Information technology is developing so rapidly that the Navy must start building ships that can be more easily adapted to integrate new capabilities, the chief of the Office of Naval Research recently said.

The service cannot afford the longstanding practice of stripping down a vessel to modernize or upgrade its systems, Rear Adm. Nevin Carr said at a conference on Open Architecture (OA) sponsored by the Surface Navy Association.

“We take a ship down to bare shiny metal and build it back up again with whatever is new, and…in eight more years we’ll take it down to bare shiny metal and build it back up again,” Carr said. “And we just can’t modernize and evolve and keep up that way.”

OA embraces the use of existing, commercially available technology to produce modular, interoperable systems with open design practices that can be easily upgraded and thereby reduce costs. A high priority for the Navy, it is intended to replace legacy systems that are expensive to maintain and upgrade as the service has come to realize it cannot afford operating older networks in their current state over the long term.

“We need to begin with the need in mind and make our systems and especially our ships open in such a way that they are built with Velcro–if you want to think of it that way–so that we can keep up with the rapidly evolving market,” he added.

“We ought to be thinking in terms of scalable modular open ships that are built with modernization in mind, built with change in mind,” he said at the Aug. 16 gathering at Naval Base San Diego.

Carr cited the upgrading of Aegis destroyers and cruisers to give them a ballistic missile defense capability. He called the system “magnificent” but faulted the process as too expensive.

“Think of the cost that has gone with putting that capability into these ships,” he said.

A centerpiece of the Navy’s OA effort has been on the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES). CANES is meant to integrate multiple legacy networks responsible for command, control, computers, and intelligence (C4I) into a single, streamlined system.

Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman [NOC] are competing for the contract for the first CANES production run. A winner could be announced by the end of this year or in early 2012.

Carr said there has been enough talk about bringing OA to the Navy but insufficient action.

 “I am getting kind of tired hearing people talk about open architecture. We all know what needs to be done,” he said. “We just need to do it. We need to have a business process set up in such a way that we can keep up with the market and leverage open systems.”