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Upcoming Amphibious Warfare Tech Demo May Prove Out a New Model for Rapid Prototyping, Acquisition

Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division air crew, scientists and engineers successfully deploy a MK-18 underwater unmanned vehicle in Panama City, Fla., on Feb. 1, 2017. The MH-60 helicopter deploying and recovering unmanned underwater vehicles will be one of about 50 technologies demonstrated at the upcoming Advanced Naval Technology Exercise. US Navy photo.

TRIANGLE, Va. – The Department of the Navy will host an amphibious warfare technology demonstration next month that, in the short term, will highlight some promising new technologies that could modernize how the Navy and Marine Corps conduct amphibious landings in contested or uncertain environments. In the longer term, though, the process surrounding this tech demo could change the way the Department of the Navy looks at prototyping and rapid acquisition.

Just eight months after the Marine Corps and Navy created the Ship to Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation (S2ME2) Task Force, the services’ research and acquisition communities, warfighters, industry and academia will come together for a five-day Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to conduct amphibious operations with more than 50 new technologies.

As the exercise starts, swarms of unmanned surface and underwater vehicles will head towards the shore, bringing with them signals intelligence and communications intelligence payloads to help sailors and Marines with early intelligence preparation of the battlefield, according to a page from the ANTX overview catalog. Unmanned air and surface vehicles will spread out to begin identifying threats in the area – in tandem with high-resolution underwater cameras, an optionally manned jet-ski carrying a communications relay payload and other systems meant to tell the warfighters what they’re up against before leaving the safety of their ships. Small numbers of people may then head out, supported by unmanned systems, to find, mark and eliminate obstacles, including mines.

The maneuver ashore will then be a flurry of activity. Remotely operated amphibious assault vehicles may head ashore first to test enemy defenses, or may act as decoys to engage enemy defenses as manned AAVs sneak ashore at another location, the catalog describes. Swarms of UAVs could distract defensive systems, or provide aerial fire support for the Marines landing on the shore. Data fusion tools and low probability intercept/low probability detect communications links will support all the information swirling around the battlefield. Once past the beach, combat power ashore will be supported by UAVs and unmanned ground vehicles providing fires and resupply capabilities. And operators at sea and ashore will be supported by an amphibious command, control, communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) team integrating all the information into a common operating picture.

The demonstration will be a glimpse into the future of amphibious operations, but the process that led to the demonstration – and the analysis that will lead to subsequent acquisition – may have the most lasting effects.

Top Navy and Marine Corps leadership will be in attendance to watch the operations and weigh in on which capabilities they’d most like to have. Their input, along with operator feedback and technical evaluations, will help the services make metrics-based decisions on which technologies to invest in – either through rapid acquisition efforts such as the Marine Corps Rapid Capabilities Office, which can buy and field products for extended user evaluations, or by informing requirements for programs of record that would be competed through the regular acquisition process.

Lee Mastroianni, right, program officer at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), talks about the prototype LOCUST (Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology) tube-launched UAV, with Robert Work, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense, during a Technology Innovation Day event held at the Pentagon in June 2016. LOCUST will be one of about 50 technologies used in the live portion of the upcoming Advanced Naval Technology Exercise. US Navy photo.

“You’ll see sailors and Marines paired up with scientists and technologists, poring over these technologies that particular participants – whether they’re from industry or from Navy or government labs – are going to be operating and showcasing their technology in a very nicely defined mission thread right on the ranges at Camp Pendleton,” Navy Capt. Chris Mercer, director of Rapid Prototyping, Experimentation and Demonstration for the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development Test and Evaluation, said March 23 at a media event just outside Marine Corps Base Quantico.
“This is going to help us inform decisions – and these key leaders are the ones who are going to enable speed, they’re the ones who are going to help us get this innovation moving.”

Col. Daniel Sullivan, who alongside Mercer serves as a co-lead for the S2ME2 Task Force, said at the event that “our intention is to take those capabilities most valuable, put them in the hands of the Marines in the fall” at the Bold Alligator 2017 exercise.

“I can see a number of those being prototyped and pushed out in the operating forces for extended user eval. I think when we do experiments we’re going after the known unknowns. By putting it in the hands of the Marines for a year, you’re kind of getting the unknown unknowns,” said Sullivan, who serves as chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and deputy director of the Futures Directorate.
“To me personally, the most important takeaway from this is we’re going to bring all of our combat developers, the guys who actually do the programmatics that result in acquisitions, out there with us. I see this as a very large-scale effort to inform requirements for future systems going forward.”

A Repeatable, Analytical Approach

For Mercer, one of the most important aspects of the S2ME2 Task Force’s work is the creation of a data-driven process that could be repeated in the future on other warfighting areas.

“We really pulled together a methodology to jumpstart these types of technology solutions to warfighting problems,” he said.

The task force was established in August 2016. By September, the task force understood what problems it was trying to solve and created a framework for the project, and by October it had solicited technology ideas from industry, academia, government labs and more during a 20-day solicitation period. Mercer said about 124 ideas came in, and ultimately about 100 will be showcased at the ANTX – about 50 in the live exercise and another 50 as static displays.

Mercer said scientists, engineers, operators, planners and more came together for a week to review the responses, comparing the submissions’ capabilities to the problem set outlined in the solicitation. Those that adequately addressed one of five capability concept areas – ship-to-shore maneuver; amphibious fire support and effects; clearing amphibious assault lanes; amphibious command, control, communications and computers; and amphibious information warfare – were invited to participate in the ANTX, either as dynamic or static participants depending on technological maturity.

The evaluation process during and after the ANTX is even more rigorous. Both user feedback and technical evaluations will be combined to help determine next steps. On the operator side, sailors and Marines involved in the ANTX will fill out worksheets that will go into an assessment tool to help measure the feedback. Senior leadership in attendance will also go through a debrief so the S2ME2 Task Force can understand what capabilities they’re most interested in pursuing.

Amphibious assault vehicles (AAV) transit to the dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) in June 2016. The upcoming Advanced Naval Technology Exercise will use not only manned AAVs but also unmanned AAVs or AAV-like vehicles to serve as decoys, to serve as an unmanned beachmaster with a command and control payload, and other missions. US Navy photo.

On the technical side, Aileen Sansone, an action officer in Mercer’s RPED office, said the naval research and develop establishment was currently working on finding the right technical experts to pair with the operators of each system, to help assess the technologies during the ANTX. These technical experts would “inform our operator team members about the technical maturity and about the likelihood for success should a decision be made to move forward,” she said.

Mercer added that each technology has 50 or more capability metrics “that were all valued through a statistical process of wargaming, so that we know what’s of highest value,” that will be evaluated by these technical experts. Metrics could deal with maturity, interoperability with other existing Navy and Marine Corps systems, future growth potential, ease of use, and much more. Along with the user evaluations, those technical evaluations will go into the assessment tool.

“And important to us from the acquisition side is to show that merit-based process, to show so that if we do find something and leadership decides that that’s something they want to invest in, that we’ve got the rigor and the process to utilize the new (acquisition) authorities that will allow us to go rapidly field them,” Mercer said. The Pentagon and Congress have worked together the past few years on acquisition reform, including creating new rapid acquisition authorities in certain circumstances – which Mercer hopes the analytical nature of this process will help them leverage.

“Our framework endures. The way that we approached this … there’s an analytical methodology behind this with a merit-based approach,” he said.
“We have tools to accept these (user evaluation) worksheets and then help paint for leadership what was valued, what performed well, what has great potential.”

Doug King, director of The Ellis Group at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, said the Navy and Marine Corps should “absolutely yes” repeat this process for other warfighting areas in need of innovative new ideas.

“It’s greatly abridged our ability to develop conops, concepts, look at how we should be operating, just from understanding the realm of the possible that is out there,” King said.
“And it’s a way to cause that innovation that we need to see happen. So we’ve already got a couple ideas in mind for the next one.”

Aside from using data analytics to support any acquisition or RPED decisions after the demonstration, King said the other benefit of testing multiple new technologies in a real-world warfighting scenario is that it forces the technologies’ developers to think about interoperability ahead of time. Participants were divided up into six teams, each being assigned one mission thread – early intelligence preparation of the battlespace, threat identification, reconnaissance and threat elimination, maneuver ashore, combat power ashore and amphibious C4ISR – and “because they’ve been put in a mission thread, they have to figure out, okay, how does mine work with your thing to actually do something? Instead of it just being an individual piece of technology that just gets demonstrated, now it’s in an operational context.”