On the gun line at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren: Testing weapons over the Potomac

Guns of all sizes, some day steel cutting lasers and hypersonic launchers - none of it gets mounted on a Navy ship until it's been tested and vetted by the Nava...

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Guns of all sizes, some day steel cutting lasers and hypersonic launchers – none of it gets mounted on a Navy ship until it’s been tested and vetted by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. Recently, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin traveled to King George County, Virginia, home of the Dahlgren Division, to see what’s going on to keep the Navy effective and lethal. In this first of a series of interviews we’ll be airing this week, I spoke with the division’s commander, Capt. Casey Plew.

Interview transcript:

Casey Plew: So the history of the organization starts off with Adm. John Dahlgren himself working problems in the Navy Yard for the Navy. So cannons were blowing up on ships and killing sailors. And if it wasn’t killing the sailor, the cannon ball was going out the ship and was hitting the ship and not destroying the ship or just completely missing the ship. So the entire history of our organization is all about the safe and efficient and effectiveness of our weapon systems. And so Adm. Dahlgren, after being at sea, decided I need to go to the Bureau of Ordnance and go fix this, and started working on developing a better cannon. And so the breach wouldn’t blow out the back end and kill our sailors. And so he was up at the Navy Yard, working that in the 1850s, all the way up through the Civil War. Civil War, he gets an assignment to go down and be the admiral in charge, I believe it was Charleston, the blockade in Charleston. Did that for a few years and then came back and was doing development testing in the Navy Yard, again, for weapon systems to ensure they’re safe, efficient and effective. And so we did that until post-Civil War, right, Civil War happens and folks that used to live out in the country moved into the city for safety. And so testing cannons at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., across the Anacostia River, kind of a bad idea. People had moved in, right, so people have moved in, kind of a bad idea so they moved down to Indian Head, Maryland, and they were down in Indian Head shooting across the Potomac for a while. And I believe as the story goes, that lasted for about 20, 30 years until they landed an artillery shell into the backyard of a house and decided we’re still too close. I think there was also an off-nominal shot – so nominal being where I wanted to shoot it – an off-nominal shot that landed 1,000 yards or so off the starboard beam of the presidential yacht. Again, still too close to land and civilization. So we came on down here to Dahlgren in 1918. To start testing artillery, if you look at the charts, there’s about 50 miles down to the Chesapeake of a range that we can shoot down every day. That’s the lower range. The middle range is where we shoot today, we normally about 5 to 8 miles down the Potomac will shoot each day. That’s about as far as we go. But we have all the way down to the lower end to the Chesapeake, a little bit up north of the bridge as well, another range north of the bridge. But in general, every day, we shoot 5 to 8 miles down the river testing. We have a really good working relationship with the community. A lot of our folks that work the range, those that are that run the range boats, those that are in our range operation center, all former local fishermen of some sort. And so while we’re testing, we’re in really good communication up and down the river, so they can go and do their kayaking, we’ll shut the range down for a bit. During crab season, a really good working relationship, we’ll shut down testing, they’ll go get their crab pots, and we’ll restart the testing. A really good relationship understanding that while we have to do testing, they’ve got to feed their families.

Tom Temin: And somewhere downrange then, under the water is there a big pile of old shells and ordnances?

Casey Plew: In general, a pile of shells and ordnance, I wouldn’t say there’s a big pile. So in general, when we used to shoot the large ordnances, we’d go pick them up and pull them out. It’s been a while since we’ve had any issue, I believe, with any artillery round being found in the water. We’ve done a really good job of the year with our environmental folks ensuring the health of the river. There are the oyster fields, there’s the crabbing, we do a really good job working with our local folks to ensure that environmental piece of what we do is healthy and sound.

Tom Temin: If you would, just give us an idea of where the Dahlgren operation fits in with the rest of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, and with Naval Research and with the Navy. Where are you in the whole pantheon of organizations?

Casey Plew: We work for the Naval Sea Systems Command. I work for [Rear] Adm. [Kevin] Byrne, who is the commander of the Undersea and the Surface Warfare Centers. So there’s 10 of us: two Undersea and eight Surface Warfare centers. And so where we fit in is we are the research and development organization for Naval Surface Warfare Centers. And I say research and development, we are very clearly focused on the fact that our mission, again from the beginnings with John Dalghren himself, from the very beginning is the research and development of those weapons systems. And we take that, again, very seriously knowing that there are folks that support the fleet today. The Surface Warfare Center Port Hueneme does the in-service engineering, support the fleet today, but we are clearly focused on the future Navy and the Navy after next. And if we don’t focus in on that, and we kind of get stuck in supporting today’s Navy, while we do support them, if there are issues that the in-service folks cannot fix. We’ll support them. But again, we clearly focused on the future Navy and the Navy after next. Today we have laser systems that are going on ships. There’s seven prototypes and eight is paid for, but we have prototypes of laser systems that 20 years ago, no one was going to put lasers on a ship. We here in Dahlgren thought, what can we do with a Navy laser weapon system? Can we put it on a ship? We started working through the science, the technologies, the research and development all the way up to that prototype, to see can we put it on a ship and make it an effective weapon system? So that’s an example of how we look to the future of the Navy. What can we do, how can we bring that technology to the fleet. And we do that all the way up to a prototype. And then once we do a prototype, we’ll send that technology, that data package out to industry and say, we need this to be done at rate for our Navy. Here’s all the data, here’s how we did it, go do it again, at rate. We need to make it more effective and efficient. And then we step back, and we go look at the next great thing.

Tom Temin: Because you have to have some idea of what is possible from industry. In other words, if you want a laser that could sink a battleship powered by a penlight battery, well, that’s not capable. And how do you find out what do you think industry is capable of that maps to a naval requirement?

Casey Plew: So we collaborate, we’ve got really within who we are, we recognize that we’re a research and development organization. Number two, that we have to focus in on rigor, rigor being the strict adherence to process and procedure, that if we can’t repeat it, it’s of no value. Otherwise, it just becomes flubber. It’s something that you can’t reproduce again. But we need to be able to reproduce it. We need to be able to send it out to industry. And we also focus in on our collaboration. We have to understand what industry is doing. We have to understand what’s out there in academia. And it’s just not only here within the United States, but also internationally. We work very closely with the folks like the U.K., the Norwegians, the Dutch, those sort of NATO partners to understand what they’re working on as well. And it’s through that collaboration, that we understand what they’re working on for the future. We also recognize that we have a lot of really smart, talented people here. But we may not have all of them. And recognizing that with their help, we’ll be able to get to those. We’re in the threat business, that if we don’t understand what the threats are – so we work with the Office of Naval Intelligence very closely to understand the threat. And if we’re not tied closely with those folks to understand the future threats, we can’t work through the other collaborative pieces to get after that.

Tom Temin: Just to give us a sense of the workforce makeup at Dahlgren, civilian versus uniform, and there’s a lot of contractors. Every one of ’em has a building next door.

Casey Plew: We’re an organization I think our number is we’re just shy of 5,000 – 5,000 folks, government people that work here. And another 4,000 contractors of some sort so about 9,000 total workforce, again, working collaboratively on those future weapons systems. A lot of PhDs, we have a just under 200 PhDs here. Another couple thousand with master’s degrees, 80% of our workforce is degree’d. And so very technical workforce, very educated workforce, then it’s not just within the technical community as well. Very strong comptroller, very strong contract shop, very strong facilities, we have one of the best teams as far as, I’ll call it the business portion of what we do, because we recognize that as good as our technical people are, if you do not have a modern IT infrastructure, if you do not have top-rate facilities, if you cannot put a contract in place, if you cannot move money through the comptroller, none of that technical business means anything. If you do not have those business people to support the technical, you just can’t get the job done. And that’s about 20%, maybe 15% of our workforce is on the non-technical side. But just as critical. Just as critical to the organization.

Tom Temin: I wanted to ask you about some specific initiatives here. One is the software engineering revolution. And you don’t see the word “revolution” very much in a government context. So what is that all about?

Casey Plew: As I like to talk about it, it’s CNO Richardson talked about compile to combat in 24 [hours] (C2C24). What that really was is that as the enemy is going to do things that we know that we’re not going to show everything that we do, when we go to war, the enemy is going to do something that we see, that we sense in some fashion. What they do that’s new that we didn’t expect needs to get through those sensors through the ship, through the celestial through the terrestrial network needs to be analyzed, sent back here to this organization, we need to be able to make changes in the software because the physics are going to be what the physics are. The kinematics of that, the missile’s not going to fly any faster than it will, the radar won’t see any farther than it will. The physics are going to be what we’re fighting with today. What we’ll be able to change is the software and how we use that physics, that problem to our advantage within the software. Again, we need to sense all that, get it through the network, analyze it, make the changes within the software, do the test, the certification, make sure it’s safe, send all those changes back through that network onto that ship. So we then can go after the enemy. The only way we can do that is understand the software and how that’s put together. About one-fifth of the people that work here are software developers. We own the fire control and the weapons control development on things like the gun weapons systems on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. We understand how that software is developed. And again, we recognize that if we want to get after that future problem quickly, that we’ve got to be able to enable that with software development. We’re very heavy into things like the Software Factory, using the agile processes as opposed to old-style waterfall processes for development. Again, heavily developed in that software understanding that that’s going to be how we can quickly affect that future.

Tom Temin: As an aside, that means you probably have to interoperate with other elements of the Navy such as the people developing the CANES [Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services ], say the shipboard networks and so forth.

Casey Plew: That is true, that is true. CANES not really in my wheelhouse. I did spend some time over at SPAWAR Pacific, now NIWC Pacific, the consolidated float network enterprise system, I believe is what it stands for. Been a while, I worked there 10 years ago. So it’s been a while. But we do work closely with those folks. Again, when you get into the lines between the weapons system and the network, both the celestial terrestrial, the shipboard, and then the external networks, the lines between them are becoming less clear. And so we do work closely with our brethren at NIWC Pacific, NIWC land on our weapon systems and our sensor systems and bringing all that data together. Absolutely.

Tom Temin: And digital engineering, I’m afraid to say the Air Force has gotten a lot of credit for that, but apparently from looking at the initiatives here at Dahlgren that’s a big part of the Navy’s future also. And just also if you would, distinguish it from plain old CAD.

Casey Plew: From plain old CAD, you’ve got to recognize that we have systems on ships that go all the way back to the ’70s. Very much a paper-drive, red line drawings. But really when you get after digital engineering to understand the effect of the change that you’ve made within the weapon system, within the combat system, not only from a tactical how the system is going to perform, but all the way to the strategic. If you don’t start in a digital world with digital model, and understand the impact of what you’re producing, again across all levels from the tactical to the strategic, if you don’t digitally work through that problem set, you’re not going to understand the impact. And the only time you really see the impact is one, either at war or two, when you finally put it on a ship, that process is too slow. And so really digital engineering is about doing those engineering processes in a digital environment to be able to see through modeling and simulation the effects of the change before you put it on the ship. And with a CAD system, the net result of that would be a piece of paper that you would have to go through and develop something and then put it on the ship and see if it worked.

Tom Temin: So CAD is just a component in the digital engineering chain, then maybe?

Casey Plew: It is. I don’t know that the result of a CAD drawing would be not really on a piece of paper anymore. It would be in a model. Absolutely be in a model.

Tom Temin: And I couldn’t let you go without talking about hypersonics.

Casey Plew: So hypersonics is a fascinating topic. Hypersonic sound did become in noun but it’s really an adjective, right? It just means something that goes faster than Mach 5. So five times the speed of sound. And we have weapons currently that do that. Generally those weapon systems are exoatmospheric, right, things that are not within our, what I call air breathing, right, below the atmosphere where we live in the endoatmospheric, right. So it’s atmospheric weapon systems, generally go faster than Mach 5. Really with hypersonic weapons, which you’re talking about is air breathing weapons, those that are in the air that are highly maneuverable and go faster than Mach 5. And so that problem set both in the control the weapon system and also the defense against those incoming threats, it’s just a different problem set. One we haven’t worked on. I’m not personally worried about the technical portions of it, because it’s just a different problem set.

Tom Temin: And you’ve got a pretty interesting next assignment.

Casey Plew: I was told last week I’ll be heading to work for Adm. Selby at the Office of Naval Research to help him work Naval X, and Naval X being the Navy’s, I don’t want to say “innovation cell,” we have innovation cells everywhere, but how do we bring tech bridges together? The tech bridge being the industry, small business out in town, with the warfighter understand their problems and help get that innovative ideas into the Navy and transition into effective weapon systems.

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