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At-Sea Wireless Options Continue To Grow

November 2009
By Henry S. Kenyon

The U.S. Navy is outfitting its ships with unclassified wireless networks that will allow sailors and marines to move around a vessel with laptops and personal digital assistants. The program enhances personnel efficiency and saves the expense and time required to install wiring and network connection points on ships. The wireless networks also will permit deployed Marine and Army units to maintain connectivity while in transit.

The Navy’s shipboard wireless network program began limited procurement and fielding this summer with trial deployments aboard a guided missile destroyer and an aircraft carrier prior to equipping the entire fleet. The effort is part of several ongoing programs that are installing classified and unclassified shipboard wireless networks on Navy ships, explains Program Manager Robert Wolborsky with the Navy Tactical Networks Program Office, San Diego. The onboard networks use Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 technology to provide an unclassified wireless interface. This wireless infrastructure is an extension of Navy ships’ wired network, the unclassified integrated shipboard network system (ISNS). The wireless access points are attached to ISNS network connections.

Wolborsky notes that the Navy is expanding its wireless capabilities through efforts to plug these networks into the wired backbones on ships and submarines. This series of wireless installations is being carried out for a variety of reasons, but a major factor is that it allows the Navy flexibility, he says. Many staffs and units embark on Navy ships, and a wireless capability allows them to maintain connectivity without the need to run wires across a ship. Wolborsky adds that there is a cost saving associated with installing a wireless network versus forcing every network access into a hard-wired drop. Other than providing wireless support for Navy personnel aboard ship, it also is imperative that Marine Corps and other service units remain connected while in transit.

The Navy shipboard wireless program’s capabilities will expand across the fleet as part of ISNS. Wireless also is a cornerstone capability and requirement for the Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise Services (CANES) program, which is creating a single network based on off-the-shelf technology and equipment to link all of the Navy’s ships and some shore-based facilities. He explains that all of the Navy’s various wireless programs such as the wireless reach back system (WRBS) or the submarine local area network (SUBLAN) will be integrated into CANES.

Although the program’s initial deployment is underway, some challenges and concerns remain. One key area of concern is security. Wolborsky notes that the wireless systems being fielded are protected by Federal Information Process Standards (FIPS) 140-2 Level 2-accredited encryption modules. While the network is unclassified, it was designed to meet or exceed all U.S. Defense Department security standards. Besides the FIPS-based encryption, the network architecture features defense-in-depth best practices in its security protocols. An authentication protocol only allows access to accredited wireless client devices, and dual security layers prevent unclassified data from being captured and deciphered. “Everything we’re doing is with a focus on making sure we field this capability secure from an information assurance perspective,” he says.

Other related security issues include emissions control, where it may be necessary to shut down all radio frequency emissions on a ship. Navy ships sometimes turn off all emissions to avoid detection when they are operating close to enemy shores. As the wireless system is deployed, Wolborsky says that the program must be mindful of supporting emissions control requirements for ships and submarines. “It’s not like your wireless at home, where you plug it in and you’re good to go. There’s a bunch of additional things that we’re forced to do because we’re putting it in a hardened military environment,” he explains.

Electromagnetic interference (EMI) aboard ships also presents a major challenge to deploying wireless systems. Ships contain many powerful radio frequency emitters operating in close proximity to each other, such as radar and communications systems. Besides jamming other systems, intense radio frequency emissions can cause other problems, such as potentially setting off some types of munitions, Wolborsky shares. To avoid the possibility of EMI issues, the program worked with the various Navy systems groups to ensure that any and all EMI issues were mitigated or avoided by consulting with radio frequency experts and by adhering to Defense Department EMI standards. Although individual laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs) do not emit much in the way of radio frequency signals, Wolborsky notes that dozens of wireless devices can emit as much as a 1,000-watt radio signal.

Wolborsky sees the Navy’s wireless program eventually expanding to portable communications. “Our vision for wireless in the future is to allow sailors to take a PDA and be able to [transmit and receive] voice, video and data from most of the locations on ships and subs,” he says. The goal of the program is to provide more wireless capability to warfighters over time. To seamlessly achieve this future objective, the service must lay the groundwork through its current efforts, he notes. “Over time, we want to be prepared to provide even more relevant capability in the wireless domain, which is why we’re doing all the things we are doing now,” he maintains.

Several ships currently are serving as testbeds for the wireless systems, the destroyer USS Cole and the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. Wolborsky notes that more than 50 U.S. Navy submarines already have a wireless capability provided through the SUBLAN program.

Although the Navy has put considerable effort into developing its shipboard wireless capabilities, Wolborsky emphasizes that a significant part of ships’ infrastructures will remain wired due to mission-critical issues. “You want a certain percentage of your network not be preemptable in any way, shape or form,” he states. But even with heavily wired modern ships, such as aircraft carriers, it is relatively easy to add wireless access points to the network. Although a certain amount of the ship’s systems must remain hard wired, Wolborsky says the addition of wireless networks allows additional systems and capabilities to be added quickly and inexpensively.

Wolborsky says the program undertook a number of surveys and analyses to determine the optimal number of wireless nodes necessary to provide coverage in most vessels. He notes that wireless access is not needed across the entire ship, and that nodes are not necessary in some areas such as machinery spaces.

The Navy’s shipboard wireless program is aligned with other service efforts to install new at-sea network capabilities. Wireless systems will be installed as ships go through their regular equipment refit cycles, Wolborsky says. The program’s test personnel currently are validating all aspects of the effort’s wireless system, from security to performance. “Once it’s validated that we’ve done it right, then it will change to a program of record,” he explains.

The shipboard wireless network program originated from ongoing programs, most notably WRBS, which is designed to support maritime interdiction operations by providing Navy boarding crews with a capability to collect and transmit data.

In areas such as the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, U.S. Navy ships stop and board suspect vessels as part of anti-piracy operations. Before WRBS was developed, Wolborsky explains that boarding crews had to enter a suspect vessel, gather information and then return to their ship to process the data. Besides putting sailors in harm’s way, interdiction missions could affect international commerce by delaying cargo ships from reaching their destinations for extended periods of time. The boarding and data processing procedure often took hours to complete. WRBS was developed to speed up the time needed to verify ship and crew identification.

WRBS fits in a backpack carried aboard by the interdiction team and consists of an AN/SSQ-131 radio and an antenna. When a suspect vessel is boarded, Navy personnel clamp the antenna to the side of the ship to link the team to their warship. The boarding team feeds back registration information and biometric data through the radio via a secure 2.4 gigahertz 802.11 wireless link to the warship where the data is retransmitted to an analyst. “They’re able to execute and prosecute these missions much faster, “ says Wolborsky.

Since the launch of WRBS, the service is using wireless technology to meet other needs including humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief missions. The Navy can deploy a WRBS kit that plugs into the shipboard network to create a secure, nonclassified domain for first responders and other users, allowing them to operate while keeping them separated from the Navy’s nonclassified official-use networks aboard the ship. Multiple users can operate wirelessly through the kit by using it as a connection point. The kit also can be installed on a pier or ashore to meet mission needs.