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Demand Grows for Intel-in-a-Suitcase System

Jul. 31, 2012 - 10:28AM   |  
By Jim Hodges   |   Comments
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Word spread quickly among naval officers about the test of a portable video-sharing station aboard the guided-missile cruiser Vicksburg. At 567 feet long, the Navy’s cruisers — and its even smaller destroyers — are not large enough to accommodate fixed workstations for receiving, processing and sharing video and associated intelligence.

That’s a problem because the Navy wants ships like the Vicksburg — built primarily to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles and hunt for submarines — to scout surrounding waters for pirates or terrorists, like those who sneaked up to the destroyer Cole 12 years ago and blew a hole in its side, killing 17. The crews need the ability to view video and share it with the Office of Naval Intelligence.

During the 2011 Trident Warrior sea experiment that ran from October to December, crew members on the Vicksburg unfolded a portable workstation consisting of a computer processor, displays and video receiver, and plugged it into the ship’s secure Secret Internet Protocol Router Network. They tested the system, called the Intelligence Carry-On Program, in a range of realistic scenarios. When the Navy decided to keep the ICOP prototype aboard during a Middle East deployment, that cinched it for other ship captains. They wanted their own ICOP prototypes, and now.

The fast-moving train that created ICOP in less than a year was put onto an even faster track. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego and BAE Systems, the prime contractor for ICOP and its parent program, the Distributed Common Ground System-Navy, are rushing to produce the $75,000 portable workstations as fast as the service can find money for them.

For an initiative that was supposed to come to fruition in 2014, and which is technically still in the prototype phase, a lot of equipment and software is being procured. Backers are cautiously predicting that ICOP will be made a program of record, meaning an initiative with a line in the Navy’s multiyear spending plan, although decisions about additional purchases and funding are still pending.

Most recently, three of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group’s ships — the cruiser Hue City and destroyers Winston Churchill and Jason Dunham — left from Virginia and Florida in June with ICOP prototypes aboard.

Naval Forces Central Command has requested a minimum of 16 additional ICOP computers and would like as many as 21, said Mo Kane, assistant manager for the ICOP effort.

The work started after development of DCGS-N — the Navy’s network of shore and ship-based intelligence sites — reached completion. The Navy decided that a subset of the capabilities was needed on smaller vessels. That was particularly true when the Navy began to fly the ScanEagle and Fire Scout unmanned aircraft equipped with full-motion-video cameras. Some in the Navy also wanted to pipe in video from Air Force Predator UAVs when ships were in range of them, and from camera-equipped F/A-18 fighter jets.

BAE and the newly-established ICOP office have been gathering requirements over the last 18 months from Navy Cyber Forces and the Fifth Fleet. A suite of tools was needed to process video for a ship’s ISR specialist, usually a chief petty officer. BAE and the Navy assembled a small team. Google Earth provided a portable server to create a geospatial foundation for the video. L-3 Communications supplied its VideoScout FMV receiver and Insight processing software.

“We were looking for really mature COTS and GOTS stuff” — commercial and government off-the-shelf equipment and software — “because we didn’t want to do a lot of developing,” said BAE’s Phil Turner, program manager for DCGS-N work, including ICOP. “We wanted to get a quick capability out.”

Simplicity was paramount. Training on ICOP takes two to three days, and the intelligence specialist then trains watchstanders.

“We had to build the system to make it pretty intuitive, bearing in mind that unless Big Navy invested in it, there wasn’t going to be formal schoolhouse training,” Kane said.

Beating bandwidth issues offered another challenge. The data link between a destroyer or cruiser and the outside world ranges from one to two megabytes per second, Turner said, and that has to serve all of the ship’s systems.

“The software that L-3 built has the ability to dial back bandwidth use to about 256 [kilobytes], so it can fit within that pipe if you need to stream video off the ship,” he said.

When ICOP was installed on the Vicksburg, its intelligence specialist asked if the views from the vessel’s onboard cameras — including the targeting cameras on its guns — could be fed into the system. When ICOP was installed on the ships of the Eisenhower strike group, the camera views from each vessel were fed into the network, so that intelligence officers and watchstanders on all the ships could see each other’s videos.

“They told us, ‘We want to use this box in ways you haven’t thought of yet,’” Kane said. “I said, ‘Good.’ A lot of the good ideas we’re getting are coming from the sailors.”

While the integrators get more lessons learned, an ICOP Requirements Working Group is plotting the technology’s future, including setting it up as a program of record. That would enable ICOP — which Kane said is “anemically funded” — to get money to further develop the technology, as well as determine which capabilities should be added or altered.

And so the train continues.

“It’s been quite a ride since Trident Warrior,” Kane said. “I always knew that if we had a good operational assessment, the product would speak for itself.”

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