WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy needs to quickly modernize its fleet’s network in order to be prepared for future fights, but one of the “greatest impediments” to that effort is that the hardware inside ships requires hull cuts to be upgraded, a top Navy IT official said Monday.

“These platforms need to be water-tight which means our entry points are small. The equipment that needs to be upgraded inside the hulls often requires hull cuts,” said Rear Adm. Susan BryerJoyner, Navy cyber security division chief in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. “That challenges our ability to pivot quickly in order to upgrade the traditional hardware that [delivers] the capabilities we’re trying to provide to the warfighter.”

The key to modernization is to get around the hull cuts, BryerJoyner said Wednesday at the AFCEA NOVA Naval IT Day. This is a time-consuming process that has long irked the Navy. Instead, the service is turning to industry for help getting around the large hardware requirements of traditional networking capabilities.

BryerJoyner said that the Navy’s future lies in software-defined networking. Software-defined networking relies on software applications for network management.

“We need to get to software defined networks. We know we need to be able to share data more seamlessly across the Navy. The challenge is, how do we come up with modular platforms that don’t require hull cuts in order for us to be able to swap in and out on board the ship,” she said. “That’s honestly one of the greatest impediments to modernization.”

She also added that the service is seeking help from industry for data sharing. Like the other services, Navy ships must be able to pass data in denied and degraded environments, whether that’s caused by the weather, adversaries or the poor satellite connection. The service, she said, must adjust to a state of operations where applications do not have constant connectivity.

The Navy also needs to understand if the data needs to be shared just locally aboard a ship or if it needs to be aggregated in some form to be shared with the rest of a strike group or across a theater, she said. Data sharing capabilities across the theater will also be a critical component for Joint All-Domain Command and Control, a major push by the services to connect sensors and shooters across domains.

Tactical cloud computing in remote environments will be a cornerstone piece to data sharing. Speaking on the same webinar, Navy Chief Information Officer Aaron Weis said the shift to cloud, driven in part by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, was currently the top priority. But for tactical cloud, Weis said, “there’s no better use case for tactical cloud than a ship afloat or an expeditionary marine force.”

But for all that to work, the network must be perfected.

“If the end state is ‘I’m not going to be able to securely move data from anywhere to anywhere,’ well, now we’re back to that modernization and the network discussion," Weis said.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.