1. The Virginia class was first commissioned in 2004, with a 33 year design life. The XBox 360 was first shown in public in 2005, with a design life of ...? Yup, it's consumer electronics, with a design life of much less than 33 years. Even though there are on the order of 80-100M of them in the wild, by and by XBox 360s and replacement parts will be getting scarce.
(If you think this is an exaggeration, consider the availability of spare parts today for a computer system commissioned 33 years ago, in 1984 — an original IBM PC XT, perhaps, or an original Macintosh, both of which were manufactured in — for the time — high volume. Things like 5.25" floppy disks, or a replacement M-series IBM keyboard with the original DIN plug, were once ubiquitous, but today they're rarities.)
2. A second concern is that these days everything comes with an embedded processor and an enterprising hostile entity might try to sneak malware on board a fast attack submarine via the periscope controller handset. (I've no idea what form such malware might take, or what it might accomplish, but that's not the point: it's that using cheap commercial handsets widens the threat surface of the submarine's sensor suite arbitrarily.)
1) As others have said xinput is pervasive as this point. If the Xbox 360 controller becomes hard to source then I'm sure a replacement xinput derived device will still be around. If not, it's a well documented standard and new devices can be made.
2) This leans on my first response. Xinput is the winner here, not the Xbox controller. If after testing they can't harden it then we have a lot of other options, up to and including a bespoke controller.
I guess what I'm saying is that video game controls are so much fun for a reason. They 'just work'. And while there is a little bit of dystopian sheen to seeing video games become the source for defacto tooling for war machines I'm always for a simplification of man/machine interactions.
First of all, I want to say I agree with you. That said, you didn't really refute GP's point.
The IBM XT was well documented, had many clones and alternatives, but still you can't find parts at most electronic stores 33 years later. Several decades is a very long time in consumer electronics.
We're trying to solve the problem of how to point periscopes here, not solve the generalized problem that when it comes down to it, nobody really knows what 2027 is going to be like.
(By contrast, "this is a new vector for malware if the supply chain is not secured" is a valid concern because one presumes and/or hopes that bespoke military hardware is better controlled there. This is a solvable problem, but solving it eats into the cost advantage.)
Further more, I agree with your parenthetical that the malware angle is the more important argument. I disagree that it's a solveable problem though, but I feel the Xbox controller isn't the reason it isn't solvable. Any platform can be hacked given sufficient motivation.
Honestly I think using these controllers are likely the best approach, but let's not pretend it doesn't have issues (it's just the it's the same issues or less cumbersome issues than alternatives).
The Navy can buy thousands of Xbox controllers for the cost of even a single bespoke controller. The US has on the order of 100 submarines. Replacement controllers for the lifetime of each submarine -- even multiplied by 10 -- is a hilariously small cost compared to the alternatives.
So buy 1,000+ Xbox controllers and keep them in a warehouse. Problem solved.
Yes, I was going to suggest this. It would solve the availability issue and reduce the malware issue. If it's replacing a $38,000 item, they could buy 1,265 extra per sub.
> video game controls are so much fun for a reason
I'm really more of a keyboard guy. Sometimes a mouse.
This is the worst-case scenario for what is a rather overblown concern in the first place.
> I'm really more of a keyboard guy. Sometimes a mouse.
Even when operating a submarine?
Exactly, use the correct controller for the correct scenario. Keyboard+mouse works for many games, but for games where you control vehicles (racing games, aircraft simulators, submarines), joystick controls just work better.
Also, let's not forget that Microsoft would probably help out with hardening the security of the controllers. It's not like the Navy would have to reverse engineer the controller to figure out how to make it more secure.
The Navy will need to write their own firmware anyway.
Eventually it will be surpassed, but it's far more available and supported than whatever they were doing before, and its simple enough to be easy to continue to manufacture.
Also, do we really think the military couldn't find someone to contract with to continue making them if they needed to? Knock offs are $20 on Amazon, they're very simple devices.
And that goes right into cstross' second point...
Which do you think is easier to replace today, or get a manufacturer to remake: a model M from 1984, or a custom machine keyboard from 1984.
Hell, wind the back another 10 years - I worked in a hospital with a really old bit of kit. It was a Siemens EEG machine, and the keyboard was capacitive metal tabs. No travel at all - they simply registered when pressed by a finger but not other things (like a modern smartphone screen). I'd much rather dig up a common keyboard than one of those curios.
Xinput is a pervasive standard at this point, to where there is a large market of third party controllers and software support in various linux distros as well as a JS api to access it in Chrome and Firefox.
2. Are you sure the non-commercial version come from and doesn't have embedded processor, and how do you know it's really good quality and not just very expensive because of low quantity production?
It's a tough problem.
At $20 a piece, the pentagon has now spent $10,000. This is not what in military spending passes for excess $ :) Yes, the numbers might be somewhat off, and there's storage cost, but really - we're talking Pentagon here. The place of the infamous $640 toilet seat :) (I know, the price got reduced to $100. Still, on the scale of Pentagon procurement, a lifetime buy of XBox controllers is pretty trivial)
I think when its come to HIDs like controllers or keyboards, off the shelf is fine. We can have the exact same conversation for Dell keyboards or 3rd party keyboards and mice.
And as I said to a sibling comment below, you can't always just buy excess. You have budgets you need to stay under, to support everything you handle.
Consumer grade is not the same as buying from the same places we buy, either. You have to use approved vendors, which add their own markup. What you or I may buy for $5 might only be available for $25.
First. No, lifetime buys are not always a tough problem. While they can be tough, consumer grade electronics have to be the best product to predict lifetime buys on due to clear end of life and good data on mean time to failure.
Second. Let's do some math. Let's assume a 30 year operation. There are 48 of this sub planned. Let's say for some reason they go through 3 a year. At $30 each, we're looking at $130k to outfit the entire fleet of subs for their operational lifetime. Or, we could buy about 3.5 of the existing joystick, not even enough to outfit the 4 subs that are already in operation.
Lastly, it is likely that a 3rd party would take over the manufacture of these devices when they end of life anyway. It's a popular consumer electronic after all. The government would just buy a bunch then, reducing lifetime warehouse costs and getting better data to predict the lifetime buy.
The problem comes when you start going through 3 a year, but then say 5 years down the road you start going through 15 a year. There could be a premature wear issue, some bug, an update from a related system, whatever. But you can't always plan for those, and it can come back to bite you. And whomever has the inventory at that time can have quite a markup.
For what it's worth, I think this controller idea is excellent.
And while I agree that excess stock costs pale in comparison to a sub or boat, multiply that by every part necessary to keep one operational, and then face all the people every year who say the defense budget needs cut.
I'm sure, though, that both 1. and 2. are concerns the US Navy will have given ample consideration before making this move.
(Imagine if current submarines were using SNES controllers... )
The manufacturers in China would have to put backdoors into all of them, which would be noticed pretty quickly, and the gain is what? They can control the periscope direction? That would be noticed immediately too.
I'm not saying it's impossible, but it sounds more like a plot device for a "set your brain on the seat beside you" action movie.
second concern should be taken seriously however.
This should be done in many more places.
Though with 'cost plus' contracts... providers are incented to create crazy new things for every problem.
If there weren't moral questions around this - it would be amazing to see a NATO forces 'hackathon' where people create top gear/tech for soldiers with off-the-shelf components and software.
I have a funny feeling that 'if they put their hearts to it' - there'd be no competition in terms of what could be created.
Imagine the SpaceX of 'jet fighters' - 2x the capability, 5% the cost.
Anyhow, obvious moral issues there ... just a thought.
I believe the book gave a radio module as an example. It was available for $120,000 at "space-rated" quality, but they bought something at RadioShack for around $3,000, and later replaced it with an in-house part that was smaller/lighter/more power efficient.
There is 'off the shelf', 'automotive', 'aeronautic', 'unmanned space' and 'manned space' quality gear.
If you think about it - when you're flying a plane, the 'tolerances' for everything just has to be higher - there's much more at risk.
In a complex system, there are a lot of single points of failure that can cause haywire.
Unsurprisingly, the tolerances for 'unmanned' vs. 'manned' space flight are quite different - and for good reason.
Perhaps the economics are not always quite right, it may make sense to make some small probe out of 'cheap gear' - but there is of course added risk, and usually, you 'only get one launch' attempt.
Finally - there's a reason a 'space grade' radio might cost $13K, and that's because they don't make very many :).
I interned on the Space Shuttle robot arm project - we made these aluminum 'handles' for the arm to grab onto. I mean - really, really basic stuff. $200K each. Engineering, overhead, testing, sales yada yada - we only ever made a few dozen.
That sounds ridiculous. Did your coworkers have a strong opinion of that, or not care?
It takes a lot of work and investment to design a 'space grade product'.
When you only ever sell 50 of them - total, well the price will be high.
Imagine if only 500 iPhones were ever sold - how much would they cost in order for Apple to make a profit?
It's just the weird economics of small batch products that makes the price seem bonkers, there's no volume to spread the fixed costs over.
Next time you're sat in a meeting with 5 other highly paid software developers, discussing a two line bugfix, think about how much that bugfix will have cost.
How much R&D is reasonable for some "really simple handles?"
Each step of the process involves internal review and review by the customer - i.e. Japanese space agency, and can take weeks.
Testing requires a massive 'clean room' which is expensive to maintain. And you don't just make these things anywhere - tolerances have to be perfect.
Not only is it tough engineering, it's a lot of bureaucracy.
And then overhead: IT, support, software, flights, hotels yada yada yada. It adds up.
Well, a limited-run gravy train, for 50 or so units.
By using off-the-shelf hardware, and reusing the first stage, they're on a good trajectory to undercut previews launch system by almost an order of magnitude. And NASA trusts them enough to outsource even manned flight to them.
There's literally _no way_ it had been done in the most efficient manner.
Consider how much a massive 'clean room' costs to operate.
Consider how much gear it takes to simulate the operation of massive robot arm in a 0G environment, when we live in a 1G environment.
Consider what happens when a 1 ton arm, attached to a 20 ton structure, applies toque to a 1/2 ton satellite... when the satellite is moving ...
Consider how much it costs to send 4 Engineers, a PM and a Bus Dev to Japan for three weeks for talks with Japanese Space Agency? Several times?
Consider the lawyers bill - Japanese, Canadian and American ones. Translators. Insurance estimates. Liabilities.
FYI - did you know that every single thing that goes into space is tracked? Every single screw had an ID number. It's original manufacturer, shipping, the date it was put on the station, by whom, when it was removed - etc etc. Every goddam screw :).
Now think of how much software and admin is needed to track all that.
And now consider that if one single manager, at one single subcontractor opens an 'issue report' anywhere in the world - that the 'countdown' for a shuttle launch was postponed? (Happened to my boss, opened a tiny change request on Admin Software in Toronto - went for lunch - Shuttle countdown froze, panic and hilarity ensue). And the overhead costs associated with that.
Space is expensive, especially 'manned space'.
Vert complex, one-of-a-kind system - where nothing is allowed to go wrong.
I understand the complexity of the issue at hand. I can.
Nevertheless simple handles going for 200K a piece is a vast budget. Any proper business would quickly open up an internal department to "do the handles" since it both allows them to grow for free (you get additional specialists and the handles) and allows to use the same engineers for something else. More importantly testing becomes less of an issue since now you may easily do integrated testing of several disjoined components at once.
So no - I understand where the expenses come from. But it doesn't mean that structure is in _any_ way motivated.
The idea of subcontracting and every little piece of hardware being done by a separate little entity doesn't seem to work both in terms of pricing and in terms of the amount of work it would be doing be it a merged entity.
It just doesn't work that way.
It's an area of hyper-specialization.
Everything made for space is a 'one off', there really are no economies of focus or scale. Maybe in launch.
There just aren't 'lines of business' in space really.
Once you walk in the situation and spend a few days there, and see what's going on, you get it.
I haven't even scratched the surface of it.
Every process is recorded, needs to be archived.
Every single piece of software hardware ever used needs to be 'kept around' in case something goes wrong. 20 year old computers, floppy disks, have to be managed and 'kept up' in case something from way back needs to be tested.
Purchasing requirements/limitations. Political control (governments pay for this, so they set rules, change them). Security clearances. Accounting standards. Process audits. Insurance audits. Hyper-specialization HR impossibilities (like 10 guys in the world qualified to do ABC activity).
You must wonder why it costs '100M dollars' to film a big movie, have a look at the detailed budgets. A lot comes out of the woodwork.
Yeah they have got millions and millions of hours testing down. Great to see them not falling victim to the "not invented here" syndrome.
I wonder how much rigor Microsoft's controllers would have to go through to become a defense industry standard. The $500 Hammer legend doesn't exit in a vacuum, and I've experienced why.
But yeah, why use custom controls when an off-the-shelf product with 15+ years of development iterations which is produced in the tens of millions a year will probably never beat it? A good example of going against Not Invented Here syndrome.
Consumers can compete with the military for replacement parts, or will taxpayers fund the militarization of the 360 controllers?
Are these being purchased directly from Microsoft or procured via Gamestop?
Microsoft obviously did a lot of user testing with their controller, but they must have been optimizing for a certain consumer price point as well. It makes me wonder what sort of controller you would have if they spent all that focus on usability, but with the same $38,000 price tag the periscope control panel commands.
About half of the semiconductor industry is headquartered in the United States, and about half of the wafer capacity of U.S-headquartered semiconductor manufacturing companies is in the U.S. It is perfectly reasonable to expect Microsoft to be able to manufacture their own IC design in the country with the single greatest semiconductor manufacturing industry in the world.
Edit: here's a (low res) image of the wired controller. It too seems to have only one complex IC, and that too seems to have Microsoft markings on it.
The costs-plus accounting scheme is meant to save money. It can just as well be described as "the manufacturer charges the costs plus a fixed (single-digit) percentage of costs. This limits the contractor's margins to the agreed-upon percentage."
And of course the contractors' accounting is routinely scrutinised and all costs need justification.
Remember the famous quote from the Apollo Program: "300,000 moving parts, all supplied by the cheapest bidder". NASA procurement, especially back then, was closely modelled on the military–and the contractors were largely the same as well.
It was pretty obvious from day 1 that this would be expensive af.
Being cutting edge is always expensive af.
Wouldn't they contract Microsoft to do it, since it's their own design? Even by DoD standards, Microsoft is not a "startup".
I know that there are 360 controllers used in the field already (not sure about Navy). Even if they have different standards, what you're describing probably couldn't be done anyway; the periscope controller company is probably not equipped to do the beautiful consumer goods injection moldings and precision joystick assembly (and calibration). If they tried to do this, it would likely end up costing more, and as diabolical as I think the military procurement contracting process is, I don't think they would do this specific thing unless it saved money or appeared to save money.
What exactly is stopping them from working with Microsoft (who they already contract with all the time!); at most having a U.S. PCB run, and a U.S. IC tapeout (IBM, Intel, ...), and calling it a day?
Microsoft wouldn’t want their business. It’s a relatively small amount of money for very large amount of pain in the rear. And even if they did want DoDs business, DoD wouldn’t deal with them directly, instead they’d subcontract them through one of those giant contracting companies with “Federal” in their name.
Why wouldn't they deal with them directly? They already do!
I understand being cynical, but you have to admit you're making a satire of this system, no matter how ridiculous it is in reality.
I had a chance to try out the Elite - they feel great, very solid build. The requirements for gamers might be a bit diff to what a submariner would require - but I could imagine the Navy would prefer the sturdiness of these high end controllers and that gamers prefer wired and low-latency.
In my experience the buttons most likely to break are the LB and RB shoulder ones, since if the controller falls it might take out the switch on direct impact with it's full weight.
The process might double the price, but still cheaper than anything custom ordered. Glue is a perfectly acceptable solution if done right. Plastic welding is also an option.
Precisely. Remember the "Duke" controller?
So as someone who uses this type of input device, I think it's a great fit for military use.
- VLC when I need an easier way to seek media by various amounts, speed-up/slow-down the video, play next in the playlist. Using the controller frees me from being hunched on the keyboard
- Any document reader to navigate pages
It can of course be configured as a replacement for a mouse, but the precision in my experience was way lower.
I ran into the precision issue as well, but my brain eventually figured out how to deal with it. I use the left analog pad for higher precision tasks
The interesting thing is there's a learning period of a few weeks where I kept the sensitivity low on the analog sticks. I have the sensitivity lower on the left stick (for packages like inkscape or blender). I gradually ramped up the sensitivity. I often use it one-handed (right hand) and control with just the right analog stick. I have the analog pad clicks set to the right mouse button. The 'a' button is my left click, x button is 'enter', 'b' is another right click. The dpad is up, down, left right keyboard buttons. I use the left and right bumpers to switch between by workspaces (lb switches workspace up, rb switches down). the triggers enable middle mouse scroll up or down.
I still use a keyboard so entering text isn't much different, and I'm a vim user so the mouse isn't a big part of my workflow when coding or entering text.
In terms of how I think it helped:
for ergonomics/back pain relief: I tend to sit up with a lot better posture now rather than 'reaching out to the right' where the traditional mouse used to be.
Over time, I'd developed some minor right side back pain and I stretched a lot and attempted better posture. It only helped so much. After I'd switched to the xbox controller, I started to feel better after a few weeks. Months later, the pain was completely gone and it hasn't come back since. I didn't make any other significant changes and I suspect my change in user input devices could be to thank.
I've seen this subject come up before. It makes sense. I believe it was even considered for UAV controls.
And if they're not, give the troops XBOXs and Halo, and they'll be more than happy to train THEMSELVES on it in their free time!
When the South Korean Navy procurement office requested proposal from traditional periscope manufacturers, the quoted price was astronomical.
S Korean Navy said no thanks and had local manufacturers develop/test/manufacture a new digital camera based periscope at a FRACTION (like 10% ?) of the quoted price from traditional manufacturers.
Capt. Vasili Borodin: Captain, I - I - I just...
Captain Ramius: Give me a ping, Vasili. One ping only, please.
Capt. Vasili Borodin: Aye, Captain
I'm reminded of the in-joke in Metal Gear Solid 4 that saw Solid Snake use a PS3 controller to joystick around the "Metal Gear Mark II" recon drone. Then, as early as later that same year, actual soldiers were operating actual drones with Xbox controllers...
Of course, I practice, I think that a peripheral designed to withstand the wrath of gamers worldwide could handle an actual war just fine. And if not, replacements don't cost much. But still, it is surprising that armed forces accept something not covered by rubber stamps and red tape.
Sure, they aren't waterproof, dust proof, have overvoltage protection, etc. but whatever - you can carry a dozen spares for $240.
If that became an issue, you could put duct tape around the breakaway to hold it in place. More difficult with a micro USB connection.
I'm sure the U.S. navy will be taking a look at the hardware and maybe even flashing their own firmware on them, lest we open ourselves up for a catastrophic backdoor.
Doubt it. If Lockheed properly addressed IA during design review, focus will be on the host, not the controller.
What's more important is they found a more familiar, intuitive, hence better controller device. That it was also much cheaper was just a little bonus. If the savings in training hours are to be believed, that will be a much greater savings than the cost of the hardware.
Or the Rec room.
Now you just need space for all of them.
I guarantee that for something as fundamental as the main periscope control, _everything_ is going to have replacement parts. That's why $30k is so expensive, it's not $30k, it's $60k or $90k or $120k. Now they have the kind of problem that's fun to have: for half or quarter of the cost of replacing that proprietary controller, they can have so many '360 controllers they won't be able to store all of them on board.
They don't just get to stop at neighborhood grocery stores, after all.
It was hard to imagine living in there for months at a time. One person in my tour group almost started freaking out just in the ten minutes we were inside.
And what is the plan in 20-30 years' time when the submarines are still in action but the controllers stopped being made? I get the feeling we'll see Navy personnel bidding on "vintage" Xbox controller auctions on eBay the same way prices for original NES and Atari controllers are through the roof right now.
Replace Ebay with flea market and this is how in the second half of 199x some spare parts for Soviet/Russian space station "Mir" (and for some other space projects, well into beginning of 200x) were procured. With USSR falling and economy tanking/changing/"privatized in all senses and at all scales" many typical sources for space parts just disappeared and/or stopped working.
I'll concede that may be a feature of the allocation protocol running on top of USB (PictBridge?) but that still means that mutual identification over USB is still possible. I'm pretty sure it's in the USB HID spec that the Xbox controllers implement.
but my thought exacty: put a prepared controller to "game room" (sure there is such a thing on a nuclear sub). sabotage controllers. wait until one in "game room" gets plugged into periscope. Profit.
TL;DR. Does the xbox 360 controller to be used on navy submarine work when say....it gets wet? (or just how does it deal with saltwater corrosion). Not to mention the security issues I see other people mentioning here.
I'm curious if their supplier will give them the bargain US-government-only price of $1999.95 per controller.
1. The more technology involved, the more audio/video/telemetry is recorded and stored. If we shot somebody, there was ALWAYS a legal review afterward. Your average grunt doesn't face anywhere near that level of scrutiny (not saying they aren't scrutinized, just not to that extent).
2. Despite common preconceptions about military members, exaggerated by Hollywood and not a few knuckleheads, the majority of us are regular people. We have families and a dog, and we don't like to kill people. We do it because we believe it's our duty to keep you safe. Years later, we still cry about it. It's a heavy burden. The X-Box controller doesn't change that.
Have we got an image of this? Side by side with the controller?