As someone who’s read a lot of NTSB reports, my God this is a damning indictment [pdf] of the Navy’s oversight of the Arleigh Burke class destroyers:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the collision between the destroyer John S McCain and the tanker Alnic MC was a lack of effective operational oversight of the destroyer by the US Navy, which resulted in insufficient training and inadequate bridge operating procedures. Contributing to the accident were the John S McCain bridge team’s loss of situation awareness and failure to follow loss of steering emergency procedures, which included the requirement to inform nearby traffic of their perceived loss of steering. Also contributing to the accident was the operation of the steering system in backup manual mode, which allowed for an unintentional, unilateral transfer of steering control.
The NTSB is really good at not scapegoating humans unless those humans circumvented established procedures. What I take from this synopsis is that the sailors on the bridge of the McCain were undertrained and using touchscreen computer systems that were overly complicated. Here’s some more proof:
Following the incident, the Navy conducted fleet-wide surveys, and according to Rear Admiral Bill Galinis, the Program Executive Officer for Ships, personnel indicated that they would prefer mechanical controls. Speaking before a recent Navy symposium, he described the controls as falling under the “‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ category,” and that ship systems were simply too complicated. He also noted that they’re looking into the design of other ships to see if they can bring some system commonalities between different ship classes.
The Navy is going to refit the Arleigh Burke class with physical controls.
Why should you care? Obviously few (if any of you) run a ship. But all of us are buying new cars that put an ever-increasing amount of functionality into touch screens. It’s so much cheaper to have one big touch screen where the behavior of the controls can be updated via a software fix. But we’re humans, and we are much more effective when we have simple mechanical controls.