Aegis Combat System ‘Virtual Twin’ Pilot Program Could Lead to Fielding Faster Upgrades

December 6, 2017 3:29 PM
USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53) launches a Standard Missile (SM) 2 during a live-fire test of the ship’s Aegis weapons system on Feb. 8, 2014. US Navy Photo

The Navy will deploy a “virtual twin” of the Aegis Combat System in February that, if the pilot program proves successful, could one day help the service test new Aegis upgrades or add-ons on a cruiser or destroyer at-sea without interfering with that ship’s actual combat system and ability to operate.

The virtual twin is the entire set of code that makes up the Aegis Combat System Baseline 9 housed within a few computer servers that takes up much less room than the actual Aegis Combat System on a guided-missile destroyer or cruiser, Aegis Integrated Warfare Systems Major Program Manager Capt. Todd Boehm told USNI News on Dec. 5. This virtual twin is already operating at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren in Virginia, but his office has a three-step crawl-walk-run process planned to get the virtual twin out to sea and test its capabilities, he told USNI News at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Combat Systems Symposium.

In February, the Navy will put the Aegis virtual twin on a destroyer going through its Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) and “what we’ll be testing in that early test is how we might be able to introduce an algorithm, if you will, to a baseline build and test it real-time, using real-time input from the system. We’ll be taking a passive [tap] off the tactical suite on the ship,” Boehm explained, so while the ship’s installed Aegis Combat System is controlling operations during COMPTUEX, the virtual twin would be “seeing” the exact same scenario and responding based on the additional algorithm it has – in this case, an algorithm to improve the surface tracking picture.

“In addition to the virtual twin that we’ll have on the ship, there’s also accompanying (automated) test/re-test capability on the ship,” Boehm said.
“So at any time we want to run or record data – or see, in the case of our test in February, we’ll have plans to have an algorithm that helps improve the surface tracking picture – we’ll be able to run on the ship that ATRT which will tell me right then on the ship how well the system did, where my problems are, how it performed functionally.”

If successful, the Aegis virtual twin would prove out this new algorithm in a tactically relevant situation at sea without any additional cost for at-sea testing, since the destroyer would be going through its COMPTUEX with or without this virtual twin testing.

In the late spring or early summer, the next phase of this pilot program would put another virtual twin on a ship conducting a live-fire missile shot of a Standard Missile as part of a Combat Systems Ship Qualifications Trials (CSSQT) or another fleet exercise. Much like the first test, the Aegis virtual twin would not affect ship operations during the missile shot but would receive all the same inputs as the ship’s combat system and would be stimulated to respond as if it were the one controlling the missile launch.

”The benefits of that are also pretty incredible: right now … when I have a (combat system capability improvement) build that I want to introduce on ship, when I start stepping through its developmental testing or its operational testing, I have to take it out and I do a live-fire of that event, at the cost and expense of having the ship on range, taking it out of operational availability, and also the cost of targets, the cost of the Standard Missile itself,” Boehm explained.
Since that capability build has to be tested anyway, “what we are going to try to do is actually have a build that is in development on the same ship that we have a build that we’re testing for [operational test], and we’ll be able to stimulate that (in-development build) with a live-fire event and be able to save all those resources. So we’ll be able to take that back then to the development branch and make whatever changes we need to, and then make it with some certainty, and then take it out on the range and do the live-fire event.”

Ultimately, this ability to test a less mature build for free essentially would allow the developers to work out any kinks experienced at sea before actually paying for the build’s own operational test and evaluation event.

For the third phase of the Aegis virtual twin pilot program, Boehm said he hopes to send the virtual twin package out on a destroyer for an entire deployment.

“What the eventual vision would be is that … we could get to the point where I’m collecting real-time data on computer programs that I’m developing – I’m collecting that data real-time at sea shooting real missiles, and I can link that back to my development and test and certification element back on the land, and have a seamless back-and-forth between the ship and my land-based site to allow real-time OQE (objective quality evidence), real-time certification, real-time adjustments to the computer program, and then push that right back out to the ship without having to wait 18 months, 24 months to actually have to go back in, re-code, re-test, re-certify, take it out on the range, and so forth,” Boehm said.
“We have some work to do here. This approach is going to go way to the left of how we are currently doing business and how we collect OQE and how we test and certify. I think it’s certainly a direction we need to go – certainly a step in getting to the point where Aegis eventually goes completely virtual, to where I have the whole computer program virtual.”

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53) conducts a flight test from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, of the Aegis Baseline 9 Ballistic Missile Defense System. US Navy photo.

Applications of Virtualization

Having warfighting systems “virtualized” – Boehm said Aegis already is, and other program managers within the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems are working on virtualizing theirs – creates significant opportunities not just for testing and certifying but also for training and innovation.

PEO IWS Rear Adm. Doug Small told USNI News at the symposium that the Aegis virtual twin idea will start out as an experimentation tool but will open the door for training opportunities as well.

“When we’re coming out every few months with a new capability that’s absolutely required, making sure the sailors know how to operate it effectively is absolutely critical. So these kinds of tools, we believe, will help us both in the schoolhouse, at the waterfront, and then eventually what we want to be able to do is do it on a ship as well,” Small said.

Capt. Samuel Pennington, Major Program Manager for Surface Training Systems at Naval Sea Systems Command, said at the conference that his office is starting to use a virtualized Aegis system to help train sailors at schoolhouses despite the many different baselines and configurations that exist in the fleet today.

Pennington cited a Combined Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Trainer (CIAT), where “we can just take software, we can load the new Aegis load onto our hardware and run what we need to run on reconfigurable consoles – so the next group of sailors that come through may be on a 51-class (destroyer) that has this baseline, the next group of sailors that comes through may be cruiser sailors on a different baseline, so we’ll take a couple hours, reload the software and we’ll be ready to train them.”

He said his office is still trying to understand how to leverage the CIAT capability but noted that it only takes up half a rack of computer servers, whereas Aegis Combat System on a ship takes up several racks, so this flexible and more-portable option may yield great benefit to the training community.

Jim Sheridan, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager of Rotary and Mission Systems, said his company had a “Hula” effort to create an Aegis system that was small enough to fit inside a hula hoop and could be brought to the warfighter to train them on new Aegis upgrades.

“How do we keep up with training, keep the crew relevant with the capabilities they’re getting onboard that ship?” Sheridan said of the mission.
“You can take this to the waterfront and help train crews who are getting their ships upgraded, modernized. We’re going to be doing that on the West Coast for the next two 9.2 cruisers.”

Capt. Doug Adams, program manager for undersea systems at PEO IWS, said at the conference that every two years a new software advanced capability build (ACB) is released but isn’t always pushed to ships very quickly – submarines may wait six years or cruisers and destroyers nine years, if the update just misses them in a maintenance availability. Adams said the Navy had to get to a place where these ACBs could be pushed out to the ships and subs faster, and virtualization is an important first step in being able to do that.

Adams said his office has two virtualized SQQ-89A (V)15 systems being tested on land now, and the office will test those on a ship in the spring to see how the virtualized system works with the sonar system, which he called a first step in understanding if a virtualized system can be created to allow for near-real-time software improvements instead of the biannual big block software update.

An SM-2 missile launches and destroys an airborne training target during a successful first test of the updated AEGIS Baseline 9 weapons system aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG 53) on Oct. 24, 2017. Mobile Bay is the first guided-missile cruiser in the fleet to upgrade from AEGIS Baseline 8 to the updated Baseline 9, and is underway testing new weapons capabilities in preparation for its upcoming deployment. US Navy photo.

A ‘Digital Revolution’

Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, commander of Naval Air Systems Command, has been pushing a model-based systems engineering concept that would revolutionize how the Navy designs, tests and fields its equipment. Grosklags wants the Navy to create a physics-based model of the operational environment, Navy assets and predicted enemy assets; design the new weapon system within this model, allowing for quick iterations as needed; test and begin to certify the system within this model; and put the model into training systems so that operators can get trainers faster than before with the most up-to-date software versions. Grosklags said at the ASNE symposium this week that industry has seen a 40-percent decrease in development timelines by using this approach.

In the big picture, Grosklags touted this idea as a massive change in military acquisition.

With previous attempts to create a more efficient acquisition and testing system, “we nibble around the edges. Better Buying Power: great stuff, nibbles around the edges. Acquisition reform, language from the Hill: nibbles around the edges. We get a percent, 2 percent, 3 percent – in many cases we’re counting the same percent about five or six different times in different acquisition reform initiatives. This is not nibbling around the edges; this is a fundamentally different approach to the way we design, develop and field our systems, and that’s where we’re trying to go at NAVAIR,” he said.

But despite the enormity of the change Grosklags is proposing, he praised the efforts taking place within PEO IWS as good, tangible starts in proving out and moving towards his grand long-term vision.

“I think the way to attack this is for the individual programs to go after the pieces that they think they can instantiate in their programs based on where they are in the development cycle,” he told USNI News at the symposium.
“if I were developing an aircraft program today, why wouldn’t I make sure that my simulators, when I introduce that capability to the fleet, that I’ve got that simulation environment that is current and can allow them to train to that full extent? We’re still having to update F-18 simulators today to enable folks to train to NIFC-CA (Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air). That’s ridiculous, we should have done that as part of, if not the F-18 development cycle at the beginning, certainly when we started doing the software upgrades to the aircraft for NIFC-CA, we should have attacked the virtual environment at the same time. So we need to roll that in just as quickly as we can. As I mentioned … we are rolling capabilities-based test and evaluation into some of our programs real-time. We are rolling some of the systems-engineering transformation stuff into our programs that are already in the development cycle real-time. MQ-25 is kind of the first one I’ll say we’re trying to start from the get-go, but again, to your point, we can’t wait to do this on just new-start ACAT programs because we’ll never get anywhere. What we need to do is roll it out in as many pieces in as many programs as we possibly can so we can collectively learn from each other. That’s the way we need to attack this.”

PEO IWS is moving ahead with multiple ways to virtualize its systems in pursuit of this vision. Small, the program executive officer, told USNI News that “at the end of the day it’s a rack of computers in a space off to the side with engineers and sailors checking it out,” but the Aegis virtual twin pilot program is part of a “digital revolution” and is the biggest contribution the PEO can make right now.

“Doing this for Aegis is huge,” Small said.
“The ramifications of it for the Aegis system are huge.”

Boehm, the Aegis program manager, added that “that model that we’re describing here, that’s already out in industry. It’s how Tesla has gotten out ahead of their competition. There’s a lot of potential for us using this capability, if in fact it proves itself out, to get way ahead of that technological curve of potential adversaries that we know [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson] has challenged us to go do. I’m pretty excited about it and passionate about it and certainly looking forward to next year and being able to go execute it.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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