Windows for Warships nears frontline service

The real blue screen of death

One might say at this point "why on earth doesn't the navy just use radar aircraft, 30,000 feet up? Then they could detect sea-skimmers hundreds of miles out, and fighters could nail them easily from behind. They could probably spot the planes or ships bringing the pesky things, and take them out from above before the shipkillers were even launched. Why would you ever spend £6bn trying to shoot these things down in the most difficult imaginable way, at the very last possible moment?"

To which the honest answer might be "we in the Royal Navy find that when we buy planes nobody gets a promotion out of it and the kit may get taken over by the RAF. If we buy a ship, however, someone gets to be captain and the slug-balancers leave us alone. Anyway, it's our £6bn, we'll do what we like with it. What do you mean you're a UK taxpayer and it's actually your money? That's crazy talk".

The logical consequence of all this is that whenever a sea-skimmer threat is deemed to be present – and if there isn't any such threat, why are we there in a Type 45 destroyer? – the weapon lockout keys will have to be turned and left turned until the threat has gone away.

As a matter of routine, then, a Windows computer in a destroyer will be enabled to launch weapons autonomously, perhaps for days at a time. Quite a lot of weapons, actually: the sea-skimmers can be expected to come in groups, so the destroyer's computer must be allowed to ripple off a fair number of Asters without asking. It can control at least 10 simultaneously.

Even without considering malware or other Windows-related issues, combat-ready air defence ships always present a severe risk of terrible, deadly accidents because there is seldom any chance to positively identify targets. The US Navy's existing Aegis ships have already demonstrated this.

It gets worse. This Windows box, unlike the one in the Trident sub, is by necessity heavily networked. A destroyer command system has to constantly communicate with other ships, aircraft, satellites, various organisations in the UK – lots of different computers. Naval surface task groups used crude automated data links before the internet was ever heard of, and nowadays the bandwidth is substantial and varied. A Type 45 will be plugged into many different networks. There will be NATO or other foreign units on some of these nets, which is to say that the authentication protocols and probably codes too will be available to anyone who wants them. Other pipes will connect, perhaps at one or two removes, to the wild and woolly internet itself.

Hacking Destroyers

It still won't be easy to hack a destroyer, but it will be distinctly possible. If you can't do it over a network, physically infiltrating a surface warship is a trivial task compared to getting aboard a Trident sub. Surface vessels have dozens of upper-deck doors and hatches, compared to a submarine's handful. Destroyers routinely tie up at berths without shoreside security, guarded by

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