Surface fleet sailors should be able to stand watch competently on the bridge of any ship. While the physical principles that dictate how ships move through the water do not change, there is, unfortunately, a wide variety of navigation equipment across the fleet. This forces watchstanders and technicians to become familiar with a plethora of systems without ever truly mastering their operation and maintenance. This lack of standardization also affects the schoolhouses and ship simulators that attempt to train students on all fleet systems without using equipment found on any ship.
I am not alone in recognizing this problem. The 2017 Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents observed, “Sailors from one ship cannot simply cross to another ship of the same class and expect familiar equipment or lay-outs.”1 To make up for the shortfall, watchstanders must lean heavily on on-the-job-training (OJT) and the ubiquitous “gouge.”
The Navy needs a common bridge navigation system across all platforms. Such a system would enable watchstanders to easily aggregate the information required to navigate safely, allow schoolhouses and simulators to teach the fundamentals of navigation systems, and provide sailors with full access to the technical documents required to operate and maintain the system. Rather than try to keep pace with fixing and maintaining the abundance of Integrated Bridge and Navigation System (IBNS) variants, the Navy needs to start with a clean-sheet design.
An Imperfect Solution
The IBNS is the poster child for problematic navigation equipment. It began with initial funding requests in 2002–5, with the first installation on the USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53) in 2011.2 For a design that took six years to roll out and was fielded in the fleet for another six years before the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collision in 2017, IBNS has shown itself to be technically lacking. The Comprehensive Review specifically faulted the critical design review (CDR) for the John S. McCain’s IBNS installation.3 Though IBNS does not qualify as a “major defense acquisition program” required to have a CDR prior to fabrication, system integration, demonstration, and testing, completing a CDR is an ordinary practice for engineers during the design process.4
As of 2018, there were at least 23 IBNS variants on cruisers and destroyers.5 This number has undoubtedly ballooned as more ships receive IBNS installations. For each variant, there must be training tailored specifically to a ship’s configuration. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report on the John S. McCain collision found that some of the sailors involved with steering the destroyer at the time of its collision were temporarily assigned from the USS Antietam (CG-54) and not familiar with John S. McCain’s IBNS configuration.6 This lack of IBNS standardization and the system’s complexity hampered watchstanders trying to navigate a high-density traffic area. The NTSB reported, “The design of the John S. McCain’s touch-screen steering and thrust-control system increased the likelihood of the operator errors that led to the collision.”7
This is symptomatic of an acquisition system that often promises one thing and delivers another. The original justification for IBNS was that it would save on manning costs by reducing the number of bridge watchstanders to just three.8 Most surface ships are not authorized to have fewer than six bridge watchstanders in open ocean and coastal waters, and only the Zumwalt-class destroyers and littoral combat ships (LCSs) are authorized fewer than four.9
Safety of navigation extends beyond the inadequacies of ship-control equipment. The Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) on board U.S. Navy ships has the capability to integrate with a digital fluxgate magnetic compass, Automatic Identification System (AIS), navigation radar, and ship control. However, not all ships have this capability, leaving watchstanders without the ability to use ECDIS to its full potential. Even on ships with this integration, the Comprehensive Review identified existing interoperability problems.10 As a result, watchstanders must walk across the entire bridge to look at four different pieces of equipment to aggregate all the information needed to keep the ship safe.
In Search of Commonality
Perhaps the greatest benefit of a common bridge navigation system is the ability to optimize the human-machine interface. Equipment grouped in a logical manner and integrated correctly with navigation information will maximize situational awareness for watchstanders. In addition, a slew of other issues, from screen brightness to obscured pilothouse windows, can be addressed before they become problems after installation.
Whatever shape the common bridge system of the future takes, proper training on its use should be included at every step of the design process. The Comprehensive Review found that, “The quality of that OJT is largely dependent upon the ship, its commanding officer, and the level of knowledge of the individuals assigned to that ship.”11 Given the amount of money expended on enhancing the surface warfare officer training pipeline to rectify this deficiency, this should be an issue of utmost importance.
Part of designing the training for the common bridge system includes incorporating the same equipment into the ship simulators. The numerous computer-based simulators now in the fleet—many built after 2017—provide the opportunity for students and ship crews alike to train on the equipment found on their ships. However, the disparate systems in the fleet make it impossible to accurately represent all configurations in simulators without significant financial outlays.
A prime example of what commonality between platforms can look like is the voyage management system (VMS). Though there are several versions of VMS in the fleet, they are mostly identical within each version. Unlike the numerous surface-search radar and ship-control systems, VMS is available in schoolhouses and simulators in the same configuration as available on ships. Furthermore, the standardization of VMS has allowed for common training in schoolhouses and simulators.
The next generation of bridge navigation equipment should be developed from the ground up with watchstanders in mind. Coupling this with equally satisfactory navigation and seamanship training for sailors will result in watchstanders who do not rely primarily on OJT. The damage done by excessive variety in navigation systems must be undone as rapidly as possible. Continuing with the current level of functionality assumes unnecessary risk and punts the problem to watchstanders, who have to expend extra effort to attain and maintain situational awareness. This is a risk the Navy can ill-afford in the high-end fight.
1. ADM Philip S. Davidson, USN, U.S. Navy Fleet Forces Command, Comprehensive Review of Surface Force Incidents, 26 October 2017.
2. U.S. Navy Destroyer Squadron 23 Public Affairs, “USS John Paul Jones Shows off Modernization Features,” Surface Warfare Magazine 36, no. 4 (Fall 2011), 12.
3. Davidson, Comprehensive Review of Surface Force Incidents, 89.
4. “PDR and CDR Assessments,” Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Mission Capabilities.
5. Megan Eckstein, “NAVSEA: Navy Ships Using 23 Different Steering Control Systems; Simpler Systems Needed,” USNI News, 20 June 2018.
6. National Transportation Safety Board, Collision between U.S. Navy Destroyer John S. McCain and Tanker Alnic MC Singapore Strait, 5 Miles Northeast of Horsburgh Lighthouse August 21, 2017, NTSB/MAR-19/01, June 2019.
7. National Transportation Safety Board, Collision between U.S. Navy Destroyer.
8. Davidson, Comprehensive Review of Surface Force Incidents.
9. National Transportation Safety Board, Collision between U.S. Navy Destroyer.
10. Davidson, Comprehensive Review of Surface Force Incidents.
11. Davidson, 48.