that while both the Marine Corps and the Navy are part of the Department of the Navy, the two organizations have evolved into separate services. The Marines have always been different and that meant marine generals could get away with being more traditional and hard-ass than current navy admirals.
Another factor was the introduction of new automation equipment. This included the adoption of touch screen controls for ship navigation. The current SCC (Ship’s Control Console) used two touch-screens on the Helm (the bridge, where a sailor physically controlled the direction the ship went in) and in the Lee Helm, the sailor that controls the speed and direction (forward or reverse) of the engines. It was discovered that the crews involved had placed the SCC in “backup manual mode.” This turned off computer-assisted help so there was more direct communication between steering and the SSC. This made it possible for someone at another station to take over steering operations. The problem was that when someone tried to regain control of the ship from more than one SCC, there were additional delays in anyone having control of steering and speed. Worse, and typical of touch screen UI (User Interface), the procedures for quickly regaining control were complicated and none of the crew involved were able to quickly take control and avoid the collision. Further complicating the situation was the fact that the officers and sailors involved were suffering from lack of sleep and experience with emergency use of the SCC. As a result, the navy is converting back to the traditional manual controls, which are more intuitive and familiar. One can thank decades of movies and TV shows featuring the traditional manual controls.
The problems with leadership and training were rather obvious even before the three accidents. In 2017 it was no secret that these problems existed throughout the navy but were most acute in the 7th Fleet, which has been the busiest for over a decade because it has to deal with growing Chinese naval power and more frequent crises with North Korea. One could say the problem was navy-wide but most intense in the 7th Fleet. Not enough of the admirals were willing to speak up and admit to the politicians and voters what was going on and why it was not being addressed. One reason was that the politicians wanted admirals who would keep quiet. Those admirals who spoke out got forced into retirement and replaced by younger officers willing to play by the new rules. This is not unique in American history or military history in general. But this occurrence is another after-effect of the Cold War ending and attitudes changing with regard to responsibility and military readiness.
The immediate problem, in short, was that the navy has been getting smaller since the Cold War ended in 1991 and that process continued after 2001 because most increased defense spending went to the Army, SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and marine operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The navy and air force had to get by on a lot less. For example, the number of ships in the navy went from 333 in 1998 to 277 in 2017. Yet the navy kept the same number of ships (about a hundred) deployed overseas despite there being 17 percent fewer ships. Worse the newer ships, and some of the older ones, were experimenting with smaller crews (and more automation). This is still a work in progress but meanwhile, lots of 7th Fleet ships were operating at a wartime tempo. This was wearing down the crews as well as the ships.
Although the navy knew this was going on, not a lot was done to deal with what was obviously a growing problem. For example, in the two years before the accidents the number of warships in the 7th fleet not certified as ready for combat increased five-fold (to 37 percent). The reasons why were no secret either. Many sailors were working over 100 hours a week when at sea, often more than the standard 70-81 hours a week. Ships were more frequently unable to go to sea because of deferred, by manpower shortages, maintenance. The most serious shortages were in training, which apparently contributed to the three serious accidents and many more events that could have gotten very ugly.
Further investigation of the crew performance and training issues uncovered the SCC UI problems which, it turned out, applied to a lot of new equipment that was using a touch screen UI. Problems with UI have become more of an issue as more ships, aircraft and ground vehicles employ them. There is also a lot more of these new UIs and the military had already learned the value of adopting UIs already existing in commercial products, like video games, that most sailors were already familiar with. One of the best examples is the widespread adoption of the Xbox game controller for many military systems. For more complex touch-screen UI, a more thorough and intensive effort at developing and testing the UI is required. Military aircraft manufacturers are aware of this and the pilots who test UI designs are harsh critics of any UI ideas that will be less effective than older manual controls. The navy did not apply these UI development standards to the SCC, and many other UI systems. So now the navy has to reexamine the use of these UIs to ensure they are at least as effective and user proof in emergency situations.
In a gaming or business software situation a bad UI will cause a lot of customer dissatisfaction and lower sales. On ships with sailors suffering from chronic lack of sleep, bad UI meant groggy sailors were often not able to react quickly enough to deal with major problems.
Commercial ships have fewer problems with all of this because a larger proportion of much smaller crews are veteran officers and seamen. Keeping their well-paying jobs depends on every member of the crew doing their best to keep the ship safe. New automation gear is carefully studied by officers and sailors who will use it and appreciated because automation has been shown to work, at least when used by experienced sailors. Navies operate differently and the U.S. Navy got a remined of that in 2017. They are still absorbing the lesson.