Line of Defense Deepens

December 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
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The Naval Expeditionary Overwatch (NEO) system includes a 38-foot unmanned surface vehicle that is equipped with a Gunslinger and a multitude of sensors and communications systems. The boat can be controlled either remotely or semi-autonomously and will provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support to commanders.

Manned and unmanned platforms combine to provide unprecedented situational awareness.

Nine U.S. naval organizations are collaborating to increase the agility of communications to sailors and Marines conducting distributed operations in ground and littoral environments. Using a combination of manned and unmanned engagement platforms and integrated sensors, the system of systems not only will boost warfighters’ situational awareness but also will enable them to engage hostile forces remotely at the tactical level. This organic land, sea and air intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability provides long-distance over-the-horizon communications capabilities and feeds into both lethal and nonlethal weapons. As a result, commanders will have a variety of immediate offensive and defensive options.

Naval Expeditionary Overwatch (NEO) is a multifaceted mobile structure comprising multiple components that will help warfighters spy on potential enemies via payloads installed on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), unmanned surface vessel (USV) and manned High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV). The UAVs can be remotely controlled from greater distances than current aircraft and are outfitted with a communications relay payload that enables data and video to be acquired from much farther distances than current capabilities allow.

The benefits are many. Warfighters can sense or see what adversaries are doing from dozens of nautical miles away. A listening and hailing device helps determine an adversary’s intent. The NEO team developed the command and control (C2) sensor display node so that information from sensors on the various vehicles can be delivered to a central location. These advantages would be particularly useful to members of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) and Special Operations Command.

All C2 functions can be carried out in a land-based control station. After sensing an enemy’s location via a muzzle flash or sound, the weapons on manned and unmanned vehicles are directed autonomously toward a target. A warfighter then can fire weapons immediately.

Nelson Mills, technical manager, NEO, Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Dahlgren Division, Virginia, explains that, as it now stands, the NEO system comprises hardware, software, four Scan Eagle UAVs and one UAV control system, a 38-foot USV purchased from Northrop Grumman Corporation that includes a C2 system, a HMMWV and radios from the Harris Corporation. Although the program owns four UAVs, it is using only one for current testing, he adds. These capabilities and vehicles are all part of the first spiral of development; the number of UAVs deployed will increase during spiral two, Mills notes.

The USV features the government-developed hostile detection engagement system, a long-range acoustic and hailing device. The UAV carries a unique communications relay system that is the backbone of NEO, Mills says. He calls the manned ground vehicle a “smart humvee.” Manned by two warfighters—one driver and one gunner who sits behind antiballistic armor—it houses the same hostile detection engagement system as on the USV. Controlling the sensors on the vehicle using a joystick, the gunner views the surroundings on a computer display and can respond to hostile encounters with the HMMWV’s Mark 45 gun. The combination of these three platforms, sensors and communications gives the commander a bird’s-eye view of everything that is going on in the area, Mills maintains.

In addition to the work at NSWC–Dahlgren, NEO’s development is the result of a team that comprises four other naval warfare centers, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the NECC and industry. But Mills emphasizes that the foundation of all of the capabilities’ effectiveness has been the warfighters who have identified their requirements and experimented with the NEO system as it is being developed.

According to Jeff Bradel, program manager, Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism Department, ONR, the suite of NEO technology and weapons, coupled with the sensor and control capabilities, provides warfighters with a level of situational awareness that currently is not available, as well as the ability to engage hostile forces at the tactical and task unit levels remotely. “The NEO technologies were developed based on capability gaps articulated by the NECC and as a means to provide sensor and engagement capabilities to address the near-term needs of the Navy and Marine Corps,” Bradel says.

NEO’s first three-year funding was granted in September 2005 for fiscal year 2006. Sailors and Marines indicated the need for longer-distance communication capabilities and over-the-horizon intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) tools to fill a gap early in 2007 during two conferences held to discuss a number of topics.

The system truly is the result of a coordinated effort, Mills notes. The NECC developed the future science and technology strategy for the ONR. Engineers at various surface warfare divisions worked on the integration of the hardware and software pieces of NEO, while the ONR’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism Department sponsored the work. The system was integrated and tested within two years, Mills relates.

In November 2008, the first end-to-end demonstration of the system took place during a limited military utility assessment; no engineers were present at the demonstration, but warfighters, whom NEO personnel had trained, operated the equipment. During the event, NECC sailors deployed a UAV, a manned Gunslinger HMMWV and a USV on a mission to detect and engage fictitious insurgents.


The Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) also is part of the NEO system. It features both video and communications relay capabilities that enable sending over-the-horizon ISR information to troops located a safe distance from an enemy.

Observers of the event watched as the two unmanned vehicles detected and relayed target information to warfighters in the up-armored ground vehicle, which in turn fired at targets in a simulation of a littoral and riverine maritime irregular warfare environment on the Potomac River Test Range near Dahlgren. This demonstration proved that 10 sailors could continuously monitor, detect and engage hostile forces over 10 square miles of inland and marshy terrain. All threats were addressed successfully with a constant flow of ISR information sent to the control station from the vehicles, which enabled integrated C2 remote responses to every unconventional attack, including those from small boats.

To accomplish these tasks, the Scan Eagle UAV had been outfitted with the communications relay and optical day-night sensors. The USV was equipped with a Gunslinger payload as well as sensor and communications systems, which enabled it to conduct surveillance and engagement missions at sea semi-autonomously or controlled remotely by an operator. During the demonstration, warfighters sent the USV to intercept a red team small vessel and, using the long-range acoustic device, land-based operators communicated with those on board the boat. “The first night I went out, I was amazed that it all worked like clockwork,” Mills relates.

After the event, evaluators made a number of recommendations for improvements to the NEO system. These included the need to make the system less wire-guided, to increase the ISR integration and to boost the vehicles’ autonomy so staffing could be reduced.

In August 2009, a similar demonstration took place in Dam Neck, Virginia. The NEO system was combined with Harris’ new SeaLancet radios, AN/SPQ-9B radar and the Integrated Combat Management System to send extended threat detection information to a control station. The radios can communicate high-volume sensor data from multiple platforms to tactical ships located miles away. The radar detects sea-skimming missiles at the horizon level while detecting and tracking other surface targets and beacon responses. Even though a Scan Eagle could not be deployed because of scheduling and funding issues, the NEO capability extended the defensive perimeter beyond the ship’s onboard capabilities and beyond the distances achieved during the November 2008 demonstration from 10 miles to 25 miles. To mimic the heights achieved by the UAV, a ship with a 20-foot communications mast was put into place as the communications relay. Mills notes that once the Scan Eagle is in place, the distance communications that will be able to take place will increase significantly.

Bradel shares that the NEO team has had to solve several challenges in its quest to fill the over-the-horizon communications, targeting and weapon-response gap. These have included safe and legal engagement systems for unmanned vehicles, onboard data processing, cooperative perception and communications for unmanned vehicles, autonomous robotic target acquisition, and C2 networking and latency, he says.

The next steps for the NEO system involve development and growth, two actions that the team is very excited about. The system of systems has been fully incorporated into the ONR’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism Department operational adaptation integrated technology demonstration portfolio. One of the first phases of the second spiral of the program will take place in February 2010 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as part of a demonstration. A technical transition agreement has been drafted among the NECC, the ONR and the Navy Research, Development and Acquisition Program Executive Office, Littoral and Mine Warfare.

The communications element of the system also is part of the Navy’s Expeditionary Warfare Division program objective memorandum (POM) for 2012. Mills explains that the service’s officials believe additional improvements are still required prior to large-scale fielding. These include more autonomy, UAVs and multimode capabilities. Installing, integrating and testing the communications relay system will be the team’s focus until POM 2012 goes into effect, he adds.

Mills reveals that the team already has had some inquiries about fielding NEO to help combat current incidents of piracy. The components of the NEO system that are part of spiral one are at technology readiness level (TRL) 6; however, spiral two capabilities are still only at TRL 4 or 5, he notes.

One approach to making NEO available for existing needs would be to put service representatives into the field, so that if systems break down, someone would be available immediately to repair them. Because the team has a limited number of unmanned systems and needs them to continue testing and adding enhancements, it is reluctant to provide NEO to troops battling piracy at this time.

Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division:
Office of Naval Research:
Scan Eagle:


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