Navy ‘Moving into a Digital, Solid-State World’
By WILLIAM MATTHEWS, Seapower Special Correspondent
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — It’s a digital world, but in the U.S. Navy, “we still have vacuum tubes,” Rear Adm. Tom Druggan admits. “We’re still building ships with vacuum tubes,” he added.
Druggan, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, envisions a digital Navy, but concedes that getting there will take some time. It may take until the 2030s or 2040s before the Navy can claim to be a fully digital force, but bit by bit, digital technology is replacing its analog antecedents.
Consider the SPY-1 radar. It was introduced in 1983 and has undergone at least eight upgrades since then. In 2021 it will be replaced by the next generation SPY-6, a much more powerful, digital radar that can be scaled up for large ships or down for smaller ones.
And consider the refrigerator-size UKY-43 computer, which dates to 1984. It would take 3,000 to 4,000 of them to provide ships with the computing power they need today to detect targets and guide munitions to them, Druggan said. UKY-43s have been replaced by computers built in part with digital commercial off-the-shelf components.
The USS Zumwalt, the Navy’s newest ship, is ushering in electric drive systems and, perhaps, ushering out the age of gas turbine engines. Electric drive is more fuel efficient, quieter, easier to maintain and more reliable, Druggan said during a presentation April 3 at the 2017 Sea-Air-Space Exposition.
Digital technology “is happening now” in the Navy, he said. “A year ago I couldn’t point to that many examples,” but they’re becoming increasingly common.
There’s the 30-kilowatt laser on the USS Ponce, which has already shot down small unmanned aerial vehicles and disabled small boats. And the Navy is asking laser makers to build a 60-kilowatt version, and hopes to have a 150-kilowatt model ready for tests in the next year or so.
“We’re moving into a digital, solid-state world,” Druggan said. It’s a “generational change,” although it’s not happening as fast as he would like.
Although digital systems typically cost more than their analog predecessors, they are easier to operate and cheaper to maintain, which reduces lifetime costs, Druggan said. Some digital systems are able to automatically diagnose their own problems, which reduces maintenance time and costs. Training crews to operate and maintain digital equipment takes less time, which also reduces cost, he said.
Digital technology could also help the Navy reduce the cost of maintaining old analog equipment. By analyzing maintenance data that has been collected over years, the Navy could better predict when parts should be replaced and when they don’t have to be, Druggan said.
“We could use data we already have — we have lots of data — but we don’t have the algorithms” needed to analyze it, he said. Work to develop the algorithms is pending.