Shipboard electronics evolve to match the pace of threat

The threat environment for the U.S. Navy is ever-evolving, as is modern warfare as a whole, with the result that shipboard electronics must keep up in order to address electronic warfare (EW) concerns. Leveraging open architecture and agnostic design in a ship’s defense system is therefore the paramount goal of the Navy’s Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP). Major players in the shipboard electronics design market are bringing major advancements to the naval EW arena.

According to the U.S. Navy, its Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Pro­gram (SEWIP) was introduced in 2002 as a way to modernize naval technology and mitigate obsolescence with incremental upgrades to the program – all with Raytheon’s AN/SLQ-32 system in mind. Introduced in the late 1970s, the AN/SLQ-32 (Slick-32) electronic warfare (EW) system was designed to protect fleets using such technologies as early detection, signal analysis, threat warning, and protection from antiship missiles.

SEWIP maintained, and continues to maintain, the operationality of Slick-32 as it relates to a modern-day threat environment by establishing block upgrades as the technology associated with EW evolves. Today, there are three block upgrades in place with a fourth currently in production, naval documents assert.

The continuous upgrades, completed through contract by Lockheed Martin, ensure that the Navy is equipped with only the latest versions of shipboard EW capabilities and that Slick-32 is able to carry out those capabilities as threats develop. Leveraging open architectures and modularity in the ship’s defense systems have proven to be key design considerations in SEWIP’s upgrade efforts.

While the modernization of military technology tends to move at a slower and more expensive pace than that of commercial advancements, the Navy understands that rivaling electronic risks in a quick, cost-effective manner is necessary. Industry officials say they believe that commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics, open architecture, modularity, and agnostic design will combine to achieve a near-automated shipboard defense system.

The current state of SEWIP

Blocks 1 and 2 of the SEWIP upgrades laid out the groundwork for more reliable, modernized ship combat systems. They provided fleets with a full suite of EW capabilities including countertargeting, countersurveillance capabilities, and antiship missile defense. Obsolescence mitigation was a significant focus as well and led to the introduction of electronic surveillance enhancements (ESE) and improved control and display (ICAD).

The electronic support (ES) capability that came along with Block 2 showcased an open combat interface, which revolutionized shipboard electronic defense systems and has provided operators with enhanced programmability opportunities.

“You don’t have to cut the ship open and rip equipment out and do those kinds of things to create the next capability upgrade,” says Joe DePietro, vice president of small combatants and ship systems at Lockheed Martin in Bethesda, Maryland. “Because you have that space, you have those standard interfaces that are able to quickly move other systems into the ship design.”

The latest upgrade to SEWIP was its Block 3 update, which consisted of electronic attack capability improvements to Slick-32 in order to ensure its operationality is modernized in tandem with the pace of threat.

SEWIP as a whole employs an open architecture design, which according to original SEWIP implementer General Dynamics, enables rapid integration of emerging technologies to aid in antiship missile defense and EW situational awareness. Its block updates and open business model enable implementation of a low-risk modernization process when it comes to updating the 1970s-vintage Slick-32 system.

The importance of open architecture

Today’s reality: Countries like Russia and China continue to develop of antiship missiles equipped with targeting radar that uses frequencies Slick-32 may simply be too out-of-date to detect. SEWIP provides checks and balances on shipboard defense systems to ensure that U.S. Navy fleets have the most contemporary electronic defense possible. Industry players are now designing ships with that requirement in mind.

Lockheed Martin’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) – which replaced three classes of ship in the Navy (the FFG7, the PC, and the mine countermeasure ships) – was intended to use modularity and open architecture to modernize and simplify upgrades. (Figure 1).

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Figure 1 | Pictured is LCS 17, the future USS Indianapolis, during its acceptance trials in Lake Michigan during June, 2019. Lockheed Martin photo.

“About 40 percent of the Freedom variant on our ship is empty and reconfigurable,” DePietro says. “But when I say it’s empty, it actually has the standard interfaces to include how things connect to the network, how things get data, etc., because there would be different systems that ran different computer programs and had different footprints that can be plugged in and have sort of a plug-and-play capability across the ship.”

This “plug-and-play” concept provides operators with the capacity to swap out mission packages and move from capability to capability without having to change the ship’s programming. According to DePietro, the physical connection to the network – the actual physical implementation of the product onto the ship – is why the LCS replaced the other classes.

With the LCS specifically, a requirement for the ship’s design is to be able to swap out a mission package capability and be ready to go with a new one within 96 hours. Having the capability to, for example, pull out an antisubmarine warfare mission package today, and then put on a surface warfare mission package with guns and missile launchers to then have it ready for operation in less than a week is simply unachievable without an open architecture environment.

“Modularity goes from not only having different spaces, whether they be weapon spaces or internal ship spaces that have a standard interface, but also having that network connection.” DePietro says. “So, there’s a gateway to allow the mission packages to plug in and be able to get data from the ship, like navigation data and mining data and combat systems data.”

Open architecture is also present in the latest generation of Raytheon’s Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS) Integrated Combat System (ICS). It includes a component called Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), which provides a single integrated air picture by fusing data from multiple sensors to improve track accuracy, according to Raytheon officials.

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Figure 2 | The Raytheon Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS) Integrated Combat System (ICS) is getting tested on U.S. Navy Ford-class carriers, similar to the carrier pictured here. U.S. Navy photo.

“CEC embraces a wide variety of open standards and architectural tenets in order to keep the implementation current, flexible, and extensible.” says Alicia Calef, senior director of total ship integration systems at Raytheon in Waltham, Massachusetts. “All while leveraging the latest advances in technology to deliver advanced capability to the warfighter.”

Essentially, on-the-fly upgrades are a necessity in today’s ships (see Figure 2) that can be executed successfully only through modularity and open architecture. Those capabilities are quickly becoming requirements in today’s threat environment.

COTS continues to play a significant role

COTS products are becoming a more prevalent piece in the design of a ship’s ­electronic defense system, because these parts contribute to the overall ease of implementation and affordability when undergoing a refresh process.

“It’s the integration of COTS electronics,” DePietro says. “Being able to develop virtual machines, as opposed to having dedicated hardware and software for everything, created the capability for us with the ship design and the ship-package interface to support multiple computer programs, different system-integration capabilities – it’s almost like putting a USB device into your computer and having it find it.” This isn’t to say that Lockheed Martin doesn’t also continue to use an industry-provided social computing environment, he asserts, but that does not limit the Navy in providing custom systems for the company to integrate into the LCS.

“The Navy did provide systems like that to us, like the CRAM, our self-defense rolling air frame missile capability. They offer that to us, and we integrate the capability for them.” DePietro says. “But the backbone of all of those systems was provided by industry in an open architecture way to be able to receive a lot of the Navy’s systems that they provide.” Raytheon has also used COTS products in its ICS system and components as it seeks to bring radar data from geographically dispersed ships, aircraft, and ground-based units into a single integrated air picture.

“CEC embraces the latest COTS technology, packaged for operations in a rugged environment, to provide state-of-the-art resources for implementing the CEC mission while simultaneously embracing the ability to adapt and evolve to the ever-changing technological landscape,” Calef says.

Obsolescence and life cycle management

Implementing COTS electronics makes modernizing a combat ship’s self-defense systems quicker, more affordable, and ensures the technology’s relevance in relation to the pace of threat. However, reliability remains a concern when comparing the long-term operability of COTS electronics versus custom ones.

To address this matter, certain requirements within Blocks 1 and 2 of SEWIP were implemented that COTS electronics must meet. The manufacturers that play a role in the design of ships’ EW systems have adopted certain standards to mitigate these concerns as well.

“CEC employs an extensive ‘Whole Life’ management concept that constantly monitors and adapts for change and evolution in the technological landscape.” Calef says. “Technology is refreshed as advanced capabilities demands and technological obsolescence requires in order to keep the capability modern, relevant, and producible.”

The overarching goal of using COTS electronics and mitigating obsolescence in shipboard defense systems: To take hardware and software out of the life cycle management discussion. The endgame: Having the flexibility to move to the next processor or the next single-board computer without having to change the ship’s software.

“The goal is to be able to extend the life cycle of a product based on vendor cooperation and supporting the assets that are out there.” DePietro says. “And of course, there is form, fit, and function replacement. Those are very proactive approaches to dealing with what’s going on as we field those COTS systems.”

The future of shipboard electronics

The tides are bringing in many exciting advancements for the shipboard electronic industry. As with most military technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are expected to eventually play a role in combat ships’ defense systems. Both have already been introduced in routine maintenance procedures: “We’ve installed systems on the ship that will allow sailors to say, ‘OK, based on all of these parameters, the machine knows that it’s going to be time to do this maintenance check and recommends this configuration,’” DePietro says. “And that can become available for its maintenance as a part of the cycle.”

AI and ML will most likely exist more prevalently in fleets’ decision-making processes. Having a capability in a ship’s electronic defense system that is always thinking one step ahead of the war­fighter levels the EW playing field.

“The evolution of CEC is embracing artificial intelligence and machine learning in order to deliver advanced capability and decision aids for understanding and acting upon the ever-increasing complexities and speed of change in the battle­space to the direct benefit of the warfighter,” Calef says.

Laser weapons and combat management systems are also on the horizon for shipboard electronics, it appears: Lockheed Martin asserts that the Arleigh Burke class of ship will eventually be equipped with a laser weapon system. It’s also on the horizon that fleets will soon be able to implement capabilities like Raytheon’s CEC to interface and ensure use of the best weapon or system for the mission underway.

“A combat management system and the interfaces associated with it – that is where the biggest capability is,” DePietro says. “The ships, the aircraft, the unmanned vehicles all work together. That is a big part of what we’re doing.”