Submarines: Expecting The Unexpected


December 23, 2009: The U.S. Navy had discovered that the training it gives it's submarine crews is sometime not keeping up with the complexity of new equipment. Case in point is the recent collision between the submarine USS Hartford and an American amphibious ship. The sub was at periscope depth, and the men on the bridge had been tracking the amphibious ship for nearly an hour. But the sonar data, and the automatic identification signals being received from another ship (moving in the same direction as the LPD, and apparently confused with the LPD) led the crew to ignore the sonar data indicating an imminent collision. The navy investigation of the incident blamed specific crew members for allowing the collision to happen, but also noted that there were a lot of sensors involved, and the navy procedures did not clearly deal with what you should do when conflicting data is being received. Nuclear subs rarely spend this much time near the surface, and have lots more sensors to detect what's above, and around the sub. Even the periscope is a much more complex instrument, containing radar and image manipulation devices, along with the traditional visual information. The conclusion was that, without some new types of training, it's too easy to become confused by the flood of data. This, in part, was one of the causes of the Hartford accident.

The accident itself consisted of a 24,000 ton amphibious ship (the USS New Orleans, LPD 18) colliding with the submerged Hartford (a 7,000 ton Lost Angeles class boat), in the narrow Straits of Hormuz, at 1 AM, local time. Fifteen sailors aboard the sub were injured, while a fuel tank on the LPD was torn open, and 25,000 gallons of fuel oil got into the water. The Hartford rolled 85 degrees right after the collision, and substantial damage was done to the sail, including a leak.

The captain and chief of the boat (senior NCO) were dismissed shortly after the March 20 collision. The Hartford went to a Persian Gulf shipyard for emergency repairs (a metal brace for the sail, which was twisted so that it leaned to the right). Temporary decking, railing and antennas were added to the topside of the sub, to make it easier for the surface ride home.

Initially, the accident was blamed on sloppy leadership by the captain, and the senior chief petty officer. The subsequent investigation found that lax discipline was tolerated on throughout the ship. This led to sloppiness. In particular, the crew did not take all the precautions mandated for passing through a narrow waterway like the Straits of Hormuz. The investigation found many specific errors the crew made, that contributed to the collision. This included supervisors not staying with the sonar operator, who, it turned out, was chatting with someone when the collision (that the sonar would have provided warning about) occurred. The navigator was doing something else, while listening to his iPod, while the officer in charge did not, as he was supposed to do, check the surface with the periscope. The list went on, and ultimately amounted to 30 errors in procedure.

Accidents like these are part of a larger problem in the navy; finding and retaining sailors capable of running a nuclear submarine. Sub commanders are under a lot of pressure to keep their sailors from leaving the navy. But the long periods submarine sailors spend away from their families, creates pressure to get out and take a civilian job close to home. The Hartford had been at sea for five months when it had the accident.

The submarine sailors are very capable, and highly trained, people. Getting a better paying civilian job is not a problem. So sub captains try to keep the crews happy. That often leads to lax discipline. And that often leads to these collisions. Many sub captains see this as a calculated risk, as they know that, in wartime, their highly skilled crews would snap together and do the job. But a sub commanders first priority, at least in peacetime, is the safety of his boat. In wartime, the mission comes first.

There's precedent for this. During the early days of World War II, the U.S. Navy had to replace most of its sub captains. These men had risen to their positions in the peacetime navy by doing things by the book and always adhering to procedure. Moreover, the peacetime sub operations did not include the kind of unexpected, and highly stressful, situation typical of wartime. But in combat, you needed much more flexible commanders, and these were the ones who came in and won the American submarine war in the Pacific. The navy has found that the flood of new technology is creating unexpected situations, that crews have to be warned about, and trained to handle.



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