Why do US Navy ships keep crashing?

Touchscreen risk: US Navy returns to buttons and levers

Modernization does not stop at warships either. The US Navy has been using touchscreens to control its destroyers since 2016. A decision that now turns out to be a fatal mistake and leads to a U-turn.


The US Navy wants to return to levers and buttons on its destroyers, reports heise.de. The reason: The touchscreens have proven to be a real risk in use. In addition to numerous negative feedback from seafarers, a fatal accident also led to rethinking. On August 21, 2017, there was a collision between the US destroyer John S. McCain and a tanker roughly three times its size, killing ten crew members. The following investigation by the US Transportation Safety Authority (NTSB) found the touchscreen controls at least partially to blame for the event.

"The NTSB comes to the conclusion that the design of the touchscreens for controlling the controls and drives of the John S. McCain increased the likelihood of operating errors and led to the collision," says the official investigation report. The NTSB criticizes that it is often not always immediately clear who is currently in control of which part of the ship's controls. And while there is immediately tangible feedback with a lever or button, something like this is missing with the touchscreen solution. All of this increases the likelihood of errors in stressful situations, especially when other components are added to the bridge crew's lack of sleep.


In the case of the specific accident, it should now have been the case that the bridge crew tried to transfer control of the propulsion from one station to another. However, the control was split up due to incorrect operation. One station had control over the port propeller and one over the starboard propeller. In the confusion that followed, the crew assumed the controls had failed - which in turn led to fatal wrong decisions and the subsequent collision. In another US warship collision, the marines are said to have complained via the touchscreen system.

Return to the tried and tested

So the US Navy is now pulling the emergency brake: In the next one and a half to two and a half years, the entire fleet of destroyers is to be converted back to the use of mechanical levers and buttons. There is also criticism of other electronic components: The laptop responsible for the data of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) is difficult to access and is connected to the ship via unreliable cables. Here, too, there should be improvements. (red, August 13, 2019)