Navy's NIIN aims for single IT shipboard network backbone

A U.S. Navy initiative that seeks to standardize shipboard data networking may lead eventually to replacement of many of the dissimilar, stand-alone networks aboard Navy ships.

Nov 1st, 2000
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By Edward J. Walsh

WASHINGTON — A U.S. Navy initiative that seeks to standardize shipboard data networking may lead eventually to replacement of many of the dissimilar, stand-alone networks aboard Navy ships. At least that is what senior Navy engineering leaders are hoping.

Navy engineering experts are keeping a close eye on the Navy Integrated Information Networking (NIIN) initiative, a joint-command integrated product team.

NIIN participants are establishing the processes and procedures involved in attempts to shift the fleet to a single network backbone. This backbone not only may incorporate common network standards for most, if not all, shipboard functions, but also introduce a high level of commonality for shipboard network architectures.

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Capt. Sherman Metcalf, co-chair of the NIIN integrated product team, is director of the integrated information group in the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in Arlington, Va. Metcalf says NIIN's best near-term opportunity is introducing a single integrated network backbone aboard the Navy's future DD-21 class of land-attack destroyers.

Navy leaders are set to name an industry team to build the DD-21 in April or May 2001. Competing for the DD-21 job are the so-called Blue team, led by Bath Iron Works of Bath, Maine, and Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md.; and the Gold team, led by Litton-Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Miss., and Raytheon Co. of Lexington, Mass.

Navy officials plan to shift to integrated networks on the DD-21 not only to improve performance but also to cut workload, manning requirements, and life-cycle costs. Other new-ship development programs, including the next-generation aircraft carrier CVNX and the new fleet command ship JCCX, would follow the same path.

NIIN is the shipboard application of the Navy's vision of "network-centric" warfare for future operations, says Metcalf's deputy, John Moschopoulos. The network-centric concept, which sprang from then-Rear Adm. Arthur Cebrowski in the mid 1990s, calls for Navy battle groups to move away from traditional "platform-centric" operations. They do this by relying on advanced information-systems technologies to transfer large volumes of information to enable the ships to operate as elements of integrated networks. Cebrowski, now a vice admiral and president of the Naval War College, continues to advocate the concept.

Moschopoulos adds that "network-centric" applies also to the configuration of ship systems. "We don't buy point-to-point systems any longer; we buy networks," he says.

Navy officials say their move to establish a common network foundation would support not only administrative and logistical systems, but also the computers and sensors that require data in real time to support weapons engagement. The single-network backbone architecture also would support navigation; steering; machinery; as well as command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) systems.

NIIN started originally in 1996 to find ways of controlling the proliferation of dissimilar networks aboard ship. Around that time Navy admirals determined that program managers were not considering the potential of sharing networks among users as they specified data data-transfer requirements of shipboard tasks such as navigation, engine control, and damage control.

Navy ship designers in recent years have introduced high-speed fiber-optic networks on new ships to replace traditional copper cable networks and point-to-point connections. Many ships at sea now have Fiber Distributed Data Interface (FDDI) and Ethernet networks.

The Navy's current vision for managing information systems, called IT-21, endorses the Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) network switching technology. Yet ATM in recent years has lost momentum in the commercial market, leading some program officials to consider gigabit Ethernet — also called "fast Ethernet" — as the next step beyond FDDI.

The original NIIN authorized the NIIN IPT, a Navy-only group that included the ship program executive officers (PEOs) and other key acquisition and requirements officials. IPT members set up working groups to study the use of networks aboard various ship classes.

Tight money caused NIIN to "go dormant" for several years, Metcalf says, but the early effort helped push an initiative to develop information technology standards guidance (ITSG) for use in acquisition of Navy information systems — including networks.

The NIIN helps designers adopt standards for physical network elements, which include the fiber-optic cable plant, the switches, routers, connectors, and other network components. The migration also encompasses the "logical" network, standards such as the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol — better known as TCP/IP — that govern network management.

Metcalf says members of the retooled NIIN IPT are establishing platform working groups to study network applications and requirements aboard existing ship classes. Working groups have been set up for aircraft carriers and mine-countermeasures ship classes, and working groups for amphibious ships and surface combatants will follow.

The working groups will include representatives from ship program offices, type commands, field-support activities, and shipbuilders; Newport News Shipbuilding is participating on the carrier group. The other platform working groups, as they start work, are to include shipbuilders and systems integrators. The IPT will provide oversight, ensuring that all the working groups are staying on similar paths in compliance with the ITSG.

The NIIN process for new ship programs, including the San Antonio-class (LPD-17) amphibious transport ship and the DD-21 will follow a different path. Navy-industry IPTs already chartered within the LPD-17 program have developed a network architecture. The winning DD-21 industry team will form similar working groups to follow the LPD-17 lead.

The incentive to pursue the NIIN goals is based largely on commercial networking technology. For years, the Navy purchased autonomous "stovepipe" systems that when installed aboard ship involved hard-wired point-to-point interfaces. Today, Navy officials push for systems integrated across high-capacity networks and high-speed electronic switches.

The shift to network-based systems led to the introduction of a mix of dissimilar and often redundant network architectures and hardware configurations, aimed at meeting only the narrow requirements of specific systems. The first 28 Arleigh Burke-class (DDG-51) Aegis destroyers, for example, have the USQ-82 data multiplex system (DMS), a copper-cable network developed originally by Rockwell's Autonetics and Marine Systems (now Boeing).

The DMS, which links navigation, communication, and combat systems, is being replaced on the Flight 2A Burke-class destroyers, starting with Oscar Austin (DDG-79) and extending though the remainder of the class to DDG-108, with an FDDI fiber-based system called the Fiber Optic Digital Multiplex System, otherwise known as FODMS. The new fiber variant will extend to anti-submarine warfare surveillance, remote-source lighting, and ship machinery systems. A lower-capability DMS is installed aboard Wasp-class (LHD-1) amphibious assault ships.

Officials involved in NAVSEA's aircraft carrier program office, meanwhile, have developed an integrated communications and advanced network (ICAN) to link shipboard communications, machinery control, navigation, and an administrative local-area network for new aircraft carriers. The ICAN is going aboard the carriers USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), which is under construction at Newport News. Plans call for backfitting the ICAN on other aircraft carriers.

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