Surface Warfare Magazine
Sharing stories and news from Sailors across the U.S. Navy’s Surface Forces
Mahan on Track
A Fresh Look at Surface Contact Training
By Ensign Gregory King, USS Mahan OI Division Officer

On my first ship, USS Emory S. Land (AS 39), the Combat Information Center (CIC) only had a SPA-25G and a status board. A Sailor would rapidly record on the status board all of the information for any Surface Contact Unknown (SKUNK), and it was our job as junior operation specialists to manage a simple, yet cluttered surface picture. The radar operator would call out mark times every three minutes and cycle through numerous surface contacts on the SPA-25G, calling out bearing, range, and updated Closest Point of Approach (CPA) information to the status board operators (one in CIC and one on the bridge). The log keeper was on sound-powered phones with the lookouts and would write all of the information for our surface contact log, plus update CIC on any additional information the lookouts reported about the contact. This was a very straight forward way of handling contact information, but required constant attention to ensure the contact picture was up to date. At the time, we didn’t have all of the sensors and displays found on ships today.

In today’s Navy, there are a plethora of inputs we receive for the surface picture from AIS, ARPA, Furuno, Link, and our SPS-67 and SPS-73 surface search radars as shown in Figure 1. We found our bridge and combat teams have a wealth of information, but no good way to fuse this data into a usable, cohesive picture. The various systems that can track or report a surface contact are not integrated together. A contact that is displayed on the AEGIS display system in CIC is being tracked by the SPS-67 while a contact displayed on ARPA in the pilot house is being tracked by the SPS-73. Both systems are reporting the contact with a different ID making correlation and reporting of the contact between the different watch stations difficult. Depending on the skill level of the watch team the level of situational awareness would vary between the bridge and CIC.

We also found that modern Sailors did not have a good sense of timing in relation to team goals and the situational awareness involved in fusing a surface plot. They can text their cousin in California about their family reunion while having a conversation at dinner with three friends about a basketball game. They are used to receiving multiple inputs from all kinds of providers in the civilian world with no apparent order, rhythm, or cadence. This rhythm, knowing when to insert a piece of information, was missing. As with texting, watchstanders would pass off a piece of information as soon as they received it, not understanding when a senior watchstander was able to process it. Timing, forceful acknowledgements, standard reporting, and call ups were key training points.

So the question became “how do we manage such a variety of inputs and paint a clear surface picture for every watchstander ranging from the lookout to the Officer of the Deck (OOD) to the Tactical Action Officer (TAO)/ CIC Watch Officer (CICWO) in order to keep the ship safe?”

Our solution on board USS Mahan (DDG 72) was to go back to the basics of how we used to operate and add a “modern twist” to our process. Contacts that satisfy the minimum CPA reporting criteria are assigned a number by the bridge or combat teams. This common number will be correlated between the bridge (ARPA and SPA-25G), Bright Bridge, Surface Detector Tracker, and TAO/CICWO. In the past we would call this contact “SKUNK 01”, but today we call it “Track 01” which marks the contact as an in house track. This allows all watchstanders to refer to the track using the same nomenclature and prevents confusion caused by excessive chatter over the net. Once a contact is labeled, our teams go to work correlating all of the data inputs for the contact and communicating that information between CIC and the bridge. Maneuvering boards (MOBOARDS) are prepared by both watch teams, and the solutions are used by the Officer of the Deck (OOD) to determine if maneuvering is required to maintain safety of navigation.

Surface Contact Training

Once a contact comes within visual range, our lookouts come to action. In addition to the OOD, the Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD), and the conning officer, there is a port lookout, a starboard lookout and an aft lookout assigned during normal steaming operations. Each lookout maintains a card with a fill-in-the-blank contact report, similar to the report the OOD makes to the commanding officer. The report includes the bearing and range of the contact, the type of platform, what lights or day shapes are visible, and the bearing drift of the contact. As the contact moves from one lookout’s sector of responsibility (SOR) to another lookout’s SOR, the contact is verbally handed off to the appropriate lookout. This process ensures continuous visual reporting of every contact while tracked within visual range and prevents reporting ambiguity. The OOD gains a clear picture of where the contact is in relation to the ship and what the contact is doing so that he or she can correlate this information to the ARPA, AIS, and the SPA-25G on the bridge. The lookout report also gives our CIC the information they need in order to correlate what they are seeing with AIS, OSS, and the SPS-67 radar picture. All of this information is fused with the maneuvering board solutions worked by combat and the bridge.

ARPA and the other electronic tools have greatly improved situational awareness on the bridge. However, there are significant limitations in how these systems work together. Sometimes an over reliance on technical solutions can lead to an information void if the limitations of the hardware are not fully understood. Mahan has embraced the technology that is available to our watch teams and the command leadership has instituted human processes to maximize the efficiency of these systems by ensuring all surface tracks are identified, correlated and their intentions are fully understood by all watchstanders.

The end result of this refined process is greatly improved situational awareness from the most junior lookout to the commanding officer. When woken up at 3 a.m. with a contact report, the commanding officer must be able to make decisions based on the information provided by the OOD. The members of the watch team no longer submit only their own individual reports. They now provide succinct packets of data that are correlated into a CIC-bridge fusion plot. Data is important, but only if it is used properly. Team Mahan has bridged the technology gap and harnesses the power of each sensor available in CIC and the pilot house.

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