WASHINGTON — A test announced in late March could herald an enormous change in the way the Navy modernizes its ships, while making a once prohibitive cost of maintaining older ships attainable.

The Navy destroyer Thomas S. Hudner participated in a live-fire missile exercise using an Aegis “virtual twin” system, which the service is developing to significantly reduce the hardware footprint inside a ship needed to run the Aegis combat system.

When the Navy built its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, installing the Aegis combat system into the hull required a large suite of hardware — computers, servers, consoles and displays — designed specifically to run Aegis software. Any significant upgrades to the suite of systems already installed, or to the Aegis system in general, required cutting a hole in the ship and swapping out computers and consoles — a massively expensive undertaking.

The virtual twin upends that model. According to a Naval Sea Systems Command news release, the virtual twin system is carried on the ship in rugged cases that, when stacked up,” are small enough to fit under a dining room table.”

“Thomas Hudner’s crew operated the Virtual Twin to fire a missile against an incoming target, proving the Virtual Twin can control radars and missiles to execute an engagement,” the release read. “Using virtualization technology, this system is able to run the AEGIS Weapon System code in a fraction of the original hardware space.”

Packing Aegis onto a handful of computers to control radars and sensors on the ship is a game-changer for the surface fleet and gets it closer to a goal that has eluded it for years: rapidly upgrading its combat system with the latest updates for far less money.

“The cost of Aegis baseline upgrades is outrageous,” said Thomas Callender, an analyst with The Heritage Foundation and a retired submarine officer.

The surface fleet, Callender said, is moving toward a system embraced by the submarine community that focused on rapid technology insertions into the combat system.

“We got away from the ’60s computer technology, where you had computers that took up an entire room, and moved towards cheaper and faster upgrades,” he said. “And if I can take out all that old equipment and swap it out for gear that takes up less space, I have space, weight, power and cooling now for other things like lasers.”

The model might also drive down the cost of modernizations. When the cruiser Normandy was equipped with the full Aegis Baseline 9 suite, which included new displays, consoles and a computer room full of powerful blade servers, it cost the Navy $188 million and cost the ship a year pierside.

Common combat system

The virtual twin model also could move the Navy closer to putting a single combat system on every ship.

What the surface fleet wants is a single combat system that runs on every ship, and runs everything on the ship, and one that isn’t particular about the hardware running it, so long as enough computing power is available.

The goal here is that if a sailor who is trained on a big-deck amphibious ship transfers to a destroyer, no extra training will be necessary to run the equipment on the destroyer — all the systems and functionality will be the same.

“That’s an imperative going forward — we have to get to one, integrated combat system,” Rear Adm. Ron Boxall, the chief of naval operations’ director of surface warfare, said in a December interview at the Pentagon with Defense News.

The Navy is moving in that direction with the Common Source Library. Developed by Lockheed Martin, the CSL is essentially the operating system of an iPhone: The Navy can use it to program applications that run sensors and weapons systems.

So if the Navy has a new missile system it wants to use, the software application to run it will be designed for use on the CSL — and ships with the CSL will be able to rapidly integrate it, just like downloading the latest navigation or gaming software for a smartphone.

But the issue is that CSL requires specific hardware to function, said Tony DeSimone, chief engineer of Lockheed Martin’s Integrated Warfare Systems and Sensors unit.

“One of the challenges the Navy has, the constraints, is the hardware and infrastructure to support a [common integrated combat system],” DiSimone said during a roundtable with reporters late last year.

“So while we are marching forward with the capability to be open and take in apps, there is an antiquated architecture out there, and there is hardware that doesn’t support it," he said. "You can’t run [integrated operating] systems today on UYK-43s. You’re just not going to be able to do it. So let’s gut them and put some blade servers in, and we’ll work with you.” The UYK-43 was once the Navy’s standard 32-bit computer for surface and submarine platforms.

Enter the virtual twin.

If the Navy can replicate all the form and function of a larger Aegis Combat System suite on a few computers that can be carried on a ship, and that system is hooked in with the Common Source Library, it has the potential to make upgrading older equipment on older ships less expensive by using much less hardware that can be carried on as opposed to having to cut a hole in the ship to install it. And it could allow those ships to run the latest and greatest Aegis software.

Lockheed designed the CSL to work in the virtual twin, noted Jim Sheridan, vice president of naval combat and missile defense systems at Lockheed.

“Everything we build for the Common Source Library is designed so the architecture is applicable to a virtual environment,” he said in an April 24 telephone interview.

Practically, that means that older ships can run their older systems with a virtual twin, while also getting the latest functions for newer Aegis versions, which are all packed into the Common Source Library.

There will still be a role for combat systems integrators, however, if the Navy adopts a virtual twin construct, especially when dealing with older platforms with older systems.

“I think it’s important that we not walk away from the system engineering required to make sure it has the redundancy that’s required, making sure we don’t leave any legacy interfaces behind as we go forward with virtual environments on ships,” Sheridan said.