Editor’s Note: System of Systems

By Bill Carey | March 1, 2008
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Network centric warfare is hard to get your arms around. There’s a lot happening out there, and living the life of a middle-aged urban professional doesn’t often expose you to the intricacies of electronic battle.

For the past couple of years, I’ve attended the annual Network Centric Warfare conference in downtown D.C., organized by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement (IDGA), as well as other conferences on the topic. This year’s IDGA conference featured speakers including Lt. Gen. Charles E. Croom Jr., director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., commander of the 8th Air Force, and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had a few things to say about "massive, bureaucratic government." It’s pretty high-level stuff, with plenty of brass and epaulets in the crowd.

The U.S. Air Force, by the way, continues to hone its role in the electronic battle space of today and tomorrow. The service recently stood up a provisional Cyberspace Command, based initially at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. The provisional unit "will prepare the way for the eventual standup of a full major command," expected to employ thousands. Last December, the service graduated its first Network Warfare Training class at Hurlburt Field AFB, Fla.

But I’m often left wondering how the net-centric concept plays out at the nuts-and-bolts level. That’s why it was helpful to meet with some executives of Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in a makeshift conference room — well, a nook, really — behind the company’s exhibit at Network Centric Warfare 2008. Sometimes you have to make do on the trade show circuit; here at least, there were no jet fighters thundering overhead a la Paris or Farnborough.

Curtiss-Wright, which has developed a range of Gigabit Ethernet switching and routing products, was promoting solutions for what it calls "Intra-Platform Networks." By applying its Commercial Off-The-Shelf network pieces, the company says it can transform almost any legacy bus-based system into a high-performance, Internet Protocol-enabled, network-ready system.

"These air platforms have communications devices — boards, they have digital signal processors that can be used for radar, sensors, targeting, signals intelligence," said Nauman Arshad, by way of explanation. "You’ve got graphics processors that are used for the managing interface; you have single-board computers that can be used for mission computers; you’ve got a lot of software that may need to be safety-certified for flight, and you’ve got subsystems. They’re all brought together using switches and routers to form that Intra-Platform Network. This is the concept at the highest level."

One of the enabling technologies to creating network-ready systems is the new VPX — or VITA 46 — standard, providing support of legacy VMEbus architectures used in aerospace and defense applications for high-speed, serial connectivity. "One of the aspects of this open standard is that it included in it support for the legacy VME electrical specification, so you can create hybrid transitional systems," said Mike MacPherson. VPX features a new connector design, Tyco Electronics’ Multigig RT2, rated for signals up to 6.25 Gbits/s. The standard is being advanced by the VME International Trade Association, which counts as members Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing, GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms and many other companies familiar to Avionics readers.

"Platforms must become network-ready systems…. What we’re saying is to make that happen, each of these vehicles [has to] bring that network equipment with them. We define that as the ‘intra,’ inside the vehicle, in bringing that network capability," said MacPherson, business development director with Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Leesburg, Va. "As far as the interoperability" of platforms, he added, "the drive is ‘everything over IP,’ and the mandate is to go from IPv4 to IPv6, next-generation Internet Protocol. That becomes the interconnecting protocol. We’re embedding that all the way down within our subsystems."

John Wranovics, director of public relations, took pity as I tried to capture all this knowledge on paper. "Connecting the systems within the system," he offered. "I think that’s the best way to put it." Yeah, I like that.

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