Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Submarine VMS Running Behind?

An article in The Virginian-Pilot about a press availability to which the crew of PCU North Carolina (SSN 777) was subjected last week talked about the boat's navigation team, and goes into some detail about the upcoming installation of the Submarine Voyage Maintenance System (VMS). Excerpts:
The Navy has begun equipping submarines with a computerized program called VMS, or voyage management system. The program will do with microprocessors what Mason does by hand, allowing navigators to spend less time estimating where they are and more figuring out what's ahead.
The switch, which began last year on the Norfolk-based submarine Oklahoma City, will redefine one of the most basic tasks of mariners for centuries: determining, or "fixing," a ship's position using various environmental clues...
...Davis said planners originally were going to build all Virginia-class subs with VMS. Instead, the fifth boat of the class - now being built in Connecticut - will be the first to leave the shipyard with electronic navigation capabilities.
Five older submarines - Ohio, Florida, Houston, Buffalo, and Oklahoma City - have been retrofitted and are now certified to use VMS.
I'm not sure how accurate that list of submarines currently certified for VMS really is. According to this Navy website article from last year, USS Norfolk (SSN 714), who's currently deployed, was supposed to get it next. In any event, at this pace, it looks like the Sub Force's goal to have it certified on all boats by the end of next year will be kind of hard to meet.

Personally, I like the idea of VMS -- as long as we have enough paper charts on hand to get back home if the thing craps out.


Anonymous sonarman said...

Yes, the new and fancy toys are fine, but do the know how to use it? Certification, shmertification, do they know how to use it?

If I recall correctly, the USS San Fran crew was certified VMS.

As much of a tech cheerleader as I am, even I realize that sometimes technology gets ahead of itself.

3/22/2008 11:46 PM

Blogger blunoz said...

I have heard that the VA class were designed with the assumption that we would be all-digital navigation by the time they were commissioned, so they were designed without any chart lockers. On a 688, we've got chart lockers EVERYWHERE to carry the 3,000+ charts we're required to carry. It really sucks for those guys trying to find storage space for their 3,000 charts with no chart lockers.
Call me a dinosaur, but I don't trust the all-digital stuff YET. It's a great operator aide, but I've seen it crash too many times to put my faith in it. Now, I haven't used the most up-to-date version of VMS they're putting on the "certified" platforms, so I hope for their sake the latest version has worked out all the bugs.

3/22/2008 11:47 PM

Blogger H. S. Normal said...

As I recall, ADM Giambastiani started the VMS installs back when he was SUBLANT, 8 or 9 years ago. Its amazing that not all are equipped by now.

The answer for a backup is NOT paper charts -- a second, commercial (handheld?) system, totally independent from the VMS would be better. Think Furuno as backup to BPS-15, the PLGR handheld GPS as backup for the installed GPS, etc. . .

3/23/2008 2:42 AM

Blogger Rubber Ducky said...

Agree with HS Normal - 'paper' is just another technology and its maintenance is arguably more troublesome than keeping a database up to its current version. Raw brute-force redundancy on the digital side will do all that paper charts could do (if properly maintained, a big if) and be easier to keep current.

The larger nuke problem in navigation - it shows up every decade in a bad crash with the earth somewhere in the submarine force - is lack of navigation experience in command or XO. Navigators are licensed worriers: if you ain't been one, you either won't worry enough or won't worry about the right things in navigation. Submerged navigation is the ultimate exercise in attention-to-detail and constant engagement; it is not the place for OJT and better electronic aids cannot overcome the blunt-force trauma inflicted by stupidity.

All the advances in navigation technology are positive. None of them will ever substitute for a skilled navigator always on his game and a CO who understands that risk of grounding or collision is far greater than risk of a serious reactor problem and so conducts himself with the proper diligence, forehandedness, and humility in the world of navigation.

3/23/2008 7:30 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are you doing, QMC Dave?

3/23/2008 8:00 AM

Anonymous Whizzer said...

Technology has come at a price of lost proficiency in many areas as people, inherently lazy, come to depend on and trust the microchips. Hopefully, with these innovations, we can keep in mind Rickover's ideal of the operator as the first line of defense. A machine afterall will only do what we tell it to.

3/23/2008 9:37 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a difference between having VMS and being certified for electronic-only navigation. Most, if not all, submarines have some version of VMS, which they use as an aid in addition to the fully prepared paper charts we all know and love. Only a few are certified to operate without using paper charts, which requires both a sufficiently advanced version of VMS, with the hardware and software bugs worked out, and extensive crew training and certification to ensure that the navigation team understands how to employ their system to keep the boat safe. As always, whether you use paper and pencil or advanced electronic tools, it still takes knowledge and diligence by the team to stay safe.

3/23/2008 1:12 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Ditto for pencil, plotting board, and chart. (But I would love to have been able to shred those dang charts.)

3/23/2008 1:28 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The new NROTC classrooms that are coming on-line (eg. Univirsity of Jacksonville) will be training all navy ROTC cadets in VMS. That said, I hope that these skills learned in software and simulation don't prevent them from being able to use paper charts. Likewise, I hope that their training points out the limits in these systems.

3/23/2008 7:38 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that electronic charting is doable, as evidenced by the transition of merchant ships to electronic-only charting. The shift on a warship (specifically a submarine) requires special attention:

- First, the hardware and ships systems should be arranged and organized to protect the information on these charts. On my last boat, we had to shut down VMS for drills because it came off the NV buses. Hopefully subs certified for e-navigation have had ship's alterations to ensure continuity of power for the VMS.

- Second, if the sub force makes the shift to e-charts only, we need to ensure that there is chart support for all areas of the world, to include the Arctic and "other" areas. From personal experience a few years ago, VMS chart support for high-latitude areas and other regional areas was non-existent.

- Third, having served in a Nav/Ops department, I can say that official, formal training on nav equipment (to include VMS, the BPS-15, and RLGN) was tenuous at best. If we are to shift our entire force's operations to e-charting only, then the sub force needs to take organizational responsibility for training, equipping, and organizing the submarine crews to operate this equipment safely and effectively, within the boundaries of international law. This would be preferable to the previous practice of some squadron ops officer or ANAV conducting some hands-on training and calling the ship "certified" for electronic navigation.

Despite any of my negative comments, I feel that the shift to electronic navigation will be positive. To ensure a positive outcome, the sub force's leadership must place proper emphasis on this shift as an organization, to ensure that no one makes any catastrophic mistakes that proper foresight could have prevented.

3/24/2008 12:37 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to the original article, the first four VIR class subs were commissioned without VMS. I find that hard to believe. Perhaps the article meant to say that the fifth boat will be the first to be built with a certified VMS. Can anyone out there verify; does the VIRGINIA and later have VMS onboard?

3/24/2008 12:43 AM

Anonymous Fast Nav said...

Yes, all Virginia's have VMS on board.

As someone else said.. pretty much every boat has VMS (anywhere from 5.0 - 7.3). But only a few are certified.

For Bubblehead, yes, Norfolk was supposed to be the next boat to certify, but just like Albany, they certified VMS 7.0 (7.1? not sure) on OK City, and then said NOR and ALY would do it next. Then someone realized that the BYG-1 system on those two boats tied into VMS extensively and made it crash like a champion. Consequently, until that system (VMS with BYG-1) is certified, the boats can't certify.

Blunoz is right on. I've seen the system crash way too often to feel comfortable with using it as the truth. Another point of discomfort is how much faith people put into it. I've seen us pass a tanker in the channel, and because of the variance in position with radar contacts, it showed the merchant driving right on top of us. If, god forbid, there had been a problem, the boat would have been fried because VMS showed us having a collision. People come on board and look at that thing like it's the second coming of Christ and can tell you all the answers.

My concern is not only that it will slowly remove some of the thought of the operator, but it will remove some from the evaluators as well. Everyone will come to trust the computer, no matter that, like any computer, it's just garbage in/garbage out.

3/24/2008 6:13 AM

Anonymous Rich said...

What some fail to realize is that merchant ships do not sumberge. It is easy to e-navigate on the surface where you have a constant link to notice to mariners and hazards to navigation constantly coming in as well as constant chart updates. Oh, did I mention continuous GPS, that for some reason does not work below the surface of the water. This is often not a luxury that submarines have. So before people start throwing aroung "subs can do this" they need to look at the whole picture.

And for the record, I am all for e-navigation. However, in the sub fleet we all know there is a backup, for the backup.

3/24/2008 9:55 AM

Blogger Rubber Ducky said...

Two comments:

One wonders what a 'day's work in navigation' will consist of.

And one wonders how many nav experts commenting on this blog topic have ever done a day's work...

3/24/2008 11:12 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was wondering who they'll be taking to mast if the computer is driving and they STILL manage to hit something. Wait 'til some guy at microsoft gets to enjoy some old-time NON-judicial punishment.

3/24/2008 11:29 AM

Blogger wtfdnucsailor said...

As an old fashion (some thirty plus years ago) submarine navigator, I hope that the new sub force learns 'lifeboat navigation' to back up the electronic navigation. I have seen electronic navigation on a Coast Guard Cutter and was impressed but know the perversity of inanimate objects. They will go on vacation at the worst time. I am sure for NAVOCEANO or what ever it is called today, it is easier to correct an electronic chart than a paper chart. I remember coming into New London and when you shifted charts inbound in Long Island Sound, the ship moved two miles because the two charts were based on different locations. The one closest to the Race was based on the latest satellite info and the one showing the Montauk Slot was based on local geographic surveys on Long Island. I hope the e charts don't have those errors. I am sure having the chart library on a set of CDs is much better than lockers of paper and a card catalog of NOTICE TO MARINERS that need to be checked every time you went to a new area. I suspect that is what got SANFRAN in trouble. They missed checking a chart of the area where the seamount or disturbed water was charted. In any case, I hope there are backups to the backups and a recognition that when things will get really bad, there may not be any NAVSATS for GPS or NAVSAT receivers. I wonder if any JOs who are OODs in unfriendly waters do what my generation did. We used to take fixes on tangents of hills and mountain peaks until we were sure we knew which peak and tangent corresponded to the marking on the chart. That came in handy for quick fixes when there was high activity. Good luck to all the electronic navigators and remember ADM Nimitz's saying - "The price of good navigation is constant vigilance."

3/24/2008 12:46 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"William Gates, I hereby sentence you to reduction in rate to CEO of Home Depot, forfeiture of one half months pay for six months, and restriction to the ship for 30 days...."

3/24/2008 2:31 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"wtfdnucsailor" said..."We used to take fixes on tangents of hills and mountain peaks until we were sure we knew which peak and tangent corresponded to the marking on the chart"

Don't "kids" today might use technology but we have not forgotten how to do important things like that...Every boat I've been on has stressed the fundamentals including my last boat where I was Nav. Our boat was not certified to use VMS because we had older hardware and older software, but I have no doubt they will be ready when the time comes. I spent quiet a bit of time talking with the "big wigs" and the future vision of submarine electronic navigation is awesome...imagine a 50 inch flat screen panel in control for your chart...that's the vision...we'll just have to wait for the money...

3/24/2008 2:35 PM

Anonymous submarine iconoclast said...

- SAN FRAN was not certified VMS at the time of her collision. How 'bout verifying such outrageous claims before making them, O Defender of the Sacred Dolphin Ballcap?
- VIRGINIAs were designed for COMDAC, not VMS. VMS is a backfit for the first few hulls.
- Once you go VMS, there's no going back: no such thing as a paper backup.
- Agree with the comments on training, organization, and logistics support for electronic charting... those details are crucial to success.

3/24/2008 7:20 PM

Anonymous Steeljaw Scribe said...

I was a plain ol' CVN 'gator but drew the short straw of evaluating a COTS electronic VMS-type system for our ship coming out of the yards back in the day. I was still a notorious worrier for all the above-stated reasons and enough of a throw-back to both insist on a full day's nav work, including celestial and to participate, including celestial, myself - somewhat to the chagrin of my contemporaries on the seawall. Paid off both when the Aegis fried the DGPS antenna and when the TYCOM eval team came aboard and took away the VMS.
Paper or 'trons, it still comes back to basic procedures and expectations leadership has set in place.

3/25/2008 10:03 AM

Blogger J120 Bowman said...

To anon who "sentenced" Bill Gates, aren't NPJ results "awarded?" I always found that hilarious myself!

3/26/2008 10:16 AM

Blogger Nereus said...

The VMS system isn’t ready for the responsibility to navigate our Submarines.
The 5yrs that I have been exposed to this atrocity, I have found that it is a man-hour intensive, soul sucking mess.
The E charts are a disaster, requiring numerous online ( Hey, this is a Submarine, GO FIGURE the internet connection is easy RIGHT??) updates, CD’s that may or may not have been mailed to the command (or have found the path to someone who gives a rat's A## what they are).
Not to mention the long check list to meet Squadron and TYCOM requirements to either use or navigate. ( IE, Track, Nav-lines, adnausm.)
Computers and Computer based anything that actually meets and or exceeds current ways of doing things and buisness in the navy,that make the job easier and better… GO for IT.
But there are some square Pegs that are being pounded into round holes today just for the sake of saving face of some upper echelon 0-6 or above who has bought off on a “Good Idea”.
Paper charts Bite, I'll admit that first and formost, But at least we know, Love/hate them and know that for better or worse they are “Truth”.
The VMS systems I have been exposed to are Horribly Under Powered, ( As a ET with some Real computer Knowledge IMHO)
Horribly Underfunded for the mission requirements that they will required to accomplish
And the training to Rag hat/Dirty blue shirt wearers who actually will operate and be responsible for the systems Wayyyy, Wayyy under funded and inadequate. A 1 week 40 hr course or better yet the SQDRN Anav with a Power Point that last 30 Min. Whoo Hoo Your trained and ready to go.


3/26/2008 7:42 PM

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