The U.S. Navy has concluded that one of the factors that led to three warship collisions in 2017 was the adoption of touch screen controls for ship navigation. The current SCC (Ship’s Control Console) uses two touch-screens on the Helm, Lee Helm and other SCC found on the ship. These were used by the crew to control steering and propulsion (forward and reverse speed). It was discovered that the crews involved had placed the SCC in “backup manual mode.” This turned off computer-assisted help so that 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. So 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 conversion will begin in 2020. The 2017 collision occurred on a ship that had received the SCC in 2016.
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, involved the cruiser Antietam that ran 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 for sea. In June and August, it got worse 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 and overwork (and subsequent crew fatigue) in the ships of the 7th Fleet. The two Burke-class destroyers (the Fitzgerald and McCain) that suffered fatal collisions had some of the worst readiness and training ratings in the entire fleet. These ratings exist to spotlight ships, and their 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, it was decided to relieve the 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 navy admirals.
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 and while 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 any 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.
The ships overseas are also kept busier even though crew sizes have been reduced as well and, 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 (caused 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 that 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.