Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


It Begins with the Backbone

Editor’s Note: Lieutenant Buchanan’s essay was written while attending SOAC Class 99030. He is currently Engineer on USS FLORIDA (SSBN 728) (Gold).

The explosion in information technology (IT) has engulfed the Navy. As we head into the 21st Century the United States Submarine Force will be left in the proverbial IT21 wake if we are not technologically innovative. We must act now to build the Virginia class attack submarine with the fundamental capabilities and train the right people to operate effectively in a network-based environment. What must the Virginia have to be ready to assume its role as a leader in Information Technology? First, we have to create a new personnel program to adequately train our sailors and officers in network operations and maintenance. Second, we must build into the Virginia the proper infrastructure and network backbone to guarantee its success. Finally, we have to make sure we understand the potential for future development and build into Virginia systems that can be upgraded with hardware and software throughout the expected 35 to 40-year life of that submarine and the others of the Virginia class. It is a challenging task. It must be solved today. The United States Submarine Force cannot squander this opportunity to build a new class of submarines appropriately outfitted with the proper network infrastructure to make the submarine more operationally effective and the crew better able to do their day-to-day work in port and at sea.

We must understand the capabilities of information technology and be aware of its limitations. In the past, we have focused too much on the limitations rather than on what the capability to make our submarines more efficient and effective. There are certainly aspects of incorporating network technology that are a challenge. Challenges can be overcome if we apply the resources and the creative people to make it happen. IT will help us do things faster and more efficiently. IT is not simply doing things with a computer that you would have normally done manually or by hand, but it is an entirely new way of thinking and problem-solving. It is important that a standardized Local Area Network (LAN) package is developed that can be outfitted on any boat in the future. I will present an alternative; there are many others that may be varieties on my theme. The critical issue is that we must take the steps necessary to transition our submarines to be an essential part of the IT world. A most important aspect of any computer network alternative is that it takes into account the multi-layered security concerns and the management of each network configuration.

As we made our earliest attempts to backfit LANs aboard submarines, there was little training afforded the officers or crew. Many of the crew knew about the capabilities of computers and as a result, there were many suggestions and unfortunately, just as many solutions. There was no help desk and it was an environment that lacked standards, possessed no configuration controls, no documentation, and little training for those who needed it. If there was training it was normally provided to one person in the crew and that person became a one-person expert charged with the training of over one hundred other people. A very difficult task to say the least. LANs cannot be administered in this haphazard fashion. We have to accept the fact that this is a new way of life and we must commit the resources, change the way we are doing business and dedicate people on a full-time basis to this responsibility. Personnel need training, they need to understand what they can and cannot do, and they have to recognize the security implications of doing certain things. Without this invaluable training security breaches occur, hardware and software problems arise, and inefficiency frustrates the crew and the leadership of the submarine.

The local area networks and their capabilities need to be treated like any other ship system. Likewise, every submarine system must be a part of the network. Networks must be tracked as active maintenance issues, they must be ready to go to sea to support the mission, and they must be relied upon as we face the world of the future. LANs should not keep commanding officers from getting their ship underway to conduct operations. Knowledgeable individuals trained in network operations correcting problems on the spot will give commanding officers the confidence that these systems and the personnel who maintain them can support the operational mission just as effectively as any other system.

The ability to stay on top of hardware performance is a challenge for any industry; it is even a more important challenge for the space-limited submarine. We have to build systems that are space-conscious and sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of the future warrior. The network must be robust enough so that it can be modified with the right hardware and software as required. The ship must be human engineered such that the computer workspace is considered the focal point rather than as an after thought.

Understanding information technology and its potential is one of the greatest needs the Navy has today. On submarines, the problem becomes even greater. As a submarine performs different operations, appropriately the submarine begins to involve many different security levels. Each of these levels has different criteria and requires separate procedures. To incorporate information technology to service each level of security remains a challenge for our Submarine Force. The ability to seamlessly manage these local area networks for each level of security remains the most effective way to bring computer networks into the submarine environment without risking a multi-level security violation.

A submarine requires four separate LANs, each performing a different function. (1) A TOP SECRET High LAN designed for planning, reviewing, and reporting on any submarine intelligence collection or special mission operations. This LAN must have restricted access but must be effective in its support of operations. (2) A SECRET LAN dedicated to the ship’s tactical operations and planning. (3) A CONFIDENTIAL LAN designed for equipment monitoring and diagnostics, supply support, maintenance management and to facilitate the ship’s day-to-day internal operation. (4) An UNCLASSIFIED LAN available for logistical support at the unclassified level, administrative coordination, and planning, as well as other functions useful in improving every aspect of the crew’s at sea and in port quality of life.

The first LAN would deal specifically with the highest classification levels. The commanding officer, executive officer, other appropriate officers, radiomen, and other personnel as necessary could access this TOP SECRET High LAN. The information on this network would include highly classified message traffic along with planning documents for the mission. It would link control, the wardroom, and other appropriate locations for real-time reporting, as well as the collaborative generation of mission reports.

The value of the wardroom for planning and operational discussions has run its course. It has neither the security barriers nor the capabilities to support the around-the-clock requirements necessary for continuous support to the battle group commander or the joint task force commander. The submarine has always had problems sharing and receiving real-time data with the rest of its brethren-with a central knowledge dissemination facility the information can be readily provided. The submarine needs a space separate and distinct from control and the wardroom to conduct collaborative strike preparation, operational analysis, and future operational planning.

This center, possibly called the Knowledge Acquisition and Analysis Center (KAAC), could double as a damage control center for combating complex casualties. The KAAC would be a computer/information center where appropriately cleared personnel can get away from the operations center to review past patrol reports, look at weather information, consider options and develop plans. It would also have the appropriate communications capability such that the commanding officer or command duty officer could talk to the appropriate forces while referencing directly tactical and strategic planning information while not interrupting the activities of the control room. This center would be the central nervous system for submarine information technology. It would contain COTS workstations along with electronic navigation charts, ship’s control, and damage control displays. This cannot and should not be done in the wardroom. It should not be viewed as a unique officer space but rather as a planning and control space with the appropriate computer support and display support hardware to prepare for an operation. DC Central functionality is not the topic of this paper, but the KAAC would far exceed the currently limited capabilities of the CO’s stateroom.

The TOP SECRET High network would be small, but would allow the CO/XO access to messages and reports about the intelligence gathered while in his stateroom or in the KAAC. A dedicated server in the KAAC (as the network operation center and planning cell) would provide adequate mission support and real-time intelligence gathering connections with a radio that could provide the ability to transmit SCIOPNOTES through the next generation EHF. Real-time support for the battle group is critical and remains one of the hottest submarine missions. Preparing written mission reports is becoming folklore. They are historic and need extensive analysis. The submarine needs to focus on being part of the real-time Navy for amphibious attack and other operations, including strike planning. To assist the TS LAN in its security measures the KAAC could serve as a secure location for the hub that would be necessary to line all the access ports together. Sufficient ports would be available for simultaneous access to mission information. The ports could be controlled as well. Each wall plate could theoretically be secured under lock and key. This would allow only a select number of personnel access to the LAN at any given time. The navigator or security manager would provide accesses to the LAN through issuance of a key and a special laptop. The laptop would be for SCI use only. A LAN access password would be required and the domain of the network could be strictly controlled.

The second LAN that should be available is the SECRET operation LAN. This LAN would be the tactical link between the fire control and sonar COTS. The server, again located in KAAC becomes the place where the operational data exists and can be accessed on a variety of workstations throughout the operational spaces of the ship. This would provide a unique way to share information between each of the stations while at battle stations, during normal underway steaming, and during casualties, but it could also provide the ability to access valuable planning information for strikes, navigation operations, and the like. A remote monitor or flat panel screen should be built into the crew’s mess to provide routine updates and training to the crew. This SECRET operation LAN would provide valuable link to the battle group. OTCIXS and BGIXS could in the near term provide the communication path to other units.

It should be the goal of the Submarine Force to be linked via this LAN to the SECRET Internet Protocol Network (SIPRNET). Right now the only thing limiting our bandwidth is the ability to use a large antenna. The Virginia class must be ready to utilize the larger bandwidth once it is available with systems and people on board who can handle large amounts of data. At no time in the future of submarine design should we be outpaced by antenna technology? We need to be ready with the appropriately sized backbone to ensure we can manipulate and utilize as much data as is available within the submarine. Certainly data and more appropriately knowledge is only useful if it can get on and off the submarine. That is the challenge of improving antennas. We must be ready to send and receive useful and well-structured information and knowledge when the antennas are available.

The third LAN is a CONFIDENTIAL one. This LAN involves the whole ship and requires a dedicated server for mass data storage. The LAN could be the lifeblood for the nuclear propulsion plant with a connection to the KAAC. If inappropriate to work nuclear engineering issues in the KAAC then an equivalent space in the engineering spaces must be created. The ability to automatically log and catalog readings and conduct trend analysis would be exceptionally valuable. The real challenge here is determining how to route the appropriate fiber network and where to place the LAN connections throughout the ship. Bulkhead penetrations and cableways will be necessary to line the submarine’s exoskeleton with the highest grade fiber network. Technical drawings and diagnostic systems will be embedded on the system for use. The logistical investigative process of SNAP III will be a breeze and ship’s training will be the most interactive and educational available in the Navy today.

Once the determination has been made where to put the connections the question now becomes how will log taking be accomplished? There should be no need for trend analysis by reviewing logs. It is technologically feasible to develop an automatic recording system for the different equipment parameters. These parameters can then be displayed on the computer to determine performance characteristics. If a characteristic is out of specification then the supervisor can investigate for other indications of trouble-noises, etc. The computer should take the data, do a projection and point the operator to possible areas of concern. This will ultimately reduce the number of watch standers required in the engine room, which in turn will save the Navy money and space. There should be no need to search tech manuals for troubleshooting. It should be available by inserting the appropriate characteristics of the problem into the computer and the computer can help with diagnostics.

A space similar to the KAAC is needed separate from maneuvering to perform the same functions for the engineering plant that the KAAC does forward. Controlled by the engineering log room yeoman, the Engineering Maintenance and Analysis Center (EMAC) would be the hub of the engine room. Filled with CD-ROM technical documents, divisional workstations for additional training, administration, and online monitoring of critical equipment, this configuration can allow the engineer to instantaneously monitor a problem area and research its solution. Everything from monitoring engine room component temperatures to reactor power could be available to him at a touch of a button. During refits, this area could serve as the central planning facility as well.

A fourth LAN is required for the needs of the crew. Whereas the previous three LANs had specific end-users and functionality, this LAN must be more general in construction. I caJI it the quality LAN. Like the confidential network, this LAN runs the length of the ship and is available to the whole crew. The unclassified and confidential ports are located adjacent to one another. This LAN has the most ports and workstations allotted to it and as such is the most difficult to maintain. The LAN can be used by the crew to print paperwork or route e-mail or post schedules. The main concern here is providing adequate access for everyone. The KAAC and EMAC will provide all the workstations each division will need. The unclassified LAN will be another resource for training and reference material. Qualification records can be tracked here. Additionally, qualification and continuing training exams can be given, scored, compiled and trends determined on the computer. These rather simple examples of going paperless are all possible if we spend the money and embrace the technology. This LAN is the ship’s Internet and gateway to the outside world.

The quality of life portion of this LAN focuses on electronic mail functionality. E-mail is great and may be the greatest quality of life initiative to come to the Submarine Force in a long time. It has finally provided a method of conducting two-way communications with home. When the submarine is in port away from home, crew morale will be greatly enhanced by the ability to communicate with family. There are potential issues with the system, but those can be resolved with the right training, network monitoring, and support by trained personnel. We should not prevent this tremendous quality of life initiative from being achieved because we are afraid to deal with the small percentage of the crew who may not utilize it appropriately.

In all the LANs that I discussed, the most important aspect of their configuration is the location of their ports. Ports inappropriately placed will cause more problems than solutions. It will also determine where full workstations (desktops) can be placed and where laptops are in order. On the Virginia class, there must be a bow to stern review of where space is available for these most important workstations. I recommend that we create three shore billets for junior officers and assign them as a team to Electric Boat/Newport News and PEO Submarines to conduct an evaluation of this LAN technology in an operationally effective way. These jobs should have undergraduate degrees in Electrical Engineering or Computer Science and should be provided an opportunity to attend graduate school in conjunction with their duty assignment. Submarine network technology and its implementation would be their primary focus. This subject could serve as a thesis or dissertation if presented properly to the schools. Schools like MIT or RPI could sponsor this effort and benefit appropriately from the linkage with this project. In the past, we have had similar arrangements with MIT Woods Hole. The JOs would benefit by enjoying a rewarding two years investigating the technology needs of the Submarine Force and more importantly, providing solutions that will have a direct impact to future submarine designs.

By embracing IT the Submarine Force will benefit. As IT becomes more and more an issue the Submarine Force with its best and the brightest will be able to innovate. Give these young sailors the latest in technology and they will figure out good ways to tum information into knowledge.

Networks are complex systems. They rely heavily on software systems and embedded protocols. While one may be proficient at Word and Excel, one generally doesn’t learn how to manipulate and monitor the network without good training. Network engineering is not intuitively obvious, therefore, young men and women need to be trained to operate these networks. Whether the task is setting up the server, backing up the tapes, or setting up the standalone network, network operations are difficult and often times extremely stressful. It is no surprise that Windows NT can be a nightmare if one is not properly trained.

LAN managers at shore installations are often government contractors hired to specifically administer the network and troubleshoot problems when they arise. The submarine does not have the space or the luxury to rely on outside help. If the above is given then the only solution to our problem of LAN management is to develop our own. We need someone specifically trained in this field to adequately service the network and provide the appropriate level of oversight.

My proposal is a small division of personnel working directly for the weapons officer. Since the network is going to support the largest weapons system (the ship) it could be an additional task for the weapons officer. The WEPS could be trained as an administrator and support the effort of his division called information division. In this division, resides a leading petty officer and three additional personnel-typically, two petty officers and a seaman designated striker (on the job training). Three people besides the LPO would be necessary so that they can support a three-section watch at sea and surge to port and starboard if needed. The watch bill in port will be a four-person rotation with additional folks from other divisions augmented and trained to stand in port LAN manager. All division members and those selected to stand duty will have been through a rigorous Microsoft-based network administrator course. Like any other division, they have other duties that they are assigned, but their primary focus is the maintenance of the equipment, monitoring LAN status, troubleshooting problems, and implementing upgrades.

As submariners, we are by definition innovators. We have done so for 100 years. Now we face new challenges and must think outside the lifelines. We need to redesign how we think about the problem of information technology. The sharing of information between teammates and shipmates via the network will allow knowledge to flourish. Only then can we have innovation. Moreover, as a Submarine Force, we have come a long way in the use of IT tools, but we have only scratched the surface on how to gain added productivity from the use of IT. We need to dedicate appropriate numbers of personnel, fiscal resources, and the time of submarine designers to develop IT solutions for the future. The longer we wait the further behind we will be. Establishing spaces like the KAAC and the EMAC as well as improving personnel training and establishing junior officer fellowships to determine the right mix of technology needed in the future are some initial steps that can be taken to improve the transition to the networked 21’st Century. We need to be aggressive and not delay in our quest to find more space onboard Virginia for IT components. Our productivity and connectivity depends on our ability to manage the IT backbone and its resources.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League