Navy Warships Are Going Wireless

What do the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) and USS The Sullivans (DDG 68) have in common?

Both are test platforms for a unique approach to the Navy's Smart Ship Program. They have been participants COTS (commercial off-the-shelf technology) installed in selected vessels to determine if this approach can justify fleet-wide implementation - specifically to test a wireless local area network (LAN).

The Sullivans received its wireless LAN installation in 1998. It functions as an extension of the ship's fiber-optic, unclassified administrative network. Thirty base stations throughout the ship connect 99 percent of the ship's interior with no external emissions to impact emissions control (EMCON). Any computer with a standard wireless PCMCIA card can access the LAN from virtually anywhere in the ship. Twenty-five wearable computers are also part of the system.

The wearable computers are standard PCs packaged differently. A belt holds a battery pack, pods for the central processing unit, hard drive, PCMCIA cards, and pouches to hold the monitor and other input/output devices. The monitor is a PDA look-alike - a 5 x 7 tablet with color monitor and power switch. A stylus is the input tool. A headset and camera, normally stored in a pouch, can also be attached to the computer. The Wearable PCs typically run on Windows.

The Sullivans was also designated as a test platform for electronic Combat Systems Operational Sequencing System (CSOSS). The NAVSEA CSOSS program managers expected the ship to test use of the diagrams and casualty control procedures on a desktop from Combat Systems Maintenance Central. The Navy technicians quickly discovered that the wearable PCs allowed them to jump straight from procedure to diagram, and to keep a procedure active from space to space, instead of constantly reentering the manual.

Casualty control had perhaps the greatest impact from the wearable PCs. When several interconnectivity problems arose, the sailors quickly resolved them, and complained bitterly when they had to revert to manual or desktop/CD-ROM based systems.

Computer-Based Virtual Test Equipment became the sailor's best friend. A technician attaches test leads to his wearable PC, and his computer acts as a digital multimeter, oscilloscope and ammeter. This use can replace over 350 pieces of General Purpose Electronic Test Equipment on a DDG51-class ship. Furthermore, the system requires no calibration, which eliminates countless hours of downtime for test equipment at an off-ship calibration lab.

The Bonhomme Richard was so pleased with its test installation that it spent limited OPTAR funding to expand its minimal installation.

Prior to deployment on every ship, the Navy currently installs the IT-21, a backbone system based on optical cables throughout the ship. Program managers apparently see this system as superior to the wireless LAN tested on The Sullivans and Bonhomme Richard. The irony is that by including a wireless LAN as part of the IT-21 installation, much of the peripheral optical cable runs could be eliminated, with the savings being applied to purchase the COTS wireless LAN. The overall cost would be less, and the overall utility would be much greater.

One could argue that the best measure of effectiveness for these systems is that the sailors actually liked and used them in preference to older systems. When you can get more for your money, and get increased utilization and resulting better combat performance, installing these wireless LANS throughout the fleet is a no-brainer.