'Smart ship' a smart idea?

How many sailors does it take to save a sinking ship? If you ask the Navy,

they would tell you about 95. That is, of course, as long as the ship in

question comes equipped with the latest information technologies and global

communications gear.

By 2010, the Navy plans to deploy 32 of the most advanced warships to

ever set sail. Known as the "smart ship," the DD-21 Land Attack Destroyer

will rely on revolutionary changes in technology to reduce the number of

sailors needed on board by about one-third. Destroyers, which now require

a crew of more than 300, will need a mere 95 when the first DD-21s are launched

in 2008.

Good idea? The Navy thinks so. It retained the expertise of Aptima Inc.

this month to provide software that will help model and design the most

optimal crew for the new ship.

The company's modeling tool, appropriately called TIDE (Team Integrated

Design Environment), uses complex formulas to take into account advances

in technology and allocate functions between humans and machines.

But not all experts are convinced the reduction in personnel is such

a good idea, particularly some Navy destroyer veterans who served in past

wars and argue that conducting damage control, such as fighting onboard

fires, with only 95 sailors is wishful thinking.

"It is folly to jeopardize the safety of the crew and the ship by believing

that automated systems will handle any given situation," said Chic Sale,

a retired chief operations specialist. "Automated damage control? I do not

think so."

But the DD-21 will improve the crew's chances of survival because of

integrated electric power supplies and critical components that are more

modular, said Adm. Michael Mullen, director of surface warfare for the chief

of naval operations staff. At a recent Pentagon press briefing announcing

the Navy's commitment to the DD-21 concept, Mullen said those components

will help the ship avoid damage. "Not taking a hit has very profound warfighting

capabilities," said Mullen, who acknowledged that damage control "takes

a lot of people."

Sensors, intelligent interfaces and advanced computer systems "should

enable rapid detection, reaction and elimination of fires and other problems"

aboard DD-21s, according to briefing documents published by the Navy. "Automated

systems can assist with rapid reaction and containment capabilities," the

documents state.

Aside from enhancing survivability, the Navy plans to use IT to determine

each sailor's responsibilities on the ship in a way that makes them more

effective than before.

According to the Navy, sensors and global connectivity will allow fewer

sailors onboard DD-21 to react more efficiently to maintenance problems

and work with experts in the United States via remote satellite links to

fix problems.

Requisitions for parts will be made via the ship's global communications

system and items will be delivered directly to the ship. Online shore-based

maintenance expertise will guide crew members through the most difficult

to solve problems, and online training support will be available 24 hours

a day to produce the most well-rounded, multifunctional crews ever fielded.

However, Thomas Randall, a former surface warfare-qualified machinist's

mate 1st class, said, "There are no automated systems that can replace the

resourcefulness, ingenuity and inventiveness of a man under the pressure

of the possible loss of life in a damage control situation."

Retired Vice Adm. Doug Katz, president of the Surface Navy Association,

said damage control has been the Navy's strength over the years and automation

allows you to do many things today that were not possible a few years ago.

But Katz added that it is important to balance low manning levels against

what the threat will be in 2010. "We still have to be ready for the big

war," he said. But "DD-21 is a technological leap forward. If we don't make

this jump with DD-21, we're in real trouble because we can't get there with

what we've got."

Martin Libicki, a defense analyst at Rand Corp., said one of the most

common ways to integrate damage control into a ship is through compartments

that can be sealed off from the rest of the ship. That's a well understood

concept that can be enhanced through the use of automated systems and remote

maintenance capabilities, he said.

John Leahy, director of communications for Sun Microsystems Federal

and a former Navy captain, said veterans should not think only of the older

ships they served on when considering the role of technology. Leahy said

he sees enormous opportunities for automated damage control, particularly

in things such as automated sprinkler systems to put out fires and hatches

to seal off flooding.

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