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

teams.

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

crew requirements.

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.

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