When most people think of submarine periscopes, they tend to picture a shaft extending down from the ceiling the sub’s bridge, through which the captain may peer out over the surface of the water, spinning the periscope with his body, as he moves left to right.  The reality of modern periscopes, however, is quite a bit more advanced.  Sailors in America’s Virginia Class nuclear submarines control the two photonics masts on their vessel using a joystick that was specially designed for use on the ship, displaying the 360-degree camera views on large monitors that everyone in the control room can see.

The joystick in use by the U.S. Navy has two drawbacks, however, and the first is the price.  One periscope control joystick in a Virginia class submarine rings in at a lofty $38,000 – making replacing a damaged or malfunctioning joystick a formidable line item.  The second problem is that, despite how much money the Navy spends on these joysticks, the sailors tasked with using them say they aren’t all that good.

The Navy got together and they asked a bunch of J.O.s and junior guys, ‘What can we do to make your life better?’” said Lt. Kyle Leonard, the USS John Warner’s assistant weapons officer. “And one of the things that came out is the controls for the scope. It’s kind of clunky in your hand; it’s real heavy.”

The Navy took those concerns and brought them to Lockheed Martin, as the Navy had already been working with the contractor to find more ways to integrate off the shelf technology into America’s war fighting apparatus.  Off the shelf gear offers a number of benefits, including a significant reduction in development costs, as well as a ready supply of replacement parts whenever they’re needed.  That effort resulted in a solution that many sailors will likely embrace thanks to their existing familiarity: an X-Box 360 controller.

A sailor tests using an Xbox controller at a lab in northern Virginia.

Starting with the USS Colorado, slated to be commissioned next November, Virginia class submarines will come equipped with the video game controller as a part of an integrated imaging system that will control the periscope.  Older subs will also see the X-box controllers installed on their periscope platforms when they rotate in for modernizations or repairs.

Because many sailors are already familiar with the layout of the X-Box controller, Lockheed found that most were intuitively able to master the controls of the periscope in lab settings within minutes, and without significant instruction.  This level of usability benefits sailors from a training standpoint, but can also reduce stress in hectic combat situations.  Those tasked with manning the existing joysticks must undergo hours of training in how to properly operate it before being allowed to do so at sea.

Perhaps most importantly, the adoption of the X-Box 360 controller represents a massive reduction in production costs for the periscope control suite.  While the existing joy stick costs $38,000 per unit, the Navy procured its X-Box controllers for $30 a piece, and can replace them using off the shelf controllers at any time if an issue ever arose.

That joystick is by no means cheap, and it is only designed to fit on a Virginia-class submarine,” said Senior Chief Mark Eichenlaub, the John Warner’s assistant navigator. “I can go to any video game store and procure an Xbox controller anywhere in the world, so it makes a very easy replacement.”

This is merely one step in a larger modernization process that is focusing on simplicity and familiarity for the sailors manning the bridge.

“Ideally, what they want to see in 10 years down the road is, there’s basically a glass panel display with windows, and you can just pull a window of information, review that, push it off, bring in the next window,” Eichenlaub said.  “They want to bring in sailors with what they have at home on their personal laptop, their personal desktop, what they grew up with in a classroom.”


Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia