Following this year’s pair of deadly collisions between US guided missile destroyers and merchant ships, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson were questioned about their efforts to prevent further collisions, during the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
One of the immediate changes to fleet operations, according to Spencer and Richardson, is the Navy’s surface fleet ships will now announce their presence in heavily trafficked shipping lanes.
CNO Richardson noted that it is very hard to understand how navy ships gets that close to collision, despite the sophisticated systems onboard and although there are lookouts on the bridge. Part of the problem, he stressed, isn’t the Navy’s ability to see who else is out there, but everyone else’s ability to spot Navy ships.
As he explained, the Navy is very good at disguising itself at sea, as navy ships are designed to appear as something much smaller when detected on the radar screens of other ships. Even in daylight, Navy ships are painted Haze Grey to make it very difficult for crews on enemy ships to make visual contact.
Although this stealth makes warships more effective from a warfighting standpoint, this stealth also imposes a burden on Navy crews to understand non-threatening marine traffic will have difficulty recognizing the size, location, and speed of Navy ships, CNO Richardson added. Crews need to be more like a ‘defensive driver’.
A quick fix, Richardson said, is now the surface fleet is supposed to use its automatic identification system (AIS) when in high traffic areas, which is primarily a navigation tool for collision avoidance. The AIS corroborates and provides identification and position of vessels not always possible through voice radio communication or radar alone, such as identity, type, position, course, speed and navigational status. The system also receives such safety-related information from other ships.
The US Coast Guard requires most maritime traffic to use AIS in US waters, but US Navy ships, and other government vessels, are not required to use AIS, the maritime navigation safety communications system, standardized by the International Telecommunication Union and adopted by IMO.
While the Navy has for years had AIS onboard, Richardson said the system was rarely used.
“We had, I think, a distorted perception of operational security that we kept that system secure – off – on our warships,” Richardson said. “One of the immediate actions following these incidents – particularly in heavily trafficked areas we’re just going to turn it on.”
On 17 June 2017, USS Fitzgerald collided with a NYK container ship off Japan, causing death of seven sailors. Two months later, on 21 August, the USS John S. McCain collided with the merchant vessel Alnic MC, off Singapore, leading to death of ten crew.