Worrying initiatives to improve navigational safety in US Navy

The US Navy attempts to improve navigational safety in the wake of a series of accidents involving ships from the Pacific Fleet, reports Geoff Ziezulewicz for Navy Times after obtaining a command message outlining some of the initiatives. The list of revised procedures does give grounds for some worry, though.

It starts off well enough. There will be a revised watch schedule to ensure better human performance:

[S]urface fleet skippers will be required to implement watch schedules and shipboard routines that better sync with circadian rhythms and natural sleep cycles.

This is a good idea. In many navies around the world sleep routines are an underestimated factor in performance, and in some places there has developed a culture where a tough schedule is even regarded as a sort of test of manhood (try reading the comments to the article).

But then the list continues with this:

In a nod to old-school seamanship, and regardless of any installed radar capability, Rowden’s message also dictates that maneuvering boards will be used by both the bridge and combat information center for all vessel contacts with an initial closest point of approach of 5,000 yards or less.

No, seriously, who uses maneuvering boards for actual collision avoidance? A skilled navigator is able to intuitively grasp the situation and act accordingly without the need for not only one but two independent circles of manual calculations. The only way this can be done is if assistants perform the calculations, and as Paul Lobo explained the reliance on too many assistants is precisely the problem with the Navy Way. When you try to keep a cool head in a high-traffic area the last thing you want is to be disturbed by an assistant giving you data-readings on all the ships around you. This touches on another human factor i.e. the limited attention span that one person is able to muster, and the US Navy should seek to remove disturbances like superfluous assistants instead of insisting on more of them.

Maneuvering boards are a great educational tool when learning the basics of relative movements, and they are useful for niche purposes like finding an intercept course to a target that is far away. But if your navigational team relies on maneuvering boards for actual maneuvers in close vicinity of other ships, I am sorry to say that either the personal qualifications of the bridge crew or the applied procedures are not good enough. What you end up with is a staccato style of navigation where your maneuvers are unpredictable for other ships around you and based on one incident at a time instead of a comprehensive understanding of the situation.

And then the list continues:

Navy ships steaming in high-traffic areas will now use the automatic identification system, or AIS, which is used to track movement aboard commercial vessels.

The Fitz was steaming in a busy sea lane off Japan when its June collision occurred. The McCain was near the busy Strait of Malacca near Singapore when it collided with a tanker less than two months later.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told Congress on Tuesday that using AIS in high-traffic situations poses no operational security risk because “you can look outside and see the ship.”

“We had a distorted perception of operational security, that we kept that system off our warships,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a Navy readiness hearing.

Rowden’s message notes that fleet commander direction, mission-specific opsec and force protection conditions will factor into AIS use.

To be fair, this is actually an improvement. It is hard to overestimate the importance of AIS in modern navigation, and switching it off is best compared to turning off the navigation lights. The surprising part is really that it took the US Navy until 2017 to realize that turning on AIS may be a good idea. Sure there are reasons for turning it off sometimes but the priority must be that AIS is on by default and off when there is a specific reason. It’s not the other way around that you turn it on in specific situations which unfortunately is what I get from Rowden’s message.

The key to understanding the importance of AIS is to acknowledge its role in the sensemaking efforts for navigators on all involved ships. Safe navigation is essentially an ongoing process of interpretation and interaction between operators, and AIS gives early and immediate access to almost all relevant information about shipping in the area. In essence the shared situational plot is a sophisticated language that navigators use to communicate intentions to one another through small alterations of course and speed, and AIS has made it possible for ships to begin this exchange of non-verbal messages much earlier than it was possible when radar was the preferred method.

With AIS navigators will be aware of each other at distances of about 20 nautical miles with all relevant information available, whereas radar doesn’t see the other ship until much later and first then can start calculating the data. In fact, the invention of AIS probably means that many merchant ships today have the radar set at a smaller range area than before because they get early warning data from the AIS display on the electronic chart and mostly use the radar for verification and identification of small shipping like local fishermen. As a result, a ship without AIS cannot expect to be discovered until a range of 6-8 miles and sometimes – depending on the alertness of the navigator on the merchant ship – even later.

I think the US Navy is unaware just how unorthodox its methods are compared to normal standards of safe navigation. In my daily job I navigate a ship in the narrow, traffic-intensive Danish straits, and we regularly have passages of warships without AIS. The reaction from the merchant ships is every time one of caution because the warship is perceived as moving inside a bubble of ignorance – invisible on the systems that other ships use to see each other and utterly foreign to the non-verbal language that navigators use to communicate intentions to one another. The fact that some warships have a regime of calling everybody up on VHF just reaffirms the impression.

So while it is a good move that the US Navy will now sometimes turn on AIS, it is not nearly enough. The bridge crews have to learn that turning on AIS is not just about switching a button, but a matter of learning a whole new language that, once you master it, makes many of your old procedures irrelevant.

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