ABOARD THE USS MCFAUL, ATLANTIC OCEAN (07/11/2000) - You can hear waves beating against the steel hulled bow of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS McFaul as Navy Petty Officer Terrance Leggon types an e-mail message and checks for new ones.
He's on a break from staring bleary-eyed into sonar scopes scouring the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
It's a Sunday night, 50 miles off the Connecticut coast aboard the 2-year-old Navy destroyer, (www.spear.navy.mil/ships/ddg74/) which is slicing its way up the coast's dark waters. Petty Officer Leggon (pictured at left) is reading e-mail from his wife Trisha back home in Norfolk, Virginia. She sent a message about her new job and their three children.
"I e-mail my wife twice a day," he says. During long tours of duty at sea, e-mail makes all the difference. "The last ship I was on, we got e-mail once a month."
The Internet is making huge waves for sailors at sea. Now, 350 crewmembers of the USS McFaul stay connected to the rest of the world through e-mail and the Web. But that's only one example of how technology is reshaping the Navy and the lives of sailors.
The 500-foot, 8900-ton USS McFaul preceded the historic Tall Ships parade up the Eastern seaboard this week, to Boston from New York City. The destroyer is part of Operation Sail 2000 (www.OPSAIL2000.ORG) and its presence is meant to show off the U.S. Navy's military might.
Say Goodbye to Popeye
Navy information technology these days is much more than Popeye counting cans of spinach. Swabbies today do everything from operate local area networks to point Tomahawk cruise missiles using sophisticated weapon systems.
While computers aboard the McFaul seem less than state of the art, the Navy's capability to tie together dozens of subsystems is an impressive feat. The result is technology that controls one of the most sophisticated weapons systems in the world.
For example, the brains of the McFaul's advanced Aegis radar-and-weapons system are five hulking circa-1980s Lockheed Martin Corp. computer servers. However, Aegis culls data from dozens of newer radar and weapons subsystems onboard.
After compiling that data, it can scan a 500-mile region and track hundreds of targets simultaneously.
Tech-Savvy Sailors on Board
E-mail isn't the only technology touching the lives of sailors. Aboard theMcFaul, supply orders are completed online, an intranet keeps crew informed of ship duties, and sailors can take computer classes online.
Crewmembers can access any Web site within the ".mil" and ".gov" domain. But they are banned from all but ten non-government Web sites. CNN, ESPN, and Excite.com's Blue Mountain Arts electronic greeting cards are among the sites cleared for Navy surfing.
Sites like eTrade, Hotmail, and adult sites are deemed either inappropriate or a security risk, says Joe Faretra, McFaul's Electronics Technician First Class.
Along with the advantages of having a network onboard come its trappings, he says. Though the McFaul has never been shot at, the Melissa virus and another "worm" viruses have penetrated the ship's hull as e-mail attachments.
Because weapon systems are not linked to the ship's Windows NT network, the McFaul has never lost its military readiness as a result of a computer virus, Faretra says. Perhaps the Navy learned its lesson in 1998. That's when the USS Yorktown had to be towed back to port after a newly installed Windows NT server failed and affected the ship's missile cruiser's propulsion system.
Computers' Importance Grows
The Navy hopes computers will reduce manpower, improve maintenance, and lower operating costs. Its new mission is to build "Smart Ships" that are increasingly reliant on computers.
The USS McFaul is one of several Navy vessels picked to test new technology. By August, the destroyer and crew will be equipped with 150 Palm handheld computers. The McFaul will also be retrofitted with dozens of infrared Palm syncing stations, so the crew can upload maintenance reports and download orders from superiors.
By 2007, the Navy hopes to build new DD21-class destroyers to replace ships like the USS McFaul. The yet-to-be-built USS Zumwalt will be the first of the class. This ship will equal the USS McFaul in size, but will exceed it in firepower and brains. And instead of a crew of 350, the USS Zumwalt will have a crew of 90--humans, that is; its computing population will likely exceed that of the USS McFaul.