Human error and the limits of undersea technology appear to have caused the USS San Francisco submarine to collide with an undersea “seamount” or mountain in the Pacific south of Guam in 2005.
The tragedy is remembered because the crash resulted in the death of one sailor and injury to as many as 97 crewmembers.
The Wrong Set of Charts for USS San Francisco
What could have gone wrong?
There appears to be a blend of circumstances, variables, or causes responsible for the incident, one of which suggests human error.
A Navy investigation found that the submarine was traveling at maximum speed at a depth of 525 feet when it struck the seamount, a structure not on the charts being used by submarine commanders.
The service’s analysis of the crash found that submarine commanders “should have known” the undersea mountain was there based on “charts in their possession which indicated a navigational hazard in the area,” a 2021 CNN article explained.
“If San Francisco’s leaders and watch teams had complied with requisite procedures and exercised prudent navigation practices, the grounding would most likely have been avoided,” the Navy report said, as quoted in the CNN article. “Even if not wholly avoided, however, the grounding would not have been as severe and loss of life may be been prevented.”
At the same time, it is also well known that, in the absence of GPS or any high-frequency radio, submarines undersea can often face navigational challenges, something which has been lessened through the advent of new undersea navigation technologies.
Advances in Undersea Navigation
Using advanced computing, the depth and speed are automatically set and managed by a system managed and overseen by human commanders performing command and control.
The navigation system uses a joystick and automated controls to ensure accurate navigation, a system that improves safety without removing human decision-making from key elements of the process.
Advanced sonar can also work as a forward-sensor to survey the undersea environment and possibly identify hazards, obstacles, or potential sources of collision.
However, the CNN article makes the point that emitting an acoustic signature of any kind can of course give away a submarine’s position.
Nevertheless, it seems conceivable that sonar scanning could be adjusted depending upon the particular environment the boat was operating in, meaning that sonar could be turned off in a high-threat environment and used only as needed.
There are also “passive” sonar technologies that merely “listen” for signals and seek to identify certain threats. These sonar applications may not detect underwater terrain, mountains, or ridges to the full necessary extent but they can often identify the presence of enemy threats. Acoustic sensors work very much like radar, yet use sound waves.
Signals are sent out to hit or bounce off undersea objects, generating a return signature that can give submarine crews a “rendering” or image of any given threat object.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University