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Submarine Force Forges Ahead with Electronic Navigation to Enhance Capabilities

Navy NewsStand

Story Number: NNS050318-09
Release Date: 3/20/2005 11:30:00 AM

By Chief Journalist (SW/AW) Mark O. Piggott, Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet Public Affairs

NORFOLK, Va. (NNS) -- The submarine force is advancing toward its goal of "paperless" navigation with the Voyage Management System (VMS), an electronic navigation tool currently aboard all Navy submarines.

This summer, USS Oklahoma City (SSN 723) will be the first submarine to undergo final certification. The certification process involves certifying both the VMS system and the Sailors who operate it.

Developed by Sperry-Marine, VMS integration into the submarine force began in 1998 to introduce electronic navigation as a way to enhance accuracy and efficiency of navigation and voyage planning. Seven years later, all submarines in the fleet today carry some version of VMS, depending on the class of submarine and the installation date. Although crews have been required to still use paper charts as the primary means of navigation, VMS has served as a valuable back-up tool.

Electronic navigation offers numerous advantages over paper charts. VMS significantly reduces time and manual labor required for chart maintenance and voyage planning.

"Anyone who has had to correct a paper chart will tell you it's a very tedious process - time consuming and painstaking," said Chief Electronics Technician (SS) Mark Little, Tactical System Development Install (TSDI) Team assistant navigator. "With electronic charts, it's very simple. You just start the computer, insert a CD to update the database and you are free to tackle other work."

It is especially valuable when a ship receives an operational order that requires updates to the submarine's course.

"When any OPCON transmits a ship's sub note to a submarine, that will automatically be transferred from radio to the VMS system," Little explained. "VMS takes care of much of the planning. All that's required of the crew is to make small refinements and review it."

With paper charts, the manually plotted ship's location is always behind by the amount of time it takes to plot the bearings. "But with VMS, it's a continuous, real-time plot all done by the computer," Little said. "VMS never lags behind. It's always real time using the ship's position from the Global Positioning System (GPS) when surfaced or inertial navigators when submerged."

VMS is designed with backup systems in the event of technical issues.

"You have two separate computers," Little explained, "that are linked together but can also act independently of each other if one should not be available."

According to Little, these computers also have spare hard drives. Additionally, each submarine will have a laptop available with the latest VMS program - version 6.4 - as another backup. However, he doesn't anticipate problems with VMS reliability.

"The CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) has set guidelines on how long these systems have to run without a mission critical failure," Little stated. "VMS far exceeds those guidelines."

The National Geo-Spatial Agency has spent the last five years digitizing all nautical charts of the world's waterways, with the exception of the polar ice cap. These electronic charts provide much more detailed and layered information than paper charts and virtually eliminate the risk for human error in navigation.

VMS has built in programmable alarms that will warn the navigation team in advance if they are veering off course or have planned a voyage track that takes them through hazardous areas, according to Cmdr. Mike Brown, Commander, Naval Submarine Force force navigator. Advances in technology and computer software for VMS in the last few years have dramatically enhanced the features and capabilities of the current version over older programs. With such improvements, the submarine force is now ready to take the next step toward digital charts as the primary navigation tool.

"It's like comparing Windows 98 to the latest application available today," Brown stated. Many of the new features are a result of not only advanced technology, but also feedback from the hundreds of commanding officers and their crews who have trained on and used these earlier versions.

"Until we reach the point where our submarines have the latest version of VMS, and the crews are certified to use the system, they will still have to use paper charts in addition to VMS for navigation," Brown said. "We knew this was going to be a long process back when we started. It took time to develop and improve the tool, install and integrate into a submarine, as well as to train crews to operate the system."

"Before we make the transition to be completely paperless, we needed to be sure our electronic navigation tool has the right capabilities," he added. "We've reached that with 6.4."

Only three submarines currently have the latest version and they're all homeported in Norfolk, Va. - Oklahoma City, USS Hampton (SSN 767) and USS Jacksonville (SSN 699).
"This is because Sperry-Marine is based locally, which has made it easier for the company's engineers to install the system on these ships," Brown explained.

Though the complete installation and integration of the VMS system aboard a submarine does not necessarily take long to complete, the certification process is demanding and thorough for the officers and Sailors who will operate the system underway.

"All the operators go through operator training, which is three weeks in length, along with wardroom training for all officers and specific training for the commanding officer, executive officer, navigator and assistant navigator," Little said.

"Once they finish all the training, the ship's crew will have to demonstrate proficiency on a shore-based trainer before they have to finally prove themselves at sea as the final step to certification," he continued.

The goal ultimately is for the entire submarine force, including ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), the newly converted guided-missile submarines (SSGN), Los Angeles-, Seawolf- and Virginia-class fast attack submarines (SSN) to be certified for electronic navigation in the 2008 time frame. Submarine Force Commander Vice Adm. Chuck Munns believes the investment in time, technology and training toward this goal is well worth the effort.

"VMS helps commanding officers make better decisions and, ultimately, save valuable time and effort when we go completely paperless," Munns said. "I'm proud of the fact that the submarine force is leading the way on this CNO priority of electronic navigation."

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