Operations With Navy’s New Afloat Network Get Underway

By Valerie Insinna
The computing environment on most naval ships consists of multiple networks, numerous varieties of hardware and a range of software — much of it old and out of date. The result is a slow, disparate information technology infrastructure requiring frequent maintenance, with cyber security bolted on as an afterthought.

The Navy intends to change that by streamlining the number of networks and modernizing hardware and software through the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services program, or CANES. The end result will be a single shipboard network outfitted with the latest computing and cyber security technologies.

So far, it has been smooth sailing for the program. One ship, the USS McCampbell, is already conducting at-sea operations with CANES onboard, said Jack Dorsett, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s C2 Systems and a retired vice admiral. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for development and early deployment of CANES.

“The commanding officer of USS McCampbell was extremely ecstatic with the reliability,” Dorsett said. Most of the problems were so minor that they could be found in any office. “One of the biggest issues that they raised as a shortcoming was the simple fact that insufficient toner cartridges were provided to support the use of printers. When that’s the feedback, that’s one of the major concerns, you go, ‘Holy cow, we hit a home run.’”

There were no issues during initial operations on the McCampbell that would require Northrop to redesign any part of the CANES system, he added.

The Navy did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

CANES was designed to consolidate five legacy tactical networks — and a total of 642 network variants — into a common computing environment with the same hardware, software and security programs throughout the fleet, Dorsett said. It can also connect to various weapon systems, such as the AEGIS radar, signals intelligence, and command-and-control systems.

The network will be installed on more than 190 ships, submarines and maritime operations centers by 2021, according to the Navy’s website.

Navy officials believe CANES will ultimately reduce total ownership cost and pare down the service’s IT logistics tail, which had become bloated because of the myriad networks and equipment.

The Navy has installed CANES on guided missile destroyers USS McCampbell and USS Milius and is in the process of installing it on 10 other ships. Northrop Grumman has delivered a total of 25 units: 21 for destroyers, three for aircraft carriers and one for a big-deck amphibious ship, Dorsett said.

Under the current limited deployment agreement, the company will deliver nine more CANES systems to the Navy. The service plans to award a contract for full deployment in June.

Northrop Grumman has publically announced its intent to bid on the contract. The company’s experience developing CANES and the system’s performance thus far give it an advantage, said Lloyd McCoy, naval consultant for immixGroup, a McLean, Va.- based information technology consulting company.

Lockheed Martin will not compete, said Keith Little, the company’s senior manager for media relations and public affairs. Northrop Grumman was awarded a contract for the initial deployment of CANES in 2012 after Lockheed withdrew a protest. Little said the protest did not factor into the company’s decision to not bid.

In an effort to continually adapt the latest technologies, the Navy adopted a new CANES procurement strategy. The system is based almost entirely on commercial, off-the-shelf products that are modified for use aboard a ship and integrated by the prime contractor. The service plans to rebid software and hardware contracts every two and four years, respectively.

The modular design of CANES will allow the Navy to roll in other systems during future iterations, such as connecting the network to financial information or diagnostic tools that evaluate the health of the ship’s IT infrastructure, Dorsett said.

Northrop created a standalone training system for the Navy, but the company is not involved with either installing CANES or training sailors how to use it, Dorsett said. The Navy is managing both of those tasks.

Installing CANES is a laborious task that becomes more extensive on larger vessels such as aircraft carriers. Old computing systems must be removed and replaced with new ones. Doing this requires building in miles of cable and modifying processor racks as well as the ship’s heating and cooling systems.

The Navy is already having problems managing installations — its biggest challenge with the system to date is getting them done on time, Dorsett said.

“You only have so much time before the ship needs to go out to sea and operate again, and the installs are taking a little bit more time than what the Navy would like,” he said. “So the Navy is working quite vigorously on trying to reduce the times.” Although not responsible for installing the system, Northrop Grumman has given the service recommendations on how to more quickly do so, he added.

Developing and implementing a ship-based network poses several challenges, McCoy said. The system must have a small physical footprint and be rugged enough to withstand environmental factors such as corrosion, vibration and moisture.

The system also must be easy to maintain, he said. “While the sailors and Marines will have been trained to operate the equipment, there isn’t the same level of back-end support that land-based systems would have.”

Dorsett compared legacy networks to a 1980 Ford Fiesta, where analog systems such as the radio and clock were unconnected and key parts like the engine had few diagnostic capabilities.

“That’s sort of how the Navy’s networks were, afloat,” he said. “Everything was standalone. Things weren’t connected. They were stovepiped, and if you were conducting maintenance or even operating that system, you had to have technicians understand that rack of equipment, that system, that software, which was completely different than something in another system aboard the ship.”

Cyber security was one of the major deficiencies in the legacy systems, he said. When the networks were originally fielded, there were fewer threats. As hacking and attacks became a more pronounced danger, the Navy incorporated software and other technologies to decrease vulnerabilities. CANES will be better protected not only because it is more modern, but because cyber security capabilities were integrated during the network’s development, he said.

As CANES installations ramp up, sailors will notice increased availability of computing systems and fewer repairs, Dorsett said. The system also contains more space for data storage, allowing the Navy to access greater and varied amounts of information.

“If you want to use full-motion video from some type of unmanned air vehicle that’s providing you intel, surveillance and reconnaissance, you’ll be able to store more [data] onboard the ship, and you’ll be able to access that information more rapidly because of the computing capacity of the CANES system,” he said.

Funding for CANES has increased over the past three years from $323 million in fiscal year 2013, and $352 million in 2014, to $386 million in the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget request. It is unlikely Congress will make any cuts to the program this year, said McCoy.

“I do expect growth in the near term. However, past 2016, absent any revenue agreement, sequestration is coming back,” he said. “So could the Navy sort of fall back on a good enough approach, where the solution we have is [considered] good enough and [they] sort of bypass that two year refresh? That could happen.”

McCoy said he has two concerns about CANES. The program’s software and hardware refresh cycle is “ideally suited to keeping pace with technology and making sure that the Navy doesn’t fall into obsolescence.”

Because increased commonality in a computing environment can lead to vulnerabilities, it is vital that the Navy stick to its schedule and continually upgrade cyber security and information assurance technologies, he said.

However, the Navy has not been clear about how it will execute those software and hardware changes throughout its entire fleet, he said. “The idea is to eliminate complexity … and kind of get rid of all of the multiple versions of hardware and software that’s out there.” In order to update technologies, the service will have to closely manage ship availabilities to ensure that vessels have the new technology around the same time.

Otherwise, the Navy may fall into its current predicament of having to manage many different systems and programs across various ships, McCoy said.

Another problem would be if the Navy delays a software or hardware update due to lack of funding or a prolonged acquisition process, he said. Such a scenario is possible if budget constraints continue.

CANES reflects a wider Defense Department trend of streamlining networks and IT infrastructure, McCoy said. Because of such efforts, the Pentagon’s 2015 information technology budget decreased about $3 billion from last year. 

“It’s more cost effective to have one afloat network than five or six separate ones,” he said. However, “that doesn’t mean that it’s totally immune” from cuts.

The Navy is also pursuing greater consolidation through the Next Generation Enterprise Network program, or NGEN, which will replace the Navy Marine Corps Intranet. NGEN will update the current shore-based network that provides IT services to more than 800,000 users, the service said.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services in June 2013 was awarded a $320 million contract, with options that could increase the deal’s value to more than $3 billion.

Initially, the company will provide the same capabilities as the legacy network. But like CANES, hardware, software and computing services will be rebid “when it makes sense to lower cost or provide improved system performance,” a Navy news release said.

“NGEN will increase government operational and design control of the network” and enhance cybersecurity, it said. “Other benefits include better visibility into costs, the potential for increased industry competition and the potential for enhanced cost efficiencies and improved innovation.”

Topics: Defense Department, Infotech, Infotech, Infotech

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