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The Navy’s horrible software and the crashes it caused

Apropos to Starliner: This article outlines in detail the causes behind the crash in 2017 of the USS McCain and an oil-tanker that killed ten sailors and injured many others.

It is a horror story of a bankrupt Navy upper management that seemed more in love with cool computer software and automation than making sure the Navy’s ships and its crews can function efficiently and effectively in any situation. Moreover, the story suggests that this same upper management made lower level officers the scapegoats for its bad decisions, while skating free with no consequences.

And worst of all, that same overly complex computer navigation system remains in place, with only superficial patches imposed in both its software and its user instructions.

This story however is hardly unique. It reflects the general and systemic failures of almost any project coming out of the upper managements of the entire federal government for the past three decades, a pattern of failure that partly explains why Donald Trump was elected, and why he is hated so thoroughly by so many in that federal workforce. He more than anyone in decades has been demanding from them quality work, and firing them when they fail to provide it.

It seems, based on this story, that Trump needs to make a harsh review of the Navy’s upper management as well.

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  • Phill O

    It is absolutely true that upper management often blames (and gets away with it) lower levels in government. That is one reason I left government science and established a commercial honey production operation.

    It is somewhat ironic that it was the John McCain involved as, from local border folk, he was a RINO.

    Never the less, remember the Halifax Harbour incident from WWII! There were no greedy hands out there, just broken hearts!

  • Brian

    The Halifax Harbour accident happened during WWI Dec 1917 not WWII.

  • Alex Andrite

    Andrew_W, please pardon my ignorance. What does SMH refer to ?
    Thank you.
    I have been educated by my daughters in the “IMO / TMI / and LOL -101 class”, but chose not to do all of my homework. They continue to remind me.

    I will now get on with my Watch in Aft Steering.
    “My rudder checks right 10 degrees, my rudder checks left 10 degrees. I have helm control , steering course (what ever it was).”
    That was a hot and noisy watch. Loved it, had a hatch which I could open up onto the fantail.
    Mid watch was dark.
    Preferred Aft Look out.

  • Edward

    There was a second incident in 1945, before VJ Day, though it was not as bad as the 1917 explosion:

  • Phill O

    Thanks Edward and Brian. Even after living in Halifax for 5 years I got this wrong. I was referring to the 1917 incident.

  • Andi


    Google says SMH could mean “Sydney Morning Herald” or “Shaking My Head”.

    Somehow I think Andrew is referring to the latter.

  • James Street

    High school graduates operating unnecessarily complex bug-ridden software.
    On battleships.
    What could possibly go wrong?

  • pzatchok

    Well at least the big guns are not fully automated and under control of the same type of system from the same company.

    Its like the designers and programmers have never done a single study into what the ship and crew actually needed.

    You never put everything onto one small screen. And you never get rid of or totally disconnect manual control from a ship that size.
    Could you imagine just totally disconcerting the steering wheel from the first self driving cars and then letting them out on the roads? And it taking finding and hitting the correct button and a 6 inch touch screen after adjusting the radio and seat heating on the same screen. Then telling your 18 year old kid who has never driven a car before to go and drive to the store.

    Oh and the unfinished and inadequate instruction manual is someplace inside the computer. Just find it on the screen.

    This sounds like one of those “give my next boss a big dollar job just before I retire and go to work for them” moves a retiring admiral would pull. Eventhough the company has zero experience doing this scale of work.

  • pzatchok

    disconnecting not disconcerting

  • Mike Borgelt

    Is there something wrong with a wheel on the bridge that is connected to the rudder and a throttle that varies the power to the engines and can reverse them?
    Just because you *can* do something with a computer and screen doesn’t mean you necessarily *should*.

  • Mike Borgelt: As I have written previously, “Buy Dumb!”

  • Col Beausabre

    1) “High school graduates”
    You may find it hard to believe, but they are the people who win wars. The overwhelming number of troops at the sharp end are 19-20 year olds with no college. But they’re good, tough men who work long hours and take pride in what they do. It was my privilege to lead some of them – emphasis on privilege – when I was on active duty

    “God must love privates, he made so many of them.”

    2) You make it sound as if he was alone on the bridge. He was supervised by a Quartermaster of the Watch (petty officer), a Junior Officer of the Deck and Officer of the Deck (commissioned officers). In particular, petty officers, like sergeants in the other services, are responsible for training the individual (officers train teams and units) in his job, so they should have known the system backwards and forwards. The QOTW should have been ready and able to step in and take over. Obviously there were break downs in this and my understanding is that the chain of command paid the price.

  • Randy

    If you dont have time to read the link provided..Shame on you….Its the same thing
    that has brought Boieng to its knees…Relying to much on computers and software.
    its dangerous to human life…The debackle on the McCain would be hilarious if no humans were killed. The Navy picked its victims (its own untrained officers) and it isnt the designers or developers of its stupidly complex navigation, propulsion controls.

    Mike Borgelt….This is obvious….some bean counter in Washington sold it to the Navy
    and thats the man responsible in my opinion..Cheers!

  • pzatchok

    Col Beausabre

    Read the article. There were three people on the bridge at the time, the captain who did not know the new system and two 19 year old seamen with a total training tine of 3 hours and less than 10 hours of experience on the system. All three had been on the ship through the whole installation process. In other words the Captain was just as new at this as them.
    Going through the most heavily trafficked area of the Singapore Strait.
    They didn’t even know what the “big red button” did.

  • Col Beausabre


    “At the time of the accident there were no less than 14 crewmembers on the bridge of the John S McCain. Some were part of a detailed watchbill (assignment list) and some were in addition to the requirements of the watchbill. All assigned personnel were qualified under the Navy’s Personnel Qualification Standard (PQS) for the positions they were assigned.”

    They included the Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, Officer of the Deck, Junior Officer of the Deck, Junior Officer ofte Watch, Conning Officer, Shipping Officer, Bosun’s Mate of the Watch (Qualified Master Helmsman) who had direct supervision over the helmsman.

    “Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch (BMOW)
    The boatswain’s mate of the watch (BMOW) is an
    enlisted assistant to the OOD during under way
    watches. The BMOW must see that all deck watch
    stations are manned with qualified personnel and all
    watch standers in previous watch sections are relieved.
    Although the section leader and the division petty
    officer have the duty of instructing the personnel they
    send on watch, the BMOW must verify that every
    person in the watch has been properly instructed and
    trained. A BMOW must be a qualified helmsman and
    supervises the helmsman if senior to the QMOW.”

    “Quartermaster of the Watch (QMOW)
    The quartermaster of the watch (QMOW) is an
    enlisted assistant to the OOD while under way (and
    in-port on certain classes of ships). The QMOW assists
    the OOD in navigational matters and maintains the
    ship’s deck log. Additional duties include reporting and
    recording weather changes and executing required
    ship’s navigational lighting changes. The QMOW, who
    must be a qualified helmsman, supervises the helmsman
    if senior to the BMOW.”

    I think you’re the one who needs to do some reading

  • commodude

    Previous incidents have highlighted just how pathetic the Navy’s PQS system has become.

    “Once SWO qualification is achieved, transfer from one ship to another will not require requalification as a SWO or revalidation of the entire SWO [Personnel Qualification Standards] package,” the statement said. “However, requalification in all applicable watchstations is required.”

    Many sailors standing watch during the McCain’s fatal Aug. 21 collision near Singapore were on temporary duty from guided-missile cruisers, which have different controls than destroyers. This was found to be a contributing factor in the collision, according to the Navy’s report on the incident.

    This shouldn’t even be a news item. Transfer to a new ship should ALWAYS involve requal.

  • pzatchok

    So with all those highly qualified members of the crew aboard they still stuck the least educated and experienced at the helm?

    And in the almost four minutes since the first warning was announced that helm control was lost, no one, not one single human, came over to their stations and tried to assist? Not even those officers who were supposed to have trained the men sufficiently?

    Considering all the people supposedly on the bridge and in charge only three people acted like they had control of the ship.

    I can imagine the bridge at the time. 4 minutes with the ship out of control and all you can hear is officers yelling “don’t leave your stations.”
    “Let those two figure it our themselves.”

    “But sir all I have to do is…”

    “Stay at your post sailor. We have it under control.”

    Boom Crash!!!

    You could have had a hundred people on that bridge. Only three were investigated and only two were charged with any type of negligence.
    Every officer who could have gone over and helped should have been charged, Every officer in the chain of command all the way down to the those two sailors should have been charged with negligence of duty for not making sure they were trained sufficiently.

  • pzatchok

    “At the time of the accident there were no less than 14 crewmembers on the bridge of the John S McCain. Some were part of a detailed watchbill (assignment list) and some were in addition to the requirements of the watchbill. All assigned personnel were qualified under the Navy’s Personnel Qualification Standard (PQS) for the positions they were assigned.”

    This quote is not from the article but an NTSB PDF of the incident.
    I call foul. But thanks for finding the report the Navy is using to try to prosecute the tanker company.

    From the link provided.
    “Butler was the only enlisted man to face a formal court-martial in connection with the McCain disaster. He was charged with dereliction of duty — partly because he had failed to “gain a proper understanding” of the navigation system in order to train his sailors.”

    “As a senior enlisted officer, it had been his job to train Bordeaux and other young sailors on the McCain in the use of the IBNS. Some of the crew had joined the McCain from the USS Antietam and needed to be schooled in how their new ship functioned.

    Butler told the judge that he himself had only received about 30 minutes to an hour of training on the system. And he had cleared the Antietam sailors without putting them through proper training. Given the sailors’ previous qualifications, and the McCain’s heavy workload, it was his attempt to put them to work as soon as possible.”

  • commodude

    The USN has had issues with training for quite some time, with more emphasis on qualifications on paper than reality.

    The McCain and other incidents are the fruit of the bureaucratic games being played. THey’ve gone for automation, which reduces crew size, but increases duty cycles as there are fewer personnel to pull the personnel standing watch from.

    The LCS idiocy and experiences other navies have had with automation ships’ functions should put a stop to the foolishness, but haven’t. Instead, the USN is doubling down on stupidity. Until flag ranks are impacted and the procurement system is changed, this will just continue.

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