Military Embedded Systems

Shipboard electronics leverage commercial technology


September 10, 2013

As technology and requirements evolve, the U.S. Navy is leveraging commercial technology and open architectures to keep shipboard electronics relevant in the 21st century. This also serves to enhance capability for the warfighter in new platforms such as the Littoral Combat Ship and in new systems such as the Air and Missile Defense Radar.

These aren’t your father’s warships anymore. The information age has brought with it a marketplace of electronics, networking, and technology that is expanding at a breakneck pace, and the U.S. Navy is doing everything it can to keep up – and keep the young sailors deploying on their ships from becoming frustrated with outdated shipboard electronics.

It is no small task, and the quest to keep shipboard electronics both up-to-date and moving forward into the 21st century is a multifaceted effort. This ranges from introducing brand new systems that completely redefine how the Navy does things aboard its ships to figuring out how best to use systems that are already out there.

New electronics, new platforms

One of the newer classes of ships, the Lockheed Martin-built Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship, illustrates just what kinds of new electronics are available for modern vessels. According to Lockheed, the ship boasts an Intelligent System Manager, which manages the ship’s propulsion, electric plant, and other systems. The ship’s combat system integrates radar, electro-optical infrared cameras, a gun fire control system, countermeasures, and anti-air missiles. It also features a system that uses lasers to monitor machinery health and detect contamination.

Other new vessels, like the Joint High-Speed Vessel and the CVN-78 aircraft carrier, also boast many new systems that were unavailable just a few years ago and allow sailors to utilize digital displays and more automated systems. However, getting the most out of shipboard electronics isn’t just about the latest whiz-bang technology. It’s also trying to figure out ways to use currently available technology in the most efficient manner, which is why the Navy is also looking to solutions in the commercial sector that could be adapted for military use.

Leveraging commercial technology

Experts at the Dahlgren Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia are currently working on such applications. “Basically, the stuff we’re working on is looking at how to utilize commercial technologies and apply them to the shipboard environment, which is very different from a commercial workout,” says Phil Irey, Lead Computer Scientist at the Dahlgren Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia. “There are similarities in that you have got to have properly cooled rooms to run these electronics in, but given the adverse conditions that you have at sea and in constrained spaces, a lot of times it’s a lot more challenging.”

There are also the issues of shock and vibration that most commercial electronics do not have to deal with, although electronics slated for the airborne environment can be more easily adapted to naval use. The challenge for the Navy is being flexible and agile enough to keep pace with the processing capabilities that are constantly expanding in the commercial world, Irey says.

“We used to build all that stuff, custom electronics, back in the ’70s into the ’80s, but we found that we just couldn’t keep pace,” he says. “With the cost savings you got from the large audience who would buy those commercial products, you couldn’t afford to build your own things.” Networking and computing are two major areas where that applies, “because both of those are things that we traditionally do ourselves,” he adds.

The Navy used to have dozens of parallel cables running from point to point between systems, which was not a very flexible system and very difficult to scale. Now the Navy is moving toward commercial Ethernet technologies, which provide high performance and are lightweight.

Open architectures

The Service’s push toward open architectures – systems that are based on software and thus flexible and easier to upgrade than hardware-based systems – is helping create a more agile Navy, Irey says. The ability to interchange components because of the adherence to defined standards is a huge benefit to the Service, he adds.

“We have switches that we can easily change out … whereas in the past, we had to do a very complex replacement trying to find the exact copies of stuff that only we had created,” Irey continues. “So it was very difficult to find spares. Now, we just upgrade with commercial equivalents of things.”

There’s still the challenge of making the electronics rugged enough to hold up in a maritime environment, but the Navy has figured out a few tricks in recent years. “When we adapted these electronics to the shipboard environment, we used to try to ruggedize the commercial components,” Irey says. “What we’ve kind of moved to now is ruggedizing the enclosures and kind of putting the commercial equipment inside the ruggedized enclosures.” That has the additional advantage of allowing the Navy to reuse the containers for other components, he adds.

System consolidation

The Navy also sees consolidating systems as an important step in improving the shipboard electronic environment, according to Isaac Porche, Associate Director for the Force Development and Technology program at RAND Corporation. “For ships in general, their issues are not so much the trends; it’s the ability to refresh because of the nature of Information Technology (IT) – not including ship’s radars and Aegis systems and really complex stuff,” he says. “The biggest issue is how to get technology refresh rates. … Once you deploy on a ship, there are a lot of barriers to refreshing that tech. The Navy is aware and trying to do something about it.”

Probably the most significant effort is the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES), which would take the numerous networking and enterprise systems aboard ships and consolidate them. The idea behind CANES is “let’s not do a server for every application on the ship,” Porche says. “If there’s any trend, it’s pushing toward consolidation and open architecture.”

If you were to compare an old-model DDG-51 destroyer to the newly deployed Littoral Combat Ship, the difference between the electronics aboard the ships would be “night and day,” he continues. “On the new ships, contractors can come in and put in an entire system. Older flights of Burkes will have tape drives. There’s nothing consolidated. It has old operating systems. Anything in the last five years is drastically different from legacy classes.”


The Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) – slated for Flight III DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers – is one of the Navy’s highest-profile overhauls of shipboard electronics to date (Figure 1). Captain Doug Small, AMDR Program Manager, says it will make the inner workings of the ship look a lot different from the Arleigh Burkes that premiered in the fleet decades ago.


Figure 1: Future versions of the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers will use the Air and Missile Defense Radar to provide a simultaneous ballistic missile defense and air defense sensor capability. Pictured is the USS Michael Murphy, photo courtesy of U.S. Navy.

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)




Right now, the program is transitioning from the end of technology into engineering and manufacturing development with source selection underway. When all is said and done, AMDR, which is essentially a suite of two radars: S-band (SPY-1) and X-band (SPQ-9), will provide the Navy with a simultaneous ballistic missile defense and air defense sensor capability. Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon are each leading a team competing for AMDR, which is expected to be awarded this year.

Small says it will be an active array that sits where the SPY-1 radar sits today on the ship, although it will be a bit bigger by about a foot on each side with about 14 feet of active aperture area. The software that controls the two radars will interface directly with the Aegis Weapon System currently aboard destroyers.

“The AMDR will be driven by the combat system,” Small says. The Navy decided to bring on a new sensor system like AMDR because it was the “lowest-risk, quickest way to get this capability to the fleet to do the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and air defense,” he adds.

As far as the crew is concerned, AMDR represents the next generation of shipboard electronics in that maintenance will be much simpler and less dependent on regular monitoring. “It’ll take fewer sailors,” Small says. “[Training] is quite a bit reduced, and as far as on the operations side … it will be the same look and feel.”

On the inside, things will look a bit different. All of the radio frequency components that transmit and receive, the power supplies, and everything else are mounted behind radiating elements, so the equipment on the deck is mostly computers, Small says.

On the other hand, while current SPY-1 radar setups have a lot of computers to drive the system, there also are racks of equipment in the radar rooms along with transmitting elements. Sailors won’t have to deal with that with AMDR. “It’s all up in the array,” Small says. “That’s the beauty of a modern active array radar – more than 30 times the radar capability” of older systems, but in a smaller footprint. The first ship to get AMDR is the second DDG-51 authorized in fiscal 2016, and the radar for that ship will arrive in 2019, he adds. However, new shipboard electronics technology has a drawback – outfitting it on older ships like first-flight DDG-51s is often cost-prohibitive, and AMDR is no different. “The ship impact would be considerable,” Small says. “It’s quite a different layout and footprint and all that sort of stuff. It would be a pretty invasive backfit on a ship.”