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By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Ships can be saved from destruction when long-range sensors detect incoming enemy anti-ship missiles, weapons can be launched with precision guidance to hit enemy ships and submarines, maritime combat missions can be safeguarded and extended and high-energy lasers can incinerate enemy drones, helicopters, ships and small boats. 

However, all of this relies upon power and energy systems, the storage and delivery of energy and the technical structures and interfaces through which they operate.

Lingering beneath the visible surface of ship combat performance and functionality is a set of crucial technologies, systems and components providing structure, continued operations and maintenance for the platform. Maintenance, energy storage, mobile applications of power and effort to decrease a hardware footprint and increase operational efficiency all provide the foundation for ship combat success.

With the advent of an entirely new generation of digital computing, networking technologies and power-reliant weapons systems, ship commanders and weapons developers have been deeply immersed in trying to greatly improve energy density, performance and storage to enable new applications such as lasers. 

Transportable, efficient, high-density power systems and energy storage, for example, are crucial to a ship’s ability to fire a new generation of long-range, high-powered, scalable laser weapons. Along with lasers, adding integrated power systems not only enables lasers but also supports radar technologies, EW applications and some command and control linked fire control systems.

New innovations have been needed to accommodate a paradigm-changing level of on-board power and electricity that is sustainable, storable and able to be monitored. Form factor, or simply size of hardware components, continues to present challenges for ship builders seeking to store and operate with enough energy to power up and sustain a new generation of ship-board technologies.

The Navy’s nascent future destroyer platform, called DDG (X), will of course require massive amounts of transportable power and energy to operate as intended in modern maritime warfare, so the Navy and its industry partners are taking specific, new, innovative measures to greatly reduce the needed hardware footprint, streamline and network energy systems, maximize power output and efficiency and monitor critical maintenance, performance and sustainability for the ship. 

This effort is not only underway when it comes to early work on a new generation of destroyers but also fundamental to ongoing modernization and maintenance of existing systems and emerging platforms such as the DDG 51 Flight III destroyers and fast-arriving fleet of Littoral Combat Ships. 

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1)

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1)

DDG 51 flight IIIs are specifically engineered with cooling systems and on board power generation to support a new generation of highly-sensitive, long-range radar systems. 

The LCS is built with power-reliant, upgradeable “mission systems” critical to surface, mine and anti-submarine warfare. Perhaps most of all, a fast-growing fleet of small, medium and large unmanned surface vehicles need sustainable power for endurance, autonomous operations and on-board sensors, radars, command and control systems, computer automation and even weapons.

Integrated Power and Energy Systems (IPES)

All of these modernization efforts, and the need to anticipate and prepare for a future threat environment, have inspired an evolving Northrop Grumman effort around the Integrated Power and Energy Systems, or IPES. 

The intent, and technological innovation behind the system is multi-faceted as it consolidates and maximizes on-board power distribution and storage, optimizes energy use, density and efficiency and greatly reduces the necessary hardware footprint by streamlining and networking energy management technologies. 

This is accomplished through an advanced series of technical interfaces using “Bidirectional Converter Modules” which, Northrop Grumman developers say, enables otherwise disaggregated, separate or federated energy systems specific to a particular ship component to function as part of a computer-enabled, streamlined and networked system. 

Its coordinated functionality relies upon “interfaces between ship technologies such as the combat system, propulsion system and communications, so you have a high degree of interchangeability, interoperability as well as streamlined energy storage and delivery,” Northrop Grumman-Power/Control Systems Chief Engineer Matt Superczynski said. ”We are using Northrop Grumman’s scalable architecture to support expanding needs of the Navy by leveraging existing high-TRL programs to support future needs with our building block approach.”

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On board systems such as electric propulsion, mission systems computing, navigation systems, on board machinery and of course weapons and sensors all require energy storage and distribution. 

Northrop Grumman’s approach is to maximize output and performance while ensuring effective storage, maintenance and distribution. With IPES, ship sensors, computing, radar and directed energy weapons can all be supported by a single, highly-efficient and streamlined architecture that is flexible and scalable to address changing load demands and platform specific needs.

An interesting 2017 research paper supported by the Office of Naval Research in an academic journal called “IEEE Transactions on Energy Conversion” called “Predictive Control for Energy Management in Ship Power Systems under High-power Ramp Rate Loads,” seems to clearly identify the problems and challenges IPES is engineered to solve.

“Electrical weapons and combat systems integrated into ships create challenges for their power systems. The main challenge is operation under high-power ramp rate loads, such as rail-guns and radar systems. When operated, these load devices may exceed the ship's generators in terms of power ramp rate, which may drive the system to instability,” the paper states.

Therefore, the kind of breakthrough enabled by IPES could be critical to current and future ships such as DDG Flight III, DDG(X) and continued upgrades of LCS mission systems, yet it is also fundamental to the Navy’s growing fleet of autonomous systems. 

New platforms, such as the Navy’s now-in-development medium and large unmanned surface vehicles, will require unprecedented levels of energy management and sustainability to support their expected long-dwell, high-endurance missions.

Unmanned systems, and cross-domain air, surface and undersea networking in particular, form the conceptual basis of what could be called a transformation. Unmanned systems can conduct clandestine forward operating surveillance and reconnaissance missions, function as sensor nodes within a larger, multi-domain meshed warfare network. 

Advanced algorithms are allowing much greater degrees of collective or collaborative autonomy such that groups of unmanned systems can now operate in tandem with one another and adjust in real-time to changing combat variables. The advent of greater unmanned systems also allows manned platforms to operate as motherships or host platforms performing command and control at safer standoff distances.

Powered in large measure by advanced algorithms enabling growing levels of autonomy, large unmanned surface combatants will be energy reliant when it comes to maintaining radar, sensors, sub-hunting technology, command and control for unmanned-unmanned teaming and of course continued propulsion. All of this, Northrop Grumman developers explain, must be reliable. This pertains to yet another advantage for IPES, meaning electric propulsion could, Northrop Grumman developers explain, allow a ship’s generates to operate at ideal speeds while storing power.

One expert Navy weapons developer, Captain Pete Small, program manager, Unmanned Maritime Systems, has been developing new unmanned platforms for many years, such as the large and medium USVs. For many years now, Small has been emphasizing the need for open architecture and advanced interfaces to enable technological growth, sensor payload modularity, continuous upgrades and on-board power management.

IPES is also, by design, configured for the future, meaning it is built to be upgraded. That is part of why the interfaces are developed to enable maximum interoperability. With this in mind, the Navy is now in the process of preparing a special “integration lab” where new technologies can be tested and refined before being put on a ship. Kevin Knowles, Northrop Grumman USV campaign lead further explained that efforts to engineer efficient and workable interfaces is something which can be supported with great effect by the integration lab.

Increased computer reliance for automation can massively improve efficiency and improve ship performance, a reason Northrop Grumman developers are working intensely upon ensuring the system and the networks that breathe life into the IPES architecture themselves are sufficiently “hardened” against potential intruders or cyberattacks.

“You need to be able to make sure that, someone doesn't go in there and start to mess with your delicate automation systems or impact your written navigation systems. So we've done a lot of thinking and provided some input in cybersecurity,” said Knowles.

All of this, Northrop Grumman developers say, is intended to support, enable and fortify the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy. Maritime warfare is expected to be more dispersed and defined in large measure by breakthrough weapons and sensors with much greater range, precision and data-transmission capability.

Empowered by a breakthrough measure of power conversion, energy management and distribution, Northrop Grumman’s IPES developers are working to support the growing extent to which dynamic weapons and sensors, autonomy, computer automation, and unmanned systems will increasingly form the conceptual, operational and tactical foundation of modern maritime warfare. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization