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Subs Sailing Wave Of The Future

By Robert A. Hamilton

Groton - When the USS Virginia goes to sea in 2004, it will represent perhaps the most radical change in submarine design since the Navy's first underwater Fighting vessel in 1900.

The ship's wheel has been replaced with a joystick. Valves and knobs will be operated from a touch screen from the control room instead of manually by sailors walking through the ship. And when the captain orders a specific depth and heading, computer controls will get the ship there automatically.

Previous submarine classes represented incremental changes from their predecessors, so most crewmen could walk in and understand most of the ship right from the start. But the Virginia will be so radically different it will take months for sailors to make the transition.

So, even though the Virginia won't go to sea for another 18 months, crewmen have logged more than 200 hours at "cyber-sea," familiarizing themselves with the pioneering technology thanks to a new simulator at the Naval Submarine School.

The experience is so detailed that trainees can hear the whine of electrical motors and the hum of ventilation ducts. The entire room rocks and rolls if trainees pilot it near the surface in a simulated storm.

"In the very beginning, you're a little overwhelmed," said Machinist Mate Chief Scott McIntire. "Then it's almost like a big toy, and you want to play with it. But after a couple of sessions, you get down to business."

The submarine is so different that instead of a helmsman who controls the right-to-left movement of the ship at one wheel, and a planesman who controls the up and down movement at another, a pilot and co-pilot can both send the ship in any direction using a joystick.

Both control stations will have access to four screens that can call up a vast amount of information. One screen emits data on the ship's speed, depth, pitch and heading. Another displays the level of water in the ballast tanks. A third provides details on whether the ship is rigged for a dive, and on and on.

"It's a real paradigm shift," said Senior Chief Machinist Mate Joseph Blackwell. "This is the wave of the future."

The informational screens available to the pilot and co-pilot represent a major advantage - the two men, usually senior petty officers or chiefs, will be able to tell what is going on throughout the entire ship with one touch on the screen. But they also can be seen as a disadvantage, at least to some degree.

"The first few times we came into the trainer, it was very overwhelming the amount of information on the screens," said Lt. Scott Hughes. "It gets a little easier after you've worked at it for a while."

But the Virginia's captain, Cmdr. David J. Kern, said it's just a question of learning which of the screens are most important at which time.

"It's like the first time you sit down behind the wheel of a car," Kern said. "If you've never driven before, it's overwhelming trying to figure everything out. Then you learn how to do it and you wonder why you ever had a problem."

McIntire joined the Navy in 1986, serving first on a Polaris-missile submarine that has since been decommissioned. After his time in the Virginia simulator, he's not longing for the old days, he said.

"Do you still ride a horse to work?" McIntire asked. "That's the kind of difference we're talking about. There's no comparison between the two."

Electric Boat designed the Virginia and in cooperation with Newport News (Va.) Shipbuilding will build the expected 30 ships in the class. EB developed its own simulator even before the Virginia was taking shape, to begin testing some of its design concepts. Crew members took turns in the simulated control room and were asked for their impressions about how to improve it.

The original display screens, for instance, had some harsh colours that were intended to put across information quickly and clearly, but the newest versions use light greens and blues and other soft colours, to take the strain off eyes that will be staring at them for hours each day.

"Those kind of changes came after a lot of discussions about human factors," said Pat O'Neill, manager of the Virginia ship control trainer program at EB.

Once the simulated control centre was completed, the company started to work on how to install it at the Sub School.

In the past, simulators have been mounted on huge hydraulic rams that bounce the unit around to simulate being at sea. For the Virginia trainer, the decision was made to use an all-electric system, which is smoother and has a quicker response time to helm commands.

The finished trainer was the size of a small cottage and weighed about 30,000 pounds. One whole wall of the building had to come down to get it inside.

"Our requirement was to put in the largest trainer that we could fit in the room," O'Neill said. "We had an inch-and-a-half of clearance on each side, and two-and-a-half inches on the top."

The result is that the school has a control centre that has the exact same touch screens as will go to sea on the Virginia, and when the sailors enter an order to turn, dive or surface the ship, the whole room tilts to give you a sense that you are on board a real submarine that is carrying out those orders.

And in the back of the room, Chief Electronics Technician John Maus hovers over the instructors terminal, where he can increase wind speed or wave action, disable the reactor, jam the diving planes or throw dozens of other problems at the crew to test their knowledge of the new systems.

"One thing this system has is the processing speed," Maus said. "The Seawolf trainer can handle three or four casualties at a time. This one, there's no limit."

New periscope

The simulator is giving the crew of the Virginia its first taste of what it will be like to take 21st century technology to sea. Kern, the captain, said for the first time the graphic display will show the depth to the bottom from the bow, the stern, and several locations on the submarine, which is critical.

He noted that on a submarine that is longer than a football field, even a few degrees difference in angle can translate to 25 or 30 feet difference in depth.

"If you're in very shallow water, that 25 feet is going to be very important," Kern said.

But it is only the beginning, Kern said. For instance, the finished submarine will be the first built with a photonics mast, a fiber-optic cable and camera that will take the place of the traditional periscope that operated on the same principles developed early in the last century.

The new periscope will allow a captain to pop up the camera, shoot off a couple of hundred images covering 360 degrees around the boat, and then pull the scope down quickly. Then, instead of sneaking a peak before enemy radar picks up the periscope, the images can be studied at leisure with the attack centre team.

The tighter ship controls and increased stealth of the Virginia are going to be particularly important as the Navy focuses more on near-shore areas, and assigns submarines an increasing share of mapping enemy minefields or inserting commandoes.

"The 688s that make up most of the fleet right now are doing the job," Blackwell said. "This ship is going to give us the tools to go and do it better."


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