As much as I am a fan of all things generally related to helicopter gunships, nuclear destroyers and the type of military might that inspired the generation of Boys’ Own comic books that I grew up with (not that journals like ‘Warlord’ are politically correct enough to gain newsstand space these days) – I don’t profess to be a military technology specialist.
That said, there are clearly a plethora of applications for computing resources to be used ‘in theatre’ to aid our troops in the course of their duties. You only have to look back at the BBC coverage of what Prince Harry was doing in Helmand Province to see that he wasn’t just sat there with a Tommy gun blasting away at the occasional head as it popped up out of the trenches – he was using a laptop with a map tracking system to direct bombing runs.
I’m sure you already know that tech in the battle zone is big business. Sure, the Kalashnikov rifle works after being dragged through a wet muddy swamp for two weeks because it is so straightforwardly engineered, but these days there’s plenty of scope for software engineering to provide a natural extension to brute force and drive military intelligence to new levels.
Why all this ‘ho-ha’ you may ask? Well, as a software journalist you expect the bread and butter, “Hey we’ve extended our database remote synch ability…” news all the time, but every now and again the military technology theme sidewinders its way into your inbox.
Stepping out for inspection on the parade ground this week is the Royal Navy’s new Astute-class submarines, which will be using a non-hull penetrating, optronic mast from Thales. In case you don’t follow (and I’ll admit that I didn’t until I read further), that’s an electro-optic system that allows greater flexibility in boat design and provides improved surface visibility without giving away the position of the submarine. This particular mast will be powered by Wind River’s VxWorks mission-critical real-time operating system (RTOS) – suddenly the world “real” in RTOS actually has that much more impact this way doesn’t it?
NB – note to James May (he of Top Gear etc…) did I see a re-run on the Dave TV channel where Mr May specified that a ‘boat’ (as mentioned above) is any kind of sub or U-boat and that a boat (as we know it) as actually always called a ‘ship’..? Well, as this is a Boys’ Own inspired blog, I see no reason not to go for it on this subject.
Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, subs and periscopes. The Astute submarines will patrol the world’s oceans with minimum risk of being detected by surface ships and other submarines. It will deploy a number of technologies to reduce its sonar signature; however, submarines are most vulnerable to detection when the submarine commander uses a periscope to assess the situation on the surface. The optronic mast can perform a nifty 360 degree scan of above the surface, enabling the commander to analyse the image data afterwards, minimising risk of detection.
Inside the submarine hull, the Mast Control Unit (MCU) coordinates overall system activity, controlling a number of other units and communicating with the submarine’s tactical, data and combat systems. The MCU uses two processors that also run Wind River VxWorks – and so we complete the technology picture, this is the world of Device Software Optimisation or DSO. Hmm, sounds like a cheesy acronym; surely nobody pulls the wool over the Royal Navy’s finest do they?
The problem, I feel, with trying to cover this kind of software deployment and keep up to speed with this sector of the market is the covert nature of the operations. The sensitive nature of defence means that the vendors and “customers” (if we can call them that) will only talk about it when they are ready to – and then, it’s usually only in the form of a case study with no additional options for interviews.
But heck, what do I know? I fell asleep during the Hunt for Red October.