US Navy & Xbox: Why Use a $38k Joystick When You Can Use a $30 Controller?

The US Navy will begin swapping out expensive periscope joysticks in exchange for off-the-shelf Xbox controllers. 

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

There may be no need to retire your Xbox-playing when reaching adulthood.


The U.S. Navy has begun using Xbox controllers to operate the periscopes on some of their most advanced submarines, replacing an expensive joystick with off-the-shelf game controllers. The price for the typical periscope joystick is $38,000. An Xbox controller? $30.

While the move may appear surprising, it combines two major desires of the US military: capitalizing on the technological skills that people grow up with and reducing costs with off-the-shelf technology. The latest move with using an Xbox controller to operate the periscopes stemmed from a joint effort by the Navy and Lockheed Martin to reduce costs and capitalize on sailors experience with video games. Many sailors are of the age that grew up playing video games. 

“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?’ 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.”-Kyle Leonard, the assistant weapons officer of the USS John Warner, speaking about junior officers and sailors to the Virginian-Pilot

It's no game: The U.S. Navy's most advanced submarines will start using Xbox controllers https://t.co/NFRK6DnrCT

— The Virginian-Pilot (@virginianpilot) September 15, 2017

The Navy recently demonstrated the capability of the Xbox controller aboard the USS John Warner, as it was traveling from its home in Norfolk, Virginia to Groton, Connecticut. According to reporting by the Virginian-Pilot (a newspaper for the US Navy), the Navy has been doing extensive testing for the past two years to make the transition. The expectation is that the Xbox controller will be part of the integrated imaging system for Virginia-class submarines (such as the soon-to-be-commissioned USS Colorado). 

The periscope aboard subs like the USS John Warner is much more advanced than the popular image of periscopes typically displayed in movies and TV shows. Instead of the rotating tube where one person is looking out at a time, Virginia-class submarines are outfitted with high-resolution cameras that are displaying images on large monitors to multiple people inside of the control room. Two photonics masts that rotate 360 degrees are controlled by a helicopter-style joystick. And soon, an Xbox controller.

The #Navy's most advanced submarines will soon be using #Xbox controllers https://t.co/eD9zWvxRRE

— Louis-Marie FUSCO (@LMFusco) September 21, 2017

Why Is This Important?

The Xbox controller is just the start of transitioning submarines to better reflect and take advantage of the technological experience of sailors. Outside of the Xbox controllers in exchange of the unpopular and expensive helicopter joysticks, the Navy also envisions outfitting submarines with the iPads and touchscreens that many sailors also have experience with. 

It is a way to make the operation of a Navy sub more intuitive for a tech-savvy generation.

According to Senior Chief Mark Eichenlaub, the USS John Warner’s assistant navigator, this is part of an effort to capitalize on the technological experiences of sailors and make the operating the features on a sub more intuitive. “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," said Eichenlaub, speaking to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. He envisions an experience reminiscent of the movie Minority Report, where Tom Cruise's character effortlessly interacted with glass panels full of information. "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,” he continued. 

There is of course another major benefit of incorporating off-the-shelf technologies like Xbox controllers and iPads within the US Navy and other areas of the military. As we know from cracked smartphones or drawer full of unworkable gadgets, tech is prone to needed a replacement. But for subs of the future, they may no longer need a new $38,000 helicopter-style joystick. They may just need to buy an Xbox controller from Amazon. 

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