WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has one ship operating with a fully virtualized combat system and is on the cusp of having several more join the fleet, marking a major step forward in the Navy’s effort to field a single combat system that can better connect ships and bring on new capabilities faster.
Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Winston Churchill has been operating with a virtualized Aegis Combat System since June and is going through qualification trials to certify it for operations, Rear Adm. Seiko Okano, the program executive officer for integrated warfare systems, told Defense News in a Dec. 15 interview.
During the past six months, the ship has put the combat system through testing to ensure it behaves the same at sea as it has during shore-based testing, and to see how quickly the new combat system can receive software updates.
“In the current construct, it takes us weeks — it’s ridiculous — just to upgrade the software, [during which time] that ship is offline,” Okano said.
With the virtualized combat system — meaning the software and hardware are decoupled, so the combat system software can run on a generic server instead of proprietary hardware — Okano said the Navy already completed one update in just days and will soon do one in hours.
Additionally, the Navy pushed an over-the-air software update to Winston Churchill, much like the updates a cellphone automatically receives.
Destroyer Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee, which commissioned into the fleet earlier this year, is in the process of moving to the virtualized combat system, Okano said. Five more ships and four land-based test sites will do the same in 2024.
To enable virtualized Aegis Combat System operations, the Navy had to separate the hardware and the software, which traditionally have been developed, managed and modernized in tandem by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.
Lockheed Martin and the Navy previously demonstrated the ability to run virtualized Aegis software from computers much smaller than those now on ships, due to the information-as-a-service model, under which ships don’t have to store the entire software library but instead pull what they need on demand, Defense News reported.
PEO IWS and its industry partners are now running a hardware and a software development effort in parallel.
On the hardware side, the Navy stood up the Foundry in Dahlgren, Virginia, where a team of contractors is creating a hardware package that can be easily installed on ships and run the virtualized combat system software. Their goal is to make the installation non-invasive — today, ships have holes cut into their sides to have bulky hardware ripped out and installed.
The team at the Foundry is taking lessons from the telecommunications industry, Amazon and Microsoft server farms, and even Taylor Swift concerts — where complex stages and displays are quickly disassembled into small pieces that can be moved easily — to develop a hardware package that can be carried onto the ship for easy setup.
In parallel, Okano said, the Navy awarded Lockheed Martin a contract to serve as the Integrated Combat System systems engineering and software integration agent. Through this effort, Lockheed will lead a team of contractors in taking the Aegis Combat System code and pulling it into a modern computing architecture. They’ll end up with microservices that each control various aspects of the Aegis functionality and can be updated independently of one another. This effort is largely taking place at the Forge software factory outside College Park, Maryland.
This approach is intended to not only allow for smoother software updated in the future, but also for Aegis Combat System functionality to be merged with that of the Ship Self-Defense System, creating a single Integrated Combat System that can run on the new hardware.
Destroyers, cruisers, littoral combat ships and some unmanned surface vessels today use variants of the Aegis system. Aircraft carriers and amphibious ships use SSDS. They’ve been managed independently, leading to redundancies in developing new capabilities as well as in fleet training and logistics.
Rear Adm. Fred Pyle, the director of surface warfare on the chief of naval operations’ staff, in a separate interview with Defense News said “one system is much better than multiple from a training standpoint, from a funding standpoint.”
“The warfighting aspect is what’s most exciting from [a surface warfare directorate] perspective because it gives us the ability to pair any decision-maker, any sensor, and any desired effect at machine speed,” he added. “We strongly believe that’s where we need to go in the future.”
Pyle said the Navy wants to deploy an entire strike group operating the Integrated Combat System by the fiscal 2028 or 2029 timeframe.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.