Aboard the Navy's high-tech pioneer, the USS Freedom

By David Ramel, Computerworld |  IT Management, US Navy

Monte Johnson has many of the same concerns running his IT shop that most managers have, but with a few extras thrown in -- like being blown out of the water by a missile.

Johnson is the go-to IT guy aboard the USS Freedom, one of the Navy's newest and most technologically advanced ships. Technically an Information Systems Technician 1st Class (E6/IT1), Johnson's effectively the IT manager in charge of maintaining the computers, networks and applications that control the ship's myriad pieces of high-tech equipment. That includes modules that control unmanned helicopters and underwater and surface vessels, a missile launcher, decoy systems and a cannon -- gear not found in civilian shops.

Overall, the Freedom is a brand new type of ship: the Navy's first-ever Littoral Combat Ship (LCS 1). This class of ship is made for coastal areas, and can operate in less than 20 feet of water. The Freedom is relatively small -- 377 feet in length -- and has a core crew of only about 40.

The LCS program has been criticized for major cost overruns. In fact, during Congressional testimony in January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates specifically mentioned the ship as one of the military programs that has suffered "contract or program performance problems" during development. And former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain mentioned the LCS program as an example of excessive cost overruns during a debate with then-Sen. Barack Obama.

However, advocates defend the program as important for the Navy's future. Commissioned last November, the Freedom is designed to work with multiple "mission modules," which provide most of the ship's combat capability and can be swapped in and out, with different equipment and personnel. This is true whether the task is hunting submarines, neutralizing mines or combating surface ships that operate close to shore.

Johnson proudly showed off his, well, ship-shape IT shop during a recent port call in Boston. Working with one other IT technician, he maintains networks with more than 9,000 components, including 40 servers in eight server cases, 60 switches, 20 routers, an 84-unit VoIP phone system, machinery plant controls, damage control systems, cameras, sensors, radars and much more. It's all tied together by more than 100 miles of electrical and fiber-optic cables.

Mirror-image redundancy

Johnson pointed out that "everything is connected and redundant," reflecting the special needs of a fighting ship. That's important when you may be sailing into harm's way and sustaining battle damage. "You could have pretty much three-quarters of the network go down and still be able to function," he said.

The redundancy is most striking on the bridge -- the ship's nerve center and control station -- which looks like a mirror reflection. The left and right sides of the small compartment have the exact same controls, consoles and other equipment in the exact same layout. "Half of the bridge could go down and you still have the same exact functionality on the other side," Johnson said.

More redundancy is illustrated in a compartment called Central Control System (CCS). This is where the ship can be controlled if necessary, rather than from the bridge. With no windows to the outside world, steering is accomplished via an elaborate system of more than 38 closed-circuit TV cameras. The station sports the same joystick controls as those on the bridge, which let the operator direct the speed and direction of the ship. Johnson joked that any Digital Age kid would probably feel totally comfortable maneuvering the ship with the joystick, which closely resembles those found on some gaming systems.

Also included in the CCS are duplications of consoles on the bridge, where the Readiness Control Officer can monitor the overall status of the ship's systems and direct damage control and other functions.

With advanced integration, automation and redundancy, "there's not a lot of maintenance I have to do," Johnson said. But he noted that being responsible for 85% to 90% of the ship's systems -- and even acting as the help desk guy -- keeps him plenty busy.

Johnson has a lot of experience and training to rely on. He has worked with computers for about 10 of the 12 years he has been in the Navy and has all the pertinent certifications from Microsoft and Cisco, including the Microsoft Certified Trainer certificate. At his last command, he was an IT academy instructor.

That may be why he's posted to what is probably one of the plum onboard IT positions in the Navy. As the ship's public affairs officer, Lt. j.g. William Ben Tisdale, put it, "This is the first ship of its class, and you're looking at a guy who's the forerunner, basically paving the way for how things are going to be."

Johnson does share IT duties with other information systems technicians, since the Freedom has two wholly separate crews -- Blue and Gold -- that take turns manning the ship. The alternate crew has two information systems technicians of its own.

A new level of automation

Johnson couldn't do what he does without state-of-the art automation. Pointing out that he was previously stationed on aircraft carriers that needed about 80 IT people alone, he said that on the Freedom, "one person running the whole thing or two people running the whole thing, that's pretty significant." The ship is so automated that as few as nine sailors could operate the entire ship if necessary.

One example of this automation is the Main Propulsion Communication Management System, which lets one person remotely control valves, monitors, engines and other equipment for fire suppression and other functions. "I thought that was pretty impressive," Johnson said. "You can shut a valve off with the push of a button from a console, shut off water, turn on water, turn on lights, shut off lights." On other ships, people have to go find a valve, for example, and manually crank it on or off.

Jeanine Matthews also identified automation as one of the most significant technological advancements found on the Freedom. She is the director of business development for the Littoral Combat Ship program at Lockheed Martin Corp., the prime contractor in the consortium that built the ship.

Matthews noted that automation enables "minimal manning" of ships, which has been a goal of the Navy since the late 1990s, primarily to cut operational costs. A guided missile frigate is similar in size to the Freedom but has a crew of more than 200. "So you can imagine salaries, benefits and everything else for 200 people versus 45 people," she said. "That's a pretty significant difference."

When that number of people is multiplied by the number of LCSs, or "platforms," in Navy-speak, it becomes clear that "instead of having 200 people on one platform, I basically have enough crew for four LCSs. So I can really increase my capabilities," Matthews added.

Besides the automated machinery plant, the ship's networks interface with modules that control more exotic components, such as unmanned vehicles that travel in the air, under the sea and on the surface. The networks also control decoy launching systems, an electronic surveillance system, a combat data system, a rolling airframe missile system, a 57mm gun, several radar systems and the ship's Voyage Management System.

The VMS takes data from GPS, radar and other inputs to display the ship's position on an electronic chart along with nearby landforms and surface vessels. It can also control the ship. "You can chart where you want to go, when you want to do it, what turns you want, and when and where. Set it to autopilot, and the ship will automatically drive to each track that you told it to go to," Johnson said. "It's pretty amazing. It drives by itself."

Where the action is

One of the best examples of minimal manning is apparent in the heart of the ship, called Mission Control Central (MCC). Public tours don't go through there, and the Navy is very sensitive about people bringing cameras in, even if they're turned off -- something Tisdale made sure of.

The compartment is chock-full of all kinds of displays, consoles, controls and other equipment.

If things were to get serious -- for example, several people have noted that this ship would be ideal for combating the naval pirates who are hijacking ships off the coast of Africa -- MCC is where the action would be. The station is usually manned by a crew of four, while on other ships, perhaps up to 20 people would be required to accomplish the same tasks.

"This is the heart of combat, I guess you could say," Johnson said, "where you track air targets, surface targets, all your air search radar and everything. All the sensor data comes from antennas topside down here to these consoles via our networks and displays what's going on outside of the ship -- if they're good guys, if they're bad guys, if they're ships, if they're airplanes. It will give exactly where they're at, who they are, if it's a cargo ship . . . it gives you all that information from here."

And if bad guys are detected, one person in MCC can quickly plot a firing solution for the 57mm cannon at one console, for example, and immediately move to another to direct fire. Again, on other ships, multiple people are required for the same function. The cannon can use programmable ammunition set to explode near a target or penetrate the vessel and then explode -- another first for the Navy -- at a range of up to seven miles. "So you definitely don't want to be on the other end of that one," Tisdale said. MCC is also where missile launches are controlled.

MCC operates with a combination of networks. "You've got your LAN classified and unclassified networks in each space that are all connected together," Johnson said. "And then also you have your navigation systems, which run through the unclassified and classified networks. But then they also have navigation inputs from a different local-area network or a different enclave."

The ship is also unique in that it's prepared to interface with the different mission modules for instant network connectivity. The ship is optimized for three different types of missions: combating mines, diesel submarines in shallow water and surface craft. Depending on the mission, modules are swapped in -- and each module comes with its own equipment and crew.

"They get their power, and then they've got all your connectivity, RJ45 and Cat 5, for their Internet and to interface with the Freedom's network," Johnson said. "So they'll be able from there to get their Internet and log into their domain and all the networks and do what they need to do." That includes controlling all the unmanned vehicles. "They can communicate via their network interface with my network through their antennas. They plug in and boot up, and rock and roll."

The Freedom is the first Navy ship to have such interchangeable modules for multimission capability, said Tisdale.

Going off-the-shelf for some systems

Surprisingly, the ship uses an open architecture and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computing equipment, including Windows 2000 servers, Cisco VoIP phones and the Avaya Call Management System. "We did that for a couple of reasons," said Lockheed Martin's Matthews.

"This is the fastest a ship has gone from a design to operational in the history of the Navy. To do that, we needed systems that were really off the shelf," Matthews said. It took about six and a half years for that process, she said, roughly half the time usually required. Also, going the COTS route lets the Navy easily update the systems as advancements are made in the general civilian IT industry.

Yet another innovation on the ship is the first-ever Navy application of powerful Rolls-Royce gas turbines derived from the engines used on the Boeing 777. Along with two diesel engines, themselves derived from railroad locomotives, they power four water jets to provide unmatched speed and handling.

The ship's one-of-a-kind water-jet propulsion system lifts the semi-planing monohull up out of the water at high speed, which can be more than 45 knots (about 52 mph). It can hit that speed in less than two minutes. The water jets also allow the ship to move sideways at 1 knot and, while stationary, rotate in a complete circle in just three minutes. The Navy says the 5-foot-diameter water jets combined pump more than 12 million gallons of water per minute, "equivalent to draining an Olympic-size swimming pool in three seconds."

With all the high-tech advancements on the ship, it's incongruous that it has a painfully slow Internet connection while at sea. The crew can access the Web and use e-mail while under way, Johnson said, but the connection to the Internet is through a slow Inmarsat satellite service. "Unfortunately, on this ship, we have a 128Kbit/sec. connection out through the Inmarsat to the satellite," he said. "Yeah, so it's pretty slow. It works. Everything works fine, it's just I wish it was faster. Everybody wishes it was faster."

Even with the slow connection, Tisdale is busy with his video camera, which he uses to continually post video updates to the Navy's Web site. The Navy is even utilizing "new media" in an effort to broaden its audience, Tisdale said, and is posting videos to sites such as YouTube.

Besides the slow Internet connection, another surprise was the lack of operational Wi-Fi networks. Matthews said wireless networking wasn't a requirement from the Navy, but "we put it in there because we thought . . . if there were other LCSs in the area that one of the ways you could communicate would be using a wireless network. So instead of just having radio circuits for your own voice communication, if I had a wireless, I could have a whiteboard going, I could have a chat or collaboration so that the coordination of more than one LCS could be facilitated."

With no other LCSs yet online, though, that wireless scenario hasn't been tested. And the question of how many more LCSs will be built -- if any -- hasn't been decided.

One other LCS is being built by General Dynamics, in competition with Lockheed Martin to win a final contract from the Navy for more ships. The Navy contracted with both companies to build two prototypes each. The Navy will then have the option of going with one company for the rest of the ships it orders or even splitting up the order and contracting for more ships from each company. It hasn't said which course it will take, if either.

Some reports have indicated that the Navy wants up to 55 LCSs. But development of a second Lockheed Martin ship and yet another General Dynamics ship was stopped in 2007 by the government because of much higher costs than were estimated.

Matthews said Lockheed Martin was in negotiations with the Navy to continue the program and has submitted a proposal to move forward.

Meanwhile, the Freedom is now in Norfolk, Va., where it will undergo tests and sea trials before sailing to its home port in San Diego next year. On the trip to Norfolk from Marinette, Wis., where it was built, it made a series of public relations stopovers in the Great Lakes area and on the East Coast to show off its capabilities and technological advancements highlighted by integration, redundancy, open architecture and, especially, automation.

The ship is so automated, Johnson said during a tour of the topside deck in Boston, that the big barrels holding the lifeboats are about the only things on the ship that need to be handled manually -- that and flushing the toilets, added Johnson and Tisdale at nearly the same time, with laughs.

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