June 14, 2021 – Millions of feet of fiber optic cable may be in use on a single naval vessel. So what happens when a fiber optic issue arises thousands of miles from shore?
The Fiber Optics Test and Repair (FOTR) Program aims to address the concern by certifying the training of onboard fiber technicians and verifying that they have proper, standardized sets of tools to make repairs while deployed.
As the fleet’s Technical Direction Agent and In-Service Engineering Agent for fiber optics, engineers at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) are spearheading the effort to ensure that sailors themselves can make any necessary repairs to the critical infrastructure.
While the fleet has long had an interest in implementing a program that increased fiber optic repair self-sufficiency, Master Chief Terry Russell – Force Electronics Technician at Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic and a key member of the program’s working group – emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic further illuminated the need for a proven program.
“COVID really removed the Band-Aid,” Russell said. “We cannot remain reliant on outside sources to repair our systems and equipment and COVID presented those limitations. We’ve been able to help create this awareness and are using it to champion the entire self-sufficiency initiative.”
In fall of 2020, the FOTR program successfully completed a pilot program using five ships from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group to verify the training and proficiency of the onboard fiber technicians, as well as ensure that sufficient repair parts were on hand to make fiber repairs.
“We’re already seeing the return on investment as ships have been able to repair major system causalities on their own utilizing the fiber training and program we have stood up,” said Russell.
NSWCDD has certified two schoolhouses so far – one in San Diego and one in Norfolk – to provide sailors with the initial fiber training to conduct repairs. Once sailors have gone through the schoolhouse, they are required to get recertified every 18 months by a NSWCDD certified inspector at a regional maintenance center.
FOTR leadership said one critical success item has been the conscious decision to align the program’s design with one already in place to address a similar self-sufficiency need in circuit board repair – the microminiature electronics (2M) repair program. Utilizing the existing framework not only provides consistent standards across fields of expertise, but also facilitated a more rapid deployment for the FOTR program.
With more than 90 shipboard systems directly enabled by fiber optics, maintaining equipment at peak readiness becomes critical not only to operation, but also to survivability. Sending sailors through the initial certification and continuous recertification processes provides assurance that the fleet can troubleshoot and fix fiber optic issues as they occur.
“This self-sufficiency is key to keeping sailors safe,” said Matt Castelo, Fiber Technology and Interconnect Branch head. “This program reduces the risk of a situation where the equipment is down or the ship is without warfighting capabilities because of a fiber optic issue. It’s giving them the capability to do what they need to do to stay in the fight.”