image of magazine cover

by Patricia Hamburger, David Miskimens, and Scott C. Truver

photo caption follows
An artist’s rendering of the Virginia-class Block III command
and control center. Naval Undersea Warfare Center graphic.


When discussing a new weapon system or platform, it has become commonplace to state something like, “The warrior is a premier element of all operational systems.” This ranks right up there with “our people are our most precious resource.” But as several chiefs of naval operations and other naval leaders have acknowledged, people are also expensive. For example, as much as 70 percent of the total life-cycle ownership cost of ships and submarines is directly or indirectly related to the human element.

Until recently, the Navy’s approach to designing, engineering and acquiring complex weapon systems did not routinely or completely include the human “warrior” as an integral part of the system. Rather, the Navy viewed systems as combinations of hardware and software. The results were often less-than-optimal capability and high life-cycle cost—and sometimes even mission failure.

Given the high rate of technological change and the need to rein in cost in the face of increasingly constrained budgets, the Navy and the other services have increasingly embraced the need to consider human-performance capabilities and limitations up front and on an equal footing with hardware and software. This is true both for new acquisition and for technology-refresh programs.

The U.S. Submarine Force has championed human systems integration (HSI). HSI is a specialized engineering discipline that takes human-performance limitations and capabilities fully into account to influence system design and engineering early in the research, development and acquisition process, thereby helping to ensure the highest overall performance at the lowest total ownership cost. Implementation of HSI has involved new partnerships with unlikely partners such as the audio equipment company Bose, game-makers, the visual-reality industry, physiologists and psychologists.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the Virginia (SSN-774)-class Nuclear Attack Submarine Program.

The Human-Centered Virginia Class

The 30-ship Virginia-class program has profoundly changed the way the U.S. Submarine Force focuses on the human in the design, engineering, acquisition and operation of advanced submarine technologies, systems and platforms. The ultimate goal was to arrive at an optimal crew size and composition to sustain performance throughout the entire spectrum of anticipated tasks, from leaving homeport to high-tempo wartime ops. From the outset, the design and engineering of the Virginia class fully incorporated HSI fundamentals. Human factors engineering was incorporated in combat systems and ship control. Manpower and human performance requirements addressed optimal manning goals. Personnel considerations influenced the layout of spaces, quality-of-life features, and maintenance. The innovative On-Board Team Trainer (OBTT) addressed the need for enhanced training opportunities.

In 1991, Navy officials established the Virginia-class Manpower Optimization Steering Committee (MOSC) to analyze concepts for the size and composition of the crew. During 1992, the MOSC’s overall manning analysis determined that 118 crewmembers—14 officers and 104 enlisted—were required to satisfy at-sea watchstanding and maintenance requirements. In-port needs drove another 16 crewmembers, for a total of 134, compared to 141 (16 officers and 127 enlisted) for the improved Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class submarines already in service.

During several concept-of-operations exercises (COOPEXs), combat system designers and engineers went beyond the use of plywood mockups and took advantage of innovative computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software tools, such as “Ergo Man,” which enabled them to assess human interactions and performance in a synthetic 3-D product model. The Ergo Man model allowed engineers to test a variety of arrangements, displays, equipment, hardware and software before they finalized designs and physical integrations.

HSI design elements were critical to the “fly-by-wire” Ship Control System in the Virginia class, which incorporates enhanced user-friendly touch-screen displays and a single “joy stick” to drive the sub. The Ship Control System allows only two men—the pilot and co-pilot—to control the ship as effectively and safely as the five watchstanders who traditionally perform that function. The experience of the USS Hawaii (SSN-776) on her first deployment in 2008 underscored the success of the HSI process. According to the submarine’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Edward Herrington, the fly-by-wire system performed superbly during nine naval special warfare and special operations evolutions, maintaining depth within a strict band and hovering for 35 hours in a challenging sea state, which exceeded the naval special warfare requirement.

Another Virginia-class HSI innovation was to include all key personnel—combat control watchstanders, pilot and co-pilot, and sonar men—in the integrated Command and Control Center (CACC). A new non-hull-penetrating photonics mast replaced the two periscopes around which previous submarine combat control centers were designed, allowing the control room to be moved down a level into a wider part of the ship. The additional space allowed sonarmen to move into the control room with other watchstanders. To isolate the sonarmen from CACC ambient noise, the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory (NSMRL) in Groton, Conn., worked with Bose Corporation to develop noise-cancellation headphones. The full integration of sonarmen into command decision-making greatly improved communication and situational awareness for the entire tactical and ship-control team.

The Virginia-class On-Board Tactical Trainer (OBTT), another HSI innovation, improves upon the “train as you fight” concept, enabling crews to train “where they will fight”—at their watchstations—by linking actual mission-critical functions and systems to a “synthetic” tactical environment. Training scenarios are designated by the OBTT Master Controller and can range from routine but still potentially dangerous evolutions—such as leaving or returning to homeport or transiting a busy strait—to a variety of “real-world” tactical evolutions—including mine countermeasures/avoidance; anti-submarine warfare search and prosecution; anti-surface ship attack; covert intelligence and surveillance; special operations support; and sea strike. The OBTT’s “train where you fight” capability greatly enhances the operational flexibility of Virginia-class crews by allowing them to conduct just-in-time training in response to emerging deployment challenges.

As Vice Adm. Jay Donnelly, Commander Submarine Force, noted during the July 2008 Undersea HSI Symposium, “These and other Virginia-class system design improvements made large strides toward optimizing human-machine performance while reducing the number of people required to operate and maintain the submarine.”

More Can and Must be Accomplished

As great a leap as the Virginia class was for integrating HSI in the submarine design process, much of the class’s design and manning structure is still constrained by legacy systems and traditional organizational alignments. Then-Cmdr. Todd Cramer, commanding officer of Virginia during her maiden deployment, noted at the 2008 Undersea HSI Symposium that the incorporation of advanced computer-based technologies and sensors has inadvertently created a new technical challenge, which he called “information access across the seams.” For example, the 64 flat-screen displays in the Virginia-class control room, each with multiple layers of information, provide more than the average commanding officer or officer of the deck (OOD) can process.

Addressing this technical challenge requires a system-of-systems approach to bridge the numerous software and hardware seams. Fusing information into a more “operator-friendly” format is increasingly important to ensure that decision-makers get the right information at the right time. This imperative will undoubtedly influence the insertion of new systems and technologies into submarines already in service. Since FY 2007, the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Human Systems Integration Engineering Organization has taken steps to develop guidance for “common presentation” that applies proven best practices and technological innovations to the problem.

The Human Systems Integration Design Environment (HSIDE), sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), seeks to ensure effective HSI involvement throughout the life cycle, beginning with concept definition. A major component of HSIDE is the definition of a mission-focused, functional submarine model, which will be used to define ship and system functional requirements and allow program managers to balance manning costs and technological risk.

Impressive as all these technical advances may be, command and control decision-making in submarine warfare remains more an art than a science, and a thorny HSI challenge is to develop a cognitive model to better understand and reflect how the warfighter interacts with the information available. Physical, behavioral and social factors—physiology, psychology, sociology, organizational theory, and management science—all must be taken into account.

The January 2007 collision between USS Newport News (SSN-750) and the M/V Mogamigawa in the Strait of Hormuz exemplifies the critical battle-space awareness and decision-making challenges that HSI is helping the Submarine Force to address. One common thread in Class A mishaps is that important information is often available but not directly in the hands of the right people when needed. In this instance, critical members of Newport News’s crew did not detect the deep-draft merchant ship approaching from astern in shallow water until it was too late to avoid a collision.

The HSI solution to this problem might be as simple as designing computer algorithms that can identify critical information and prompt the operators to look at and analyze the data, even if they do not have the display called up. ONR, NSMRL, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHU/APL) are working on a prototype of a state-of-the-art, integrated 3-D audio-visual capability with cueing controls for sonar displays. ONR researchers are incorporating advanced signal processing to improve acoustic signal analysis and optimize the use of the operator’s aural and visual senses. The goal is to effectively double a sonar operator’s sensory inputs by integrating spatial audio into sonar systems, thereby increasing the operator’s situational awareness and recognition differential.

image caption follows
On Virginia-class submarines, sonar stations are fully integrated in
the command and control center. Naval Undersea Warfare Center graphic.

Many collisions and groundings while the submarine is on the surface have occurred when the needed information was in the control room but was not available to the OOD on the bridge. In clear weather, the OOD’s vantage point atop the sail improves his awareness of the contact and navigational situation. However, his watch team below in the control room does not share his situational awareness, and that, in turn, can limit his access to the numerous tools at their disposal. This limitation can be particularly problematic during inclement weather, when the OOD’s visual picture is obscured. Surface operations would benefit greatly if the OOD, the CO, and the watchroom all had the same level of awareness. Providing that common awareness is a complex problem, and good HSI will be vital for solving it.

To that end, ONR has funded JHU/APL to research decision-support tools and team-training solutions that can help provide shared situation awareness for the submarine command team, enhance their ability to make sense of the shared information, and ensure timely and accurate decisions in complex, stressful environments. Researchers are using HSI analysis, including the integration of cognitive work analysis (CWA) and cognitive task analysis (CTA), to develop more intuitive displays of key information, including trends and patterns associated with contact information, uncertainty, navigational hazards, etc. The aim is to enable the command team to execute the plan while projecting roughly half an hour into the future to maintain ship safety and stealth distances from threatening contacts. Among other things, this will call for training solutions that enhance submarine command teams’ “sense-making” skills—particularly as they relate to the critical cognitive challenges of building the picture, building the plan, focused engagement and adaptability.

While replacing periscopes with non-hull-penetrating photonics masts is certainly a step in the right direction, submarines will continue to view the world with the same limited field of view. With this constraint in mind, one research and development project addressed providing a 360-degree periscope view so future submariners can see in every direction simultaneously. The project also seeks to integrate this enhanced visual picture with other sensor data to help operators correlate it with contacts from sonar, radar and electronic support measures. Additionally, next-generation digital periscope displays will maximize the recognition differential by taking advantage of recent advances in our knowledge of the human eye and how the brain processes visual data.

Finally, it is critical to remember that the “H” is for “human,” and that all HSI solutions assume the ability to keep Sailors safe, healthy and alert. The submarine environment is closed for long periods. While the quality of the atmosphere is constantly monitored, many specific compounds must be monitored for possible longer-term effects.

NSMRL’s Submarine Atmosphere Health Assessment Program uses sampling techniques similar to the badges submariners wear for radiation measurement to collect information about such compounds in operational submarines. The program also employs more intensive air sampling during sea trials of new submarines. NSMRL is also addressing other critical HSI concerns, such as fatigue. For example, in close collaboration with the Submarine Force, it is researching possible changes to the on-board watchstanding schedule to reduce problems associated with changing circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation. This work includes tests during actual submarine operations to complement laboratory tests.

The ultimate test of safety is the ability to survive and escape from a disabled submarine, no matter how unlikely that event. NSMRL has conducted tests of a crew’s ability to survive, maintain a breathable atmosphere, and provide food and light in such situations. It has also conducted tests of a new escape suit and a device to improve the visibility of survivors on the surface.

Setting the HSI Course for the Submarine Force

HSI optimizes the total system equation by integrating the human factors of engineering, manpower, personnel, training, habitability, safety, personnel survivability, and health into the system acquisition process. While technologies, hardware and software are clearly important, HSI is critical for maximizing system performance and minimizing total ownership cost. Only after measuring the performance of the total system—Sailors as well as hardware and software—can we certify that our systems and platforms will satisfy critical requirements.

“From my perspective,” Vice Adm. Donnelly stated, “there are some common aspects for any HSI solution. First, it must solve a real problem, and second, it must be affordable. Additionally, when solving warfighter performance problems, the solutions should be intuitive, and the commanding officer must have faith in the reliability of the information provided.”

Today, the Virginia class is the “poster child” for HSI in the U.S. Submarine Force. From the outset, it embraced the fundamental principles of HSI to inform intelligent tradeoffs and decisions. In the future, improved HSI processes and knowledge will enable us to take the next leap, developing game-changing improvements to our submarines’ broad-spectrum mission capabilities. Infusing such improvements into current and future submarine classes will require well-conceived and well-supported HSI to ensure that the total system—hardware, software, and people—meets the daunting challenges on the horizon. Only then will our Sailors, our most precious—and expensive—resource, have all the tools for success in tomorrow’s missions.

Ms. Hamburger is director of human systems integration and integrated warfare systems engineering in the Naval Sea Systems Command and also serves as technical director of the Program Executive Office, Integrated Warfare Systems (PEO IWS).

Mr. Miskimens, technical director of the Program Executive Office, Submarines (PEO SUBS), served as deputy program manager of the Virginia-Class Nuclear Attack Submarine Program and deputy program manager of the Ohio (SSGN-726) Conversion Program.

Dr. Truver is director of national security programs at Gryphon Technologies LC.

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