Submarines: Intel Inside, China Outside


February6, 2007: The U.S. Navy has changed the design of its sonar data processing systems to enable newer, faster, processors to be installed on a regular basis. This is in recognition of two things. One, that computer processing power continues to double every two years, as it has pretty consistently since the 1960s. Two, military equipment takes over a decade to develop and deploy, and upgrades don't come a whole lot faster. PC users may not notice this constant growth in computing power, because as their processors (the brains of the computer) get faster, software eats up a lot of that additional power with stuff like graphics and running many different programs at once (many of them users are not even aware of). Thus while PC processors have increased their speed and capability a thousand times in the last twenty years, your word processor, email or spreadsheet doesn't run any faster. But for sonar users, there is an enormous need for more speed. That's because the sounds that the sonar hears under water can reveal a lot more if there's more powerful computers at work analyzing it. So, over the last decade, the navy has replaced a lot of the custom built computers (some using 1980s vintage CPUs) with current Intel CPUs, and largely commercial software to run them. While it might make many geeks nervous to know that Windows computers are being used on American nuclear submarines, the software in question has proven very robust and reliable. Plus, the navy does not always have the very latest CPUs and software. Veteran computer users know that, of wait six months to a year after something new comes out, it's a lot safer to use.

In some respects, the navy was forced into this COTS (Commercial, Off The Shelf) direction. Russia and China, playing catch up, have gone COTS, big time, because it was the cheapest and fastest way to make progress. China, in particular, has made extensive use of personal computer grade technology in its military technology.


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