Three Things the Navy Can Do to Improve Safe Navigation

Sailors watch as the damaged USS Fitzgerald returns to Fleet Activities Yokosuka, June 17 (USN)

Published Jun 25, 2017 4:57 PM by Lt. Cmdr. Michael Kiser

Recent mishaps at sea have demonstrated there is considerable room for improvement on the bridges of U.S. Navy warships. While changes are needed and will help improve safety at sea, there is nothing that will keep a ship safe if the officer of the deck, the captain, or the rest of the watch team fail to comply with the “Rules of the Road” or ignore the ordinary practice of seamanship. However, ensuring the bridge team has the best tools, skills, and knowledge at their disposal will help prevent collisions at sea. I suggest three changes.

First, Navy ships should consider transmitting automatic identification system (AIS) data every time they enter and leave congested waterways when threat conditions allow. In most busy waterways, warships are the only large vessels not transmitting AIS data. This, combined with the low radar cross-section of many of Navy ships, can cause confusion on the bridges of commercial ships—especially on ships where the officers do not routinely interact with warships. Transmitting AIS would provide an additional safety measure to ensure they are aware of our position, course, and speed. This obviously would give our positions to our adversaries, but a blanket practice of not transmitting should give way to a practice of transmitting based on the threat and safety of navigation. During times of increased tensions or when intelligence suggests a threat, AIS transmissions should be turned off. This change could be implemented nearly immediately with additional guidance from fleet commanders and local operating procedures.

Second, the commanding officer, executive offier, and all officers and chiefs standing bridge watch should be required to complete an automatic radar plotting aid (ARPA) course instead of merely the job qualification requirement or performance qualification system associated with the system aboard their ship. In the commercial world, deck watch officers complete a similar course in accordance with the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention. While the Navy does have a formal qualification process for bridge watchstanders to familiarize them with the operations of their radar sets and ARPAs, such as the SPS-73, knowledge of these systems could benefit from increased training. I believe that many of our bridge watchstanders are not fully familiar with their ARPA and its capabilities—capabilities designed to increase situational awareness which would help prevent collisions. The combined time and cost of a radar observer and ARPA course taken at a commercial training center in the Hampton Roads area is about nine days and $1,800. The time invested on a Navy ship on training towards the SPS-73 certainly does not equal 70 hours of training. The Navy should work with local maritime schools in fleet concentration areas to start ARPA training for deploying ships’ officers or officers transferring to forward deployed ships within the next few months. The long-term goal would be to incorporate ARPA training as part of division officer, department head, and commanding officer pipelines. This training should be U.S. Coast Guard approved which will satisfy STCW requirements. In doing so, we will develop an in-depth level of knowledge on these systems and will greatly improve our watchstanding.

Third, we should ensure that bridge displays are integrated on all ships. Most commissioned ships have an electronic chart information display system (ECIDS), radar, and AIS graphic display. However, on some ships these three data sets are not integrated into a single display. The technology to overlay this data is available and would make the picture on the bridge easier to view by the officer of the deck (OOD) and CO. Allowing an OOD to view that an AIS track is in a traffic separation scheme and that a ship on AIS matches a radar contact with certainty would allow for better watchstanding. Requiring the OOD to look on multiple screens and then correlate the picture in their mind may lead to mistakes. Furthermore, it can lead to misunderstandings within the watch team. We should begin the process to update our bridge displays to ensure the systems are integrated and provide a clearer picture to the bridge team.

None of these suggestions will entirely eliminate the threat of collisions at sea. However, for a relatively small investment, we can enhance our bridge resource management, watchstander situational awareness, make our operations safer, and improve our readiness.

LCDR Kiser is a surface warfare officer assigned to the Joint Staff J7. He is the former commanding officer of the USS Sirocco (PC-6).

This article appears courtesy of USNI News, and it may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of either the U.S. Navy or of The Maritime Executive Magazine.