Navy to Build Ship-Based ‘Edge’ Cloud for Future Combat System

The U.S. Navy is preparing large-scale investments in ship-mounted cloud computing infrastructure as the backbone of its future strategy for network-centric naval warfare.

Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) is seeking input from industry on a plan to migrate its current systems and data to a shared, decentralized cloud computing environment, according to an August request for information. The plan will involve installing tactical edge computing infrastructure, which resembles a miniaturized data center, aboard its fleet of aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, and other vessels. This will allow the U.S. fleet to run data-rich applications far from U.S. shores and independently of a central network.

These systems will underpin NAVSEA’s Future Integrated Combat System (FICS), which will begin fielding starting in fiscal 2023, according to the RFI. Navy officials released two separate solicitations for the proposed contract, one under NAICS code 541512 seeking out IT systems integrators, and another under NAICS code 334511 for manufacturers of nautical navigation systems. This hints that the desired system may require extensive collaboration between commercial cloud providers and traditional defense contractors like Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Technologies Corp., and Northrop Grumman Corp., as the top producers of electronics systems for the Navy.

The solicitation doesn’t specify a maximum value for the contract. However, based on its ambitious scope — a common tactical edge computing infrastructure for all of NAVSEA’s fleet — this contract could fetch multiple billions of dollars over its lifespan. Potential offerors have until Sept. 24 to submit a 30-page capabilities statement.

Currently, NAVSEA relies on a number of combat systems in its fleet, including the AEGIS Weapon System, on which the Navy spends about $1 billion a year to operate and maintain. FICS would represent a single system that could operate on a number of different classes of ships, reducing the burden to train sailors on multiple systems. The FICS system will also make it easier for Navy personnel to upgrade software on a continuous basis and swap in the newest hardware as soon as it’s available. In contrast, upgrading existing systems often requires opening up the hull of a ship, a costly and time-intensive process.

The contract calls for establishing a “hardware factory” model for rapidly developing and manufacturing the kinds of custom computing and storage equipment required to run a cloud environment aboard a ship thousands of miles offshore. The concept mirrors the “factory” or “pipeline” approaches that many modern organizations use to develop software. The conveyor belt-like process entails iterative development, rigorous product testing, and continuous design improvements based on user feedback.

The idea of deploying miniaturized cloud servers at the tactical edge aboard ships, on aircraft, and even in soldiers’ backpacks, represents a key objective for the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud program. The FICS RFI would appear to fall within JEDI’s scope. Nevertheless, neither the RFI nor corresponding documents reference JEDI, nor its prime contractor Microsoft Corp. With the $10 billion cloud contract still facing a challenge from Amazon Web Services Inc. in federal court and a resolution probably months away, it’s possible that the Navy may be in search of alternatives.

To contact the analyst on this story: Chris Cornillie in Washington at ccornillie@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Snyder at dsnyder@bgov.com

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