The U.S. Navy didn’t ask for an Integrated Advanced Ship Control system on the bridges of its aircraft carriers. Its ships are sailing on course and launching and recovering aircraft regularly. Watches are being stood and radar screens are showing the horizon clearly.
But when engineers from L-3 Communications visited the bridges of those ships a few years ago to upgrade some displays, they saw an outdated patchwork of equipment. Operations were being coordinated from bridges that looked like the television section of an appliance store. Monitors ranged from 10-inch-diameter circles to 23-inch screens, from analog to digital, all forming an electronic menagerie that offered command-and-control information and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance data.
When the engineers told their bosses what they saw, executives at the company’s Maritime Systems unit — located in Boston at the time and now in Leesburg, Va., — saw an opportunity. They appealed to Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., and to former Rep. Jed Bradley, R-N.H., to arrange to have $900,000 inserted into the 2010 Navy budget and an identical amount into the 2011 budget for seed money. The company had high hopes of expanding the IASC initiative to other classes of ships in the Navy’s fleet.
This year, advocates felt they were making good progress, with a design review scheduled for late June in Norfolk, Va., and a possible test installation on the table. Now, however, a confluence of budget pressures and politics has placed the initiative in a tenuous funding position.
“Hopefully we’re going to get a decision to go forward,” said Mike Petrillo, a veteran of two tours on carriers with the Navy and now a civilian Navy employee running an office in Norfolk that supports bridge operations for Naval Sea Systems Command in Philadelphia.
“Is there going to be funding available to do an installation on a ship as a proof of concept?” Petrillo wondered. “I don’t personally like to see this design that we’ve put a lot of effort into go to waste.”
When L-3 won funding for the initiative in 2010, few eyebrows were raised. “At that time in the defense industry, that really wasn’t uncommon,” said Al Taylor, director of business development for L-3. “If industry came up with an idea that was of interest to the Department of Defense, but which didn’t fit within its high-level strategic plan, so it wasn’t in the budget, the company would work with its local representative and try to seek supplemental funding. It used to be a fairly common practice — not just with DoD, but all across government — to get some of these new technical ideas at least launched. That’s no longer the case.”
With a change in congressional attitude toward budget earmarks, asking for that kind of help isn’t viable now. That means that if the Navy wants to continue the initiative, it will have to look toward more traditional funding lines to find about $2 million to keep IASC going past June.
With the $1.8 million spent so far, L-3 engineers looked at carriers’ bridge plans and visited ships to talk with bridge personnel, from helmsmen to commanding officers.
The 11 ships in the U.S. carrier fleet range from the half-century-old Enterprise to the recently deployed George H.W. Bush. That span of years has been punctuated by technological development, but little consideration was given to the placement of bridge display screens to report the results.
“Some of the information the ship drivers need may be on the port corner of the bridge and not anywhere else,” said John Wisniewski, a former naval officer and now L-3’s project engineering manager for the IASC system.
L-3 and Petrillo’s office want to combine displays, standardize screens and consolidate workstations, then place them on the bridge where they can be best used. It’s also a way to shrink the number of warehoused spares for each screen. They also want to establish common interfaces and fiber and copper links to displays, and require that new technology meet specifications to the terminals. And they want to spend less time and money on expensive environmental qualifications that include vibration and shock tests.
“Without controlling the size and footprints and connections, we end up spending more money in new qualifications, in new logistics, in new installation processes,” said Petrillo, who pointed to a custom-built monitor that costs $35,000 to manufacture and suggested the cost should be about half that. He stood in a scale model of the bridge of the Nimitz on the ground floor of an office building in Norfolk. The mockup was created for training, but it’s also used with the L-3 IASC system and will host the critical design review.
The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of displays from between 20 and 30, depending on the ship, to a dozen or so, and standardizing screens so that they lend themselves to competition and cost savings to the Navy.
A problem is that cost figures must be projected over the decades-long lifetime of a ship, a scenario that isn’t as appealing to budget writers these days.
Petrillo said the upgrades would be a first step. “These displays are only on 11 carriers,” he said. “But if you see that display on every ship, you’ll start standardizing every configuration and start supporting logistics. The aircraft carriers aren’t going to be enough. You have to do this with other platforms.”