The Navy gradually wants to do away with decades-old proprietary combat-system
software and replace it with a modern “open architecture.” A changeover
from “milspec” Navy-unique systems to a commercial computing environment
would be costly, but in the long run could save billions of dollars, proponents
say. More importantly, officials claim that an open architecture would help
the Navy improve the capabilities of the Aegis combat system for future missile-defense
An open architecture is what technologists call a “plug and play”
computing environment, one that allows for easy upgrades of software applications,
without having to reengineer a warship’s entire combat system. “The
analogy is that when you get a new refrigerator, you don’t need to worry
about testing the sink and everything else,” said one industry expert.
In a Navy that spends billions of dollars annually upgrading proprietary software,
an open architecture is viewed as a ticket to big-time savings.
Critics caution, however, that a certain amount of “hype” surrounding
open architecture may drown out concerns about whether the Navy can afford to
pay for new combat-system computers, while keeping the Aegis fleet ready for
war and meeting its missile-defense commitments. By 2005, the Navy is expected
to deploy 18 anti-ballistic missile Aegis warships—three cruisers and
In charge of developing a plan to introduce open-architecture computers in
the Navy by 2010 is a new organization created last year, the program executive
office for integrated warfare systems. The PEO-IWS is working with 49 large
and small companies to develop standards and protocols that eventually will
underpin every computer system in the fleet.
Open architecture is “the right way to go” for the Navy, said Rear
Adm. C. Tom Bush, the head of PEO-IWS. “We need to stop building proprietary
The proliferation of unique “proprietary” computing environments
in the fleet rapidly is driving up the cost of upgrading and maintaining software.
Even a minor upgrade can become hugely complex and require extensive testing,
given what is at stake. Even a one-digit error in a software program can result
in unintended but deadly consequences, such as misdirecting a Tomahawk cruise
Bush believes that an open architecture can help make those upgrades easier
and less costly, saving the Navy at least $1 billion a year (about 50 percent
of the service’s annual expenditures on software upgrades).
“On a good day, when something needs an upgrade, it requires seven to
28 changes,” Bush said. “We can’t build a combat system for
every ship. But we can build a single architecture.”
Another benefit of open architecture is “interoperability,” said
Rear Adm. Henry G. Ulrich III, director of naval surface warfare. “The
business model we have now and the architecture we have now are driving us away
from interoperability, not only with our allies but amongst ourselves. ... The
current technology, which is not compatible with anything else, drives up the
cost of producing and upgrading software.”
The Navy’s director of open architecture is Tom Pendergraft, a career
combat-system engineer. Upon taking the job only a few months ago, he quickly
learned that bringing open architecture to the Navy is less about technology
and engineering than about “culture and business models changing,”
he said in an interview.
The enormous expense associated with software upgrades and a desire to improve
the current technology make it imperative for the Navy to begin migrating to
open architecture, he said. Upgrading the Aegis combat system on average can
cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Not only can the service not afford these
prices, but, in many cases, the computers have been upgraded so much already
that their capacity to grow has been exhausted. “Necessity is the mother
of invention,” Pendergraft said. “That is what we are talking about
The 30-year-old Aegis combat system is at the core of the Navy’s self-defense
capability. Its SPY1 phased-array radar can track more than 100 targets simultaneously.
Its command-and-decision computers allow Aegis to track simultaneous operations
in anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare.
The detection and tracking functions require lots of computing power. Between
10 million to 20 million actions are performed by Aegis every second.
In the early days of Aegis, said Pendergraft, “we had a single computer
that did all the computation for warfare systems.” As the operations became
more complex—when the Navy started using more advanced weapons—the
computing power needs grew exponentially. Another drawback to the current technology
is that it is “serial,” meaning it can do one thing at a time—detection,
tracking, identification, decision, engagement. “You only had one computer
to do all that. ... Our architecture is serially based, with point-to-point
connectivity,” said Pendergraft. “Pretty soon, you have what we
call spaghetti code.”
The “spaghetti code” is what makes upgrades so expensive, because
each time one of the applications is upgraded, the entire combat system has
to be tested to make sure no changes were made inadvertently to other functions.
“Today, when we make a change, by the nature of the shared-memory architecture,
you end up having to retouch the entire system,” said Orlando Carvalho,
vice president of Aegis programs at Lockheed Martin Corp. “In some cases,
you have to make many changes for a fairly small upgrade.”
Norm Malnak, Lockheed Martin technical director, said the problem is exacerbated
by the presence of multiple Aegis baselines (software releases) throughout the
fleet. The oldest ships, for example, use baseline 1.4. Others have baselines
2.1, 5.3 or 6.3, for the newest ships. Lockheed Martin is developing baseline
7.1, with more advanced features. An open architecture will help “get
commonality across the fleet,” said Malnak. “That saves a lot of
The Navy, to be sure, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on modern computers
to expand the memory and computer processing speed of Aegis combat applications,
but fast PCs is not what open architecture is about, explained Pendergraft.
“We went to COTS computers, but we haven’t done anything with all
the point-to-point connectivity. ... With open architecture, we are changing
the fundamental structure.”
To process the input and output data in Aegis, the Navy uses so-called Navy
Standard Computers, such as the AN/UYQ-43, which lacks the speed and memory
of modern PCs. By incorporating new processors, the Navy boosted the computing
power and the memory, but the UYQ-43 remains the “brain” that turns
digits into gun, missile or radar commands.
“Our current Navy Standard Computers are at about 99 percent capacity,”
said Pendergraft. “Every time we want to add a new function, we can’t
do it on NSC, so we add adjunct computers.” This setup still maintains
the “spaghetti code” structure. By adding more processors and functions,
“all the stuff starts crisscrossing. We have point-to-point spaghetti
code all over the place. It makes it very complicated and expensive to maintain.”
Further, “we are prohibited right now from adding a lot of significant
war-fighting capability, because we don’t have the computing capacity,”
To make the open architecture plan work, “we have to stop people from
putting proprietary computers on ships. That is what kills us. Every time there
is an upgrade or the manufacturer goes out of business, we are toast. We have
to hire someone to rebuild that system, or we have to keep someone in business
for a lot longer than we want to.” Unfortunately, he said, “There
is no police force for specs and standards.”
Another stumbling block is the upfront expense associated with an open architecture.
The PEO-IWS has no official estimate of what it would cost to convert the entire
fleet, but industry experts predicted that Navy program officials will experience
sticker shock and may argue for keeping things the way they are. After all,
future savings tend to not weigh as heavily as money in hand, one source said.
The Navy’s prominent role in fielding a ballistic-missile defense for
the United States and allies also raises concerns about the ability of the computers
to do the job. “Current computing plants are pretty full,” said
Pendergraft. “If you want to add BMD on top of that, that is going to
be pretty tough. ... If we go to open architecture—with distributed computing—we
would have virtually unlimited [computational power] resources.”
It is possible to accomplish missile-defense missions in legacy Aegis ships,
“assuming some modifications to open up the architecture,” he said.
“You are not going to get there with one computer.”
Future missile-defense capabilities the Pentagon envisions—such as new
solid-state radar and extended range weapons—will require more computing
power. “As you move forward with missile defense, you want additional
signal processing capability,” said Chris Myers, director of missile defense
and radar programs at Lockheed Martin. The company is responsible for various
pieces of the naval missile-defense program, including Aegis, cruiser upgrades
and the development of an active solid-state radar.
“We want to upgrade those computing plants so it makes it a lot easier
to upgrade Aegis,” said Myers. “In the future, you want to see targets
further away, smaller things, you need additional radar power and sensitivity
to see that. ... There is additional computing power required as you move to
a solid-state radar.”
Lockheed is one of 49 companies that received $40,000 contracts to help the
Navy come up with commercial standards and protocols for the open architecture.
The plan is to begin installing the new technology on surface ships and then
expand to submarines. The DDX land-attack destroyer, to be deployed by 2012,
is expected to be the Navy’s first truly “open-systems” ship.
In March, Bush’s office released an interim set of specs and standards
that new programs will have to follow, in order to be open-architecture compliant.
Existing “legacy” systems are more problematic. Older technology
is difficult and costly to upgrade. Additionally, the Navy continues to train
and fight wars with those ships—they cannot be taken out of service for
A transition to open architecture, for example, would involve “taking
pieces of our combat systems, throwing away the old code, rack and stack the
algorithms, write them in modern computing program so they can run on a modern
computing environment,” said Pendergraft.
“In the Aegis program, we are starting now to open up the system,”
Rick Scharadin, program manager at Lockheed Martin, said the company will demonstrate
how segments of Aegis can be converted to open architecture in a piecemeal fashion.
The first step is to upgrade the computing environment for the radar, by 2006.
The second piece is to convert the displays, by 2007. In 2008, the plan is to
demonstrate open-architecture radar and displays, weapons control and fire control.
“The key is to find those parts that you could easily remove,”
said Pendergraft. “The only way we’ll be able to do this is one
part at a time. Can’t do it all at once.”
The PEO-IWS plans to spend about $50 million a year on research related to
open architecture. A lot more money, however, will be needed to upgrade ships.
Those funds may have to come from ongoing acquisition programs, a prospect that
Pendergraft acknowledged will stir the proverbial “rice bowls” associated
with military projects. “Some of the programs of record are going to have
to change direction in order to pay for this,” said Pendergraft.
As to the technical merits of open architecture, some experts believe that
the technology is being oversold and that the Navy should proceed with caution.
“In a front-line combat system like Aegis, you cannot do plug and play
without doing specific reengineering to make sure you haven’t contaminated
the system integrity,” said retired Rear Adm. George Meinig, who was the
Aegis technical director in the mid-1980s. “The benefits of open architecture
are still desirable,” he said. “But there is no assurance that unaltered
commercial products can meet the performance requirements of the combat system.
... You have to do careful testing to make sure the design is compliant with
the requirement and that you haven’t messed up the whole system.”
In general, it would make sense for the Navy to invest in an open architecture,
but the payoffs would not come for many years, said Joe Threston, a former Navy
systems engineer, considered among the nation’s foremost experts on Aegis.
“You are facing a quite large investment to convert the system to a multi-computer
open architecture system. ... The initial conversion will not increase the capability,
but will allow for the potential growth in the future,” he said. “What
you are facing is the growing obsolescence of the existing equipment. An open
architecture can help address that.”