Electronic Weapons: France Networks Its Navy

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January 15, 2009: The U.S. Navy has, for over a decade, been installing LAN (local area networks) in its ships. Other navies are catching up. France is now installing networks and information system software in 52 of its warships (including six nuclear attack submarines).

Installing LANs makes possible things like the U.S. Navy's DCTMS (Damage Control Tactical Management System). This is basically a laptop computer equipped with damage control system software. The DCTMS laptops are stored in the damage control lockers (large closets, scattered around the ship, holding gear needed for fighting fires, making emergency repairs and providing first aid). When the ship suffers a hit, or some other major damage, sailors assigned to damage control duty, go to their assigned locker, grab the needed gear and get to work. But one of the sailors fires up the DCTMS laptop, plugs into the LAN, and keeps in touch with the bridge (and damage control center), and the other damage control teams. Because the data is sent electronically, it is saved on the ships servers, and provides the captain, and all the damage control teams, a real-time view of what's happening, and what happened. Before DCTMS, the information was transmitted by phone or radio, and status was only seen on the bridge or damage control center, where sailors updated data using grease pencils. If a fire or flooding force a damage control team away from their locker, the DCTMS laptop can be carried away and plugged into another LAN connection.

U.S. ships are also being fitted with wireless networks, as a backup, or supplement to the wired LANs. The wireless system enables the crew to use cell phone like devices to speed up communications, not to mention convenience. This does a lot for morale.

The shipboard networks also provide Internet access, a benefit that backfired at first. The problem was that the capacity (bandwidth) available to sailors was quite low. Think typical dial-up speeds, then cut that by 50-90 percent. It's so slow that web pages often time out before loading. Sailors were not happy. To make them even less happy, many lower ranking sailors were not allowed to access the Internet on their work PCs, but had to line up and wait for a turn at the public access ones on the ship.

Now all this is a case of, "no good deed goes unpunished." As ships at sea got more and more Internet access over the last ten years, morale rose. But the increased access could not keep up with sailor expectations. Back at home, sailors were increasingly getting high speed access, while the shipboard access was stuck at a fraction (24 kps or less) of the old dial-up speeds (56 kps). This was happening just as more sailors were becoming more dependent on Internet access. For example, many of the navy educational programs, some of which are mandatory if you want to get promoted, are conducted over the web. This has provided hours of frustration for sailors at sea, trying to get study material, or take tests, over a very slow (and time-out prone) Internet connection.

The navy had a hard time providing solutions, since Internet access for ships at sea is expensive. Sailors have a difficult time appreciating this, as they see soldiers getting high speed Internet access (or at least higher than sailors at sea), using satellite dishes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the last few years, the navy addressed the problem, knowing that more bandwidth was beneficial under combat conditions (when sailors would not be using the Internet, but the ship would need to exchange documents and other data via the satellite link.

The French Navy has closely examined the U.S. experience, as well as that of the British, and is seeking to avoid earlier mistakes and quickly obtain all the benefits of networked ships.

 

 


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