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After Deadly Collisions Navy will Broadcast Warship Locations in High Traffic Areas

A sailor standing watch aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) observes boat traffic while transiting the Straits of Malacca in 2009. US Navy Photo

Following this year’s pair of deadly collisions between U.S. guided missile destroyers and merchant ships, the Navy is now considering whether it’s surface fleet is often too stealthy.

Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson were peppered with questions Tuesday about their efforts to prevent further collisions while appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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.

“Every boat on the Gulf of Maine has a radar on it. When there’s another boat within a mile, or two miles, or five miles and an alarm goes off and shows up on your GPS. How in the world does a billion-dollar destroyer not know there’s a freighter closing in on it? I don’t understand how this could possibly happen,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). “I’ve talked to Maine lobstermen and they’re scratching their heads. They can tell when there’s a flock of seagulls of their bow.”

“Sir, I have the same questions,” Richardson responded. “It’s very hard to understand with the sophisticated systems onboard these warships that we let a ship get in that close to the point of collision.”

“Don’t we have sailors on the bridge with binoculars anymore?” King asked.

“We do,” Richardson said. “It’s required to have lookouts and we have lookouts on the bridge.”

Part of the problem isn’t the Navy’s ability to see who else is out there, Richardson said, but everyone else’s ability to spot Navy ships.

“Is there some technology that they couldn’t see us?” King asked. “Are we using a stealth technology?”

The quick answer was yes. The Navy is very good at disguising itself at sea, Richardson said. 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.

“We design our warships to have a lower radar cross-section. Some are designed to be very low,” Richardson said. “That degree of stealth makes us more effective from a warfighting standpoint.”

But 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, 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.

“AIS is primarily and foremost a navigation tool for collision avoidance,” according to Coast Guard instructions. “The AIS corroborates and provides identification and position of vessels not always possible through voice radio communication or radar alone.”

The U.S. Coast Guard requires most maritime traffic to use AIS in U.S. waters. U.S. 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 the International Maritime Organization.

According to the Coast Guard, AIS sends out vessel information including identity, type, position, course, speed, navigational status, and other safety-related information. The system also receives such safety-related information from other ships.

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.”

  • Marc Apter

    “Don’t we have sailors on the bridge with binoculars anymore?” King asked.
    “We do,” Richardson said. “It’s required to have lookouts and we have lookouts on the bridge.”
    So, no more after lookouts, and lookouts on the Bridge who are probably told to stay out of the way of the “Watch Officers, Navigator, and Senior Officers visiting the Bridge. That may explain what happened.

    • Curtis Conway

      I taught Lookout procedures in OS “A” School, was the Lookout Training Petty Officer on two cruisers, and stood most every watch station for Sea & Anchor Detail. With the tools available, and the number of members on the team, there has to be other things going on here that exacerbated this situation.

      Bring back REFTRA! It seems there is a lack of any level of primary responsible professional performance, or those performing the tasks have forgotten their jobs in the team context, if they ever knew what that job was in the first place. After the REFTRA ‘Black Hats’ got through with critiquing your performance (or lack thereof), regardless of the rank on your collar (which determines your position in the team NOT the level of importance of your function), it was very clear where the strengths and weaknesses of the team lay.

      Coordination, communication, check and cross-check . . . no questions in anyone’s mind, or you are not doing the team thing.

      • John Locke

        You might want to look at the Surface Force Readiness Manual

        • Curtis Conway

          ON PAPER you can have a ICMP and READ-E1/2/3/4, and that does not a Ready Force Make! Is the activity REAL, or just a paperwork drill. Were audits conducted by qualified, capable and responsible individuals? These are all Leadership items. There is integrity in the process, or there is not . . . and if not . . . what do you have?
          When we see deaths on the High Seas, and Fleet, Type, and Unit Commanders leaving all the sudden (recent headlines). . . I think we have the answer to that question.
          The system spelled out is a good read, and LOOKS good, but WHO is involved in the process, HOW were they selected, and WHY are they performing specific functions in these inspection cycles. A high TSRA does not a Ready Ship make, if there is no integrity in the process . . . AND those performing the evaluations are a bunch of politically correct pencil pushers who have worked their way up through the chain, and accumulated a resume’.

          This is all fall-outs from investigations that revealed excessive ‘lack of leadership’ and competency, in too many high places. Keep it simple or you own the last “S”. The current system has convoluted the plumbing so much even the college boys can’t figure it out, or can only survive by cheating with the O&M budgets provided via Sequestration and Continuing Resolutions given the size of the force (the only OUT I’m going to give them).

          Can’t do that during two weeks in the waters off of GITMO with a dozen Black Hats on board who are the Subject Matter EXPERTS (SMEs) in and of their own right, based upon PERFORMANCE! Meritocracy, NOT Bureaucracy. The current system kills people with a Master’s Thesis, instead of a simple ‘merit based system’. Scotty was right: “The more complex they make the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain” [with a Scottish accent].

          It is interesting to note that the LCS Program is exempted from our Reff A:
          COMNAVSURFPACINST 3502.3/
          COMNAVSURFLANTINST 3502.3
          9 Mar 12
          I would laugh out loud if it was not so sad.

  • Curtis Conway

    Who are you hiding from if your vessel is surrounded by tens, if not hundreds, of surface craft in congested narrow straits? Since: “AIS is primarily and foremost a navigation tool for collision avoidance,” according to Coast Guard instructions. “The AIS corroborates and provides identification and position of vessels not always possible through voice radio communication or radar alone.” . . . do you suppose this system should be used in such examples as we currently investigate?

    Situational awareness is everything, and without that situational awareness one cannot do the responsible thing . . . so we deny the keys to situational awareness from everyone else (?) . . further complicating the situation . . . and then do not call them on CH-16 for fear we will muddy the waters further. What a web we weave!

    Turning on one switch could have avoided all of this? If this is an example of the decision making metrics that we call our US Navy Surface Fleet today . . . I fear for our nation’s defense.

    • PolicyWonk

      Common sense is apparently AWOL in the USN.

      God help our sailors…

      • Curtis Conway

        AMEN & AMEN!

    • Duane

      Putting all of our warships into a gigantic international tracking database that clearly shows, in a few seconds of online effort, our enemies exactly how our ships maneuver and perform, is NOT a good idea, it’s a very bad idea.

      It is for that reason that our warplanes don’t turn on civilian transponders when they are engaged in actual maneuvers or missions. We don’t want the enemies of the USA to build a gigantic database that helps them figure out exactly what our habits and capabilities are on a continuous basis.

      The solution is to stop running into other ships. That is 100% within the control of our warship skippers and crews. They need not and must not depend upon some other ship’s captain or crew to protect our ships.

      • Refguy

        But entering and leaving port is comparable to landing and taking off, not engaging in actual maneuvers and missions.

        • Duane

          I a pretty sure our forward overseas air bases in combat theaters, nor our aircraft carriers, do NOT have our military aircraft turning on their transponders so that the enemy can precisely track their movements in theater.

          Transiting the busy sea lanes of potentially contested waters, such as the South China Sea, or the Persian Gulf, or the approaches to Tokyo Bay (in relatively close proximity to enemy combatants from NK) is not where we want to advertise all our moves.

          • Refguy

            IF an area is devoid of non-military traffic, and the controllers are military there are more secure IFF modes (and other means) that can be used for traffic control and deconfliction. The Straits of Malacca and the approaches to Tokyo are not combat theatres and the traffic is more than 90 percent civilian. As we have seen, a collision can put you out of action just as effectively as an ASCM.
            This is NOT a substitute for good seamanship and watch standing, but apparently they are in short supply in WesPac.

          • BlueSky47

            omg Duane-y, don’t you think that every other ship in those busy channels are either Chinese owned, flagged or manned and/or they have paid spies on other ships? They can visually ‘see’ our warships and then can simply make a cell phone call reporting it. AIS or not, when your in a busy area, everyone can see you, you are ‘advertising’ your moves.

          • Duane

            But AIS tells the Chinese or the NORKs exactly what we’re doing even when they aren’t there. After all, the enemies don’t man every single one of the ships we encounter in the sea lanes. Indeed, they probably only operate a tiny fraction of the total number of vessels.

            “Oh, here you go boys .. we’ll make easy for you … just navigate over to blah blah dot com and you’ll get a 247/365 record of every one of our warships. We don’t want to make it too hard for you to target our vessels, because Big Dean thinks it’s peachy keen.”

          • waveshaper1

            I believe this type of info about ship movements “entering/departing ports” is already available (with and without AIS transmissions). Typical rules of the road for Harbormasters “typically” include openly coordinating “all” ship movements in their AO (Including US Navy Ships); Here’s one example; ROE’s for “Tokyo-Wan Vessel Traffic Center/Tokyo Martis User Manual/etc”.

          • BlueSky47

            Moderator, oh moderator, someone has hurt my feelings, moderator oh moderator…moderater? moderator? anyone? anyone?

          • Duane

            What are you, eight years old? Or do you only have an eight year old mentality?

          • BlueSky47

            did I hurt your feelings again? Oh moderator, someone here needs their own ‘safe place’

          • Mark Scease

            Nail on the head. AIS provides a valid real time datum. Observers / spies can see or not see a ship in the area, With AIS reporting, our adversaries can be sure of the location. s In the interests of full disclosure, I’m in favor of sinking a few merchants who use the AIS feed instead of a capable watchstander to maneuver, just to encourage full employment of merchant sailors./s

          • kapena16

            Anyone can watch ships departing for sea from Yokosuka or Pearl harbor and advise their home countries of this info. Then they simply keep track of these ships from satellite. Does anyone think this hasn’t already been going on for years? Don’t we do the same thing? AIS has nothing really to do with it.

      • John Locke

        There are tactics employed using IFF that discredits your assertion. Regardless, the transit habits of the Navy are well known and predictable. You could argue that it is intentional and tactically useful when things get hot.

        • Duane

          IFF has nothing to do with AIS. You either turn it on, and your data goes into the global database that anybody can access online in seconds, or you turn it off, and you have no data in the database.

          • kapena16

            The amount of data the ‘user’ puts into his AIS transponder can be limited. Course and speed and even a ‘false name’ is good enough. Nobody is claiming the Navy has to announce everything. But enough info to prevent collisions is good enough.

          • Duane

            The Navy must be able to prevent collisions using its own sensors and never have to rely on advertising its location to the entire world.

          • SM3, Edwin “Tony” Roach

            Duane above is entirely correct. I’ve been out of the Navy for many years, but not in spirit. Nobody has ever asked me, but I think some good old fashioned seamanship is needed in our Navy today. Being a direct descendant of Norwegian Vikings, letting everyone know where and what we are is never a good idea.. We have too many potential enemies in the world today, who want to bring about our demise. I don’t want anyone to know who I am until it is too late and I have crossed their T. Very proud to be a warier class sailorman from way back. I is, I am, I are. USNA Parent Alumni (94)

      • leroy

        Could help some smart group of terrorists plan an attack. Like you said, they watch, look for patterns, times, routes, etc. and then commandeer some sort of vessel (or even a speedboat like the Iranians do just this time full of explosives – say, 500 lbs of HE) and then, in the middle of the night they attack. No, this is not a good reaction to two of our ships getting needlessly hit.

        Remember why that F-117 got hit over Serbia? Flew the same route night after night thereby allowing a smart Serb AAW commander to see the pattern and attack. Shoot our stealth a/c down. How stupid of the AF we say! Well, looks like we’re about to do stupid.

        • Duane

          Yup, leroy … the less our enemies know about our operations the better. Besides, it’s really beyond dumb to rely on merchant ships that are operating on autopilot nearly all the time, with maybe one officer on watch and most everyone else in their tiny crews probably playing video games in the lounge, or racking out. If we have to rely on them to not hit us, then we’re doing something very wrong.

    • Refguy

      Partly agree, but flipping a switch should be a backup to a competent watch team, not a substitute.

  • johnKHut

    What a load of horse pucky.

  • BlueSky47

    Trying to be “stealthy” in a crowded shipping lane? If anything, you should make it known to the whole world you are there. But this confirms what I’ve been thinking, the SWO pin is meaningless nowadays, they simply hand them out to newly arriving Ensigns as the cross the gangway for the first time. The surface navy can learn alot from the airdales and the bubble heads.

    • waveshaper1

      “The SWO pin is meaningless nowadays”

      (Sarcasm) Yep, here’s a couple examples of what the SWO school is currently teaching;

      – SWO School House Collision Avoidance Block of Instruction; Small/Fast/Nimble/Well Armed/Low Vis/High Tech/Turn on a Dime Destroyer versus Slow/Lumbering/Non-Turning/Gargantuan/Evil Commercial Ships. Google “Austin Powers International Man Of Mystery Steamroller Scene”:<)

      – General Seamanship; Here's a fine example of seamanship in todays modern US Navy (30 second video clip). Google; "The Dumbest Guy in High School Just Got a Boat Video Clip" :<)
      — The rumor is this new skipper is a recent Distinguished Graduate of the US Navy SWO School. I will bet he aced the following SWO blocks of instruction; Sounding of the ship warning horn in a timely manner, helmsman duties, bow/port/starboard/stern watch duties, and abandon ship drill. It also apparent that female crewmembers really are a distraction :<)

      • BlueSky47

        apparently the entire male bridge crew was closely ‘supervising’ the female sound powered phone talker, and all of the lookouts where listening in…

  • D. Jones

    Bandaid not addressing fundamentals. Where is the incentive for vigilance when it’s easy to just turn the beacon on?

    If you ID intermittently, your locations go straight in to plots. Time difference between “appearances” coming and going from crowded ports tells if you went elsewhere in between. Multiple ships “appearing” in clusters telegraphs more information. It’s not just an isolated data point. It’s a collection of them.

    This is a “quick-fix” with potentially unintended consequences. Someone is not thinking this through.

    • waveshaper1

      (Sarcasm) Currently the US Navy 7th Fleet is bottled up in Yokosuka (Tokyo Harbor) and we need to get these ships out to sea, particularly now with this Nork crisis brewing/fixing to explode. Until the 7th fleet can figure out a way to run the shipping channel while simultaneously avoiding the blockading force of slow moving/lumbering/evil commercial ships, their basically useless :<)
      In the last year three USS Navy ships attempted to run the blockade but two of these ships were eventually run down, rammed, and taken out of action by these slow moving "Gargantuan" commercial ships. Also, The USS Antietam (Ticonderoga-Class Guided missile Cruiser) attempted to bust this blockade by avoiding the shipping channel. They attempted an ingenious method to circumvent the blockade by traversing in shallow water (outside the shipping channel/lane) where the commercial ships can't go because they will run aground. Sadly, the USS Antietam only made it a couple miles (they didn't even make it out of Tokyo Harbor) before they grounded the ship on a shoal :<)
      Maybe it's time for the US Navy to negotiate a truce (ceasefire) with these commercial ships. The terms of this Truce would be; We (US Navy) turn on our AIS when in these congested shipping lanes and they (commercial ships) will allow the US Navy ships safe passage:<)

  • Western

    Perhaps we could also turn on the AIS on all flag officers, and get them out of the office and on the ocean, away from uniform manufacturers and social engineers.

  • waveshaper1

    I posted this way back when the Fitz collision occurred (3 months ago);
    Yep, my recommendation would be; Step 1 – When US Navy ships are in busy commercial shipping lanes that belong to US Allies/at night (daytime to) and during peacetime then turn the dang AIS to the on position. This will enable other ships transiting these busy shipping lanes, with their AIS turned on, an opportunity to see our US Navy ships and give them more time to avoid collision like this.

    • Duane

      So you want our naval warships to depend upon unknown, unknowable skippers and crews of multinational, and quite possibly enemy commercial ships to not run into us because they use AIS … instead of us, using far more heavily manned and far more sophisticated sensors not allowing those big and slow and not very maneuverable ships to get close enough to collide?

      I don’t think so.

      • waveshaper1

        This “AIS limited use stuff” is just one piece of the puzzle. IMHO, the use of AIS by US Navy Ships needs to be situational, depending on the threat, and adjusted accordingly. Example; I would recommend using AIS in places like the shipping lanes going into and departing Tokyo harbor or for ships transiting the Strait of Malacca or ships transiting US Ports/congested shipping lanes. If the threat to our ships increases the AIS needs to be turned off. I would recommend keeping our AIS turned off in places like the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, South China Sea, Yellow Sea, Sea of Japan, etc. I agree with you about everything else.

        • Duane

          The problem is, if we start using AIS in such situations, we are building for our enemies an excellent graphical database of our actual maneuvers in and around said heavy traffic that then enables them to design attacks to be used in exactly those scenarios.

          Think of the old gangster/mafia movies … the assassins spend time watching and analyzing their target’s habits, then figure out exactly where the target is most vulnerable, and design their attack to kill him him at exactly that most vulnerable place and moment in time. Sure, that’s Hollywood. But the same thing applies here.

          If I were the NORKs or Iranians or the Chinese or Russians, and the US Navy simply handed me that gift of an extremely easy and cheap plot of all our warship’s movements in and around high traffic areas, then I would certainly use that info to design my attack.

          • waveshaper1

            I would recommend using “Random Measures” similar to how we use “RAM’s” when accomplishing FPCON measures, it helps keeps potential enemies confused.

  • eddie046

    OPSEC?

  • Glenwood

    In particularly busy areas, there should be nothing wrong with turning on AIS. In fact, by turning it on, you have the obvious advantage of 99.9 percent of the world knowing where you are so they won’t hit you. And you can turn it off anytime you want if you want additional stealth if operational demands dictates. Stealth in normal day to day ops is of no value if it puts the ship at risk.

  • Hmm. We will broadcast our positions so that merchants violating the law by failing to post a lookout while running on auto pilot will be able to (perhaps) avoid hitting our ships. These are merchants that our posted lookouts and deck officers apparently cannot see. What a navy. What a country.

    • waveshaper1

      “We will broadcast our positions so that merchants.”
      So the merchants “can get the heck out of the way”. Hopefully the AIS broadcast will give the merchant ship ample time to go to General Quarters, FPCON Delta, Condition Zebra, and call the Coast Guard to let them know that their slow/non-turning ship is doomed :<)

  • Duane

    I don’t think this is a sensible approach. Our recent problem with poor seamanship cannot be solved by helping merchant ships detect our warships. Our problem must be fixed by bridge watches that are situationally aware and alert and staying the heck out of the way of other vessels. Putting our guys on AIS is going to help our enemies track our ships and deduce our operational practices very cheaply, which will aid them in conducting a surprise attack at the opening of a conflict.

  • Matthew Schilling

    With all the chatter about the specifics behind these humiliating accidents, let’s not lose sight of the demonstrated fact that the best time to take a top of the line USN ship out of action is while it is in or near port.

  • incredulous1

    Oh great. Now the Chicoms [PLAN] know the movements of all our ships. BRILLIANT! else we had better be very careful about how we define a high traffic area. Even so that gives them a lot of information and they are sitting back laughing at us. And all they had to do was purchase a couple small shipping companies and slip them some extra for their ramming efforts. That is my default and given their behavior and a stack of facts, the burden is on them and the uber-cooperative US Navy to prove otherwise. And, we had better carefully examine the reasons for our current policy rather than some emotionally guided reactionary policy.

  • RunningBear

    Two of the most stealth vehicles in the US arsenal wear radar multipliers everyday, the F-22 and the F-35 stealth fighters. These radar enhancements are designed to hide the stealth capabilities of each a/c. The radar identification systems on all USN ships should be “turned on” during peacetime and “turned off” during times of conflict (for those to dumb to figure this out).
    The commanding officer, executive officer, officer of the deck, senior chief petty officer and the deck watch standers are responsible for the deaths of their shipmates. I would suspect the sonar and radar watch standers are also complicit if not responsible as well. Somewhere on those ships the chain of command failed and there are responsible parties who failed to perform their defined duty.

  • leroy

    My gut disagrees with this. That said – I hope this system is hardened against hacking. Signals out, signals in, could lead to intrusion, I’d think. We should be able to operate safely without this.

    Sounds like a crutch in lieu of proper attention, seamanship, training, etc. The equipment to see who’s around you is certainly there, including eyeballs. If anything this could make watch standers more lazy. No, that and giving away position just doesn’t sit well with me.

    • Mali King

      Absolutely right Leroy. A half arsed band aid solution to potentially poor seamanship PERIOD

  • leroy

    BTW – when we DON’T use this that could communicate intel to an enemy. Intel such as we are planning to attack. On or off problems with movement and position arise. We should be able to perform duties without this.

  • Ed L

    AIS is not complicated. If you got it use it.

  • John B. Morgen

    Double the look-outs, and be ready for quick about changing speed and course changes. No need to disclose one’s location to a possible enemy.

  • old guy

    Busy, shmizzy nonsense. 40 years ago Sperry and the Navy developed HYCANS, We NEVER had a collision with 90 knot SESs or 55 kt PHM hydrofoils. Asleep at the switch, period.

  • Ruckweiler

    Sir, I have the same questions,” Richardson responded. “It’s very hard to understand with the sophisticated systems onboard these warships that we let a ship get in that close to the point of collision.” Indeed.

  • InklingBooks

    Quote: The quick answer was yes. The Navy is very good at disguising itself at sea, Richardson said. Navy ships are designed to appear as something much smaller when detected on the radar screens of other ships.

    It’s be trivial for a peacetime Navy to attach radar corner reflectors to their ships. They could be designed to be quickly removed or even automatically stowed when stealth is actually necessary. And radar visibility only makes it appear on nearby ships, not ship tracking websites.

    And as for AIS allowing enemies to spot patterns in our ship movements… maybe the Navy should learn not to behave so predictably. Maybe they shouldn’t always go from Port A to Port B by a particular route.

    Last but not least, if becoming more visible would make a terrorist attack easier, what about the fact that these ships were keeping such a poor watch, large cargo vessels ran into them. That’s clearly the greater problem.

  • Franken

    Hope everyone realizes that the inputs to AIS, the transponder data, is manually entered. AIS lets you know there is a ship there, but its identity always needs further refinement. Hence, we are not “giving away the farm” when AIS is energized.

    • waveshaper1

      I’m sure some smart folks can figure out to accomplish this task while simultaneously minimizing potential threat to US Navy Ships. I believe AIS transceiver can be set for a limited range (say 5 to 10 miles) and not tied to the AIS satellite network/worldwide web. For security purposes the AIS signal can be sanitized so its only visible to other ships nearby while a US Navy ship is transiting through a particular identified heavy traffic shipping lane. I’m sure there are some experts in this cyber stuff that can make this US Navy AIS data permanently vanish pronto after the US Navy Ship has completed its safe passage.

  • Disgusted Citizen

    Now Americas enemies can map out your patrol paths. Turning on transponders not too smart. Why so many happening now after no collisions for many years?