The U.S. Navy wants to neck down the 18 configurations of ship control systems on surface vessels to help avoid collisions at sea, such as two separate incidents in 2017 involving the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and the USS Fitgerald (DDG-62). The collisions killed 17 sailors.
“On the DDG-51 class alone, when we started diving a little bit more deeply, we found nine different variants of ship control,” Capt. Scott Larson, the program manager for Surface Ship Readiness and Sustainment (PMS 443), told a briefing on Jan. 12 at the Surface Navy Association (SNA) conference in Arlington, Va. “When we look across the surface ship portfolio, there are 12 classes of ships and 18 configurations of ship control systems. That’s bad. All that configuration variance grows risk, grows cost. It’s not optimal on any dimension. Let’s own that. Let’s do this right because now we have a safety critical system, and now we have to make sure we’re delivering a system that meets specification that sailors can have confidence in and will operate the way they expect it to operate. We just can’t afford to do anything less with a system this important.”
Larson is a former commander of the USS Coronado (LCS-4).
A November 2017 comprehensive review by the Navy of recent collisions said that watchstanders on the McCain “did not have the training or knowledge on the modes of operation of the Integrated Bridge and Navigation System [IBNS], particularly relating to the modes of operation for the ship’s steering controls” and that the watchstanders “unknowingly transferred control of steering away from the helmsman while shifting modes of operation.”
Northrop Grumman‘s [NOC] Charlottesville, Va., site builds IBNS.
In the Fitzgerald collision, Automatic Identification System (AIS) data “was unable to be pulled into USS Fitzgerald’s SPS-73 console for improved situational awareness,” the comprehensive review said. Raytheon Technologies [RTX] builds the SPS-73 surface search radar.
In the McCain incident, watchstanders facing heavy ship traffic disabled a radar interface, the comprehensive review said, because 150 or more SPS-73 tracks could overload Northrop Grumman’s Electronic Chart Display and Information System – Navy (ECDIS-N).
Last year, PMS-443 began an effort to reduce the 18 ship control system configurations on surface ships. One of Larson’s slides at the SNA briefing on Jan. 13 said that the reduction “will significantly reduce life-cycle cost; improve sustainment across all sustainment pillars (training, facilities/labs, logistics/parts, etc.) and enhance watch-stander performance while offering potential future training reductions.”
Michael Corrigan, Northrop Grumman’s Charlottesville site director for maritime systems and integration, said in a statement that the company “is aware and supportive of PMS-443’s goals to consolidate configurations and drive commonality into the fleet.”
“We continue to work closely with our PMS-443 and NSWC-Philadelphia Division partners to help achieve this goal in a thoughtful and expeditious manner,” per Corrigan.
Larson said on Jan. 12 that “what we find often times when we talk about bridges and ship control [is] lack of ownership in terms of the technical and programmatic authority and responsibility for who owns the bridge, who owns the steering control system.”
“In PMS-443, one of the things we try to do is, if we find systems that lack the programmatic oversight, the technical oversight and accountability, we own it,” he said.. “We like to say, ‘No orphan systems.’ Ship control ssytems, as the comprehensive review told us, were not being managed holistically across platforms and across life cycle. PMS-443 entered the fold, and we’ve been taking charge and taking ownership. I like to call us ‘the sheriff of the bridge.'”