WASHINGTON — In the wake of two tragic collisions that claimed the lives of 17 sailors in 2017, a troubling question arose: What if the U.S. Navy has forgotten how to drive its ships?

After the accidents, reviews found shortfalls in training, manning and deployment schedules for forward-deployed Navy ships.

The fatal collisions occurred about two months apart. The destroyer Fitzgerald collided with a merchant vessel on June 17, 2017, and the destroyer John S. McCain impacted with a 600-foot-long tanker on Aug. 21 that same year.

What was not thoroughly answered by the reviews was how it was possible, on two of the world’s most advanced warships, that the watch teams on the bridge and the radar monitors in the combat information center aboard the destroyers didn’t manage to coordinate to avoid the collisions.

For Vice Adm. Richard Brown, head of Naval Surface Force Pacific and the service’s top surface warfare officer, that question has driven him toward a solution that has been around the Navy for decades, but arguably underused by the surface fleet: simulators.

Long a staple in the aviation and submarine communities, the surface Navy has looked to integrate significant simulator time into training its officers at every level — from their initial courses of instruction at Surface Warfare Officer School, to refresher training at fleet concentration areas like San Diego and Norfolk, and even into a final test for incoming ship-commanding officers.

Now, to complete your pre-commanding officer tour training, you must face the simulator and weave your way in and out of challenging navigation scenarios. If you can’t, you won’t become a commanding officer.

In a recent interview, Brown said he hopes to build on the success the surface Navy has had with its littoral combat ship shore-side trainer, which has some of the most advanced simulation in the service and is used to train crews bound for LCS duty.

“People walk into the [shore-based trainer] and say: ‘Oh, I get it now.’ It’s just so good,” Brown said.

As part of a 2018 reprogramming request, the Navy shifted $24 million to build what will be a new “Maritime Skills Training Program,” which will be heavily reliant on simulators to bring together officer and enlisted watchstanders to train on equipment and work as a unit.

“We’ve secured the funding for the maritime skills training centers, which is going to do two things: individual officer training through the [officer of the deck training],” Brown explained. “So that, in conjunction with building out the navigation, seamanship and ship-handling trainers in the fleet concentration areas, will give us integrated bridge and CIC [combat information center] training at the high end. That’s my No. 1 priority.”

Those facilities will be ready for use by the waterfront in the 2021 time frame, Brown said. In the meantime, however, the existing navigation, seamanship and ship-handling trainers will be getting upgrades slated for completion next month, said Cmdr. Patrick Evans, Brown’s spokesman.

“The NSST upgrades are being expedited to provide improved hazardous situation training capability and integrated Bridge/CIC radar and navigation training,” he said in an email. “Fleet Concentration Areas will receive the initial NSST modification upgrades commencing in December 2018 with full capability fielding to all sites through 2021.”

Up in Newport, Rhode Island, where the Navy trains its new surface warfare officers, the service has instituted a four-week junior-officer-of-the-deck course that makes heavy use of the simulators at Surface Warfare Officers School. The feedback from Junior Officer of the Deck course graduates was overwhelmingly positive, according to Brown.

“We got a lot of great feedback from the ensigns that went through it,” Brown said. “They really believe we accelerated their proficiency and their competency so that when they get to their ship, they are not just up there parroting something that an [officer of the deck] or a [junior officer of the deck] is telling them to do — they really understand what’s going on.”

The success was such that the Navy decided to start experimenting, Brown said. The service put the honor graduates from the junior-officer-of-the-deck course through the commanding officer go/no-go final simulator problem set.

“They did incredibly well,” Brown said, “so we are quite encouraged.”

Muscle memory

In the minutes leading up to the collision between the McCain and the tanker Alnic MC, confusion reigned on the bridge.

Two watchstanders manning the helm had been qualified to operate the McCain’s equipment, even though they had recently transferred from a ship with different equipment, and there is no evidence they received extensive retraining on the McCain’s steering console.

So when the McCain — transiting one of the world’s maritime superhighways near the Strait of Malacca — began drifting across the bow of Alnic MC, at the moments of extremis the watchstanders could not figure out how to properly operate the controls. The breakdown seems to have triggered a chain reaction and frozen the bridge watch team before they were able to avoid the collision.

Ten sailors were killed in the incident.

But the event highlights a key aspect the Navy hopes to gain from increasing simulator time for watch teams: muscle memory.

When things get stressful, whether in combat or real-world navigation scenarios, people tend to fall back on their training. And on McCain, that broke down.

And if the Navy wants to really get at that issue, it must ensure equipment in the simulator matches that on the individual bridge and in the CIC of the watch teams going through the training, said Bryan Clark, a retired submariner and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“The benefit of simulation is getting the muscle memory,” Clark said. “And simulation is very effective if you can simulate what you will see on the ship in terms of equipment, so it’s very high fidelity. This way, watch teams and their [officers of the deck] get used to their systems, you can configure."

And simulation may be more critical than ever. There have been shifting conditions on the world’s oceans that are making accidents more likely, according to Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer skipper and a defense consultant who heads The FerryBridge Group.

“The chief of naval operations [Adm. John Richardson] often says that the volume of international maritime traffic has quadrupled since he joined the Navy,” McGrath said. “And you hear about it from the fleet, you hear how difficult it is.

“So it is essential to get these high-fidelity trainers that expose watchstanders to that kind of density long before they experience it in real life. You just can’t generate those kinds of conditions unless you are there, and that’s where simulators come in.”

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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