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Underwater Communications Rise to Surface Fleet

December 2011
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine
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The Navy hopes to move common radio rooms from submarines to warships.

The U.S. Navy is in the early stages of an endeavor to duplicate a successful program for upgrading the communications centers of its submarines and apply it to surface warships.

The goal is to achieve savings and efficiencies through the use of state-of-the-art automation in communications gear and to improve the use of manpower on the nation’s warships. The Common Radio Room (CRR) project also is expected to help bring older vessels up to the same capabilities, enabling them to use Internet-protocol-based tools in combat situations.

“It’s an effort to try to replicate what the submarine community has done with the Common Submarine Radio Room (CSRR), [but] on the surface side,” says Capt. Ken Ritter, USN, CRR program manager, Program Executive Office, Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (PEO-C4I). The CSRR program concluded in 2008 with the successful installation of upgraded radio rooms in Virginia-class, Ohio-class and Seawolf-class submarines. (See “Common Capabilities Link the Undersea Fleet,” SIGNAL, December 2007.)

“Design and engineer once, replicate many times,” could be considered a working mantra for the project, declares Capt. Ritter.

The captain, who directs CRR development from the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic (SPAWAR Atlantic) in Charleston, South Carolina, says that just as with the CSRR, the main intent is to “develop a common architecture primarily in our external communications suites aboard the various ship classes that are being built.”

It is an “effort to change the way we do things currently,” Capt Ritter explains. Much of the work of developing the CRR standard, he says, is taking place concurrently with development and implementation of authorized programs of record for a wide range of state-of-the-art communications equipment slated for installation in a variety of ships in the very near future.

The CRR program is being conducted at the behest of Rear Adm. David Lewis, USN, the head of the Navy’s PEO Ships, to determine if the success of the CSRR program can be captured a second time for both fleet combat ships and vessels under construction for the Military Sealift Command. The idea is that in determining a base configuration for shipboard communications gear, regardless of class, the Navy can save money at a time when future budgets are expected to be tight.

Capt. Ritter outlines three pillars of the CRR project: Provide a common, scalable communications architecture across a portfolio of ships; reduce the variation, or variants, in the hardware and software found in different ship classes and make them more common among each other; and introduce modernization to meet manpower requirements and reduce the workload for the crew.

By developing a common communications platform, Capt. Ritter explains, “You reduce the logistics, training and technical requirements associated with supporting those ships once you’re in the fleet. Anything we can do to reduce our total ownership costs in the long run will help reduce our operating costs to the fleet.”

With more and more information-technology-based communications equipment helping to relay tactical data between decision makers and ship commanders, Capt. Ritter says, another goal is to reduce the time and expense behind training ship crews to operate radio rooms, which often serve as information technology hubs at sea.

“If we can ensure that our ships are more common, we can make sure that their jobs are a little easier. For the most part, they are similar, but we can always improve on that.”

Another key to the success of the CRR concept is implementing newly developed automation systems that allow information technology specialists on board to do more with fewer crewmembers.

“The operations and functions that our radiomen do are currently very manpower intensive,” Capt. Ritter says. “As you know, the Navy is looking at ways to reduce manning or reduce workload.” That will become even more important in classes of warships and support vessels still on the drawing board, because future ship designs are expected to reflect mandates to reduce crew levels.

Concurrent with the advantages of using the same equipment across different classes of warships is the cost efficiency of also using common software applications across different ships—one of the key lessons learned from the success of the CSRR.

Currently, myriad software platforms support different and often incompatible configurations of equipment and applications aboard surface warships.

As an example, Capt. Ritter explains, the selection of a variety of contractors has resulted in different software packages for variants of the littoral combat ships—a new class of vessels designed to operate both in the open ocean and in shallow areas close to the coastline. Raytheon, developer of the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers, of which the first ship in the class is now being constructed, is designing another configuration of communications equipment and software unlike any currently being used in the Navy, says Capt. Ritter.

In addition, he explains, another variation of radio room automation, known as the Automated Radio Configuration system, was developed aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) and deployed on several destroyers on a trial basis. While the results of the automation project have been deemed successful, Capt. Ritter says the system adds another configuration that is incompatible with the communications systems deployed on other ships in the fleet.

Compare that, he says, with nuclear attack submarines that have benefited from the work done in standardizing hardware and software requirements on the CSRR. These submarines have one software version that was developed by the prime contractor for that project, Lockheed Martin.

“There’s a tremendous amount of reuse, and from a sustainment and supportability standpoint, it’s very affordable to maintain software for SSGN-class, SSBN-class and Virginia-class [submarines], and I believe they’re preparing to launch a version for the Los Angeles class.”

Capt. Ritter stresses that the CRR for surface warships does not operate with a fixed allocation of funding during this early stage of the prototype design program. The Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance, N-2/N-6, is the current resource sponsor for the CRR project.

The fiscal year 2010 budget, he says, included $1.6 million in research and development funding “to develop automation software that we could use aboard surface ships.”

Capt. Ritter explains that, “Using a broad agency announcement, we asked industry [members] their views on how they would develop the technology primarily from an automation standpoint, and we put out a bid for contracting.”

The office awarded contracts to Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins, Lockheed Martin and L-3. The captain says that at this time, his organization is receiving the results of the companies’ work and evaluating their findings.

The goal, he says, is to take the companies’ results from this early phase of the program and begin introducing elements of the CRR architecture, working with the PEO C4I’s resource sponsors and shipbuilding program managers. At the same time, a more comprehensive CRR specification will be finalized for future upgrade programs and ships still on the drawing board.

In the future, Capt. Ritter says, this work to develop a CRR architecture for surface warships will make it possible to introduce new communications equipment more readily and cost effectively as it was done on submarines. The common architecture enables it to plug and play the new gear into a standard configuration, instead of taking the time and expense to custom-install new gear.

In the meantime, Capt. Ritter says, he continues to collaborate with his counterparts who are still working on the CSRR project to try to copy their successful model.

WEB RESOURCES
SPAWAR Atlantic: www.public.navy.mil/spawar/Atlantic/Pages/Home.aspx
U.S. Navy PEO C4I: www.public.navy.mil/spawar/peoc4i/pages/default.aspx
U.S. Navy PEO SHIPS: www.navsea.navy.mil/teamships/teamships/PEOShips.aspx