Navy Turns to Simulators Following Deadly Collisions

By Connie Lee
A Navy virtual training demonstration

Photo: Navy

Two high-profile collisions involving U.S destroyers have sparked new concerns about how the Navy prepares its sailors for overseas operations. The service sees improved simulations and training as a way to avoid future accidents.

On June 17, 2017, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a merchant vessel off the coast of Japan. Two months later on Aug. 21, the USS John McCain turned into the path of the Alnic MC, a Liberian-registered tanker. The Navy’s “Comprehensive Review of Surface Force Incidents” found that during both accidents, the watchstanders did not work together effectively or comply with standard procedures.

When operating at sea, the Navy usually has watchstanders both on the bridge and in the combat information center. But Capt. Sam Pennington, surface training systems program manager at Naval Sea Systems Command, said this was not how sailors were being taught.

“We were only training the bridge teams, historically,” he said at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in Orlando, Florida, which was hosted by the National Training and Simulation Association.

Pennington said his office began working to upgrade current navigation, seamanship and shiphandling trainers (NSSTs) — which are bridge simulators used to train ship crews — to reflect real-world operations.

“Soon after the collisions … my office put together some interim solutions to incorporate watch standards in combat,” he said. “We’ve already begun implementing those changes to the existing NSSTs — we’ve modified them.”

A statement by a Naval Sea Systems Command spokesperson notes that modifications to the legacy NSSTs are slated for completion by May 2019.

Longer term plans include pursuing a new maritime skills training program that includes the installation of new simulation systems and instructors, Pennington said. The program will provide a “holistic approach” to training, Pennington noted.

The Navy will deliver simulators to six locations in fiscal year 2021, which include 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, the statement said.

“The technology that we’re going to bring … is going to be outstanding,” Pennington said. “In the interim, we’re going to try to get as much capability to the left [of schedule] to modify the existing NSSTs to ensure that we have that integrated training.”

The Navy reprogrammed $24 million to kick off the initiative, but the overall price tag will likely be higher, Pennington said. Because the improved simulators are expected to be larger, new facilities will have to be installed at every home port, he noted. The number of systems will vary depending on the needs of the location.

“The other thing about installing them at every home port is we need to install enough of them,” he said. “That’s facilities costs. In some cases, it’s going to be military construction … dollars. The cost is significant.”

The initiative will also require additional support personnel and instructors, he noted. Previous systems only needed one instructor, but the new simulators will require a minimum of three “due to the amount of injection that we’re going have to do to provide a very realistic scenario,” he said.

Future simulation tools will also have an improved playback capability to allow students to see their performance after completing training exercises. He envisioned having a separate room dedicated to conducting debriefings. This format would allow instructors to point out specific mistakes made during the exercise on a screen rather than rely on memory and notes, he said.

“A lot of times, what we have found is that during the debriefs, the watchstanders [would say,] ‘No, I didn’t do that.’ … We used to have these debates, and it was always a bad feeling at the end,” he said. “As an instructor, I could never prove to that watchstander, ‘No you really did.’”

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former Navy submarine officer, said simulators allow sailors to create habits for using the equipment.

“You can use a simulator to help teams develop the muscle memory to understand where all their different systems are, where the controls are, how the controls can be operated and manipulated,” he said. Sailors can also practice operating any backup equipment that may be needed during unexpected situations, he noted.

Kent Gritton, live-virtual-constructive training team lead at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division, said the Navy is also opening a new LVC facility to encourage the development of advanced simulation training tools. Operating on a first-come, first-served schedule, members of the defense industry, academia and government will be able to use the space to work on their burgeoning technologies, he said. LVC training leverages simulation and virtual reality products.

The space will be located at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando, Gritton said. A soft opening is scheduled for January 2019, with plans to open the space for wider use in April. Users would be charged a yet to be determined fee, he noted. If they choose to set up a cooperative research-and-development agreement to work with the government, they may be required to discuss their work with others, he said.

“We need to be able to give back to this community within I/ITSEC in an [unclassified] forum and be able to tell people what we did,” Gritton said. “That way, we continue to raise the tide of everybody that’s working in LVC.”

The facility will contain 14 workstations, according to a news release. Gritton said the hope is to improve the process for developing live-virtual-constructive systems and shorten technology timelines.

“I don’t want to look back in 25 years and see LVC activities the way that we’re doing them now, which is the way — basically — we were doing them 25 years” ago, he said. “It is an imperative so we can then raise the readiness bar and the proficiency bars of our warfighters as we go forward.”

However, the key to improving live-virtual-constructive training is to boost interoperability and integration capabilities of these technologies, Gritton told National Defense. The Navy is pursuing this with a new interoperability toolkit that shows users inconsistencies between systems, he said.

“The concept here is that it will automatically detect disconnect between different [simulators], whether they be virtual or constructive or even live assets,” he said.

The kit contains four different views that allow operators to examine potential discrepancies between the training systems, he noted.

“In the virtual space, there may be a specific threat icon represented that’s supposed to be there, but when you look over at the [toolkit] picture it’s not there,” he said. If that happens, “you know that there’s a disconnect between the two systems, so you’re going to have a problem with training on that.”

The Navy is improving its simulators for aviation training as well, said Ray Duquette, president of CAE USA. CAE provides the Navy with a suite of MH-60S and MH-60R helicopter trainers.

The company is working to provide users with higher immersion and higher fidelity systems, Duquette said. The biggest change in training over the last couple of decades is the ability to network training activities, he noted.

“When you’re networked on together — so you’re going outside the confines of the facility — it requires a significantly more enhanced [protection from] cybersecurity threats,” he said. “We’re making sure that that’s included in the solutions that we’re providing the Navy.”

Duquette predicts simulators will evolve to the point where users will be able to face off against more sophisticated threats. While trainers today do simulate enemy forces, they are still “archaic, more of a dumbed-down version,” he added.

“In the real world, if they’re fighting the threat, that threat will continue to evolve and learn by the … U.S. Navy’s tactics,” he added.

Technology is also advancing to provide sailors with more realistic simulated environments, he noted.

“It’s not just about the [out] the window scene, the terrain,” he said. “That’s all been improving. It improves every year and it will continue to improve. I always say we’re not done until [there is] no discernable difference to the human eye.”

To improve the realism of the virtual environment, the Navy has said it wants features that would allow sailors to use multiple senses, such as smell, he noted. While these may not largely affect aviation simulators, these could be especially useful for training for ground and sea operations, he said.

However, Clark warned against putting too much focus solely on LVC initiatives.

“The Navy is rightly increasing the amount of simulator time and simulator availability by building some more, but I think they risk … putting too much emphasis on simulation and not giving ships enough time to train their watch teams,” he said.

The service should also ensure that watchstanders are prepared to work outside of their primary location, he noted.

“You’ve got to have time underway to train not just your primary team, but also kind of your backup teams,” he said. “So that when you do end up in these situations where you get underway and somebody’s sick or somebody had to stay in port for some reason, you don’t end up with a big gap in your watch team.”

Topics: Navy News, Training and Simulation

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