Is the Navy Heading for a Crash?

By Ensign Michael Keehn, U.S. Naval Reserve

Who on board knows how to string a new twisted pair line when a crucial part of the 10baseT ATM network gives out? How does he know that it is not a local network adapter problem? Can he swap out the hard drive on an on board machine in the event of a failure? In short, who can manage such a complex network, keep it running smoothly, and fix it when it is not working to ensure that vital information gets to the places it is needed most? At present, the Navy does not have a rating to fill this need. Instead, the various commands that have these systems are using personnel who are trained in some other rating—and who happen to have computer skills—to fill the need. But what happens if this person is not available, or does not have enough of the right kind of knowledge?

Our commercial counterparts are using the same technology. They have network administrators who constantly are performing preventive maintenance on networks and file systems or fixing problems to ensure smooth operations. They delete unused files to ensure that storage space does not run out. They monitor the transfer of data packets throughout the network to try to find potential problems. They monitor log files to ensure network security. And they quickly repair any problems—because down time costs them money. What could down time on our networks cost the Navy? A ship? Lives?

The USS Seawolf (SSN-21), our nation's newest and most capable submarine, is a good example of the implementation of COTS for internal messaging. The Seawolf 's multicomputer network is used for exchange of logistical information, mainly by using e-mail. On this type of system, network traffic is low and computer interaction is minimal. All network transfers use Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, a highly reliable form of communication that verifies all network transfers. Even though she is using a low maintenance/high reliability system, the Seawolf still has a sonar technician who was designated as the boat's system administrator, and given the jobs of assigning e-mail addresses and dealing with system maintenance. The Seawolf is lucky to have someone capable who has not been trained by the Navy in commercial systems administration. Depending on the accidental computer expertise of the crew is inherently dangerous, especially since the Navy intends to use commercial technology in more vital systems in the future.

All parts of the system are prone to failure. A memory leak can cause an eventual crash. Network cables can sever. Hard drive heads can jam. Bad sectors can appear out of nowhere. Memory can fail. Network adapters can burn out. The Navy needs desperately someone who is dedicated to solving these kinds of problems full time. As we transition to a greater dependence on computers to run our ships, people with knowledge of personal computer architecture, networking, and network administration will become only more important in ensuring the readiness and reliability of the Navy at sea and on shore.

Currently, we are planning to use Windows NT as our network-serving operating system. Two years ago, an NT administrator found a bug in the Microsoft Internet Information Server. The bug could have resulted in a crash of the Internet Information Server, if a request for a document had exceeded a certain number of bytes. This, of course, caused a delay of service at the Microsoft web site. The person who found the bug claims to have unintentionally crashed the Microsoft web site while trying to determine whether the problem was a Microsoft bug or a problem with just his system. Microsoft's response to this denial of service was, "Microsoft has identified an Internet Information Server issue that can be exploited by a malicious hacker to 'crash' Internet Information Server, making it temporarily unavailable. These types of Denial of Service issues are common on the Internet and could happen to any web server." The company that is writing our network operating system was telling the Navy that denial of service is common among servers. This should be enough of an argument for the need to have onboard systems administrators.

Software bugs and hardware failures eventually mean the same thing: information does not get to where it is needed. And when you are at sea, and a link between data in sonar and the computer in the combat information center fails, you want it fixed before you get back to port.

Due to the complexity of modern computer networks, the only way to ensure competence is to create a new enlisted rating. The proper administration, trouble shooting, and repair of a computer network are too complex and require too much knowledge to be considered for a subspecialty. A new Information Technician (IT) would be trained to ensure the operation of commercial systems.

With an enlisted rating we can ensure that personnel get the necessary training to monitor a data network for problems. They could guarantee the most efficient use of networks on board ship and in the battle group; they also could solve problems as they arise. One of the most time-intensive aspects of being a system administrator is keeping up with current technology trends. A flood of new products, bug fixes, security notices, and available upgrades constantly are coming out of the commercial market. An IT could ensure that new technology goes to where it is needed most by being familiar with the new technology, and also by being familiar with the ship's network. An IT would be responsible for staying current with commercial technology, so that when an upgrade is necessary he or she would know not only where the "choke points" were on the ship's network, but also how to use the capabilities of the current technology to alleviate these "choke points."

With such heavy planned use of commercial systems and networks, all officers on surface ships and submarines should be given an introduction to computer networking in their respective schools. This basic class in commercial computing systems would cover the basics of computer architecture, network operating system, networking, business applications, and correspondence (including the use of e-mail). Officers then would have a basic understanding of how the network functions, and would assist them in overseeing the system if they were chosen as a division officer in charge of network maintenance. It also would help them understand better the operation of their new vessel.

Personal computers now are becoming an integral part of education—especially in high school. Some young people coming out of high school are exposed to up-to-date commercial systems. It would be easier to train them to be competent in repairing and managing personal computers than trying to train personnel who have not had the exposure to newer commercial computer systems. Most military training assumes that the trainee knows nothing, but in this case a minimum level of competence would ensure faster and more effective training. Applicants should be screened before they are allowed into the rating—similar to the screening that is required prior to entry into an enlisted nuclear power rating. A basic understanding of computers would be required to ensure that an understanding of the system could be established quickly in training.

Although most system administrators have at least a bachelor's degree in computer science, there are many facets of computer science that do not necessarily make someone a good system administrator. If a school were to concentrate only on knowledge relating to personal computer repair and maintenance, it would be able to produce an entry-level IT in less time. As a seaman, the new IT would be able to perform all hardware replacements, and be able to troubleshoot single system software problems. The IT petty officer should be able to troubleshoot and maintain small networks. Chiefs, senior chiefs, and master chiefs should be able to administer large networks and all personnel involved with machine maintenance. The billet of warrant officer could be established, providing someone able to manage multiple networks using different operating systems. These billets could be held on both sea and shore computer systems. The IT also would have to undergo constant training as new technology emerges. If the IT is not trained, he or she eventually would fall behind the technology. Weekly training sessions and required reading of periodicals would keep an IT current on technology and software.

The Navy is striving for higher levels of automation on board ships, replacing large crews with large computer networks. With the Navy using computers to replace a crew of 300 with a crew of less than 100, the most important job on board will be the one that ensures those computers work.

Ensign Keehn is a 1999 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He will enter the submarine community.


More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Mon, 2016-10-03

You are cordially invited to: Maintaining Maritime Superiority A discussion with Admiral John M. Richardson, USNChief of Naval...

2016 Coast Guard Academy Conference

US Coast Guard Academy

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

View All

From the Press

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Sun, 2016-10-02

8 Bells Lecture at the Seamen's Church Institute

Wed, 2016-10-05

James Goldrick

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership