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Will UK's aircraft carriers run on 'Windows for warships'?

BAE's command systems specialist may think it's a good idea

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Last week UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon mounted an odd attack on the country's major defence contractor, BAE Systems, claiming that large foreign shareholdings in the company meant that it could no longer be viewed as British. The assault was seen by observers as perhaps being a pre-emptive strike in the run-up to Hoon's potential award of the contract for two aircraft carriers to French company Thales, rather than to maybe-not-so-local player BAE. But Register sources claim BAE's defeat may also save us from a real deployment of Windows for warships.

Although our sources suggest the Windows factor may be influencing the Ministry of Defence's decision-making process, we suspect this is largely wishful thinking. BAE's recent history on defence contracts has not been impressive from the MoD's perspective, and Thales has relatively recent experience of building large carriers. OK, they might have built the flight decks slightly too short, but they fixed that and they're bound to have bought a new tape measure in time for their next effort.

The Windows factor in the BAE bid is at the moment something that can be deduced, rather than absolutely established. BAE has expertise in naval command systems via its joint venture company, AMS, which in Hoonspeak is even more not-a-British-company than BAE. The AMS site is pretty, largely content-free, but we humbly direct you to the entry for STRAND, which makes ominous mention of "the latest standard desktop computing technology."

AMS, we are told, has decided to hitch its wagon to Windows. Whereas Microsoft seems at the moment to be talking up Windows use in the US Navy while actually delivering non mission-critical desktops, in the case of the Royal Navy the company's products really are achieving penetration of battle control systems, via AMS. AMS/BAE have long experience of delivering such systems using Unix, and this experience went into AMS when the jv company was set up.

But AMS is now committed to Windows, and says it intends to base future Combat Management Systems on Windows variants, describing Windows as a viable underlying operating system for operational systems.

The systems in question do not perform non-critical tasks such as allowing jolly jack tars to download porn while they hang around the Arabian Gulf waiting for something to happen. They control the combat picture in real-time, and deliver the information the vessels' commanders need in order to decide when to fire torpedoes, nuke Baghdad or whatever. And should BAE fail to win the carrier contract, that will not be the end of it, because the CMS AMS is building for the Royal Navy's next ships, the Type 45 destroyer, is already Windows-based.

The Type 45 (perhaps appropriately, the "Daring" class) is scheduled for delivery in 2007, so there is more than ample time for Windows to prove inadequate and for a hasty back-track to Unix. But that would merely produce more cost overruns and delays, and further bad blood between BAE and the MoD. Combat Management Systems, however, have potentially very long lives. They can be in service for 20 to 30 years, and locking yourself in to proprietary systems over this kind of period would perhaps be ill-advised.

The move to Windows has been criticised internally by some of AMS' engineers, to no avail. The justification for the move is that it will facilitate more portable systems using standard PC hardware. However, given the Unix experience at BAE/AMS, it would seem more logical to move over to Linux or BSD than to take the Windows route. And as anybody running mission-critical PC servers will tell you, you can chuck any notions of commodity PC pricing out of the window anyway - if you're running systems that really have to stay up, you can't afford to use commodity PC parts, and you need bulletproof failover systems. Possibly still cheaper than Sun, but nowhere near as cheap as you thought. ®

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