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Aboard the Navy's high-tech pioneer, the USS Freedom

Brand new ship designed to operate in shallow waters and under combat displays multiple technological advancements (see video below)

By David Ramel
March 6, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Monte Johnson has many of the same concerns running his IT shop that most managers have, but with a few extras thrown in -- like being blown out of the water by a missile.

Johnson is the go-to IT guy aboard the USS Freedom, one of the Navy's newest and most technologically advanced ships. Technically an Information Systems Technician 1st Class (E6/IT1), Johnson's effectively the IT manager in charge of maintaining the computers, networks and applications that control the ship's myriad pieces of high-tech equipment. That includes modules that control unmanned helicopters and underwater and surface vessels, a missile launcher, decoy systems and a cannon -- gear not found in civilian shops.

Overall, the Freedom is a brand new type of ship: the Navy's first-ever Littoral Combat Ship (LCS 1). This class of ship is made for coastal areas, and can operate in less than 20 feet of water. The Freedom is relatively small -- 377 feet in length -- and has a core crew of only about 40.

The LCS program has been criticized for major cost overruns. In fact, during Congressional testimony in January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates specifically mentioned the ship as one of the military programs that has suffered "contract or program performance problems" during development. And former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain mentioned the LCS program as an example of excessive cost overruns during a debate with then-Sen. Barack Obama.

However, advocates defend the program as important for the Navy's future. Commissioned last November, the Freedom is designed to work with multiple "mission modules," which provide most of the ship's combat capability and can be swapped in and out, with different equipment and personnel. This is true whether the task is hunting submarines, neutralizing mines or combating surface ships that operate close to shore.

Johnson proudly showed off his, well, ship-shape IT shop during a recent port call in Boston. Working with one other IT technician, he maintains networks with more than 9,000 components, including 40 servers in eight server cases, 60 switches, 20 routers, an 84-unit VoIP phone system, machinery plant controls, damage control systems, cameras, sensors, radars and much more. It's all tied together by more than 100 miles of electrical and fiber-optic cables.

Mirror-image redundancy

Johnson pointed out that "everything is connected and redundant," reflecting the special needs of a fighting ship. That's important when you may be sailing into harm's way and sustaining battle damage. "You could have pretty much three-quarters of the network go down and still be able to function," he said.

The redundancy is most striking on the bridge -- the ship's nerve center and control station -- which looks like a mirror reflection. The left and right sides of the small compartment have the exact same controls, consoles and other equipment in the exact same layout. "Half of the bridge could go down and you still have the same exact functionality on the other side," Johnson said.

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A video tour of the Navy's most technology-enhanced ship, the USS Freedom

More redundancy is illustrated in a compartment called Central Control System (CCS). This is where the ship can be controlled if necessary, rather than from the bridge. With no windows to the outside world, steering is accomplished via an elaborate system of more than 38 closed-circuit TV cameras. The station sports the same joystick controls as those on the bridge, which let the operator direct the speed and direction of the ship. Johnson joked that any Digital Age kid would probably feel totally comfortable maneuvering the ship with the joystick, which closely resembles those found on some gaming systems.



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