In brief: Modern technology doesn’t always make things easier. Because of a collision in 2017 that killed ten sailors, the US Navy is ditching touchscreen throttle and helm controls in its destroyers and replacing them with traditional mechanical ones.
In August 2017, the USS John S. McCain crashed into the Alnic MC, a Liberian oil tanker, off the coast of Singapore. According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s accident report into the incident, the complex touchscreen interface, a lack of proper training and documentation, and tired sailors were all contributing factors in the collision.
The complexity of the touchscreen meant one sailor thought he was controlling the ship’s entire throttle when he only had control of one side. This mistake caused the warship to turn into the path of the tanker.
“Their misunderstandings expressed during the post-accident interviews and the misunderstandings of other crewmembers who were permanently assigned to the John S McCain point to a more fundamental issue with the qualification process and training with the IBNS (integrated bridge and navigation system),” concluded the report.
All DDG-51 class (Arleigh Burke) ships will see their IBNS switched out for mechanical controls, starting with the USS Ramage in the summer of 2020. The first new destroyer to come with physical throttles instead of touchscreens will be the USS Ted Stevens.
Speaking about touchscreen controls on navy vessels, Rear Admiral Bill Galinis, the Program Executive Officer for Ships, described them as being in the “‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ category.” He added that the systems were over-complex, and there should be "bridge commonality" to make it easier for sailors who transfer from other ships.