Developers of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) say the Navy must leverage common technical standards between the two ship variants’ IT infrastructures and mission packages in order to save the program money and give commanders greater mission flexibility.
A key element for the surge of technological commonality between its USS Independence and USS Freedom variants is through what the LCS program calls Mission Packages -- interchangeable groups of technologies designed to go on either of the two variants.
The three packages, engineered with a modular, plug-and-play ability to integrate on both the Independence and the Freedom variants are designed for mine counter-measures, anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare, said Capt. John Ailes, LCS Mission Modules program manager.
They consist of groups of weapons, sensors, UAS, mine-detecting technologies, aircraft, electronics and unmanned watercraft, among other things, designed to work in tandem on specific threats and issues, Ailes explained.
The Navy’s two-variant approach to the LCS development effort, which ultimately aims to build and deploy at least 55 ships, has come under scrutiny and received criticism for the wisdom of its two-variant approach, which critics have said will make sustainment more challenging.
The LCS program has also faced scrutiny for rising costs, and questions inside and outside the Navy about the fleet’s survivability and ability to meet mission requirements.
While recognizing that there is a business case to move toward greater commonality among the variants, particularly when it comes to sustainment and logistics, Ailes emphasized that the much-criticized two-variant approach resulted in several positive developments.
“We got spectacularly low cost and there is strength in diversity. Also, if you have an enemy that is trying to combat you, you give him a harder problem if you bring capabilities that are different. That is more difficult than going up against a single, well-understood capability,” he added.
Despite the two hulls, Ailes said the mission packages being developed will go on either variant.
“Any mission package can go on any LCS. When we bought both ships we said either one meets our requirements. They are very different ships, you’ve got the planing monohull and you’ve got the Trimaran. They are very different in their look but both of them can accommodate all of these three very significant capabilities,” he said.
The mission packages are designed with “modularity” in mind, meaning they are engineered with a common set of technical standards in order to be able to more easily accommodate technological advances as they emerge, Ailes explained.
The idea is to create open standards with common standards and Internet Protocols (IP), formats so that existing systems, weapons, sensors and electronics can more seamlessly and quickly integrate with new technologies. IT Protocols can include a range of technical specifications, including data exchange methods, computer code and messaging formats, among other things.
“For future classes we will fold in the capability with weapons stations where you will be able to put systems in without having to do major shipyard availabilities. We’re trying to prove the underpinning software hooks regarding what we anticipate to be the software requirements for the fighter of the future,” he said.
In particular, this is being done with what Ailes described as an Interface Control Document (ICD) and an Interface Design Specification, written documents which delineate what the technical, electronic and computing standards are for current and future technologies designed for the Mission Packages.
“The ICD specifies weight power cooling and physical size – so it tells you if you have a system it can only give this much power. It tells you how we exchange data. All of this is specified. This has been very effective with all the Mission Packages. We’ve had remarkably few software problems and the reason is because we are standing on the shoulders of already existing systems,” Ailes explained.
Ailes explained that the software and IT backbone of the Mission Packages has, by design, been engineered to run on commercial-off-the-shelf technologies with standard protocols and infrastructures.
This is done to lower costs, speed up the developmental time frame and, perhaps most of all, facilitate interoperability such that new technologies can integrate more easily with the existing systems.
Ailes explained how the USS Freedom’s planing monohull configuration and the USS Independence’s Trimaran hull both achieve the desired speed requirements for the multi-mission, close into shore mine-hunting, anti-submarine and surface warfare ship platform.
“They wrote a set of specifications and said this is what we want the ship to do. The goal was to make use of the powerful innovation within American industry. Even though both ships meet exactly the same requirements, two different sets of designers came up with two very different solutions. Both approaches get you in excess of 40 knots,” said Ailes.