• A U.S. Navy operations specialist communicates with bridge wing watchstanders aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Sterett. The Navy is moving full speed ahead on its modernization efforts, but it needs more rapid insertion of information technologies into the fleet and ashore.  U.S. Navy photo
     A U.S. Navy operations specialist communicates with bridge wing watchstanders aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Sterett. The Navy is moving full speed ahead on its modernization efforts, but it needs more rapid insertion of information technologies into the fleet and ashore. U.S. Navy photo
  • A sonar technician simulates counterfire during an antisubmarine warfare drill aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain. The Navy is exploring advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence to deal with the rapidly increasing amount of sensor data flooding naval intelligence systems.  U.S. Navy photo
     A sonar technician simulates counterfire during an antisubmarine warfare drill aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain. The Navy is exploring advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence to deal with the rapidly increasing amount of sensor data flooding naval intelligence systems. U.S. Navy photo

Speed Is the Word for the Sea Service

February 1, 2021
By Robert K. Ackerman
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It’s not fast ships and aircraft, but rapid capability deployment for the fleet.


The U.S. Navy is looking for speed—not speed of platforms or vehicles, but of innovation. Introducing new capabilities into the force rapidly is vitally important to maintain the combat edge necessary to deter or defeat adversaries that are building up steam in their efforts to confront the U.S. military.

This will require tapping industry for innovative information technology advances. Ensuring that speed of capability may require working with the commercial sector to steer it into the right areas to suit naval needs. Ultimately, software-defined systems may hold the key to keeping ahead of the deployment curve in technology-based systems.

“Don’t give me a solution that’s a five-to-10-years- from-now program,” states Vice Adm. Jeff Trussler, USN, deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare and director of naval intelligence (N2/N6). “Learn to get faster and be more agile.”

And agility is as much a priority as speed, the admiral allows. Most legacy command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems are “too hardware based,” the admiral says. Radios and data centers are supported by specific operating systems, and upgrading these support systems often requires upgrading or even replacing the hardware. That becomes especially difficult with ships, aircraft or submarines, he notes.

“Every time we decide we want to upgrade some capabilities in a C4I system, we have to programmatically plan that into our ship install modernization capability,” he relates. “And that sometimes takes two to three years. We have to get out of designing systems that are hardware-limited and hardware-based.”

This means turning to software-based systems, Adm. Trussler continues. These include software-defined communications and routers, for example. Then, improvements could be tested in a relevant environment immediately prior to upgrading the fleet without hardware changes or a three-year test cycle, he says.

“We’re going to have to get more agile with software-based solutions vice hardware-limited solutions,” the admiral declares.

Adm. Trussler offers that no technological problem exists that cannot be solved by commercial and military experts. The challenge is to incorporate technology at a relevant speed. “We’re working on many capabilities and technologies that we need, and we need them right now,” he states. “The technological challenge is about delivering them and integrating them with our fleet and our forces so they are in a relevant timeframe.

“We tend to spend a year or two designing, testing, proving, and then multiyear timelines in some cases to integrate them in with our fleet,” he continues. “And that is just not relevant speed.”

The Navy must find ways to take what industry is making in profit-driven methodologies and convert it into opportunities for the service, Adm. Trussler continues. This is especially true in the C4I world, which is more dependent on the kinds of technologies that industry is speeding to market. Communications and the ability to manage and move information is a competitive industry, he points out, adding that ideas often outpace the Navy’s ability to incorporate them.

Addressing this problem will take more than just working acquisition regulations. The admiral says that the Navy must make sure that all of its processes are value-added processes. “We’ve put a lot of things in place to make sure that, when we deploy a ship, submarine or aircraft or any capability forward—and they’re meant to go out for six to nine months on a deployment—we have great confidence in those capabilities. So, a lot of our processes are meant to make sure that we have reliable, dependable capabilities under the harsh conditions of the maritime environment.”

The key is to make sure those processes are adding real value and feedback while trying to find ways to eliminate those that are “legacy checks in the block,” he adds. Some processes exist because of hard lessons learned, but the Navy must become more agile in how they are executed.

Adm. Trussler suggests he is slightly frustrated by the acquisition process. “Sometimes it’s an imperfect relationship because we want to go purely off requirements to deliver to people who will then execute and give us exactly what we asked for—sometimes vice what we wanted,” he offers. “The best thing we can do in our acquisition and procurement process … is that we have to be better at defining what we need.” He adds that specificity is not the issue, but instead, requirements must be more focused on the problem that needs solving and less technical.

“We’re good at writing a lot of requirements that in the end may not add up to a warfighting capability that integrates well with everything else we need to do as a Navy and as a joint force,” he concedes. “What I want us to get better at is not just requirements but recognizing opportunities.”

This entails picking out ideas from industry and incorporating them into the Navy. That effort often runs afoul of the need for requirements that match those capabilities, he notes, and it runs the threat of the Navy missing out. “That’s an opportunity, and we struggle to recognize opportunities,” he charges.

“In the C4I and sensors world, we are slow to keep up with technology, and we don’t sometimes recognize opportunity because we focus a little too much on requirements instead of opportunities to skip a generation of what we’re doing and say, ‘I think industry has already solved that problem and invented something.’ I think we ought to figure out how to go incorporate some things that already exist,” he states.

The admiral puts the onus for improvement on himself. “It starts here,” he says. “It starts with getting the requirements right. It starts with a very iterative and hard discussion and oversight of the acquisition process to make sure we’re headed in the right direction, and helping the team as a whole recognize barriers and remove barriers we have to get to our end state for them—and make sure that every step is adding value and not just slowing it down.”

While he seeks to break down barriers in the Navy, his message to industry is to keep military needs in mind. “The worst thing you can do for us is a proprietary solution that isn’t interoperable with everything else,” he says to the commercial sector. “If you’re going to talk about a system that can support us—whether it be a sensor, a C4I ability to pass data and communicate with each other—if it’s somewhat proprietary or not open architecture that we can easily integrate it with the rest of the fleet … then that’s not helpful.” He says that solutions also must integrate with other programs that are undergoing modernization, even if they require backfitting.

He adds that he has seen many great ideas, but if they do not interact or fit with other systems, then they are not applicable. “If I had a wish list, it’s that we would become more interoperable,” he stated. “I’ll go to the second-level or b-level technology if it’s interoperable and can be easily upgraded, versus something that in a one-on-one test might actually be better but more limited in its interoperability and its ability to modernize.”

Because industry is more agile than the Navy, it can be the driver for innovation in the service. “I want [industry] to keep being innovative, keep pressing us,” the admiral states. “Keep showing us, keep challenging us. I want them to keep making me mad because they have good solutions that might be ahead of the one I’m getting ready to field. I want to see that and hear that, I don’t want to ever be comfortable that we’ve ever got the right answer,” he declares.

And he wants industry to think holistically, especially when it comes to interoperability. Technologies must be incorporated with the rest of the Navy’s solutions and systems, and they must be open architecture. “Don’t bring me a one-trick pony,” he says to industry.

The top criteria for commercial solutions is security, he continues. “Unless you have demonstrated the ability to produce systems [where] we can understand their vulnerabilities and can be protected from cyber intruders, that is the most important piece that industry can bring,” he says. Even if a commercial solution solves every problem the Navy faces, but the service cannot understand its vulnerabilities or how it will be protected, then “that’s a loser right off the bat.”

Getting to the place where speed provides solutions rapidly will require working together with the other services. The Navy is working with them on the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort, Adm. Trussler allows. Much of this work has come through established joint exercises and demonstrations rather than JADC2-specific events. These include Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) and Valiant Shield as well as other series at the fleet and combatant command level where the Navy applies concepts and test capabilities.

He says the Navy has done a great job over the years in building good platforms—ships, submarines and aircraft—with their own organic sensors that can be used to launch or control weapons and effects. However, the Navy could have done a better job of making those platforms more interoperable for passing sensor data and targeting solutions to others, the admiral offers. The Navy has been working toward this goal for several years and has made significant progress, he states.

The Navy’s Project Overmatch, which will depend on new networks, data architecture, infrastructure and tools, will support JADC2, he notes. It will deliver the Navy tactical grid necessary to pass data among platforms and shore establishments, and it will integrate with the joint force. “Someone might say, ‘Well, why weren’t you already doing that?’ We’re a big Navy, and we have a lot of [people] writing requirements. We probably weren’t good at that top-level requirement of ‘whatever you build, it must be interoperable and communicate with everything else.’”

Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR) Commander Rear Adm. Doug Small, USN, who is in charge of Project Overmatch, will be reaching across many programs to determine the simple changes that can accelerate communications among legacy systems. “We need speed, but we also have to be in step,” Adm. Trussler says. “That’s what Adm. Small is going to do with our program managers and our program executive officers for those sensor systems, those platforms that communicate with and deploy sensors, and those platforms that are going to launch weapons, and for weapons that may be controlled by other platforms that didn’t launch them.

“They have to be able to talk to each other, and we’re going to do that—and we’re going to incorporate that with the other services’ same capabilities,” Adm. Trussler declares.

Data flow is increasing almost exponentially, which is a challenge faced by all the services. Adm. Trussler characterizes two types of data: sensor data and information data. While this approach may not match established doctrine, he offers that it suits his approach to meeting the data challenge.

The ability to collect and process “bucketloads” of information each second may hinge on advanced research. The admiral allows that the Navy has “active and successful” machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) programs that are addressing how to handle vast amounts of sensor data. “We need it,” he says of the ML and AI capability. “It’s no longer the case that we can apply people to pore over reams of [sensor] data by watching traces go by on a screen or having headphones on listening. We have to apply technology to that, and we are. We have some great efforts underway, and they are bearing a lot of fruit.”

He offers that he finds the information data set more interesting. The tsunami of open-source data on the Web alone overwhelms mere human analysis efforts. This is a more-challenging ML and AI problem, he maintains. “You’re not just dealing with one specific set that a sensor might bring in,” he explains. “You’re now looking to interpret languages, information in those languages—written and voice—and that is a much harder ML and AI problem.” He adds that the Navy and the intelligence community at large are working that challenge, one aspect of which is how to characterize, store, process and pull information when needed.

Environmental information is vitally important to naval operations. Adm. Trussler points out that oceanography provides data on the sea bed, the water column, the air-water interface, the atmosphere and even space. All of this is relevant for almost all types of naval warfare, beginning with the different acoustic paths undersea and how those conditions change over a year, and up to atmospheric effects on communications. As with other forms of intelligence, this diverse data must be integrated rapidly for use by commanders and warfighters.

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