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Boosting Navy Bandwidth

I recall a few years ago visiting an Aegis cruiser, one of the most advanced warships in the world. In its Combat Information Center, sailors can track dozens of targets and coordinate an entire battle group. So it was more than a little jarring to see that the computers that run everything showed glowing green text on black screens. I didn’t realize there were any pre-Windows computers still around. Yet here they were.

Obviously the armed forces need to do a better job of keeping up with new technology—but that’s not so easy to do given loooong procurement cycles and the demands of security and reliability. Vice Admiral Mark Edwards, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Communications Networks, addresses that very challenge in the new issue of the Naval Institute’s invaluable magazine, Proceedings. He notes a shocking statistic:

The two-way communication bandwidth of a single Blackberry is three times greater than the bandwidth of the entire Arleigh Burke [-class, Aegis guided-missile] destroyer. Looked at another way, the Navy’s most modern in-service multi-mission warship has only five percent of the bandwidth we have in our home Internet connection.

The problem is that the Navy is not keeping up with Silicon Valley:

As computing capabilities continue to grow exponentially, the costs of computers, servers, storage, and software are coming down. Across the commercial industry worldwide, IT budgets are actually declining as capacity goes up. But in the Navy, the opposite is taking place . . . . Moreover, every system we field takes nearly seven years to reach the Fleet. By the time it gets to the people who need it, it is already out of date. There is no agility or flexibility in our IT.

The answer, he argues, is to switch from “closed” to “open” IT architecture. That is, to end the current practice of buying from “only a few vendors who build highly integrated systems—where the software and hardware are tightly coupled and where interoperability between two or more systems is gained only by building costly middleware.” Instead, “[w]e have to . . . separate our data, hardware, and applications. We need a network architecture that is agile and can be upgraded rapidly. It must be flexible, with the ability to accommodate the expected exponential increase in demand.”

Easier said than done. The idea of an “open” architecture based on commonly available software runs counter to a long-standing military mentality. I am glad to see that Admiral Edwards is implementing reforms in the Navy, but I suspect it will be a long, costly process that is sure to be resisted by more than a few bureaucrats.

And, of course, these problems aren’t limited to the Navy. All of the armed forces rely for the most part on highly specialized, one-of-a-kind computer systems that take far too long and cost far too much to field. Addressing this problem will be crucial for maintaining America’s military edge in the 21st century. For as the Economist put it (in a line quoted by Edwards): “If Napoleon’s armies marched on their stomachs, American ones march on bandwidth.”