Tag Archives: DARPA

Developing New Tactics and Technologies in Naval Warfare: The MDUSV Example

By Jeffrey Kline, John Tanalega, Jeffrey Appleget, and Tom Lucas


The paper is about synergy. It demonstrates the power of using analytical tools in a logical sequence to generate, develop, and assess new concepts and technologies in warfare. Individually there is nothing new here. Each of the analytical tools described in this paper is thoroughly discussed in academic literature. The use of intelligent experimental design and large scale simulation to advance knowledge in defense and homeland security issues is well describe in Design and Analysis of Experiments by leaders in the Naval Postgraduate School’s Simulation Experiments and Efficient Design (SEED) Center for Data Farming (Sanchez, 2012).1 The power of campaign analysis to gain insight and quantify the value of new technologies and capabilities is covered in the campaign analysis chapter of Wiley’s Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science (Kline, 2010).2 Wargaming’s use to develop concepts for employment of those new technologies and discover possible risks to them are discussed recently in both the Military Operations Research Society’s Phalanx (Appleget, 2015)3 and the journal for Cyber Security and Information Systems Information Analysis Center (Appleget, 2016).4

It is the synergy created by bringing these tools together—linked by officers with tactical experience and educated in the analytical techniques—which this paper addresses.  We provide it as an example of military operations research in practice to advance naval force development and fleet combat tactics.  We tell this story through the lens of our co-author, LT John Tanagela, USN, and one technology, the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessel (MDUSV), but provide multiple examples of past work similar in nature. LT Tanagela is a qualified Surface Warfare Officer who chose to attend the Naval Postgraduate School to obtain a master’s degree in Operations Research. We select John’s educational and research experience not for its uniqueness, but instead for its normalcy as a NPS OR student with unrestricted line qualifications. Our other co-authors were John’s combat models instructor, campaign analysis instructor, wargaming instructor, and thesis research advisors. We provide descriptions and results from the analytical courses John leveraged to advance his research in employing a MDUSV and highlights from his thesis.  We conclude with brief summaries of other concepts and technologies advanced in this manner.

Triad of Military Applied Courses

The Naval Postgraduate School’s Operations Research students receive three foundational courses in warfare analysis: the introduction to joint combat modeling course, the joint campaign analysis course, and the wargaming course (See Figure 1). In these applied courses they learn to model combat effects in tactical and operational level conflict, integrate these quantitative techniques in campaign analysis and human decision making, and, as a result, develop and quantitatively assess new concepts, tactics, and technologies.  

Figure 1: The three warfare analysis courses provided to NPS operations research students.

The joint combat models course introduces traditional force-on-force modeling, including homogeneous and heterogeneous Lanchester equations, Hughes’ salvo equations, and computer-based combat simulations. It provides our officers the experience to integrate uncertainty into these models to allow for sensitivity analysis and design of experiments in exploring new capabilities.

The joint campaign analysis class leverages these new skills and previous course work in simulation, optimization, decision analysis, search theory, and probability theory by challenging our officers to apply them in a campaign-level scenario. During the course they must develop a concept of operation to meet campaign objectives, model that concept to assess risk using appropriate measures for their objective, and assess “new” technical capabilities by comparing them to their baseline concept analytical results. The results are quantitative military assessments of new concepts and technologies, identification of force capability gaps, and risk assessments (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: The NPS Joint Campaign Analysis class process for applying officers’ new analytical skills to campaign and operational level issues.

The wargaming class provides an overview of the history, uses, and types of wargaming, but focuses its efforts on teaching officers how to design, develop, execute, analyze, and report on an analytical wargame. After learning the fundamentals, officer-teams are assigned real-world sponsors who provide the objective and the issues they desire to address during a wargame. The officer-teams work with the sponsor through execution of an actual wargame, completing their course work by reporting the wargame’s analysis and results to the sponsor. An example is supporting the Navy’s PEO C4I by assessing the Undersea Constellation concept and technology. (See Figure 3)

Figure 3: Sponsor, student wargaming team (in uniform) and players of the NPS wargaming course’s PEO C4I Undersea Constellation Game.

Passing Lessons and Students along

As the NPS operations research students proceed from one course to another in the triad above—where they are joined by Joint Operational Logistics students, Systems Engineering Analysis students, Defense Analysis students, and Undersea Warfare students—there is an opportunity to carry lessons from on course into another, and gain further insight into those concepts and technologies. The teaching faculty work closely to ensure that happens by design. NPS Warfare Analysis faculty and researchers use these courses synergistically to provide insights to real-world sponsors in advancing their concepts, assessing new technologies proposed by DoD labs and industry, and developing new tactics—all the while enhancing our officer-students’ educational experience and sharpening their combat skills. For example, after learning to model a war at sea strike using salvo equations in the joint combat modeling course, the officers are challenged to develop a maritime concept of employment using distributed forces in the joint campaign analysis class, and assess that concept using the salvo equations and simulation. That concept is passed to the wargaming class (usually the same students) to better understand Blue’s decisions in employing distributed forces and Red’s potential reactions. Common scenarios are used between classes with similar forces structures (See Figure 4).

Figure 4: The NPS Joint Campaign Analysis and Wargaming connection. Technologies and concepts analyzed in the Joint Campaign Analysis class are frequently introduced by real-world sponsors in the wargaming class to better understand Blue’s force employments and Red’s reactions to new Blue capabilities.

The results of these capstone classroom efforts are a series of analytical and wargaming briefings, reports, and papers frequently shared with DoD and service organizations. In addition, the work informs other NPS research occurring in unmanned systems, networks, and command and control. Most impactful, however, is when officers are inspired to take a much more detailed look at new capabilities as their thesis research, using the insights gathered from their capstone course work as a foundation to build upon.

Simulating a Half Million Tactical Engagements 

Officers frequently select a new technology explored in their military operations research applied courses to further study in their thesis work. They will draw upon their own operational experience to develop tactics to employ these technologies; work with weapon tactics instructors to refine these tactical situations; identify important variables and parameters within that scenario to further identify needed performance capabilities (range, speed, etc.) and tactical employment (formations, distances, logistics, etc.); build or use an existing simulation to model those tactics; use intelligent experimental design to efficiently explore a range of values for each of identified parameter; execute the experiment—frequently running over a half million tactical engagements; then use advanced data analytics to identify the most important parameters’ values to be successful (See Figure 5.)

Figure 5: Using simulation, intelligent experimental design, and advance data analytics to identify the most import performance parameters of a technology or tactical employment.

These theses’ results are always of great value to warfare and tactics development commands, to resources sponsors, material commands, and defense laboratories developing new technologies. Their insights also inform future capstone course work and NPS technical research. We now turn to our specific example, LT John Tanalega and the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessel. 

The Technology: The Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessel

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessel (MDUSV) program is a self-deployed surface unmanned system capable of on station times of 60-90 days with ranges of 900-10000 nautical miles depending on speed (3-24 knots) and payload (5-20 tones).5  For the NPS warfare analysis group, we provide it the following future mission capabilities. In an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) role, it receives an off-board cue and hand off, then conducts overt trail with active sonar. It can act as an ASW scout in coordination with area ASW assets like the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft or benthic laid sensors in an Undersea Constellation, conducting large acoustic surveillance using passive and/or active bi-static sonar. It can deploy three Mk 54 or six smaller CRAW torpedoes. In its Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) role, it can work with surface ships as an advanced scout employing passive sensors, and in an offensive role, can carry eight RBS-15 surface-to-surface missiles. In its mine warfare role, it can conduct mine sweeping with a MK-104 acoustic sweep body or can deploy a clandestine delivered mine in an offensive mining role. It may also act as a forward environmental survey ship, a platform for operational military deception, a tow for a logistics barge, and special operations equipment delivery.

All MDUSVs in these analyses are augmented by TALON (Towed Airborne lift of naval systems)6, which can carry up to 150 pounds of payload up to 1,500 feet. This payload can be communication relays, radar, electronic jammers (or emitters for decoy operations), or optical sensors.

ACTUV conducting testing with TALONS (DARPA Video)

The MDUSV equipped with TALON has been introduced in several Joint Campaign Analysis classes and Wargaming classes as technical injects to be assessed. LT Tanalega was given the MDUSV as a technical inject for both these classes.

The Student: LT John Tanalega

Academically talented, John has a typical operational background for a Naval Postgraduate School Operations Research student. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science degree in English. His initial sea tour was as Auxiliaries and Electrical Officer, and later First Lieutenant, in USS DEWEY (DDG 105). While assigned to DEWEY, he deployed to the Western Pacific, Arabian Gulf, Red Sea, and Eastern Mediterranean. His second division officer tour was as the Fire Control Officer in USS JOHN PAUL JONES (DDG 53), the U.S. Navy’s ballistic missile defense test ship. He attended the Naval Postgraduate School in from 2016 to 2018, where he earned a Master of Science degree in Operations Research and conducted his thesis research in tactical employment of the MDUSV.

Insights from the Joint Campaign Analysis classes, the Wargaming Classes, and other NPS research

As mentioned, the MDUSV with TALON was introduced to a series of Joint Campaign Analysis classes and several NPS wargames. Officer-students have employed it in a variety of missions, from active operational deception to logistics delivery to riverine patrol. Its strongest characteristics are on-station time over unmanned aerial systems, sensor payload capacity over all other unmanned systems, and speed over unmanned underwater systems. Its limitations include vulnerability to attack (it has no active defense), which is mitigated by a low radar cross section making it difficult to target and/or acquire. Our analytical and wargaming teams have found their value forward in offensive naval formations and in defense screening formations (Figure 5). Employing a single or pair of MDUSV with a P-8 maritime patrol aircraft in an area ASW environment is also valuable. (Figure 6).Figure 5: The graph shows the probability of successfully finding and engaging an adversary’s amphibious task force in a South China Sea scenario with a traditional U.S. Surface Action Group (SAG) with and without allied ship support. As MDUSVs are added to the SAG, the probability of mission success is increased. The MDUSV are contributing to the ISR and targeting capabilities of the SAG. This analysis was produced using combat modeling by a Joint Campaign Analysis class team.

Figure 6: This plot shows the simulation results of an Area ASW engagement between a PLA Navy SSK submarine and the MDUSV alone (labeled ACTUV or Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, the original DAPRA program name); the MDUSV with a P-8 (labeled both), and the P-8 alone. The Tukey-Kramer test displays significant improvement with the MDUSV and P-8 work as an unmanned-manned pair.

Unique employment concepts are also developed, such as employing paired MDUSVs working as an active-passive team for both active radar and acoustic search. This information is passed to both sponsors and the NPS combat systems research faculty for engineering analysis.

LT John Tanalega’s Joint Campaign Analysis efforts included analyzing the MDUSV’s contribution to a scouting advantage for Blue forces in a surface-to-surface engagement (see figure 5). While a student in the NPS Wargaming Class, John’s team designed, developed, and executed a classified South China Sea game for United States Fleet Forces Command exploring distributed maritime operations and a force structure that included the MDUSV. Lessons from both classes were then applied to his further research in the MDUSV’s best tactical employment in a surface to surface engagement.

Furthering the study by use of simulation (Problem, Tactical Engagement, and Design of Experiments)

In transitioning MDUSV from technical concept to operational reality, several questions are prominent. First, MDUSV is just what its name implies—a vessel. The specific technologies which will make it effective in the maritime domain are all in various stages of development, and they are too numerous for MDUSV to carry all of them. Therefore, an exploration of which capabilities improve operational effectiveness the most is essential. Second, while superior technology is necessary, alone it is not sufficient. USVs must also be used with effective tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to make them effective SUW platforms. USVs are entirely new to the U.S. Navy, and no historical data exists for their use in combat. Modeling, simulation, and data farming7 provide an opportunity to explore concepts and systems that, today, are only theories and prototypes.

Computer-based modeling and simulation are an effective means of exploring MDUSV capabilities and tactics. Live experiments at-sea are always important to gather real-world data and provide proofs of concepts. However, they require a mature design. They are prohibitively expensive, and the low number of trials that can be conducted reduces the confidence levels of their conclusions. Computer-based modeling and simulation allows us to run tens of thousands of experiments over a wide range of factors. It is, therefore, better suited for design exploration. Using high-performance computing and special techniques in design of experiments (DoE), such as nearly orthogonal and balanced (NOB) designs, simulation experiments that would have taken months or years with legacy factorial designs can be can be performed in a matter of days. This highly efficient technique provides greater insights that inform and direct live experimentation and requirements development.

To explore the effects of MDUSV on surface warfare, LT Tanalega used the Lightweight Interstitials Toolkit for Mission Engineering using Simulation (LITMUS), developed by the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division (NSWC DD). LITMUS is an agent-based modeling and simulation tool suited specifically to naval combat. Ships, aircraft, and submarines are built by users and customized with weapons, sensors, and behaviors to mirror the capabilities and actions of real-world combat systems. Using an efficient design of experiments and LITMUS scenario, over 29,000 surface battles were simulated with varied active and passive sensor ranges, MDUSV formations and armament, and emissions control EMCON policies.

To compare battle results, LT Tanalega used the probability of a surface force being first to fire a salvo of missiles against an adversary as a measure of effectiveness. This choice is motivated by the maxim of naval combat in the missile era to “fire effectively first,” and indicates a clear advantage in offensive tactics.8

Simulation Results (Unclassified)

Analysis of the simulation output shows that a traditional Blue force combating a very capable Red force in its home waters has 19 percent probability of meeting first-to-fire criteria (See Table 1). Blue surface forces equipped with MDUSV are nearly three times as likely to be first-to-fire. Analysis also found the increase in performance is due primarily to the extended sensor range afforded by the TALONS platform on scouting MDUSV. Based on the presence of MDUSV alone, Blue improves its probability of being first-to-fire by a factor of nearly three (from 19 percent to 56 percent), as shown in Table 1. Though a SAG will likely have helicopters embarked, it is important to note that helicopters are more limited in endurance. Further, the use of a helicopter in Phase II of a conflict poses exceptional risk to human pilots, especially if the enemy is equipped with capable air defense systems. We therefore modeled “worst case” without an airborne helo during the engagements. Given the long endurance of MDUSV and its autonomous nature, MDUSV represents a worthwhile investment for the surface force. When numerically disadvantaged and fighting in dangerous waters, MDUSV levels the odds for Blue.

Table 1. MDUSV Effect on First-to-Fire Probability

Advanced partition tree analysis of the data noted a breakpoint at an MDUSV passive sensor range of 36nm. With this range or greater, Blue was first-to-fire in 81% of the design replications (Table 2). Using the mathematical horizontal slant range formula to approximate visual horizon, this equates to a tether height of approximately 1020 feet. Given the current 150-pound weight limit for a TALONS payload, a passive electro-optical sensor may be more feasible than an active radar. Placing a high power radar, with power amplification, transmission, and signals processing in a TALONS mission package may not be feasible in the near term. Further study, from an electrical engineering and systems engineering perspective, is required.

Table 2. MDUSV Passive Sensor Range Effect on First-to-Fire Probability

While arming MDUSV provides a marginal increase in first-to-fire performance with EMCON policies 1 and 2, it has a small negative effect with EMCON policy 3. Ultimately, first-to-fire in each replication is driven by scouting—who saw whom and fired first. Since detecting the enemy is a necessary condition to shooting him, providing MDUSV with over the horizon sensor capabilities should be the first concern. This will allow the missile shooters of the surface and air forces to employ their weapons without emitting with their own sensors.

Furthering the Study by Use of Wargaming

The Fleet Design Wargame consisted of three separate gameplay sessions. During each session, the BLUE Team received a different order of battle. During gameplay, the study team observed the players’ decisions to organize and maneuver their forces, as well as the rationale behind those decisions. After two to three turns of gameplay, a member of the study team facilitated a seminar in which all players discussed the game results. Each team, BLUE and RED, had a leader playing as the “Task Force Commander,” and a supporting staff. The Blue Team consisted of three SWOs, a Navy pilot, an Air Force pilot, a Navy cryptologic warfare officer, two human resources officers, and a supply officer. The RED team consisted of three SWOs, one Marine NFO, one Navy cryptologic warfare officer, two Naval intelligence officers, and two supply officers. Search was adjudicated using probability tables and dice. Combat actions are being analyzed using combat models, such as a stochastic implementation of the salvo model.

Wargaming Results (unclassified)

The game demonstrated the combat potential that networked platforms, sensors, and weapons provide. Long endurance systems, such as the MQ-4C Triton and the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) can be the eyes and ears of missile platforms like destroyers. The game also showed that with its range alone, an ASuW-capable Maritime Strike Tomahawk provides BLUE forces with greater flexibility when stationing units. On the other hand, unmanned systems also provide RED with a wider range of options to escalate and test U.S. resolve during phase 1. The study team also found that expeditionary warfare can have a double effect on the sea control fight. The presence of an LHA is a “double threat” to the enemy, acting as both an F-35B platform, and as a means of landing Marines.

Further Research Work on the MDUSV

Future research is required to optimize MDUSV design and to better characterize the human element of MDUSV employment and coordination. While TALONS provides a unique elevated sensor platform, a 150-pound maximum payload will be a considerable constraint. Passive sensors, such as EO/IR, may be mounted on the TALONS platform, but the weight required to house a high-performance radar will be a higher hurdle to overcome. Though this can be mitigated by changing the parasail design to increase lift, this will require more in-depth study of the engineering trade-offs. Also, the process will have to be automated. TALONS testing to-date has involved members of the test team deploying and recovering it.

Though this study was performed with software-driven automata, the tactical decisions leading-up to the placement of MDUSV will be made by humans. The long endurance of MDUSV makes it an ideal platform for deception. Tactical and operational level wargaming may yield insight into the affect that adding MDUSV will have on human decision-making.

As this study was the first SUW simulation of a man-machine teamed force, the scope of the agents explored was purposefully limited. To add to the realism of the experiment, and to explore future tactics, the addition of helicopters and other scout aircraft to the scenario may yield further insight into the design requirements and tactical employment of MDUSV.

MDUSVs in this study were homogenously equipped and shared the same EMCON policy. However, if each MDUSV is given only one capability, such as a particular sensor type or a weapon, their strengths may offset their weaknesses. Grouping several MDUSVs with different mission load-outs may be an alternative to sending a manned multi-mission ship like a DDG. It may also prove to be more resilient to battle damage, as the loss of a single MDUSV would mean the loss of an individual mission, while the mission-kill of a DDG would result in a loss of all combat capability. Further simulation and analysis with LITMUS may yield insights into this trade-off.

Other Examples

Although we have highlighted LT Tanalega’s recent research to demonstrate how the NPS Warfare Analysis group integrates officer’s tactical experience, classroom work, and more detailed research to provide insights in new technologies, tactics, and operational concepts, many other examples can be mentioned. These include tactics to defeat swarms of unmanned combat aerial vehicles, best use of lasers aboard ships, developing tactics to counter maritime special operations insertion, employing expeditionary basing in contested environments, exploration in distributed logistics, best convoy screening tactics against missile-capable submarines, and use of sea bed sensors and systems. Analytical red teaming is also used for sponsors wishing to better understand the resilience and vulnerability of their new systems—employed in the same classes mentioned in this paper. These results are shared with DoD and Navy sponsors interested in getting robust and quantitative assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of their systems.

Although the NPS Warfare Analysis group is pleased to make real-world contributions as part of our students’ education experience, our greatest satisfaction comes from observing the junior officer’s military professional growth that accompanies the application of their newly learned analytical skills. To model and analyze an engagement, a thorough understanding of the tactical factors and performance parameters is necessary. By the end of our students’ experience, they have gained expertise in that mission and in operations analysis—a perfect blend to contribute to our nation’s future force architecture and design.

CAPT Jeff Kline, USN (ret.) is a Professor of Practice in Military Operations Research at the Naval Postgraduate School. He holds the OPNAV N9I Chair of Systems Engineering Analysis and teaches Joint Campaign Analysis, Systems Analysis, and Risk Assessment. jekline@nps.edu

Dr. Jeff Appleget is a retired Army Colonel who served as an Artilleryman and Operations Research analyst in his 30-year Army career. He teaches the Wargaming Analysis, Combat Modeling, and Advanced Wargaming Applications courses.  Jeff directs the activities of the NPS Wargaming Activity Hub. He is the Joint Warfare Analysis Center (JWAC) Chair of Applied Operations Research at NPS. jaappleg@nps.edu

Dr. Tom Lucas is a Professor in the Operations Research Department at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), joining the Department in 1998. Previously, he worked as a statistician and project leader for six years at RAND and as a systems engineer for 11 years at Hughes Aircraft Company. Dr. Lucas is the Co-Director of the NPS Simulation, Experiments, and Efficient Design (SEED) Center and has advised over 100 graduate theses using simulation and efficient experimental design to explore  a variety of tactical and technical topcs. twlucas@nps.edu

LT John F. Tanalega is a Navy Surface Warfare Officer from North Las Vegas, Nevada and is a 2011 graduate of the United States Naval Academy His first operational tour was as Auxiliaries and Electrical Officer, and later as First Lieutenant, in USS DEWEY (DDG 105). He next served as Fire Control Officer in USS JOHN PAUL JONES (DDG 53). As an operations analysis student at the Naval Postgraduate School, his research focused on combat modeling, campaign analysis, and analytic wargaming. After graduating from NPS, he reported to the Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) in Newport, Rhode Island, in preparation for his next at-sea assignment.


1. Sanchez, S.M., T.W. Lucas, P.J. Sanchez, C.J. Nannini, and H. Wong, “Designs for Large-Scale Simulation Experiments with Applications to Defense and Homeland Security,” Design and Analysis of Experiments, volume III, by Hinckleman (ed.), Wiley, 2012, pp. 413-441

2. Kline, J., Hughes, W., and Otte, D., 2010, “Campaign Analysis: An Introductory Review,” Wiley Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science, ed Cochran, J. John Wiley & Sons, Inc

3. Appleget, J., Cameron, F., “Analytical Wargaming on the Rise,” Phalanx, Military Operations Research Society, March 2015, pp 28-32

 4. Appleget, J., Cameron, F., Burks, R., and Kline, J., “Wargaming at the Naval Postgraduate School,” CSIAC Journal, Vol 4, No 3, November 2016 pp 18- 23

5. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has demonstrated a prototype “Sea Hunter”. Information may be found at https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2018-01-30a

6. For more information on the TALON visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWEoV88PtTY

7. See Sanchez, ibid.

8. Hughes, W.P., Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd ed, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2000.

9. Wagner D.H., Mylander, W.C., Sanders, T.J., Naval Operations Analysis, 3rd ed, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1999, pp 109-110.

Featured Image: The Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) (DARPA photo)

Thinking Weapons are Closer Than We Think

This piece also at USNI News.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has constructed a neuromorphic device—the functioning structure of a mammalian brain—out of artificial materials. DARPA’s project, SyNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics) signals a new level for biomimicry in engineering. The project team included IBM, HRL, and their subcontracted universities.

Biomimicry is not new. The most recent example is the undulating “robojelly” developed by the Universirty of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Tech. This new drone swims through the sea like a jellyfish, collecting energy from the oxygen in the water, as does any breathing organism. There is also the graceful Pesto SmartBird, an aerial drone that mimics the shape and physical flight of birds. A knockoff was found crashed in Pakistan. If not the shape, at least the actions are often mimicked, as shown by UPenn’s quadrotors being programmed to use crane claws like predatory birds rather than construction cranes. However, these examples of biomimicry only cover the external actions of an animal. SyNAPSE goes deeper, building a synthetic version of the mind that develops these actions.

In the quest for autonomous machines, the suggestions have been either-or: machines programmed to be like brains or the integration of biological processors to provide that processing flexibility. DARPA has found the “middle path” in constructing a series of synthetic synapses out of nano-scale wire. This takes the physical form of those biological processors and constructs them from the base material of conventional computers. According to James Gimzewski at UCLA, the device manages information through a method of self-organization, a key trait of autonomous action and learning, “Rather than move information from memory to processor, like conventional computers, this device processes information in a totally new way.” Moving past the surface mimicking of physical shape and function, SyNAPSE will mimic living organisms’ basic way of processing information.

However, as the possibility for real autonomy approaches, the legal challenge becomes more urgent. An article in Defense News summarizes the catalogue of problems quite well, from accidental breaches of airspace/territorial waters, to breaches in navigational rules, to accidental deaths all caused by machines not having a direct operator to hold responsible. However, as the director of naval intelligence Vice Admiral Kendall Card noted, “Unmanned systems are not a luxury; they are absolutely imperative to the future of our Navy.” Like the CIA’s armed predator program, someone will eventually open Pandora’s box and take responsibility for their new machines to gain the operational edge. DARPA’s SyNAPSE project is that next step toward an autonomous reality.

A DARPA scale of the make-up of a neuromorphic circuit and their biological equivalents.
A DARPA scale of the make-up of a neuromorphic circuit and their biological equivalents.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

The Mark II Eyeball

I'm sure I don't need my peripheral vision...
I’m sure I don’t need my peripheral vision…

If you ask Sailors in the U.S. Navy to list the most important sensors for accomplishing their mission, a likely response is the high-tech name for that fundamental, but decidedly low-tech device – the Mark I Eyeball.  In light of recent developments the Mark II may well be only a short way off. 

Earlier this year we reported on the conceptual developments coming out of Google’s Project Glass – Augmented Reality (AR) goggles – and began to address their potential applications for the Navy, specifically for damage control teams and bridge and CIC watchstanders.  The benefits of such devices are two-fold.  First, they are a way to reduce physical requirements, such as carrying or activating a handheld radio with one’s hand, or walking to a console (and perhaps using hands again) to call up information.  Second, as the walk to a console highlights AR goggles can facilitate quicker data retrieval when time is of the essence, and deliver it more accurately than when shouted by a shipmate.

Yet there are limitations to AR goggles – both practical and technological. 

First, for the time being, AR devices require the same (or more) data exchange capabilities as the handsets they might someday replace.  For now this means WiFi, Bluetooth, interior cellular, or radio.  Unfortunately, as anyone who has enjoyed communicating during fire-fighting or force protection drills can tell you, large, metal, watertight doors are excellent obstructors of transmissions.  While strides have been made over the past decade, range and transmission quality will remain a challenge, especially for roving or expansive interior shipboard watchteams.  While it might make sense to install transmitters in areas such as the bridge or CIC for fixed-use watchstanders, setting up transmitters and relays throughout the ship for coverage for larger watchteams is likely to be a more costly endeavor.

Second, voice recognition is integral to much of the system, yet is an imprecise interface for highlighting or selecting physical objects encountered in actual reality (“Siri, what is the distance to that sailboat?  No, the other one, with the blue hull.  Siri, that’s a buoy”).  Some of this can be mitigated by auto-designation systems of the type already in use by most radars (“Siri, kill track 223”).  However an auto-designation approach would involve cumbersome doctrine/rule-setting, run the risk of inundating the user with too much data, and still allow a large number of objects to remain outside the system – likely rendering it unmanageable for roving watchstanders.

One solution is letting a Sailors’ eyes do the selecting.  This can be achieved by incorporating eye tracking into the AR headsets.  Eye tracking is a type of interface that, as the name suggests, allows computers to determine exactly where, and therefore at what, someone’s eyes are looking though the use of miniature cameras and infrared light (for more on the science, read this).

As The Economist reports, the cost of using headset-mounted eye-tracking technology has halved over the past decade, to about $15,000.  That’s still a bit pricey.  And when the requirements for making headsets ruggedized for military use and integrating them with AR headsets are taken into account the price tag is likely to increase to the point of being unaffordable at present.  But the fundamental technology is there and operational.

In the Eye of the SailorA third AR limitation is that cramming all of the equipment into a headset can make the device pretty unwieldy.  Luckily, miniaturization of components is expected to continue apace, and one DARPA project could yield another approach (at the potential loss of an eye-tracking ability).  The Soldier Centric Imaging via Computational Cameras (SCENICC) program is funding research to develop contact lenses for both AR and VR displays.  As the site describes it, “Instead of oversized virtual reality helmets, digital images are projected onto tiny full-color displays that are very near the eye.  These novel contact lenses allow users to focus simultaneously on objects that are close up and far away.”  Such contact lenses could be ideal for providing watchstanders a limited heads-up display of the most important data (a ship’s course and speed, for example), but would need an integrated data-receiver.

Beyond AR

Both eye tracking and the DARPA contact lenses point to other potential naval uses.  The Economist describes truckers’ use of eye-tracking to monitor their state of alertness and warn them if they start falling asleep.  If the price of integrated headsets drops enough, watchteam leaders may no longer need to flash a light in the eyes of their team to determine who needs a cup of Joe.  Already, Eye-Com Corporation has designed an “eye-tracking scuba mask for Navy SEALs that detects fatigue, levels of blood oxygen and nitrogen narcosis, a form of inebriation often experienced on deep dives.”

Naval aviation could also get a boost.  A Vermont firm is using eye tracking to help train pilots by monitoring their adherence to checklist procedures.  Pilots flying an aircraft from the cockpit or remotely piloting an unmanned system (aerial or otherwise) from the ground could use eye tracking to control movement or weapons targeting.     

Eye tracking models soon available for jealous girflriends everywhere.
Eye tracking headsets soon available for jealous girflriends everywhere.

Likewise the DARPA lenses point to potential drone use.  While the lenses are not designed to provide input to a drone – that would have to be done using a different interface such as a traditional joy stick or game controller, until (and if) integrated with eye tracking – VR lenses could provide a more user-friendly, portable way to manually take in the ISR data gathered by the drone (i.e. to see what its camera is seeing).  The use for eyeball targeting/selection in naval aviation/naval drones might, however, be surpassed before it is fully developed, by dichotomous forces.  One one hand,  brain-control interfaces (BCIs) (as demonstrated earlier this year in China) provide more direct control, allowing users essentially to think the aircraft or drone into action.  On the other hand, drones will likely become more autonomous, obviating the need for as much direct control (Pete Singer did a good job of breaking down the different drone interface options and levels of autonomy a few years ago in Wired for War).

Yet not everyone is likely to be comfortable plugging equipment into their body.  So while BCI technology could similarly work for AR goggles, unless BCI use becomes a military mandate, AR headsets with integrated voice recognition/communication and eye-tracking are likely to be the pinnacle goal for shipboard use.  There will undoubtedly be delays.  For example, widespread adoption of near-term improvements such as voice-activated radios (or other inputs that don’t require hand-use) would temporarily upset the cost-benefit calculation of continued AR headset development.  However, if industry can bring down the cost enough (and the initial reception to Project Glass indicates there could by widespread consumer demand for the technology), the future will contain integrated headsets of some sort, making the good ‘ol eyeball all the more important.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Foaming at the Abdominal Chest Cavity

A New Darpa Advance Mass Might Offer Hope for Shipboard Injuries

A DARPA announcement today touted the initial results of the Wounded Statis Sytem. The pre-clinical tests showed injecting a polyurethane polymer foam into the chest cavity of an injured servicemember suffering from internal hemorrhaging could increase stoppage of blood loss 6-fold, and boost chances of survival at three hours post-injury from ~8% to 72%. Removing the foam in a singular solid chunk reportedly takes less than one minute after making a small incision.

While the press release is geared toward ground-combat survival, medical departments in the U.S. fleet would surely be just as interested in having a few of these injections on hand in the event of a singular of mass casualty incident requiring a medical evac for just this reason:

The Department of Defense’s medical system aspires to a standard known as the “Golden Hour” that dictates that troops wounded on the battlefield are moved to advanced-level treatment facilities within the first 60 minutes of being wounded. In advance of transport, initial battlefield medical care administered by first responders is often critical to injured servicemembers’ survival. In the case of internal abdominal injuries and resulting internal hemorrhaging, however, there is currently little that can be done to stanch bleeding before the patients reach necessary treatment facilities; internal wounds cannot be compressed the same way external wounds can, and tourniquets or hemostatic dressings are unsuitable because of the need to visualize the injury. The resulting blood loss often leads to death from what would otherwise be potentially survivable wounds.


DARPA launched its Wound Stasis System program in 2010 in the hopes of finding a technological solution that could mitigate damage from internal hemorrhaging. The program sought to identify a biological mechanism that could discriminate between wounded and healthy tissue, and bind to the wounded tissue. As the program evolved, an even better solution emerged: Wound Stasis performer Arsenal Medical, Inc. developed a foam-based product that can control hemorrhaging in a patient’s intact abdominal cavity for at least one hour, based on swine injury model data. The foam is designed to be administered on the battlefield by a combat medic, and is easily removable by doctors during surgical intervention at an appropriate facility, as demonstrated in testing.   

Up next is clinical testing, and before long, someone you know may have an interesting memento bearing the faint impression of their internal organs.


LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.


The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.