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NEWS | June 25, 2021

NSWC Dahlgren Division Supports Virtualized Testing Environment For AN/SPY-6 Radar

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

Shipyard work is currently underway to equip the future USS Jack H. Lucas with an AN/SPY-6 radar system. The early integration testing of this advanced radar leveraged a series of successful test events conducted in 2020 within a virtualized environment provided by Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) at approximately one-twentieth the cost of traditional land-based test equipment sets. Dahlgren engineers say that similar IT concepts could be applied on computer systems across the Navy, with reductions in size, weight, power, cost and cooling.

The AN/SPY-6 is a central feature of the Flight III variant Arleigh Burke-class of guided missile destroyers, providing a simultaneous Anti-Air Warfare and Ballistic Missile Defense capability. The Navy regards the AN/SPY-6 and related variants as the fleet’s next generation radar system, and plans their deployment across six classes of ships in the future.

Traditionally, the development lifecycle of a new project of this magnitude would warrant the establishment of a dedicated test lab to work out any technical glitches before starting up mass production on the radar. These land-based facilities typically incorporate full-scale prototypes of hardware that is being tested and go to great lengths to replicate the technical environment found on ships.

That can be difficult when it comes to the computer systems used at sea, which are built to military-specified design and can withstand the physical shocks of combat, among other robust standards. Testing a new radar in this environment involves a balancing act between technological innovation and accuracy to the existing conditions.

“In some past cases they were buying ship representative equipment, which even included things like the ruggedized enclosures,” NSWCDD Virtualization Chief Engineer Dennis Larsen explained. “That can be a very costly proposition. In other cases, integration or testing was delayed because of availability of the specialized equipment.”

When the SPY-6 underwent testing in Hawaii last year at the Advanced Radar Detection Laboratory (ARDEL), Dahlgren was able to provide a different approach in the form of a virtualized test environment, which operates on similar architecture as the commercial data centers that host everyday websites and web applications. Virtual environment equipment costs approximately $750 thousand, compared to $15 million for the traditional land-based test site computing suite, according to Larsen.

Virtualization is the effect of networking computers together for maximum power, and then splitting up that processing power into little pieces that are assigned to different tasks as the need arises. Commercial data centers do this at scale, with warehouses full of networked servers, rented out like internet infrastructure-as-a-service.

Live SPY-6 radar testing with a virtual AEGIS Weapon System for early integration followed a similar blueprint.

“What we’ve done is take what would reside on a physical computer, and we created virtual machines that allow us to further subdivide the available processing power for maximum effect,” said Larsen. “We’re not modifying the computer programs themselves, we’re using their existing environment and installing them into the virtual environment.”

Over the past decade, virtualization has transformed the physical landscape of the internet with infrastructure as a service replacing the bulky server racks that used to decorate the backrooms of many offices. Consumers see this trend in the web-based apps, like free online word processors, that compete against software installed locally on computers. According to Larsen, that commonality between commercial and military virtualization is a “decoupling of the computer programs from the underlying equipment.”

The same factors that have pushed consumer preferences toward cloud computing are also at play within government. Virtualization on a large scale “means that the Navy will be able to shrink the footprint occupied by computer systems on ships,” said Larsen. “Something that used to require a dozen racks of equipment, can now be functionally executed in a single rack of equipment within the virtual environment.”