Safety in the Crowded Seaways

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In commenting on past collisions at sea, it has often been noted that they are extremely rare. Unfortunately for the U.S. Navy, that has not been the case this year. So far there have been four, plus a grounding, and the year isn’t over yet. The last two collisions, involving guided missile destroyers (DDGs) vs. commercial vessels, have been deadly, with over a dozen sailors lost.

The two most recent collisions and the grounding of a guided missile cruiser have deprived the forward-deployed U.S. Seventh Fleet of three valuable Aegis-configured anti-ballistic missile defense ships at a most inopportune time with tensions between the U.S. and North Korea high and China challenging our freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Chinese media are referring to our warships as reckless and hazards to navigation.

A nimble, fast, well-equipped and heavily-manned ship like a DDG should be able to keep out of the way of a lumbering container ship or tanker, no matter what the commercial vessel does or fails to do under the international rules to prevent collisions at sea which dictate which ship is to maintain course and speed and which is to give way. DDGs can usually power out of close encounters, if necessary. At least, that’s what the taxpayers tend to expect of these very expensive ships and they understandably are demanding to know what is going on here. If the Navy can’t post a better safety record and do a better job of protecting its sailors and ships from collisions, something has to change and very soon.

Do not doubt for an instant that senior levels of the Navy are acutely aware of the urgency of this and are looking hard at how we train our commanding officers (COs) and officers of the deck (OODs, the officers in charge of the bridge watch and the CO’s representatives in his absence from the bridge). That there will be changes is a given. Meanwhile, the three-star Seventh Fleet commander has been relieved. The COs of the ships and other officers also have been, or will soon be. Others will likely follow. There is absolute accountability in the seagoing navy and the buck stops not just with the CO but sometimes with his superiors.

Navy ships typically have half a dozen or more watch standers on the bridge including an OOD qualified by the CO and a conning officer. They are backed up by other teams, including a combat information center (CIC) with radars, computer assisted automatic radar plotting aids (ARPA), automatic identification (AIS) systems and other contact tracking and communications equipment. They can track dozens of contacts, determine their courses and speeds, destinations, closest points of approach and other contact avoidance information. Merchant ships have similar equipment but typically have only two watch standers on the bridge with a mate of the watch in charge representing the master when he is not on the bridge.

A major difference is that the civilian mate of the watch and the master are licensed mariners. The navy OOD and CO are not. Navy warships, in addition to being highly complex fighting platforms, are also training platforms. The fact is, navy warships are driven mostly by very junior officers who are, for the most part, still acquiring advanced ship handling and seamanship skills. Licensed mariners, on the other hand are already trained and qualified before they even set foot aboard.

Most collisions at sea occur at or near heavily-travelled choke points like the Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, Singapore Strait or other narrow seaways. They have traffic separation schemes like divided highways but the approaches are usually congested with ships approaching from various directions and departing on various courses. Navy ships have excellent equipment to plot and track these contacts but maneuvering decisions essentially come down to one person, the OOD or the CO. This can be extremely challenging, even for highly experience mariners, especially in darkness or low visibility. In this regard, there is simply no substitute for experience and practice which improves judgment and decision-making. Just as in aviation, no amount of sophisticated equipment can compensate for a lack of experience and the practiced judgment that comes from many years on the bridge or in the cockpit.

Over the years, the complexity of navy warships has increased dramatically. So have the warfare training requirements, collateral duties, administrative programs, reporting requirements, inspections, exercises, working up for deployment and other responsibilities borne by these junior officers who also have divisions of enlisted crew members to manage and train. Over the years, these demands and the increased complexity of naval warfare in general have consumed the bulk of their time and attention and tended to overshadow the emphasis and attention given, at all levels of the chain of command, to seamanship and ship handling which are now being treated rather like an incidental duties. This has got to change in the interest of safety at sea. All the advanced shipboard technology is useless if we can’t get the ship safely to its destination.

How to do this is now an urgent task of higher authority. It will require thinking outside the box and it may require a much more formal certification process or perhaps the creation of a new specialty focused on ship driving, just as aviators are focused on flying. The Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Australian Navy, for example, have separate career branches for deck/warfare officers and engineering officers. Ship driving, while not rocket science, is an important and demanding skill requiring intense focus and judgment. It is a very unique skill, clearly not for everyone and most officers will never put in the required practice, study and effort to become highly proficient. It is a waste of effort and resources, in my view, to attempt to train all or even most surface line officers to be OODs, let alone COs.

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Source: Coronado Eagle & Journal

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