Too clever by half
In promoting to Congress its plan to launch a fleet of the most computerized
warships ever built, the Navy has run full steam into a classic problem:
How much automation is too much? Or, in the case of the military, at what
point does adding computers to its warfighting systems put one more soldier,
sailor or pilot in harm's way?
The Navy says its technologically advanced DD-21 Land Attack Destroyer
would be equipped with enough sensors, intelligent devices and advanced
computers to "enable rapid detection, reaction, and elimination of fires
and other problems." That is a laudable goal.
But that also seems in conflict with another of the selling points of
the DD-21 program: work force reduction. The Navy says it is using information
technology to analyze each sailor's responsibilities to make the crew of
the "smart ship" more effective than ever before.
According to its estimates, aided by software that helps configure an
"optimal crew," DD-21 would need only about about 95 sailors of the 300
required to man today's destroyers. That's because sensors and other high-tech
gear would help the crew react more efficiently to routine and emergency
situations at sea. Also, parts requisitions and deliveries would be more
efficient because of advanced ship-to-shore communications. And online training
and support would be available 24 hours a day, creating more efficient maintenance
That might interest a budget committee, but it holds little water with
Navy regulars, who would rather rely on shipmates than workflow software
to direct damage control operations in a firefight. In selling the DD-21
program, the Navy would do well to stick to the ship's ability to avoid
and attack — and thus improve a crew's chances of survival — than its lower
Perhaps after DD-21 has earned its billing as a ship with a better survival
rate than its predecessors, the Navy can start to look at on-board manpower
reduction. That will help gain the support of the sailors who will be exposed
to the highest risks. Otherwise, DD-21 might be a program where one more
computer is too much automation.