US Navy Turns on AIS — Useful Tool, Band-aid, or Both?

Following the recent collisions between US Navy destroyers and merchant ships, various internet sites posted the AIS tracks of the collisions. Well, they posted half the AIS tracks anyway.  The merchant ships used AIS while the Navy did not. While US Navy ships have AIS transponders onboard they do not transmit their positions nor apparently do Navy crews regularly consult the receivers showing the location and course of other ships. It was possible to track merchant ships’ courses but not the destroyers’. That now appears to be about to change. The Navy appears ready to finally switch their AIS transmitters on.

If the acronym AIS is not familiar, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) is an automatic tracking system which broadcasts a ship’s unique identification, position, course, and speed to other ships close by. AIS is required by the SOLAS (Safety of LIfe at Sea Convention) for almost all commercial ships. Use by military vessels is optional.

There are obviously circumstances where a naval vessel broadcasting its position might be a very bad idea. On the other hand when navigating in extremely crowded waterways, being able to easily see and be seen by other traffic may be a good thing. The USS Fitzgerald and the USS John McCain both were in collisions while operating without AIS in the middle of the night in the highly congested approach to Toyko harbor and the Strait of Malacca near Singapore, respectively.

Recently, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson faced intense questioning when they appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week.  Richardson suggested that part of the problem is that the US Navy ships are, by design, hard to see. Stealth technology results in ships with smaller radar profiles and even the haze gray color scheme decreases the ships’ visibility to other vessels.  

USNI quotes, Richardson saying, “We design our warships to have a lower radar cross-section. Some are designed to be very low. That degree of stealth makes us more effective from a warfighting standpoint.”

But this stealth also imposes a burden on Navy crews to understand non-threatening marine traffic will have difficulty recognizing the size, location, and speed of Navy ships, Richardson added. Crews need to be more like a “defensive driver.”

A quick fix, Richardson said, is now the surface fleet is supposed to use its automatic identification system – AIS – when in high traffic areas.

While the Navy has for years had AIS onboard, Richardson said the system was rarely used.

Turning on the AIS systems will, no doubt, provide an additional tool to US Navy officers in avoiding collisions, but does it really address the larger problem?  AIS will make US Navy ships more visible to merchantmen. If properly used, it should also make it easier to for navy ships to avoid hitting other ships. That being said, the two destroyers who recently in collisions have some of the most sophisticated technology ever developed, designed to target incoming missiles. Nevertheless, both ships proved incapable of missing two large and relatively slow merchant vessels.  Both destroyers are faster, more maneuverable and possess advanced radar and electronics. AIS may help, but it is indeed a “quick fix” and little more than a band-aid on a much larger wound. 

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9 Responses to US Navy Turns on AIS — Useful Tool, Band-aid, or Both?

  1. DAVID RYE says:

    The Royal Navy have their AIS switched on in peacetime at least.
    It was interesting following HMS Queen Elizabeth from when she left Rosyth until she entered Portsmouth.
    Thanks Rick for your many interesting items.

  2. Irwin Bryan says:

    Like you said above, maybe bridge watch standers will pay more attention to other vessel tracks on AIS instead of updates from their radar-which sees multiple contacts in more of an abstract way and often not close-up.
    I’m glad to read submarines won’t turn on AIS for obvious reasons but are they doing anything to better avoid not hitting vessels when they surface?

  3. Brian says:

    I’ve seen them on the Great Lakes when the LCS ships are on their way out of the St. Lawrence Seaway from the builder’s yard use the generic term “US Navy Warship” or on the Canadian side “Canadian Warship” with the destination usually listed at “Military Ops”, but with that said, they don’t always turn it on anyway.

  4. Willy says:

    I can sympathize with leaving off heir transponders to have stealth. Yet to not listen for others is somewhat ludicrous. It is like asking a airplane pilot to fly in a fog bank and turn of his radio to converation with the control tower. I am sure the navy has some spectaculor devices other than radar to the location of others when at war. Yet it screams to me that these people that were on the bridge were not sufficiently trained.

  5. Michael Kusuplos - Qualified 1JA Phone Talker. says:

    It is the over emphasis of Electronics coupled with a lack of practical OJT for the bridge watchers that has lead to this problem. Time is now to return to “Old Style” running a bridge. Anything else is just a lame excuse!

  6. carl says:

    the commercial fleet has begun to trust it’s electronic systems too much, with only 2 people on the bridge, the oow is usually head down on the chart table and the watchstander is polishing brass or mopping the floor, when they get an AIS warning they look up. navy ships without AIS are like ghost you don’t know they are there until they slap you. then again the navy knowing they are ghost should transit with that in mind, the other guy can’t see you on radar and don’t have the personnel to keep proper lookout due to manning cutbacks by all commercial company’s.

  7. Doug Bostrom says:

    This one’s easy, except for human nature:

    “Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances. and conditions to determine if risk of collision exists.”

    Followed by a litany of statistical delusions, appeals to traditional methods which by their repeated failures led to improvements in “available means,” etc.

    Defense in depth and layers: eyes, ears, electromagnetism and the rest of the growing list.

    The range of available excuse-making means continues to steadily shrink.

  8. Stuart Stephens says:

    How did we navigate 10-20 yrs ago without colliding with each other every where, geez I remember running up to the Pilot station at mass central in Rotterdam in 82 how did I do it without AIS …?

  9. Rick Spilman says:

    Exactly. Electronics are fine tools but cannot replace skilled shiphandlers.