When U.S. Navy warships prepare for deployment, Sailors work long hours testing radars and weapons systems; engineering, navigation and communications equipment; and hull, mechanical and electrical systems. It takes a huge effort by crews to ensure ships are ready to fight on arrival in forward areas of operation.
Now the Navy is working to transform and simplify the communications network onboard Navy ships to make it easier for operators to connect and access the data they need.
This transformational architecture is called “Compile to Combat in 24 Hours,” and was recently piloted this spring aboard several Navy units. The concept is based on web services, or micro-services, similar to those you would see on your smart phone, and use of a new cloud architecture Navy is developing and testing, and fielding this capability quickly and securely. It involves decomposing legacy/monolithic applications into agile micro services, developed in the cloud and synchronized with the tactical cloud shipboard. The cloud environments are designed for machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities and will “package and prioritize” data exchanged between the ship and shore clouds to get commanders the information they need for improved decision making and lethality.
Navy Cyber Security Division Director Rear Adm. Danelle Barrett explained the scope of the pilot at the DON IT East Conference in April.
In a nutshell, Compile to Combat in 24 Hours (C2C24) aims to modernize the afloat end-to-end architecture. The result will allow the Navy to deploy new software capabilities in under 24 hours, not the 18-month timeframe that’s now common. Instead of the legacy construct of building and installing multiple servers on the ship, capability providers will now develop and field micro services code which will be hosted on shared infrastructure. Addressing the end-to-end architecture involves four key pillars: data standardization, use of shared infrastructure, automating functional and cybersecurity controls testing, and use of the cloud.
For the data standardization piece, the Navy is looking to align as much as possible on eXtensible Markup Language (XML). XML is a leading open standard for describing and tagging data in industry. Navy seeks to leverage XML for the benefits that commercial industry enjoys from using it, like the ability to efficiently tag and describe data for use in big data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, the ability to use its inherent security protocol Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) to protect data at the data element layer, but also for the benefits that are unique to the military environment such as compression of data (EXI) and the Quality of Service tagging to improve use of satellite links, and the ability to leverage cross-domain XML data guards for transferring information between networks of different classifications.
By using “Efficient XML” (EXI), a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)-approved open standard for compression of XML data, the Navy will be able to execute large data transfers by reducing the amount of required bandwidth – which is in short supply on forward operating ships. All of these benefits can be achieved through use of this open industry standard data format.
The XML open standard and the efficiently-compressed XML format will “maximize a Sailor’s ability to access data from the Navy’s huge data stores,” according to a Naval Postgraduate School release. Two NPS former graduate students, Lt. Bruce Hill and Lt. Cmdr. Steven Debich, directly contributed to its development for Navy use.
In March 2015, Hill and Debich each published a thesis, respectively, on their research into a new standard to compress data and how to optimize that data transfer via satellite.
EXI’s value to the Navy is illustrated by its data compression capability. Since a ship’s bandwidth can be affected by weather, sea states or contested by an adversary, satellite communications links are in high demand and may also be contested by adversaries.
From late March to early June 2018, C2C24 tested the end-to-end cloud computing architecture to determine “if EXI will allow data standardization across the cloud, both in fielding software quickly from shore to ship as well as within a shared infrastructure aboard a ship afloat,” according to the NPS release.
The tactical cloud afloat is a crucial component as it will allow a ship to retain essential data and use it without having to reach back every time to get more information. That information would continue to be available in the event of communications disruption, whether from weather-related or adversarial activity.
“So if you lost that satellite link, which is critical to us, you would have at that point probably about 80 percent of what you needed to make operational decisions at that moment in time,” Barrett explained.
Barrett described a typical scene in which the tactical action officer on watch transiting the highly congested Strait of Hormuz may need course and speed data for targeting. That same data may simultaneously be needed in engineering or by the Combat Information Center, by the communications officer, and by the navigator among others.
“There are multiple people who may be able to use that piece of data in the context of their roles,” Barrett said.
By decomposing monolithic applications into agile web services, the idea is to separate data from the application and use that shared infrastructure afloat to store the data there and then use that information on the ship without having to reach back every time to get new information.
Success in fielding quickly lies in automating the processes for development, testing, deployment and execution. By automating the Risk Management Framework (RMF), data standardization and decomposing the monolithic systems, the Navy can take advantage of open standards and tools available in the cloud, Barrett explained.
“If I construct applications in a different way, where I use the shared infrastructure of the ship, I can focus on the capability delivery and not on providing infrastructure which takes a long time,” she said. “Then I can inherit all of the Risk Management Framework cybersecurity controls and all of the accreditation that’s already been done on that shared infrastructure provided to me. I can ‘drop code, not boxes.’ And if I use standard web ports and protocols, standardize my data, and adhere to the development environment standards like commercial industry does, I can automate the RMF process for the micro service, because it becomes just testing that containerized piece of additional code — you don’t have go back and retest a highly integrated application that may not work in the environment,” Barrett said in a March interview with Federal News Radio.
For the pilot conducted in Spring 2018, the Navy tested the exchange of data for four web services including a readiness application and a chat application, to prove that the concept works for various types of information, Barrett explained in the interview.
The pilot utilized the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) network to provide the shared infrastructure – a consolidation of five existing legacy network programs, as well as a single support framework for all command, control, communications, computer and intelligence (C4I) applications. CANES takes advantage of the service oriented architecture and rapid COTS insertion, providing cost savings for the Navy and agility for the warfighter.
In using the existing CANES shipboard infrastructure, the pilot demonstrated that the Navy does not need to test, certify and install a new piece of hardware every time it wants to deploy a new software capability, Barrett said. By 2020, the Navy hopes to deploy CANES on 190 vessels and Maritime Operations Centers.
Barrett called the pilot a “perfect storm of opportunity, a convergence of technology and standards and processes to be able to do this now.” She said the architecture is aligned with industry best practices and can be used across the Navy enterprise.
“If it will work end-to-end in our lowest common denominator, which is the shipboard environment because of the bandwidth issues and where you can be disconnected at any time, then it can work anywhere. If it does, that’s how we should do all of our content delivery, afloat and ashore,” the admiral explained.
A successful pilot completed on USS Essex (LHD-2) in mid-April and the Stockdale (DDG 106) in May, Barrett said.