The U.S. Navy announced plans to revert its destroyers’ throttle and helm controls from touchscreens back to mechanical systems starting in 2020, USNI News reported this week, after the release of a federal accident report that cited the system’s poor design as a contributing factor to a fatal 2017 crash.
In August 2017, the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore, killing 10 sailors and injuring dozens more. This crash came just two months after seven sailors died in a similar incident between another guided-missile destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, and a cargo ship near Japan.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into the McCain collision showed that sailors had not been adequately trained on how to operate its complex touchscreen system. The morning of the crash, the ship was operating in “backup manual mode,” which switches computer assistance off. The crew’s commanding officer told the NTSB that, while not standard procedure, using this configuration was a common practice among COs both on the McCain and other destroyers. According to the report, he said it allowed for a “more direct form of communication between the steering and SCC [Ship’s Control Console]” that his crew was “more comfortable” with.
However, seemingly unbeknownst to the crew, this mode also removed a key safeguard required before transferring control of the ship between throttle and helm stations operated by touchscreens. This allowed for “unintentional, unilateral transfer of steering control,” the report said, a.k.a. anyone at any station could take the wheel at a moment’s notice. At one point while the McCain was maneuvering through the busy shipping traffic in the Singapore Strait, crewmembers tried to take control of the ship from multiple stations, only succeeding in quickly shifting control ineffectively “from the lee helm, to aft steering, to the helm, and back to aft steering.”
Among other factors such as poor display design and sailor fatigue, the NTSB contributed the McCain collision to this system’s confusing configuration. The board suggested that, had mechanical controls been involved, the helmsman likely would have noticed a potential issue earlier because “they provide both immediate and tactile feedback to the operator.”
Fleet-wide surveys conducted by the Navy also revealed sailors vastly preferred mechanical controls compared to the touchscreen system, according to Rear Admiral Bill Galinis, the Navy’s program executive officer for ships, at a recent keynote speech. He described the findings as “really eye-opening,” reports USNI News, adding: “We really made the helm control system...just overly complex, with the touch screens under glass and all this kind of stuff.”
He also said the Navy is examining the designs of its various ships to see if they can integrate any system commonalities between ship classes. According to USNI News, the contracting process for the transition is already underway with work slated to begin next summer.