Tuesday, May 10, 2005

SSN 711 Grounding Report Encl:(137) USNS HESS

I started reading the investigation report on the USS San Francisco grounding and found an interesting reference in the list of ship's procedures, transcripts and report enclosures.

Encl: (137) USNS HESS 1980 Survey Data in vicinity of grounding (S)

The USNS HESS was a T-AGS class ship tasked specifically for deep ocean hydrographic surveys. The kind of survey work these ships do would provide information that could have prevented the grounding if known. The USNS HESS (T-AGS-38) was fitted with a SASS 1 x 1 degree Multibeam Sonar system for this type of survey work.

USNS Hess T-AGS-38
(Source: NavSource.org - Carl R. Friberg Jr.)

The fact that this enclosure is in the list brings a few questions to my mind.
  1. What exactly is "in vicinity of grounding" mean?
  2. Did the area of the grounding get surveyed for a specific purpose and then that information not get transferred?
  3. If the USNS HESS survey data was not applicable why look at it?

The survey work done by the USNS HESS was in 1980, back then SSBNs still made patrols out of Guam. If the seamounts and escarpments "in the vicinity" were surveyed back in 1980 then 25 years is a long time for that data not to make it on operational submarines bottom contour charts.

Then again I could be wrong and they were just out fishing.

Update: 5/11/05 -11:50 Under the section "Chart Cautions and Accuracy" paragraphs 508 thru 511 reference encl:(137) but are remove to provide an unclassified document. What is interesting is the statement in paragraph 507:

NGU report that "None of the depicted track lines [on E2202] appear to have ensonified the feature in question." [encls (43), (232) ]

This statement precedes the USNS HESS hydrographic references in 508 -511.

I'm not trying to create a conspiracy here, just try to point out that hydrographic data comes from a variety of sources, some classified. If there was a failure here then perhaps there needs to be a review of methods used to incorporate clear hazards to navigation and submerged operations onto general navigation and bottom contour charts.


dennis said...
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dennis said...

Sorry about the earlier mis-transmission. Anyway, I want to offer a couple of comments re. yours. First, it's not usual, but not all that unusual, for 25 year old data to lie dormant. Second, you are absolutely in synch with my own thoughts that new procedures need to be considered to ensure this does not happen again.

My opinions are based on 30+ years of work with NOAA in the chart production system. I was responsible for data from the time it left the survey boat to the time it appeared on nautical charts. In that time I saw every type of case, from nearly instantaneous broadcast of hazards to navigation to those that slipped through the cracks. The problem was, and is becoming even more so, of too much data and not enough personnel/technology to put it on charts. The process is not unlike triage, in which raw data is quickly assessed for value then scheduled for compilation. 25 years ago who would have known that this particular patch of open ocean would be important. The existing data was de-prioritized in favor of more pressing issue.

The second comment re. new procedures builds on the first. If data is obviously being mis-prioritized then the system is broken. If in fact, there are not sufficient resources to get the job done then smarter ways of working must be devised. I have my own ideas but that's a long story.

Unfortunately, the situation is not getting better. First, the data is coming in faster than ever; second the experienced personnel are leaving just as fast. In their place are contractors. Their interests begin and end with the dollar value of the contract; and the personnel will be on the job only as long as the contract lasts, if that long. There is very little new expertise being developed to replace the old.

Finally, one additional problem that gets deep into the workings of the system. The underlying philosophy that drives the rule-making that in turn controls the data processing is changing dramatically. I'll leave it at, where human intelligence was once the controlling factor in determining what gets charted, machine technology is taking over. Is that a good thing? Remains to be seen but the test should not be another casualty of equal or worse dimension.

Lubber's Line said...

Dennis, I appreciate you bringing your experience to the conversation and reinforcing my point on reviewing methods used to incorporate hazards to navigation onto general navigation and bottom contour charts.

I also agree with you on a problem I would call “loss of institutional memory” where experienced personnel are replaced by contractors who may last one or two contract cycles of 2 or 3 year duration. The contractor is then outbid and replaced by an almost completely new set of people. I saw this in the Defense contracting world when I was one of those contractors. The long term government GS knew a hell of a lot more about his job than I did. In the short term it saved the government money to be able to hire and fire contractors when work levels and funding changed. But in the long term it cost when the efficiency and knowledge of those contractors dipped with each contract re-bid.

As far as machines doing the data processing and decision making, being a technology person, I’m of the opinion that programmed functions can improve the efficiency and throughput of almost any process. But machines do simple repetitive things really well and complex things not so well. The same simple error repeated many times by a computer can have a consequence far worse than a single but larger error created by a human.

Anonymous said...

I was stationed on Hess for most of 1980 as a member of the U.S. Navy Oceanographic Unit which ran the navigation and sonar centers that produced the raw data for the oceanographic charts and other products. All I can say is that the Hess did indeed spend time surveying south of Guam while I was onboard though I don't recall where exactly. I remember we crossed the Marianas Trench on our way to port. Our surveys ran a month at sea and then a week in port. We spent one week in Guam that year--in August, I think. Hottest place I've ever been. I remember our most southern surveys were just north of the equator. We did discover some seamounts while I was onboard but I don't know if any of these were discovered in the time we spent just above the Equator versus some of the more northerly surveys. I have no idea whether our data made it into NOTAMs or new charts but it was certainly supposed to. It would make complete sense to me that an investigation into the SF grounding would include a review of the data Hess produced because the apparent cause of the accident was an unknown seamount and if Hess had indeed surveyed that area and had found that seamount then there would have been some hell to pay inside of NAVOCEANO. I hear what Dennis is saying about priorities but if an uncharted seamount with a summit at a depth less than at least the test depth of our deepest diving boats and less than 400 miles from a frequent submarine port of call wasn't a priority I don't know what is, and the SF incident proves that. I served on a boomer as an officer some time after my enlisted tour on Hess and gained an entirely new appreciation for quality charts after the other crew went aground at a pretty serious depth. In that case the problem wasn't the chart itself but a breakdown in paying attention. The boat suffered some minor equipment and cosmetic damage but was very lucky to have hit a muddy bottom at almost zero bubble while pulling up from a fairly steep dive at standard speed.

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