COLLEGE PARK, MD: Tucked away discreetly in an office building near the University of Maryland campus, a group of Navy engineers are working to bring an industry-mastered concept to one of the most important pieces of technology of the fleet.
“We need to have the ability to ensure that our ships can receive software. Whether you use it or not, just like on your phone, you decide [if you] update today or not,” said Steve Murphy, director of engineering at the facility the service has dubbed “the Forge.”
Think of it as the equivalent of an app store for a warship’s combat technology suite, constantly and quickly updated with the latest versions of software.
Murphy was among several Navy officials who spoke to Breaking Defense last week as part of an exclusive, in-depth review of the Forge, a software factory created by the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems and focused on surface combat systems, such as Aegis, the centralized command and control technology at the heart of much of the Navy’s surface fleet.
There are more than two dozen other software factories throughout the Pentagon, but the Forge’s focus on surface combat systems is unique. During a two-hour briefing, a group of Navy officers – both uniformed and civilian – delved into the project using two favorite military tools: analogies and PowerPoint slides.
The end goal of the Forge is to establish the infrastructure necessary to bring software updates to the fleet’s combat systems as quickly as a single day. After several years of working on proofs of concept, Captain Andrew Biehn, a uniformed officer in charge of the Forge, says the team’s methods have proven to be viable.
Now they are preparing to demonstrate the Forge’s capabilities in fleet exercises scheduled for this summer, an important step in convincing Navy leaders to continue funding them.
The Forge’s work represents the first fundamental steps towards what the Navy has called the “Integrated Combat System”, a lofty goal of creating uniform combat environments aboard every ship in the surface fleet, so that a sailor could step off a cruiser and board a destroyer with no additional training.
It is an ambitious task. But the basic technical feasibility has already been proven by Silicon Valley tech giants, the automotive industry, airlines and other private industries. An important question for the Navy is whether it can avoid tripping over its own bureaucracy along the way.
Diving into a “data lake” to defeat bureaucracy
In the quest for same-day updates, the Forge team faces a notoriously slow creature: the military bureaucracy.
But in this case, the half-dozen briefers who spoke to Breaking Defense, including the one-star admiral tasked with leading PEO IWS, said the central problem with bureaucracy is not a desire to bog down progress, but a lack of real-time data. available to those who need it to give the green light.
Hud Lemons, an expert from the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, pointed to Forge’s work on the cruiser Monterey (CG-61), a true “microcosm of what we’re trying to do here.”
Biehn’s team installed new IT infrastructure on this ship in 2018, including two large touchscreens equipped with mapping capabilities, deployed an Aegis virtual weapon system and a suite of software to improve the ship’s operational awareness.
RELATED: Lockheed and Microsoft Team Up on New 5G Technology for the Military
When the ship returned to Norfolk for maintenance, the Commodore explained some changes he wanted to see made to the touchscreen map. Under traditional circumstances, even a simple update of a digital map could have taken years. Four weeks later, to the captain’s surprise, Lemons and his team had updated the map software.
It might not be Silicon Valley speed, but it turned out to be a crucial point that is at the heart of Forge’s strategy: if everyone involved has the tools and information to verify your work while you do, things go much faster when you start asking permission from Avance.
“We were able to provide all the [objective quality evidence] necessary for this to be cleared for delivery to the vessel,” Lemons said. “Because the people who were in line in that process to say, ‘Yes, you can deliver that,’ could see all the data underneath and knew exactly what we were doing.” And therein lies the secret of how the Forge believes it can overcome the bureaucratic slowdown.
Dave Smith, Forge’s quality assurance manager, called the idea a “data lake.” Overall, the various managers – cybersecurity, security, test and evaluation – who need to approve updates all need to review the same data. If this data is stored and updated in real time in an environment where everyone can see it, it greatly reduces the chances that a major problem will arise in the end.
The experiment on Monterey became known as “Virtual Pilot Ship Increment I” and was a crucial test case for the Forge for two reasons. The first is that it proved the team’s theory of how to speed up the process through the “data lake” described by Smith.
The second is that it was a chance to employ hardware and software capable of being used on a variety of ship classes. The software used across the fleet today is highly dependent on being able to connect to specific hardware processors. This makes updating it incredibly painful, as Navy engineers try to solve future problems while being limited to very specific and often outdated processing power.
La Forge aims to overcome this limitation by disconnecting the requirements of a software from any hardware element.
If this all sounds very technical, here’s a reality check: Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and other tech giants figured this out a long time ago, and today people are enjoying better and easier technology. to use, as it can receive virtually identical updates on any device. But warships have a lot more to do – literally and figuratively – than an iPhone or a personal computer.
The disconnect between hardware and software is a fundamental principle for the construction of the integrated combat system.
So where does the Aegis Weapon System come in? A virtual twin takes the source code that powers Aegis and runs it on smaller, sleeker hardware than was installed aboard Monterey decades ago. In other words, the ship retains the capabilities of Aegis while acquiring an infrastructure capable of receiving updates.
Biehn’s team had planned “Virtual Pilot Ship Increment II”, but it fell through due to a lack of funding. Now the captain claims the Forge has ‘been beyond the need’ anyway. Since Monterey, the software factory has been able to use these virtual systems on Army programs as well as Navy unmanned surface ships.
“Instead of a virtual pilot ship, we’re just doing the first Aegis virtualized weapon system on a destroyer by the end of this calendar year,” he said. “So we’ve kind of passed that milestone and are close to delivering it to the fleet.”
Automate “event reconstruction” to speed up decision making and improve training
The VPS is just an experiment, however. During last week’s briefing, Navy officials explained that the heart of the software factory is not just about releasing updates, but also about using the data the fleet logs.
In this vein, La Forge has developed an “event reconstruction tool”, an asset that the team will evaluate during fleet exercises this year. Although limited to its specific use case, the Event Reconstruction Application is a type of software that Navy engineers ashore could quickly deliver to the fleet through the infrastructure that Forge aims to provide.
Biehn referenced his time as a senior officer on the destroyer Truxtun (DDG-103) during the Black Sea transit to explain his purpose.
During a deployment, a Russian jet constantly harassed Biehn’s ship. Normally, Sailors should record one set per set of events to provide to higher echelon commands in the future. The process is as tedious and time-consuming as it sounds.
Forge’s tool would pull data from the ship’s systems to create these records in real time. In the short term, the tool saves sailors the trouble of doing it by hand. But more importantly, Biehn said, this data can be immediately accessed and used for a variety of purposes unrelated to software development, such as operational decisions and training.
“You’re starting to see Forge’s pushing ability, I think at a pace that we’re comfortable with,” said Rear Admiral Seiko Okano, head of PEO IWS. “So, we’re taking notice of…you’ve reconstructed the event, what’s next?”
The Forge’s end state goals are ambitious. There’s still a lot of work to do before the Surface Fleet can boast the flexibility of Apple’s App Store. Due to the size of the Navy, the expensive nature of any warship upgrades, and the security issues associated with modifying a system as large as Aegis, the transformation the Forge seeks will take time.
But when Biehn’s team outfitted a working destroyer with a virtual Aegis weapon system later this year, he said, “It’s not all the way to the [Integrated Combat System]. It’s not even halfway through ICS. But it is an important fundamental step for us.