The US Navy’s surface warfare community’s training continues to evolve since two major collisions in 2017. Group Editor Marty Kauchak explains.

The fatal collisions involving USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) in June 2017 and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) in August 2017, and several follow-on “near misses,” shook US Navy institutions to their core. But the surface community had been on a collision course with disaster for a number of years, according to observers. Deficiencies in navigation and other shipboard materiel contributed to these incidents. At the same time, unchecked and numerous flaws in individual and unit training readiness processes and programs, at the shipboard and fleet levels, placed the two vessels into extremis.

The USN is taking action to identify, correct – and significantly, fund – to correct course for its surface community’s programs and processes. Countering complacency found in many venerable, large military bureaucracies, this sea Service quickly launched a comprehensive review and a strategic readiness review to examine what went wrong in these mishaps. A Readiness Reform Oversight Committee was established and tasked with implementing recommendations from the reviews.

Navy resources indicate that, in total, there were about 117 recommendations from the two documents, plus guidance from the office of the inspector general and other organizations. The service winnowed that list to 111 recommendations, removing some that were duplicative. Of those, 91 of them have:

  • an “implemented today” status;
  • assigned funding;
  • a corrective or remedial process put in place; and,
  • when applicable, training started.

With respect to funding supporting the reviews’ recommendations and other initiatives, the Budget Tab publicly posted noted of the US$210.3M (186.3M EUR) allocated for readiness training initiatives in the fiscal year 2020 budget, “a significant portion is for the Mariner Skills Training Program (MSTP).”

The MSTP program is designed to enhance overall mariner skills training for sailors and junior officers. It includes standing up an initial four-week Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) course in San Diego, Norfolk, Virginia and Newport, Rhode Island, as well as establishment of facilities in various fleet concentration areas for the new Integrated-Navigation Seamanship and Ship-handling Trainers (I-NSSTs).

The facilities and fielding plan includes delivery of simulators to six locations in fiscal year 2021: Yokosuka, Japan; Sasebo, Japan; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Everett, Washington; San Diego; and Mayport, Florida. Simulators will be delivered to Norfolk, Virginia; Rota, Spain; and Bahrain in fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

Naval Sea Systems Command has oversight on developing these training systems. The command was unable to respond in time for this issue to provide additional details on these trainers.

New Courses, New Technologies

The Navy Live blog emphasized that “these trainers will be invaluable tools to better train our watch teams on ship handling and navigation, especially since the I-NSSTs will integrate multiple watch stations and command centers with the ship’s bridge – such as the Combat Information Center (CIC), bearing-takers, and lookouts” – and with good reasons, as the trainers address significant shortfalls – ranging from poor decision-making, to breakdown in the bridge resource management process, to the inability to use bridge equipment – noted in investigations on the two ships’ collisions. 

The overarching Mariner Skills Training Program also includes curriculum development and instructors for comprehensive individual, team, and unit-level training to further include:

  • a new six-week Officer of the Deck (OOD) Phase One;
  • a three-week OOD Phase Two course;
  • expanding the Basic Division Officer Course; and
  • fielding a number of stand-alone Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping certified mariner skills courses.

The blog post added: “the largest and most important component of MSTP is the design and construction of Mariner Skills Training Centers (MSTCs) in Norfolk and San Diego. These centers will consolidate critical navigation, ship handling and leadership training efforts for our Sailors into one location.”

Learning technology is a key foundation for these facilities. Indeed, each MSTC facility will house 30 COVE (Conning Officer Virtual Environment) III/NSST-2 simulators for individual training during the Surface Warfare Officer School courses, as well as a number of I-NSSTs to support both individual, team and unit training. “MSTCs will also provide a wide variety of instructional courses, including the OOD courses; radar observer, automated radar plotting aid and ECDIS-N radar training; and bridge resources management mentoring workshops.” And another return on investment from MSTCs – Surface Warfare Officers will receive a fourfold increase in simulation hours and training.

It is interesting that these collisions and related incidents were the forcing factor for a wider use of learning technology and indeed, revised courses for watch standers and teams, on the bridge and other command and control stations, given the established baseline of technology in other surface programs.   

John Freeman, senior program director at Cubic Global Defense, noted that in one instance, the Surface Warfare Navy training community is advancing its training technologies/learning methodologies through the STAVE initiative – surface training advanced virtual environment program – with STAVE-CS (Combat Systems), STAVE-E (Engineering), STAVE-N (Navigation) and STAVE-LCS (Littoral Combat Ship).

He observed, “Continued success under STAVE-LCS appears to have further encouraged the Surface Warfare Navy to embrace immersive, virtual game-based learning (GBL) in a big way. We believe this is driven by the documented success of the LCS Immersive Virtual Ship Environment (IVSE) GBL program.” Cubic has been prime contractor since 2013.

Freeman referenced a December 2018 report to the US Congress in which NAVSEA confirmed “that students are graduating a ‘designed’ 26-week LCS Engineering Plant Technician (EPT) course of instruction in 15-16 weeks on average and demonstrating higher levels of proficiency and knowledge retention after reporting aboard either variant of LCS, Freedom and Independence. Additionally, these LCS EPT IVSE graduates achieve final qualification on board ship in only four to six weeks as compared to a typical six-month timeframe. These metrics indicate a huge contribution to fleet readiness.”

As this issue was published, NAWCTSD, with sponsorship from other Service offices, was competing a follow-on contract to the LSC IVSE that will allow the Surface Navy to acquire, modify, revise and upgrade immersive, virtual GBL and software-intensive virtual simulations for not only LCS but any ship of the fleet. Freeman noted, “This new contract is referred to as STIGS – Surface Training Immersive Gaming & Simulations – and is expected to be awarded by the end of fiscal year 2019 [September 2019].”

Surface Warfare Officers are receiving a fourfold increase in simulation training, such as this VR-based Conning Officer Virtual Environment. Image credit: Scott A. Thornbloom/US Navy.
Surface Warfare Officers are receiving a fourfold increase in simulation training, such as this VR-based Conning Officer Virtual Environment. Image credit: Scott A. Thornbloom/US Navy.

Reversing Policy Lapses

Beyond new and revised curricula, and learning technologies being brought to bear to strengthen Navy surface warfare training, there has been a focus on correcting the fleet policy deficiencies also present during the two Western Pacific collisions.

Indeed, during US Senate hearings on the two collisions convened in September 2017, it was confirmed that many of the Forward Deployed Naval Force Japan ships operating in US 7th Fleet had been conducting missions with many – or in the case of Fitzgerald, all – of their warfare and training certifications expired. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson admitted that lapsed certifications were “pervasive” in 7th Fleet.

Fleet commander oversight of warfare and training readiness is being strengthened for ships operating in commanders’ areas of responsibility, with a trickle-down effect in the rigor and scope of training readiness. As this article was written, the Navy completed its first advanced and most challenging tactical training event with the Littoral Combat Ship – USS Montgomery (LCS-8). The Montgomery’s five-day at-sea event was a compressed version of the Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) events that cruisers, destroyers and amphibious ships complete prior to their deployments. The next two LCS crews to deploy will be included in a larger SWATT event this summer.

Course Change Evident

The US Navy is addressing the root causes of long-standing lapses in surface warfare training readiness. Corrective actions including high-level policy adjustments, changes in training course content, and investments in new simulation and training systems and products are being implemented fleetwide. The expected returns on investment in terms of time, funding and other resources are the improvement in the safety and mission performance of individuals, watch teams and the ship as a unit.

Originally published in Issue 3, 2019 of MS&T Magazine.