The Navy installed touch-screen steering systems to save money. Ten sailors paid with their lives.
When the USS John S. McCain crashed in the Pacific, the Navy blamed the destroyer’s crew for the loss of 10 sailors. The truth is the Navy’s flawed technology set the McCain up for disaster.
By T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose, Robert Faturechi and Agnes Chang December 20, 2019
(Interjection: ANOTHER design failure and involved cover-up…including the U.S. military… that cost lives. Where are the Ralph Naders “Unsafe at Any Speed” of the world… or where are the whistle-blowers from within the Navy ranks… where were the ship captains that were obviously aware of the design problems… concerned about their politically threatened advancement potential and retirement if they spoke up? ~ Don Chapin)
Dakota Bordeaux had rarely traveled outside his home state of Oklahoma before he joined the Navy in February 2017. He’d certainly never seen the ocean. But only four months later, Bordeaux was standing at the helm of the USS John S. McCain, steering the 8,300- ton destroyer through the western Pacific. Part of the Navy’s famed 7th Fleet, the McCain was responsible for patrolling global hot spots, shadowing Chinese warships in the South China Sea and tracking North Korean missile launches.
It filled the high school graduate with pride.
“Not many people of my age can say, ‘Hey, I just drove a giant-ass battleship,’” said Bordeaux, 23.
To guide the McCain, Bordeaux relied upon a navigation system the Navy considered a triumph of technology and thrift. It featured slick black touch screens to operate the ship’s wheel and propellers. It knit together information from radars and digital maps. It would save money by requiring fewer sailors to safely steer the ship.
Bordeaux felt confident using the system to control the speed and heading of the ship. But there were many things he did not understand about the array of dials, arrows and data that filled the touch screen.
“There was actually a lot of functions on there that I had no clue what on earth they did,” Bordeaux said of the system.
ProPublica reconstructed the McCain’s Ship Control Console based on the system’s technical manual, confidential Navy reports, a safety review by the National Transportation Safety Board and interviews with a former Navy technician who worked on the system. Screens reflect ship parameters just before time of crash from the NTSB and internal Navy report.
Bordeaux, one of the newest sailors on the ship, was joined in uncertainty by one of the most seasoned, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, captain of the McCain.
A 19-year Navy veteran, Sanchez had watched as technicians replaced the ship’s traditional steering controls a year earlier with the new navigation system. Almost from the start, it caused him headaches. The system constantly indicated problems with steering. They were mostly false alarms, quickly fixed, but by March 2017, Sanchez’s engineers were calling the system “unstable,” with “multiple and cascading failures regularly.”
Sanchez grew to distrust the navigation system, especially for use in delicate operations. He often ordered it to run in backup manual mode, which eliminated some of the automated functions but also created new risks.
In August 2017, Sanchez and his crew steered the ship toward a naval base in Singapore, where technicians were waiting. The navigation system had indicated more than 60 “major steering faults” during the month.
“We were going to have the programmers,” Sanchez said, “give the system a full, a full check, a full clean bill of health.”
The McCain never reached its destination.
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