Navy Command Expands Commercial IT Acquisitions

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Pentagon has set out to replace outdated military information systems with commercial products that offer far better performance at lower cost. Modernizing IT systems, however, can be problematic aboard Navy warships where the space is confined and computers run arcane pieces of software used to conduct a wide range of combat missions. 

Despite the difficulties of updating computer systems aboard ships, the Navy has moved aggressively to insert commercial technology across the fleet, said Rear Adm. Christian “Boris” Becker, Navy program executive officer for C4I and space systems.

But Becker would like to see shorter turnaround times for these upgrades and is asking companies for ideas on how to do that.

“In the department, it is more advantageous for us to adapt to the commercial market to meet our needs. One of the challenges I’ve given out to industry is, ‘How do we make this faster?’” Becker told National Defense in an interview from his office at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, in San Diego.

Becker oversees an information-technology portfolio that is worth about $2 billion a year, spread over 100 programs. One of the largest and most ambitious is CANES, short for consolidated afloat network enterprise services. “It’s fundamental to the cyber security and capability of our ships at sea,” he said. CANES will replace five legacy networks with a common computing environment infrastructure for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, or C4I.

SPAWAR awarded contracts worth $2.5 billion in January to multiple vendors to equip up to 200 ships with CANES over eight years. So far, 25 vessels have deployed with the new system. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was retrofitted with the CANES technology and recently left San Diego to replace the USS George Washington in Japan. “The installation was very challenging because of the time we had for availability,” Becker said.

The program illustrates the Navy’s push to adopt commercial technology and business models such as cloud computing, Becker said. In IT-speak, it’s called providing infrastructure as a service, a form of cloud computing that offers virtualized computing resources over the Internet.

CANES will be the host platform for intelligence, logistics, command and control, and other applications.

“There is lot going on in information technology,” said Becker. “CANES is delivering infrastructure as a service. We are implementing those tenets of cloud technology.”

But the Navy can only push commercial technology so far before it runs into the physical limitations of ship installations, he explained. “We expect to see our industry partners implement commercial technologies to meet particular naval needs. We do have constraints. One of them is installing capabilities aboard ships.”

Commercial technology generally moves at a pace that is faster than the Navy can adapt it to installations across the fleet, Becker said. “It’s a matter of physics. We are a Navy that is forward deployed. The availability to implement these new technologies is a challenge. It takes time.”

SPAWAR invited contractors to an “industry day” conference in late October in San Diego, where Becker planned to seek fresh ideas on how to speed up IT upgrades. “One of the challenges I’ve given out to industry is, ‘How can I make installations easier to execute while still maintaining the rigor necessary for delivering capabilities to a warship?’”

Becker said he is encouraged by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s initiative to recruit new tech vendors from Silicon Valley. His office wants to increase interactions with the private sector so companies are better informed about SPAWAR’s needs, he added. “It’s very important for me to maintain an open channel and communications with industry, whether that’s through small meetings or in large events. The point is to provide as much information as we can, ahead of time.”

In fighter pilot terms, it’s about setting up a “contracting kill chain,” he said. “In order to deliver that contract, we have to have a fully informed RFP [request for proposals], we have to have a good dialogue through the RFI [request for information] process. Stepping back, we want to have an engagement with industry, stepping back even further we want to put out where we are going.”

SPAWAR’s technology “master plan” is shared with the industry across its 10 program offices, Becker said. “Each year we put out a science and technology roadmap, so industry can see what our hard problems are.”

Besides shipboard IT upgrades, other challenges the Navy faces are how to connect different weapon systems into a single network — also known as creating “integrated fires” — analyzing big data and improving cyber defenses.

Becker also is seeking innovations in electronic warfare. As a former EA/6B Prowler electronic attack aviator, it is a subject he follows closely. “Electronic warfare is in our job chart.

Electromagnetic maneuver warfare is with us today,” he said. “This is a topic that is very familiar to me. The capabilities we provide will enable the command and control of both kinetic and non-kinetic fires. And we deliver cyber security which helps us maintain control of the electronic battlefield, whether it’s in RF [radio frequency] or digits.”

Some of the latest electronic warfare systems are now being installed in Navy combat aircraft like the P-8 maritime surveillance airplane and the Triton high-endurance surveillance drone.

As program executive officer for space systems, Becker’s largest effort has been the management of the five-satellite Mobile User Objective System constellation. The MUOS narrowband tactical communications system is replacing the eight-spacecraft Ultra High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) constellation. The fourth MUOS satellite was launched Sept. 2 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

MUOS is significant because it will support ground forces. Army soldiers will be able to use handheld radios running a MUOS-specific waveform to connect to the Navy satellites. A legacy payload on MUOS allows UHF communications. A new payload called wideband code division multiple access provides smartphone-like connectivity for voice and data.

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, Infotech, Procurement

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