How the Soviet Navy was armed with “Zvezda” systems | History of Computing in Ukraine

How the Soviet Navy was armed with “Zvezda” systems

At the beginning of the 1960s, the development of digital radiolocation stations for hydroacoustic information processing (detection, classification, and location of moving underwater objects) ground to a halt. Due to the vast differences in environment conditions between air and water, specialists in hydroacoustics and cybernetics considered it an insurmountable challenge. Water is an anisotropic environment, and thus can form so-called “shadows”, or areas that completely block any useful radio signals. In 1962, academician V.M. Glushkov and N.V. Gordienko, director of Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Hydrodevices (SRI), agreed to carry out an experimental project on digital processing of hydroacoustic data and consequently broke this long-standing notion.


Oleg M. Aleshchenko

In the early 1960s, the Institute of Cyberneticsat the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR created a special research team(V.N. Koval, I.G. Moroz-Podvorchan, N.N.Diduk, K.S. Fishman), who together with Oleg Mikhailovich Aleshchenko, a constructor from Kyiv SRI of Hydrodevices, developed the first algorithms for detecting and locating coordinates of moving underwater targets. In order to test their findings, the team created an experimental system based on the helicopter station “Oka-2” and the semiconductor general-purpose control computer “Dnepr”. The output signal of the hydroacoustic system arrived at the input of the object-machine interface unit, to be processed later according to introduced algorithms. Model experiments were a success, and so the team proceeded to carry out full-scale tests.

Tests using real submarines began in Sevastopol in the summer of 1964. Here, one of the Black Sea Navy ships was outfitted with the first hydroacoustic system. The team achieved first stable test results as early as August 18, while attempting to detect and locate coordinates of a moving submarine during a time period of 3-4 hours. During the test, the submarine constantly adjusted its immersion depth, movement speed, etc.

However, this initial success only complicated the task ahead – the team had to change the data processing algorithms. This task took cyberneticists and hydroacousticians three years to complete, and by summer-autumn of 1968, the team renewed its full-scale testing in Feodosiya.

Six years later, in autumn 1974, the USSR government issued a decree regarding the “Zvezda” (English: Star) program, which ordered the refitting of all USSR Navy ships with the new hydroacoustic systems for submarine object detection. The Kyiv SRI of Hydrodevices was to be in charge of implementation with director Yuriy Burau and chief engineer Vladimir Kritsin. Oleg Aleshchenko became chief designer of the program, and had to tackle the formidable task of designing and installing mutually compatible multi-channel digital hydroacoustic systems for large, medium, and small USSR Navy ships. These systems had to have the ability to receive spatial and temporal data through tens of thousands of input channels.

Thus arose the need for modern, powerful computing technologies. Scientists at the Kyiv SRI adopted a creative approach to this problem. They attempted to automate the work of hydroacoustic stations, from hydroacoustic channel (antenna, initial data processing) to subsystems for target acquisition and classification. Under Aleshchenko’s direction, the SRI created a straight-through processing model for hydroacoustic information. Aleshchenko had to enlist the help of a number of other research and project teams. Not counting the SRI of Hydrodevices, over 10 scientific teams from various organizations and agencies participated in the creation of the “Zvezda” system. Participants included the Acoustics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (scientific leadership in studying properties of the ocean, V.I. Mazepov); Central SRI “Agat”, Moscow (hardware support for spatiotemporal data processing, led by Parfenov and Roman’yans); Institute of Cybernetics of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR (algorithms for secondary data processing, and problem-solving for target designation of underwater and above-water objects, led by V.N. Koval’ and A.G. Zafiridi); and a whole number of manufacturing plants, such as “Krasnyy luch”, “Kakhovka”, and “Priboy”.

This was a period of hard work, and many tasks didn’t proceed smoothly.Eventually, however, the systems became more organized, as models for separate subsystems, debugging processes, first programsand so forth began to appear. One of the key problems in the creation of the complex was, according to Aleshchenko, the so-called “gigantomania”. Programs created by the various developer groups often significantly exceeded the maximum size - specifically the number of block - that would make “Zvezda” possible to install on a ship.

In order to solve this problem, in 1978-1979 the SRI of Hydrodevices organized a computing technologies division under the direction of Viktor Lapiy, who became deputy chief designer for software-hardware systems. Zvezda” later became a multi-machine system, which included a tool for spatial data processing, based on special processors with shared microprogramming control unit (SIMD type), as well as a tool for time-frequency data processing based on the MIMD-type “Ailama” multiprocessor system, and a tool for secondary data processing based on two “Ataka” type computers. Additionally, “Zvezda” included a classification system, a display system, as well as a number of “Ataka” type computers for machine control and data transmission.

Under the direction of O.M. Aleshchenko and V.Y. Lapiy, the team made three major modifications to the hydroacoustic radar set within three years. As a result, they developed a new direction in hydroacoustics, involving specialized parallel multiprocessor computing systems.

In 1984, work on the hydrolocator was complete. Altogether, the system occupied 200 computer cabinets. In order to ensure proper operation of the computing segment (which occupied 40 cabinets), the team had to prepare over 1 million commands. Multi-machine digital hydroacoustic systems of the “Zvezda” type had high tactical and technical performance characteristics in detection distance (up to 200 km), productivity (approximately 200 million operations per second), software volume (over 500,000 statements), precision of target designation and classification, and finally in their ergonomic properties, which ensured comfortable work for a large number of system operators and senior ship officers. The systems were also outfitted with training simulators and other assisting subsystems. “Zvezda” was truly the first system of its kind, both in the USSR and abroad.

Overall, more than 500 programmers and computer technology specialists participated in this colossal project. The development cost reached 100 million rubles. In 1985, the system was adopted for service and serialized.

Serial samples of these systems (e.g. “Zvezda-M1”, “Zvezda-M101”, “Zvezda-MO”, etc.) were installed on USSR Navy ships, which were specifically modified for use with cutting-edge hydroacoustic equipment. According to witness testimonies, foreign scout ships showed interest in the “Zvezda” system as early as the first field tests in the Baltics.

The success of the “Zvezda” program opened new prospects for military hydroacoustics. Among proposed projects were the “Centaur” system with an extended antenna, and the creation of oceanic digital hydroacoustic systems “Zarnitsa” on a new element base. Unfortunately, the collapse of the Soviet Union put an end to these plans.

Hydroacoustic systems of the “Zvezda” type remain unique, and their designer Oleg Mikhailovich Aleshchenko managed to prove that it is still possible to design something that seems impossible.