A very stimulating and excellent dialogue has been initiated in THE SUBMARINE REVIEW on the topic of submarine automation. The first article by John s. Leonard appeared in the April 1987 issue. Mr. Leonard felt that automation in submarines was long overdue and well behind the power curve. In the October 1987 issue, LT Mark Gorenflo rebutted Mr. Leonard’s position. This was followed by a series of open-ended questions by VADM Jon Boyes who seemed to lean towards the need for more automation and referenced his earlier article on “Flying the ALBACORE” in the April 1987 issue. Without further summary, my intention is to continue the dialogue with my experience with an automated submarine control system.
In the late Spring of 1977, USS LOS ANGELES (SSN 688) deployed to the Mediterranean with an automated ship control system. To my knowledge, specific system testing, evaluation and training had been minimal. However, through the efforts of our Ops/Nav Officer, the system was studied and put to use.The automated control system allowed for the input and adjustment of course, depth, turning-rate limits, depth-rate (change in depth) limits and a band width for these parameters. For example, for periscope depth, an appropriate depth would be set with a narrow band like +1- 1 foot and a relatively high depth-rate would be allowed. When the OOD gave the order to proceed to periscope depth, the execution button put the order into action. The ship responded with precision, didn’t broach and didn’t hang up below the surface. Once at periscope depth, the 1 foot band was meticulously maintained.
The basic conclusions I would draw relative to system performance are identical to those stated by VADM Boyes in “Flying the ALBACORE.” The automated system outperformed the human counterparts in every area at all times.
There were some lessons to be learnedfrom our experience. After operating in fully automa-tic control for a period of time, it was found that the helmsmen and planesmen had lost the skills necessary to control the ship, even though these watches had been continuously manned during automatic control. While it only took a short period for them to regain their proficiency, this loss of skill remained an unsatisfactory by-product. We next tried operating the system in an aided mode. The aided mode simply showed the operators where the system would put the control surfaces if functioning. The operators had to position them normally. The aided mode quickly became an exercise in following the computer. Again proficiency fell off. Finally, we began operating without the system. If, during the first 5 hours of a watch the helmsman and planesmen proficiency was good, then the last hour of the watch was in automatic control. Now there was incentive for the ship control party to maintain and demonstrate proficiency on every watch.
A significant advantage of the automated system, one that VADM Boyes mentioned briefly, pertains to its effect on sound quieting. Particularly at high speeds, control surface motion can generate noise and cavitation. The use of an automated control system, however, keeps motion to minimum, particularly when a wide control band is permitted. This translates to a lower hydraulic fluid usage and less noise from the hydraulic power plant.
Any submariner could list many examples when employment of an automated system would be useful, if not essential. The error-free transition to periscope depth is one example. Consider another situation. A minor case of food poisoning leaves half the crew sick and in bed for a few days. A skeleton watch section is used to cover the duty on a port and starboard basis — to pull the submarine through. An automated system manned by a single operator would be ideally suited for that situation.
After the Mediterranean deployment, USS LOS ANGELES went into PSA and the system was disconnected, although it remained onboard. I currently do not know to what extent later 688-Class hulls or TRIDENTs have an automated system but if not, it is long overdue. While I disagree with the revolutionary manning scheme proposed by Leonard, an automated control system has a place on the submarines of today. In fact, if we are not providing the submarine commanding officer with this valuable tool, we are unnecessarily limiting his ability for precise ship control, particularly when the ability to fight his ship may depend on it.