Ships' old computers show need for Navy IT overhaul

NORFOLK VA - tour of two Navy ships docked here at the Norfolk Naval Station demonstrates just why the Navy is pursuing its Information Technology for the 21st Century (IT-21) program a massive undertaking that will use commercial technology to create a seamless ship-to-shore computing environment.

The USS Hawes a sleek and nimble frigate looks like a modern warship with its mast topped by an array of antennas.

But inside the Hawes chugs along on a motley collection of computers including decade-old rugged Sun Microsystems Inc. workstations that power its command and control system.

Its supply system runs on equally ancient Harris Corp. computers. The Harris 300 computer the Hawes uses to manage its supplies features a tiny 80M hard drive and only 3M of RAM. This computer goes so slowly that "the operator can go and get a cup of coffee while waiting for a file " said Operation Specialist 1 Hal McPherson one of the ship's computer managers.

On the administrative side the Hawes managed to acquire a handful of Pentium PCs and has dumped its 386s. But the ship still uses "sneaker net" to exchange files because the Hawes does not have a local-area network McPherson said. Unlike much larger ships such as an aircraft carrier the Hawes pitches and rolls in anything but moderate seas. PCs are not secured by fancy racks or mounts but are held in place by bungee cords that serve as shock mounts McPherson pointed out.

The communications systems aboard the Hawes mirror the low-tech computer gear. The Sun workstations host the Joint Maritime Command Information System (JMCIS) which is the Navy's version of the Global Command and Control System. But because the Hawes must rely on a tactical data link not satellite feeds to receive information from larger ships in its battle group McPherson said "we don't use it for real-time information. Some of the tracks could be up to 18 hours old."

Reviewing his computers and communications systems McPherson summed up the state of information technology systems on the Hawes succinctly: "We're in the Stone Age " he said.

Berthed at the same pier the mammoth USS Wasp helicopter carrier - 844 feet long with a crew of 1 100 and capable of carrying 1 900 Marines as well as their helicopters amphibious landing vehicles trucks and stores - has information systems that easily surpass the capability of those on the Hawes.

The Wasp features a classified JMCIS LAN and an unclassified LAN that hook together 278 PCs according to Chief Mary Epright. The Wasp crew can use the unclassified LANs to send and receive e-mail with 16 users permitted full Internet connectivity including the ability to tap into the World Wide Web from anywhere in the world Epright said.

Capt. T.J. Johnson the Wasp's captain is pleased with the WASP's systems. "This is the first ship I've had with a LAN and the capability is appreciated " he said. "If the LAN goes down phones ring off the hook" with inquiries about its status.

But even with systems that far eclipse the capabilities of the Hawes the Wasp - due for a Mediterranean deployment in February 1998 - still does not have technology that is on par with the private sector or the Navy as a whole. The JMCIS LAN is powered by a generation-old Hewlett-Packard Co. computers purchased in the early 1990s from the Navy's Tactical Advanced Computer-3 contract. To save money the computers were installed in racks that originally housed even-older Sun workstations Epright said. She added that the shop does use the brand-new JMCIS '98 on the PCs which act as clients on the LAN.

The IT shortcomings on the Hawes and the Wasp are the key reasons why the Atlantic Fleet (LANTFLT) has embraced IT-21 said John Undset the fleet's program manager for command control communications computers and intelligence. "We have a wide spectrum of capabilities based on funding cycles and deploying cycles " Undset said who pointed out ships scheduled for operational deployment move to the head of the line for upgrades.

But tapping into traditional funding streams will make it difficult to upgrade the 190 ships in LANTFLT which only started installing LANs in 1993. Undset said LANTFLT has ambitious plans to install LANs on all carriers large-deck amphibious ships such as the Wasp and on cruisers.

The USS Eisenhower will serve as the IT-21 prototype for LANTFLT with 156 LAN drops on the classified side plus a 100-user unclassified network with installation slated for completion next June.

The Eisenhower will be followed in November 1998 by the USS Enterprise the first LANTFLT ship with the complete IT-21 package which includes LANs running Asynchronous Transfer Mode switches.But without an innovative approach to funding Undset said trying to upgrade every ship in the fleet is a nearly futile exercise. Slow funding means operational carriers such as the Enterprise and amphibious ships such as the Wasp will always be at the head of the technology line.

But leasing the equipment would alleviate that problem. "We just don't have the [procurement] money to refresh continuously. With leasing we can a refresh every 18 months " Undset said.

LANTFLT in cooperation with the Pacific Fleet plans to award this month a pilot program to lease IT equipment for its ashore headquarters LAN. But in Undset's view that program needs to be quickly extended to ships.

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