A look aboard Navy attack sub reveals growing use of COTS equipment

ABOARD THE USS HELENA - There is nothing at all commercial-looking about a U.S. Navy attack submarine. At dockside in San Diego, the 360-foot nuclear-powered attack sub USS Helena (SSN 725) sits cunningly low in the water, anonymous and furtive, like a hunter waiting for its prey

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By John Keller

ABOARD THE USS HELENA - There is nothing at all commercial-looking about a U.S. Navy attack submarine. At dockside in San Diego, the 360-foot nuclear-powered attack sub USS Helena (SSN 725) sits cunningly low in the water, anonymous and furtive, like a hunter waiting for its prey. The plain black vessel is virtually hidden as it floats silently among the towering U.S. Navy command ships and other surface warships berthed beside it.

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Crewmen aboard the submarine USS Helena carefully navigate the surfaced boat out of San Diego Harbor and out to sea during a recent daylong training mission.
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Yet among submariners, this is something to be proud of, for this is the way they prefer it. By nature and by training, a submarine ship's company seeks the low profile; they remain silent and hidden from the enemy, until any opportunity for the foe's escape is long past.

Something fundamental separates submariners from surface sailors. For those who ply the ocean's depths, it takes a different breed. A closeness bonds members of the submarine's crew that is rare among surface-ship crews. Submariners are different, and they know it.

It is at sea where the Helena and her sister submarines of the SSN 688 class move beyond a glowering presence, and become truly predatory and menacing.

The only splashes of color topside of the dark silhouetted ship are the small American flag fluttering from the top of the ship's sail, and the day-glow orange of the captain's parka as he scans the horizon and nearby ship traffic. Even the ship's hull numbers are blacked out as it slowly glides out of San Diego Harbor, past Point Loma, and out to sea for a quick, swift, and silent rendezvous with unknown friendly and perhaps some hostile ships, submarines, and aircraft.

One would imagine such an environment and such a ship to contain mysterious technology and equipment based on arcane algorithms designed by gurus in some secret Pentagon laboratory. However, familiar devices like digital signal processors, single-board computers, flat-panel displays, and other commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic equipment are commonplace. Down below, inside the submarine's workspaces, is a veritable treasure trove of COTS electronics, and current thinking calls for even more as time goes on.

COTS displays

COTS electronic equipment is becoming pervasive aboard the Helena. Commercial-grade laptop computers are common sights among the officers, chief petty officers, and even enlisted men. Commercial-grade color flat-panel displays bracketed to bulkheads also are crowding out steel-packaged military-unique cathode ray tube displays at an accelerating pace. Even Palm Pilot handheld computers are becoming standard issue among the ship's officers.

Surprisingly it was the crew's mess, where most of the boat's 120 enlisted crew members take their meals, enjoy coffee breaks, play games, and just relax and talk, that yields the first glimpses of COTS.

The crew's mess is one of the central points of activity on the boat. The food is good - burgers and fries for lunch, baked fish and vegetables for dinner, and a variety of other foods that could be found in any neighborhood diner. These days crewmen aboard even enjoy Starbucks coffee whitened with Irish creme flavoring.

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Military & Aerospace Electronics Chief Editor John Keller accompanied the Helena's crew on a recent overnight training mission to see COTS electronics in action.
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On the rear wall of the small mess hall, beside stained-glass images of sea scenes, is a large COTS flat-panel display, on which the crew can watch movies, play games, and view images data linked from the submarine's periscope. The display is a 24-by-40-inch plasma display from Fujitsu in Japan, which shows images in 640-by-800-pixel resolution. It may not be high-definition television, but ship experts say they could upgrade the panel with a high-definition display with no significant ship modifications.

The same kind of display hangs on the wall of the Helena's officers' wardroom, where the vessel's 14 officers meet, eat, plan, and relax. The display, also a Fujitsu, is as unobtrusive as a painting, and enables the ship's commanding officer, Cmdr. Doug Prince, to see what his periscope operator sees, show view graphs during officer briefings, or see movies during off-duty time.

The Fujitsu display broadcast the film "For the Love of the Game," during the evening as entertainment for the ship's officers and civilian guests on this particular training cruise. Hot pizza, made aboard, made the night.

The Fujitsu display broadcast the film "For the Love of the Game," during the evening as entertainment for the ship's officers and civilian guests on this particular training cruise. Hot pizza, made aboard, made the night.

Along with the atmosphere created by the movie and the food, riding on the submarine was similar to the smoothest nighttime airline flights, with only a gentle bank now and then as the ship turned. While operating submerged - even at speeds in excess of 20 knots - the Helena moves smoothly and quietly through the water.

It was not only the quality of familiar commercially developed technology that brought the Fujitsu plasma flat-panel displays aboard the Helena. Old-fashioned ingenuity was at work, too.

Lt. John Lund, the Helena's navigation officer, says he helped to secure the Fujitsu displays for his boat by piggybacking off a development aboard one of the Helena 's sister ships, the attack submarine USS Memphis. Lund says he learned of the project aboard the Memphis through his contacts in the submarine officer corps and made a deal to procure the Helena 's Fujitsu displays off the original display buy for the Memphis.

COTS sonar gear

The most striking example of COTS electronics aboard the Helena is in the boat's sonar suite - a new upgrade that only a few other 688-class boats have installed thus far. It is called the Acoustics-Rapid COTS Insertion (A-RCI) program, and uses commercially developed sonar signal processing equipment for the Helena 's two tactical towed-array sonar systems - the TB-16 "fat-line" array and the TB-29 "thin-line" array, both from the Lockheed Martin Naval Electronics & Surveillance Systems division in Syracuse, N.Y.

The A-RCI portion of the Helena 's sonar suite gives the boat a hybrid acoustic-processing system consisting of the mil-spec AN/BQQ-5 and the COTS-based A-RCI. In the Helena 's case, The BQQ-5 processes signals from the boat's hull-mounted and spherical sonar arrays, and the A-RCI processes signals from the TB-16 and TB-29 towed arrays. "We probably have the best sonar suite today in the Pacific Fleet," says Master Chief Petty Officer John Kidwell, the Helena's top-ranking enlisted man, or "chief of the boat."

Almost to a man, the sonar operators aboard the Helena are effusive in their praise for the A-RCI. Chief Petty Officer Michael Dellas, the Helena's top sonarman, acknowledges that the boat's new A-RCI equipment represents a huge improvement in his ability to detect, classify, and locate a broad range of surface ships, submarines, and occasionally even low-flying aircraft by sound alone.

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Navy Cmdr. Doug Prince (top left), captain of the Helena, stands atop the vessel's sail to maneuver his boat out of San Diego Harbor.
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The Helena's TB-16 tactical towed array consists of a 1,400-pound detector, some 3.5 inches in diameter and 240 feet long, towed on a 2,400-foot cable. When not in use, the detector stows in a long thin enclosure attached to the boat's hull. On this particular training mission, which lasted only about 20 hours, the crew used only the TB-16 array because it deploys and stows much faster than does the TB-29. The latter array stores on a coil in one of the submarine's ballast tanks, and when deployed is more than a mile long. Crewmen say it is particularly useful for detecting low-frequency signals, such as the sounds of submarines operating far away from the Helena.

The A-RCI sonar processing system, from the Lockheed Martin Federal Systems division in Manassas, Va., is an open-architecture based on a 6U VME card chassis and board form factor. It is based on the AN/UYQ-70 console, fitted with a Hewlett Packard 743 VME single-board computer, an HP J-2240 workstation, and an MPRD 9643 17-inch color cathode ray tube monitor from Barco Inc. Display Systems division in Duluth, Ga. Later versions of the A-RCI will feature Barco's 20-inch flat-panel displays.

The A-RCI system also features the multipurpose processor (MPP) from Digital Systems Resources of Fairfax, Va. The MPP is based on the 21060 SHARC digital signal processor from Analog Devices of Norwood, Mass., yet its open-systems architecture is designed to accommodate a wide variety of COTS processors operating side by side over the Raceway multiprocessor interconnect from Mercury Computer Systems Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass.

Within the next two years the Helena is scheduled for another upgrade to extend the A-RCI's capabilities beyond only the towed arrays. The next upgrade is scheduled to replace all of the mil-spec AN/BQQ-5 sonar equipment with A-RCI gear, and the new processing electronics will handle all of the ship's hull-mounted and spherical sonar arrays, in addition to the towed arrays.

The sonar system is crucial for the Helena's mission, for it acts as the boat's eyes and ears when the vessel is submerged - which is most of the time. During this 20-hour voyage, the boat operated below the surface for more than 12 hours. Crewmen say the vessel while on deployments is submerged almost all the time, except for leaving and arriving in port.

Not only does the sonar detect and locate friendly and hostile ships and submarines, but it also is a crucial sensor for aiming the ship's weapons. The Helena carries a mix of Mk-48 "advanced capability" torpedoes and tomahawk cruise missiles for attacking other submarines, surface ships, and even land targets. At one time the 688 class carried submarine-launched versions of the Harpoon anti-ship missile, but today the Helena carries only the Tomahawk in addition to its torpedoes, says Senior Chief Petty Officer Daniel Adley, the boat's chief electronics technician.

A culture of COTS

Few, if any, submariners mourn the passing of mil-spec equipment as COTS gear replaces it. "COTS gives us the ability to take advantage of technology almost in real time," says Cmdr. Prince, the Helena's commanding officer. "It's a great thing for the Navy - particularly for the sonar and radar systems."

Prince, 42, who has served aboard submarines for the past 18 years, says the Helena "is the first submarine I've been on with COTS in a direct military use - sonar." Prince also predicts that the use of COTS will spread into areas such as radios and fire-control systems.

Prince says the COTS movement in the Navy is as much driven by the culture of its young crewmen as it is by top-level edict. "The young sailors and officers of the 1980s dragged the Navy along into COTS," he explains. "Eighteen years ago we had one piece of COTS equipment - an HP calculator with a tape roll," he says. "The next piece came in about 1989 with the first-generation laptop computer, which we used for materials management and parts ordering."

As home computers became more prevalent, Prince says, the sailors always had more powerful software at home, and their ideas made their way aboard the ships in the late '80s and early '90s. Today, aboard the Helena, "We are on the forefront of the modifying our tactics to use COTS." Those tactics, he says, should be firmly in place when the newest generation of U.S. attack submarine, the USS Virginia, goes to sea in 2004.

While COTS electronics does improve the submarine's capability, and can add some creature comforts for crewmembers, life aboard is rarely easy. When the boat surfaces, which is rare, only a handful of the crew see the sunshine. The rest remain at their posts below. Each crewmember must stand two 6-hour watches each day, with 12 hours left to perform extra work, study for advancement in rank, relax, and sleep.

The commanding officer of the ship has his own stateroom - a cramped space about the size of a walk-in closet with a small desk and chair, and where during the day his bunk folds up into a table and benches. A few other senior crewmembers have semi-private personal spaces, and the rest sleep and stow their gear in three-tier bunk beds where they are always close to the noise of the ship.

The workload of the submariner also is getting heavier, as the role of the so-called "silent service" expands in the wake of the Cold War. Little more than a decade ago, the submarine operated primarily in the open ocean, and its crew concerned itself with tracking Soviet submarines.

Today's submarines confront a growing list of tasks, which include surveillance, operating in dangerous and noisy coastal waters, working with aircraft carrier battle groups, escorting special-operations forces to deserted beaches, and even espionage activities. Cmdr. Prince calls the submarine "a national asset, not just a Navy asset."

In this environment, Prince and his superiors voice concern about dwindling submarine resources and increasing pressure to perform. In 1991 the Navy fielded 99 fast attack submarines like the Helena, and 40 ballistic missile submarines that carry sea-launched intercontinental nuclear warheads. Today the Navy has 52 attack boats and 18 missile subs, yet Prince says that 52 attack boats must do more than the 99 vessels of nine years ago.

Navy leaders recently unveiled a plan to bolster the attack submarine force to 68 boats by 2006, while the number of ballistic missile submarines will shrink to 14 by then. Some ideas call for converting some surplus ballistic missile boats to cruise missile submarines, research vessels, or undersea cargo ships.

To meet the growing demands of the submarine force COTS will play a major role. The capabilities COTS can bring to the table are limited only by the imagination. Now if only COTS could help improve the unique flush toilets aboard submarines ... but that's another story.

Editor's note: A special thanks for the opportunity to ride aboard the Helena on an overnight training cruise goes out to the Pacific Fleet naval submarine forces in San Diego; to Cmdr. Doug Prince, captain of the Helena; to each crew member of the Helena; and finally to John Redding of the United States Submarine Veterans organization in Phoenix.

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