New military displays to build on COTS technology

June 1, 1999
WASHINGTON — While Napoleon`s observation that an army travels on its stomach remains as true today as it did nearly 200 years ago, it also remains true that any military force survives on a steady diet of paper. From navigational charts to battlefield orders to kneepad notebooks for pilots, paper and its predecessors has been the lifeblood of military operations for millennia.

By J.R. Wilson

WASHINGTON — While Napoleon`s observation that an army travels on its stomach remains as true today as it did nearly 200 years ago, it also remains true that any military force survives on a steady diet of paper. From navigational charts to battlefield orders to kneepad notebooks for pilots, paper and its predecessors has been the lifeblood of military operations for millennia.

That is changing with the dawn of the 21st century. Military leaders are turning away from expensive and slow-to-produce military specifications for everything from lead pencils to aircraft targeting systems. Instead, they are moving toward commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components, and with this move, military program managers finally have begun to reflect the rapid advance of technology in microprocessing and displays.

While some commercially purchased equipment still must be ruggedized to meet the unique requirements of a combat environment, new open-architecture designs are offering a cost-effective path for more frequent and purposeful advances in capability.

The technology that spawns 2-pound laptop computers with more power and memory than can be found in the computers of most military aircraft is beginning to bring about a sea change in how the military communicates at all levels. One of the first dramatic examples of this change is the future-generation Virginia-class (SSN-774) nuclear-powered attack submarine, previously known as the New Attack Submarine, or NSSN.

"The Virginia class will have no paper charts. We are striving to make it a paperless ship," says Capt. Glen Sieve, NSSN electronics integration manager at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in Washington.

This is being accomplished through the integration of large numbers of electronic displays throughout the ship, including a new horizontal large-screen display (HLSD) in the command and control center that will be the Navy`s first electronic map table.

"Working with the Naval Underwater Systems Center, we generated the requirement for this technology and it will be provided as a line item on the Navy standard computer contract run out of NAVSEA," Sieve says. The prime contractor for that project is Lockheed Martin Tactical Data Systems in Egan, Minn.

Using digital micromirror technology originally developed at Texas Instruments Defense Systems (now a part of Raytheon in Dallas), Navy planners are moving beyond the standard commercial cathode ray tube (CRT) to a display that is significantly lighter and much more flexible in meeting the size, weight, power, and durability requirements of a combat submarine. The new projection device is placed directly on a microchip and projects onto a flat screen, which designers can install at any angle from horizontal to vertical and withstand the G-forces to which a submarine under attack is exposed.

In addition, the size of the resulting display now becomes a matter of focal length rather than equipment size.

"It begins to blur the old definition of pixels per space," Sieve explains. "It projects off the micromirrors mounted on the chip a square instead of a pixel image. Those are then merged together on our screen so that, even if you get close to the projection, you don`t see the separation you would see in the old approach. This is a true square, compared to the circular pixel, and size is determined by how far the image is projected. The real advantage then, is resolution that is equivalent to 1,280 by 1,024."

Navy planners expect this new projection-display approach not only to improve resolution, but also to increase system reliability. "We`ve eliminated a CRT and gone to a card," Sieve says. "This thing has a full processor suite and memory suite plus all the packaging that goes along with it."

The same micromirror technology is set for use in two vertical large-screen displays in the forward port and starboard sides of the USS Virginia`s command and control center. This will enable shipboard personnel to view the displays from any part of the control room.

The Virginia will have a high-data-rate system and program officers are working with surface ships and with directors of the Space & Naval Warfare Systems Command to develop common tactical and operational pictures to enable direct data sharing.

"This is the first capital ship in which all tactical systems will be integrated on a common architecture," Sieve says. The lead hull, which is Virginia, will have tactical systems using standard Navy computers, based on the Hewlett-Packard HP744i processor running the UNIX operating system 10.2. "Virginia is implementing what we have termed a technology-refresh plan in which our prime contractors will be implementing and incorporating new technology — when it is state-of-the-practice — into the follow-on hulls," he says.

The first example of "technology refresh" involves the microprocessor. "We now see the technology leading to the Merced [Intel`s under-development 64-bit microprocessor] and beyond that wherever industry takes us. In the display technology, you`re looking at HDTV [high-definition television], active-matrix resolution and so on. Our goal with the Virginia-class is to be a consumer of the commercial marketplace, so we are driving down our procurement costs."

For the Virginia, the Navy has sought to enhance the survivability of commercial technology by building the boat itself to satisfy as much of the shock requirement as possible by placing most of the electronics on a modular isolated deck structure. For example, designers are building the command and control center on a deck structure that is mounted in the hull on shock mounts.

"The result is we are able to much more readily take advantage of a direct commercial market in delivering hardware where we don`t have to address specific packaging requirements and don`t have to bulk up the individual elements," Sieve says. "But we also have built shock- qualified cabinets so we can use COTS components in some situations."

Software is not quite so easy as hardware to buy directly from commercial providers, Sieve explains. "It may not have the reliability and stability needed for a military requirement. You have to test and verify it first before installing it on a ship that then goes into harm`s way."

All of these new electronic components will be delivered to General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Conn. in the fall of 2000. The Virginia will go to sea trials in 2004 as the first U.S. Navy vessel in which all onboard computers — control and tactical — are designed to work together in a system, Sieve explains.

Tested at the Naval Weapons Center at Newport, R.I., the first actual shipboard HLSD is to be delivered this summer. In addition, the Navy experts are sharing their development effort with the other service branches, to which Lockheed Martin also has been marketing the overall system that includes the HLSD — the AN/UYQ-70.

The first service to put it into a program is the U.S. Marine Corps, whose leaders are incorporating Q-70 technology into their Joint Enhanced Corps Communications System (JECCS), a Humvee-mounted system designed to bring advanced communications and network management capabilities to first-in forward units.

Offering a small mobile support element to the Marines Operational Maneuver From The Sea doctrine, JECCS uses COTS communications and information systems and some old Marine equipment and software. It provides wideband, satellite-based, global, secure/non-secure voice and data network connectivity to deployed Marine expeditionary units via the Defense Information System Network. Those network services are:

- Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN);

- Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN);

- Defense Switch Network (DSN);

- Defense Red Switch Network (DRSN);

- Commercial (Non-secure) and Tactical (Secure) Internets;

- UHF Line-of-Sight & Tactical Satellite Communications;

- VHF Line-of-Sight Tactical Communications;

- Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) Network;

- Global Broadcast System; and

- Video Teleconference Network.

Currently in engineering and manufacturing development, two JECCS units will be sent out for user evaluation by the First and Second Marine Expeditionary Forces at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Camp Lejune, N.C., probably in September. In addition to determining operation, design, and efficiency ratings, they also will be certified for road use, joint interoperability, and operations to ensure smooth fielding.

"We want to hear what the Marine in the field likes and doesn`t like, what technology should be included — maybe secure wireless communications — a lot of things are on the table," says Pam White, the Lockheed Martin JECCS program manager.

The current Q-70 processor is a Hewlett Packard model 744-132 single-board computer (SBC), but Lockheed Martin designers already are looking to replace that with a SPARC-based single-board computer that would preserve the high-end RISC architecture path and enable them to migrate existing HP-based software. In the long term, they hope to migrate the Q-70 to an Intel-based single-board computer to enable the commercial marketplace to provide growth options through mainstream processors that offer a wide range of operating system options.

"One of the unique things we`re trying to do is create a web page control and management feature for this system," notes John Samuelson, the Lockheed Martin project engineer. "As an operator, I can control and manage all devices (secure or non-secure, depending on clearance). Through our web page development, we will be able to put online all command and control, maintenance procedures, documentation, etc. It`s scalable to be mission specific. The elegance of the system is the warfighter can do some communications preplanning, allowing him to go online a lot faster.

Samuelson says the JECCS open architecture and constantly advancing technology offer opportunities for future system growth, which might include adding maps and imagery. "The capabilities are there," he says. "When we bring in the GBS [global broadcast system] feeds, we`re videostreaming it into the secure network."

Maj. John Holt, JECCS project officer at Marine Corps Systems Command, says JECCS has an unusual heritage as part of a congressional enhancement effort. "The Corps had no standing requirement at the time, but it was funded, and came up with a design to make it fit smoothly into the current architecture," he says. "We decided to incorporate it into the Marine Corps Joint Task Force enabler package. It qualified as a joint program because of the Q-70 and because of some reachback capability to the Navy."

White says Lockheed Martin engineers are concentrating on making JECCS an accepted part of the Marines combat arsenal before marketing it to the U.S. Army, Air Force, or allied militaries.

Air Force leaders already are working toward a similar goal. The Common Large Area Display Set (CLADS) effort is to replace aging CRTs in the airborne warning and control system aircraft (AWACS) with one of three flat-screen technologies: active matrix LCD (AMLCD), gas plasma, or a digital micromirror device such as that on the Virginia.

While Lockheed Martin executives opted not to compete for CLADS, 61 other companies were on the list in the beginning. Today, only a handful remain, says Bill Sirmon, a civilian contract negotiator at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center at Robins Air Force Base, Ga. He declined to identify them because contract negotiations are continuing.

"We hope to have a contract awarded by Summer," he says. "The heart and soul of this is COTS, with some heavy ruggedization to operate under depressurization and so forth. but the prices we`re seeing coming in the door are a third what the old technology stuff now in their costs. Aboard the AWACS now are CRTs that operate for about 300 hours between failures. Officials want to increase that operating time to 3,000 to 5,000 hours between failures, he says.

Although an Air Force program, CLADS is being designed to more stringent Navy requirements so it eventually could go into an E-2C Hawkeye radar aircraft that operates near saltwater and lands on aircraft carriers. Future options also include large surveillance aircraft and ground systems where 19-to-21-inch racks can fit, Sirmon says.

The pilot kneepad could be replaced in the future with a voice-recognition and synthesizer system, either as part of the cockpit electronics or built into the pilot`s flight suit.

On the ground, every soldier and Marine could have a militarized version of the popular Palm personal digital assistant, with an incorporated satellite telephone and global positioning system. In this way, soldiers and Marines could wirelessly update, install, or exchange orders, mission maps, and other data.

But Army leaders also are focusing on taking large-screen displays to the battlefield, in part with a joint program involving the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va. DARPA specialists are working with Sarnoff Corp. of Princeton, N.J., on the Command Post of Future (CPoF) program to provide superior overall visualization and interactivity for field displays.

As part of this effort, Sarnoff will deliver (by the end of 2001) a 4-by-12-foot, 22-megapixel prototype to the CPoF systems integrator, combining optics, off-the-shelf LCD panels, image processing algorithms, and consumer-based computing hardware. Windows displaying maps, still photos, 2- or 3-D derived images, spreadsheets, and video can be changed instantaneously, as can the scale of maps and images.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!