Under way in the eastern Atlantic, the USS Texas (SSN-775), a Virginia-class attack submarine, receives new tasking to go east where no navigation plan exists.

The machine-readable tasking message is ingested into the ship’s computer system, and the associated waterspace assignment is displayed on a high-definition, horizontal touch screen. The navigator walks into the control room and activates the mission-planning aid.

With the touch of a button, the computer parses the water into suggested submerged operating envelopes (SOEs), using the commanding officer’s (CO’s) stored risk parameters. An arrow points to the most restrictive water within each SOE. Zooming out, the navigator sees the destination and the tiled SOEs that stretch the length of the display. Starting in an open sea basin, he will have to take the ship through a busy international strait and out into a deep basin. To begin the track plan, he zooms back to larger scale, drops his first waypoint on one end of the table over the ship’s current position, and “throws” the second waypoint, like a virtual hockey puck, across the glass and out of view to the east.

The navigator swipes the glass, panning the chart to the east. As the chart pans, a deep red portion of the bathymetric uncertainty layer catches his eye and he stops to investigate. The color represents a significant uncertainty with the source data. While the SOE has taken the most restrictive area into account, the navigator knows the CO will not want to transit through that area when better charted water is nearby. He selects the “exclude” tool and drags it over the area of concern. The displayed SOEs automatically adapt to the adjustment, and the track is nudged out of the way as the exclusion area is put in place.

Satisfied with his choice, the navigator swipes the screen again to follow the track east. A mobile drilling unit (MODU)—its position downloaded and charted automatically as a “stay out area” during the last periscope depth trip—is displayed in the middle of the waterspace. The waypoint puck bounced off the MODU on its eastward path and came to rest northeast of the obstruction. Speed restriction markers and waypoints dynamically appear on the track at the intersection with a depth-restricted SOE to the north of the MODU. Knowing the required speed of advance is high, the navigator needs to keep the track in water as deep as possible. Moving the puck southeast to deeper water, the track line and waypoint “jump” over the MODU—and the speed restriction markers disappear as the track crosses into an unrestricted SOE.

With the waypoint clear of the MODU, the navigator grabs the puck and slides it down the track into shoaling water at the mouth of the strait. He focuses on the complexity of the strait’s bathymetry and the resulting SOEs. The rule set in the SOEs—defined in the CO’s risk area (CORA) tables—was for deep water, not the steep gradients in the strait. To correct this, he applies the shallow water CORA and the SOEs dance around in response. Still unsatisfied, he increases the contour interval setting, which spaces out the transitions between SOEs. Again, the SOEs move precisely and without delay, some consumed by others as they trade space.

Satisfied, the navigator knows this plan still requires a transit depth strategy to safely pass through the strait. Behind him, the executive officer (XO) announces, “War council in the control room in ten minutes.”

To shift to 3D mode, the navigator twists his hands on the chart and contour lines turn into a color-coded view of the canyon in the strait. He pushes and pulls until he can see the entrance to the strait from the side. The SOEs look like irregular steps arching over a short hill. Grabbing the track, he inserts a depth marker and a vertical line drops to the floor of the ocean. The plumb line ripples the bottom of the SOE, making it clear how little room the ship will have in relation to the sea floor. Activating the shipping density layer, he pulls the waypoint down in depth and away from the heaviest traffic. He pans into shallower water and the next SOE, dropping more waypoints along the way and dragging them into place in depth and location.

Within minutes, the navigator finalizes the track. Zooming out, he runs the electronic planning checklist. It shows all required layers as green, indicating the database is up to date and correctly displayed. A list of precautions and warnings in the plan appears in its own tab. As the navigator taps each one for review, the chart advances to the location of the offending object. Some require adjustment, while others will be used only to brief the CO. Checklist completed, the navigator recommends the plan for approval. Turning his attention to the operational plan, he drags an archived sequence of events for a strait transit into place on the mission planning timeline. In parallel, he sees other departments’ proposed actions fall into place on the timeline as they complete their portions of the plan.

With everyone around the display, the navigator starts the brief, outlining the plan while displaying the simulated passage through the strait. Each department activates its respective layer of events on the timeline, and builds on the plan. Suggestions to alter or improve the track based on other departments’ input can be included quickly in the track. After reviewing the plan and resolving all concerns, the CO approves the track. The electronic night orders are updated and the officer of the deck’s (OOD’s) navigation display shifts to the new plan. Less than 30 minutes after receiving the tasking, the OOD gives the order: “Helm, right full rudder, steady on course 090.”

Today’s Reality

Currently, Navy personnel spend hours creating a scheme of maneuver in Microsoft PowerPoint, then manually translate those static slides into a Microsoft Excel file to illustrate a timeline of events (i.e., synchronization matrix). They then reduce the Excel file content to a Navy text message (i.e., schedule of events), briefly summarizing the ship’s primary events. What are lost in this summary are the assumptions developed during the collaborative planning process and ship’s geographical positions over time to understand the role of each relative to the commander’s intent.

Modernizing Mission Planning

In 2007, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), with assistance from the U.S. submarine force, set out to improve the mission-planning capabilities on submarines. ONR’s efforts focused on navigation because it comprises much of the mission-planning process performed on submarines. In addition, ONR recognized a need to examine the as-yet untapped capabilities available in an all-digital navigation system.

Despite the transition from paper to electronic charts, the process of creating and reviewing navigation plans on submarines has changed little over the years. If anything, the shift to digital charts only emphasized the complexities and uncertainty associated with nautical charts. For example, while submarines previously used a single large-scale paper chart for a particular area of water, they now use multiple incongruous electronic data sets for the same geographic space, presenting far more (and often conflicting) information at each location.

Yet submarines’ current chart annotation tools are not designed to facilitate decision making, reduce human error, or support user interaction with these data sets. As a result, the submarine force continues to expend significant man-hours to create navigation and mission plans, and employs multiple layers of human oversight to ensure their accuracy.

Vision vs. Reality

Although this vision of navigation planning may seem radical, the premise of using software-planning tools to replace manual processes is not. By applying user-centered design principles, data analytics, and rule-based logic, an integrated suite of tactical and navigation applications can support comprehensive and collaborative mission planning through decision-support services, analytic tools, and common displays.

ONR’s studies of early prototype navigation-planning systems found that planning time could be reduced by several orders of magnitude. Reducing man-hours required to create a navigation plan allows a CO to understand the operational environment more quickly, permitting rapid operational decisions. The CO’s risk assessment is now done in parallel with the rest of the operational plan rather than at the end, thereby allowing the CO to apply commander’s intent much earlier in the operational planning process.

Virtually “seeing” the ocean floor and the associated layers of information—rather than just a collection of numerical data points—enhances situational awareness. Operating depth changes required by an SOE shift, for example, no longer appear as just a number on a screen. Implementing this vision minimizes human error that inevitably occurs with the repetitive interpretation of raw data. Computers are designed to deal with large quantities of data and can perform these tasks rapidly with ease.

The future vignette showcases the positive impacts of shifting to an all-digital solution. Today, when creating a navigation plan, the picture of the ocean floor exists only in the heads of the planners. They must interpolate the shallowest sounding in an area after repeatedly switching between different charts (e.g., coastal, general, etc), never getting to see a single consolidated chart. This process is repeated for each new plan and every chart update.

Software that eases this burden enables a mission-planning team to focus on the level of uncertainty and risk associated with an operating area. If SOEs appeared with the touch of a button, the iterative and data-intensive portion of navigation planning would be eliminated. While focused on SOE development, the vision would include the ability to develop all portions of a navigation plan and associated mission plan with the same ease.

Achieving the Vision

In 2011, the U.S. submarine force and ONR took this concept from paper to a working prototype to fielding in the fleet. Developed as part of the capable manpower program in ONR’s future naval capabilities initiative, the Mission Planning Application (MPA) is an interactive program that can reduce drastically the time required to plan submarine missions.

MPA is beginning to be delivered to the fleet. The first version—advanced processor build FY13 (APB-13)—has been installed on most of the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and several fast attack boats (SSNs). It has received favorable feedback from crews returning from deployments. A second version, APB-15, has been developed and is nearing the final stages of testing before being deployed to the fleet. MPA is installed in the submarine combat system and is comprised of a geographical map, timeline, and multiple tactical decision aids. Ship events (e.g., engineering, training, watch bill, etc.) populate the timeline to allow crewmembers to understand where and when each event will occur on the map and to de-conflict future events. It allows crews to plan, brief, execute and assess using a single software application.

MPA replaces the current methods of relying on three-ring binders, PowerPoint slides, and spreadsheets. It supports submarine navigation and operational planning processes from initial identification of navigational hazards through tactical plan briefing and rehearsal—and it reduces the time necessary to create plans from days to minutes.

The software combines digital nautical charts, tactical oceanic data, and navigation chart data to produce an accurate picture of a submarine’s intended transit path. Navigation plans developed with MPA can be checked for quality and rule violations at any time. MPA can review thousands of chart markings in a fraction of the time required for the legacy process. It reduces crew workload while providing a seamless process to plan, brief, execute, and assess missions.

While not yet the scene depicted at the beginning of this article, MPA is a significant step in that direction. As a result of the collaboration between ONR and the submarine force, submarine crews can now move rapidly and confidently from navigation data to mission-relevant options to informed decisions.

As appeared in Proceedings Magazine – December 2017
By Commander Michael V. Maclaine, Captain Vern Parks, US Navy, Captain John Zimmerman, US Navy (Retired), and Dr. William Krebs
Read the original article here