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CHIPS Articles: Fleet Technology Needed Now

Fleet Technology Needed Now
By Heather Rutherford - July-September 2016
As Commanding Officer of the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic (NCTAMS LANT), the command responsible for providing radio, satellite, and network communications to Navy bases along the East Coast and throughout the Atlantic Fleet, Capt. Matthew Lear knows firsthand how crucial it is to keep pace with emerging technologies.

Speaking to an audience at an AFCEA event in Norfolk, Virginia, Lear expressed the need for the Navy to modernize and tailor training for Sailors, open up direct lines of communications for ships, and give the fleet better access to networks.

Lear’s views echo those which are presented in the Navy’s A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, released earlier this year by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson. The document, commonly known as the CNO’s Design, provides guidance for “behaviors and investments” and calls for Navy service members to adhere to the attributes of integrity, accountability, initiative, and toughness.

The Design also reaffirms the Navy's mission, describes the strategic environment that the Navy is working in, and identifies four lines of effort (LOEs), each with corresponding objectives to guide the actions of the Navy and its leaders. The LOEs amplify the need to Strengthen Naval Power at and from Sea; Achieve High Velocity Learning at Every Level; Strengthen our Navy Team for the Future; and Expand and Strengthen our Network of Partners.

“Two of these lines of effort really resonate: strengthen naval power and high velocity learning,” Lear said. “These really are my thoughts of what we need in the fleet right now.”

According to the Design, strengthening naval power at and from sea requires maintaining a fleet that is trained and ready to operate and fight decisively — from the deep ocean to the littorals, from the sea floor to space — as well as in the information domain. This LOE also emphasizes that the Navy should be aligned to best support generating operational excellence.

The second LOE that Lear cited — achieving high velocity learning — calls for applying the best concepts, techniques and technologies to accelerate learning as individuals, teams and organizations, while clearly knowing the objective and the theoretical limits, seeing what can be accomplished without using additional resources, setting aspirational goals, using lessons learned from the start, conducting rigorous, routine self-assessments, and adapting processes to be inherently receptive to innovation and creativity.

“He [Adm. Richardson] gets what we do, what we’re trying to do, and how important it is,” Lear said.

Lear spoke about the need for the Navy to be open to innovation despite the fast pace that technology moves. “It’s hard to nail down the final requirements,” Lear explained. “There’s always a new protocol or gadget, or a new capability.”

Earlier this year, Lear attended an Information Warfare Symposium where Adm. Richardson spoke and heard firsthand what the CNO would like to see on the horizon. “He wants more ‘plug and play’ in a secure network. That’s our challenge and we’re going to try to do that.”

“We need secure mobile IT solutions,” Lear said, expressing the need to shift to mobile handheld platforms to train Sailors to keep up with rapidly changing technology.

When it comes to innovation, Lear has lots of ideas, many of which involve how to best train the new generation of Sailors joining the fleet.

“It’s about the training,” Lear said. “It’s outdated. It’s old. It doesn’t work right now. We [the Navy] should make it more like a game and align coursework for system administration, network administration, information assurance with offensive cyber schools. Then it becomes a total role-playing system. Sailors can battle each other — there’s no better way to test their abilities than to let the hackers come at them and have to defend their networks in real time.”

Lear strongly believes that Sailors would greatly benefit from learning in a virtual environment — an environment that is tailored to reflect their future assignments onboard ships.

“They should be able to pull up a virtual environment and upload SOPs (standard operating procedures) for the system they’ll be working on,” Lear said. “It will take time, effort, and money,” he explained, “but you’ll get a Sailor out to the fleet better prepared to serve that ship.”

Innovation doesn’t stop with training, however. Lear also suggested that the Navy needs to cut the cord to the shore. “We are so dependent on services that are linked back to satellite communications; we need to change our mentality,” he said. “We need to change our mentality to think more like submariners communicate. If we don’t hear from them, we assume everything is going as planned.”

According to Lear, that’s not exactly how the aircraft carrier strike group operates. “Everyone needs more information. We get overloaded and are actually slower in the decision making process. Satellite communications can be jammed fairly easily, thereby severing our links to the shore infrastructure. We need to incorporate drones with networking capabilities that enable high speed communications and data transfer within the lifelines of the carrier strike group. This would allow them to directly pass information back and forth between the units and assure command and control,” he said.

Another issue that Lear addressed is the inability for Navy commanders ashore and afloat to view current network operating pictures in a timely fashion. Lear said that the current means of creating a network common operating picture is through automatic ingestion of message traffic — or in most cases, manually adding it to a web page. “That picture is already two to three days late. Sailors need to be able to log into the ships and see the status of their equipment. A commander can’t make good decisions without accurate information. Until we get a real-time solution,” he said, “we’ll be behind all the time.”

Lear is also a proponent of using artificial intelligence (AI), especially in a “fusion” type of role. “Using artificial intelligence to analyze atmospheric data and data from ships will tell us how to adjust your radar settings, integrate into communications systems, and automatically adjust frequencies and power settings based on mission objectives,” he said. Creating systems that think and learn will allow the Navy to grow its advantage over the adversary, Lear explained.

“I think we can do it now,” Lear said. “It is not enough to work harder than our adversary. We have to work smarter than our adversary.”

Capt. Matthew Lear
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