Navy postmortem tries to pinpoint what went wrong with the 'Smart Ship'

At sea off the Virginia coast in September 1997, a control-systems operator aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Yorktown — the Navy's "Smart Ship" demonstrator — mistakenly entered faulty data into a computer database.

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By Edward J. Walsh


A U.S. Navy crewman aboard the cruiser USS Yorktown monitors ship-control systems based on commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software. Navy officials are taking a second look at this so-called "smart-ship" approach.
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WASHINGTON — At sea off the Virginia coast in September 1997, a control-systems operator aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Yorktown — the Navy's "Smart Ship" demonstrator — mistakenly entered faulty data into a computer database. The error crashed the program and set off a cascade of system failures throughout the vessel's electronic control systems that ultimately left the powerful warship dead in the water.

Vice Adm. Henry Giffin, then commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet Naval Surface Force, called the failure an "engineering local area network casualty," in a report the following month. Other Navy officials said the Yorktown experienced "numerous" failures.

The Yorktown, with the state-of-the-art Aegis weapon system, had been outfitted earlier with an array of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computer workstations that hosted the Microsoft Windows NT operating system for ship control and other functions.

The malfunction gave top Navy leaders pause in their aggressive program to move COTS hardware and software into the fleet's mission-critical systems. Ultimately it is leading to a substantial downscaling of the Smart Ship program's COTS content and a rethinking of the program.

Despite misgivings, the Yorktown mishap did not slow the Navy's "Smart Ship" program, which aimed in a bold stroke to slash manning aboard the 27-ship Ticonderoga class by replacing Navy-proprietary machinery control equipment with COTS systems and components.

Instead, the Smart-Ship effort died early last January when the officials from the Navy and prime contractor Litton Guidance & Control Systems agreed on a modification to Litton's contract to install a COTS-based control systems architecture aboard the Ticonderoga-class ships.

Litton executives proposed the modification as a "request for equitable adjustment" of the contract, which they won in May 1998. Navy officials say that installation of the system aboard only one ship may have cost the company more than $30 million. The company's contract for all 27 cruisers was for slightly more than $120 million.

The first installation of the Litton system, for the cruiser USS Ticonderoga, was scheduled to take nine weeks; instead, it took 70 weeks. Company engineers installed the system on the second ship, the USS Monterey, in 20 weeks. Under the modified contract, Litton specialists will complete work on two additional ships they had already started when the contract was ended, and had been awarded contract options for four more.

The program has been turned over to the Naval Ship Systems Engineering Site (NAVSSES) in Philadelphia, which may carry out some additional limited work.

The Navy's statement of work for the so-called engineering control systems equipment (ECSE), released in December 1997, called for the contractor to "upgrade the ECSE ... to a software-based system utilizing COTS/NDI electronic hardware."

The ECSE consisted of development, installation, testing/checkout, and training for new damage control, fuel-control, integrated condition assessment, shipboard monitoring and control systems, an integrated bridge system, and a fiber-optic shipwide local-area network (LAN).

Litton had installed the original control-systems hardware for the Ticonderoga class, based on a system designed for the older Spruance-class destroyers. For the "Smart Ship" effort, Litton proposed an architecture of high-performance COTS workstations, consisting of fault-tolerant operator station units (OSUs), configured in a standard and reduced-size variant, and data acquisition units (DAUs).

The OSUs had 20-inch flat-panel displays with built-in integrated electronic training manuals and interactive built-in test capability. The DAUs offered automated control for the ship's LM2500 gas-turbine engines, damage control, auxiliaries, fuel-oil filter and transfer, and ship electric plant. Any of the all-COTS OSUs and DAUs, according to Litton, could monitor and control all control-system functions.

With the shutdown of the program, Navy officials say that NAVSSES officials will downsize the Litton design and back away from the high-powered workstations. They note that Litton planned to install 34 consoles capable of monitoring control system status and performing control tasks. The Ticonderoga-class ships, they say, simply do not need that level of capability.

The Navy also will drop at least one new fiber-optic LAN from the design and instead retain the ship's old copper cable serial-data loop. The ship's systems, Navy officials say, simply do not pass enough electronic signals to require a state-of-the art fiber plant.

Situation reports from the commanding officer of the Ticonderoga during the ECSE installation repeatedly cited fundamental problems of software design, delays in developing and installing software changes, hardware failures, and delays in completing training manuals. Deficiencies remained open last summer, when the Ticonderoga went to sea for trials and was formally accepted by the Navy.

As the program shut down, Navy and industry engineers say that the Smart Ship effort taught hard lessons about the complexities of trying to impose a full-up COTS controls architecture on legacy ship machinery, especially in an accelerated modernization program.

The Aegis ship program office, before those tough lessons were learned, proposed a similar program for Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers. That effort has been dropped.

Currently prime contractor Lockheed Martin Information Systems upgrades the Burke control systems incrementally through the Navy's traditional engineering change process.

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