Tag Archives: tech

Tech Trends and the Navy-Marine Corps Team

By Christian Heller

Soon after a new year, it is worth considering again the forecasts of futurists and the impacts their predictions may have on the naval services. Predictions about the future of war have often been inaccurate and sometimes detrimental to military institutions. For instance, H.G. Wells correctly predicted the emergence of aviation and bombing, but incorrectly predicted widespread militarized societies and the willing capitulation of defeated combatants. Kori Schake explains this recurrence of failure: “Futurists of warfare suffer from the same failures of imagination that frequently shackle their brethren in other professions: They overemphasize present trends and assume that their society’s cultural norms will similarly bind their adversaries.”

Best-selling book lists are replete with futurologists and their latest texts about the changing decades of warfare ahead. Thinkers like Paul Scharre lead the way at the intersection of artificial intelligence and national security. The works of P.W. Singer and David Sanger are near canon for information and cyber warfare. Authors such as these are widely reviewed and familiar to many. Two lesser-known books about the overall changing trends in the world today are reviewed here to add a wider societal and cultural context to the rapidly advancing technologies the Navy and Marine Corps are adapting to. Both raise important questions not so much about the systems and weapons of the future services, but about the processes, interactions, societies, and operating environments of the next decades.

The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross

Alec Ross, a former State Department advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote The Industries of the Future based largely on his travels and experience while working in government. As Secretary Clinton’s advisor for innovation, Ross identified and assessed trends he saw emerging outside of the United States, most of which happened in disadvantaged countries. The topics of the book range from artificial intelligence and cybersecurity to genomics and education. Ross keeps the chapters in narrative form to talk about possible changes for governments and societies without distracting the reader with technical details.

Ross addresses how mobile phones and digital apps have accelerated the rates of development in poor nations by skipping entire phases such as hardwired telephone lines. He also repeats the common alarm about the security perils of digitization, and how all data-dependent systems are inherently vulnerable to cyberattack. One of Ross’s most interesting contributions is his insights into urbanization and innovation. Alongside their economic development, vibrant and growing cities are necessary centers of innovation due to their accumulation of financial and intellectual capital. Closed and authoritarian societies have largely forfeited their access to these potential innovation hubs. While countries like Saudi Arabia spend enormous amounts of money in grand projects to establish domestic ‘Silicon Valleys,’ Ross argues that societal features like cultural openness and independence from government censorship are some of the most important and underappreciated factors in technological advancement.

Ross also raises multiple issues which may influence the future Navy and Marine Corps. He highlights how advanced global data algorithms failed to correctly predict the scope of the Ebola outbreak in Africa because the programs could not monitor information in the local languages. This big data vulnerability could easily be at play in any of the Navy’s operational areas, and raises the importance of maintaining human oversight in intelligence and operational analysis. He also covers how smaller countries are making rapid advances in technology and innovation, like in Estonia where children learn to code and use robots in primary school.

Ross continues, “What I have seen in Africa makes me believe that industries of the future will have more broadly distributed centers of innovation and wealth creation than was the case in the past 20 years, when Silicon Valley dominated all comers.” This fact reinforces the observed changes to the Navy and Marine Corp’s future operating environment. Operational theaters of the future will be anything but vast, open expanses with freedom to maneuver and the ability to affect societies and geography how we see fit. Instead, the populations we fight amongst may very well be more advanced technologically than the Marines and Sailors deployed there. This dispersion of knowledge also means the dispersion of power, and the government and militaries which the U.S. has spent decades supporting and building relationships with may prove unreliable partners or outright antagonists in a time of conflict.

The Inevitable: Understanding The 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly

Instead of focusing on case studies like Ross, Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired, writes about 12 technological trends taking place amongst societies as a whole in The Inevitable: Understanding The 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. Instead of pointing to specific outcomes or endpoints, Kelly describes the trends with  verbs and points to how they are changing various facets of our lives. The chapters describe trends like “cognifying” (the addition of smart technology, artificial intelligence, and the cloud to everything), “flowing” (all information becomes non-stop, real-time, and on-demand), and “screening” (every surface is an interactive space of some sort and can change at our will).

The Navy is already driving towards some of the trends which Kelly investigates.”Accessing,” or the trend of placing information and services in the cloud to be accessed anywhere at any time, is familiar to the force as it pursues cloud technologies. “Remixing,” i.e. breaking down existing products into individual pieces to re-assemble for new purposes, is familiar to any Sailor or Marine with Carrier Strike Group (CSG), Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG), or operational experience in which units are task-organized to meet combatant commander needs.

Other trends remain elusive from the naval services. Decentralized collaboration on a mass scale maximizes small group power, what Kelly dubs “Sharing,” is a perennial struggle for the Navy, Marine Corps, and other branches, and usually half-heartedly pursued in some form of enhanced integration or coordination. Such issues are natural in stove-piped bureaucracies, and the best efforts of the services to overcome them have had limited success. “Interacting” and changing how users engage with systems and computers, likely via augmented reality, is an exciting new area which has been pursued on a limited scale, primarily for training purposes.

“Questioning” builds off of the other existing trends to drive institutions and individuals forward. As artificial intelligence, cloud data, and increased networks make answers easily available, developing the right questions will become even more important for organizational development. It is in this trend that the Navy and Marine Corps are most seriously lacking. Some of the traits of a good question include “not concerned with a right answer…cannot be answered immediately…challenges existing answers…” Such questions drive real innovation. These traits are largely unfamiliar in an organization which prides itself on repeatable tasks and exercises with little time or resources for in-depth experimentation.

Some of the examples used in the book have direct pertinence to future military operations. The digitization of and access to information could reform professional military education (PME). Dematerialization, which is the lightening of objects as materials become lighter and more durable, will impact every facet of the military from Marines’ body armor to the airframes of naval aircraft. Blockchain technologies are already being researched for uses other than finance like communication networks and policy agreements. Future developments could play a major role in the next generation of naval information systems. Localized networks of cellphones (Kelly highlights FireChat) which can speak to each other directly can also provide a possible communications solution for operations in denied or degraded communications environments.

Two Takeaways from Two Books

The two most important questions these books raise for the Navy and Marine Corps are hinted at by Ross and highlighted by Kelly: Ross talks at length about decentralization and Kelly provides additional context. Kelly writes, “Community sharing can unleash astonishing power…The community’s collective influence is far out of proportion to the number of contributors. That is the whole point of social institutions: The sum outperforms the parts.” While no observer can argue that a group of individuals can equal the firepower or presence of a formal naval task force, the inability to mass cooperation or share information between commands, units, and fleets sustains situations like Afghanistan where two decades of war are split into 20 different one-year battles.

But is it possible to freelance or crowdsource security? In some context, partnerships and coalitions in places like the Arabian Gulf and Asia-Pacific do just that. On an administrative level, the ability to flexibly leverage the manpower of the reserves seems like a worthwhile goal. Establishing a program where reserves (or ex-military members with the requisite knowledge) can augment units on an ad hoc basis (see apps like Upwork or Taskrabbit) could greatly benefit the operational readiness of staffs by reducing the administrative burden placed upon commands.

Finally, a recurrent theme in both books is the future of world economies. Innovation, new technologies, and data are the lifeblood of future financial strength. In historic eras, navies were created to physically protect a nation’s flagged vessels as they traded around the world. If the future American economy involves a smaller portion of physical trade and relies instead on services and information, the Navy may need to re-think its role in the defense of these networks and institutions. While cyber policies and authorities have been assigned between military commands and civilian services, the Navy may need to continually refine its role if the defense and support of American trade is to remain a primary mission in the next era of warfare.

Christian Heller is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and University of Oxford. He currently serves as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Follow him on Twitter, @hellerchThe opinions represented are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the United States Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Dec. 20, 2016) Ensign Margaret Graves scans the horizon in the pilot house of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). (U.S. Navy photo)

Camouflage: You Ain’t Screen Nothin’ Yet

By James Drennan

Using a television to watch TV is so 20th Century. Screens can do much more these days. The civilian sector is proving that and the Navy needs to take heed. Specifically, the Navy should use electronic displays in new and innovative ways to communicate among its deployed forces, confuse potential enemies, and even disguise its ships and shore facilities. It is not often that one talks about screens as innovative since the television has been commercially available for almost a century, but display technologies have advanced so dramatically since the early days of television that they can now be used cost-effectively for entirely new purposes. Considering the ever tightening budgets looming in the Navy’s future, it would do well to invest in proven technology, like the digital electronic display, and generate operational advantage through creative employment. What if an aircraft carrier could change its hull number at will? Or if a strike group could communicate at high data rates without transmitting a signal? Imagine a warship being able to sail right through an enemy fleet in broad daylight by simulating the appearance of a merchant vessel. These ideas may seem like science fiction, but they are all possible through the use of technologies that are used by millions every day.

Digital electronic display technologies, such as light emitting diode (LED), liquid crystal display (LCD), plasma, and digital projection, have advanced and proliferated rapidly in recent years. This has caused unit cost to decrease and quality and capability to increase. These technologies are no longer just for watching television or working on a computer. Massive LED screens are common on digital billboards, while nearly half of all Americans carry high resolution displays in their pockets in the form of smartphones. Displays are even beginning to break out of their traditional rectangular shape. LEDs can now be manufactured so that panels can be flexibly conformed to curved or irregular surfaces. Projection mapping techniques enable projectors to display images on three dimensional surfaces. All of these technologies have the potential to revolutionize the way the Navy operates for pennies on the dollar.

Consider the island superstructure on an aircraft carrier. Large white painted hull numbers take up about a quarter of the inboard and outboard faces of the island. They serve one purpose: identify the ship in order to comply with international regulations. The numbers are lined with dozens of light bulbs which can either be turned on or off. Aside from ceremonial ambience, it is difficult to see what value they provide.

CVN76

Sailors scrub down the island superstructure on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). They could be watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Image Courtesy: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Shawnte Bryan/Released. Retrieved from: www.wikipedia.org.

 

If the lights and the painted numbers were replaced with digital displays, the Commanding Officer of the carrier would have several new options at his or her disposal. For one, the screens could be set to display any hull number or none at all. Obviously, removing or changing hull numbers would not hide the ship, but against a capable and professional enemy it might confuse their decision making process enough to delay or deter an attack. As an example, the US Navy today requires significant confirmation, often visual, to establish and maintain maritime domain awareness (MDA). If the same ship were to be reported in three different locations, mission effectiveness would suffer while watchstanders tried to sort out the discrepancy. Conflicting reports are like poison to a networked force. Even if the superstructure screens were blank, the CO may find advantage in denying the enemy useful intelligence. In World War II, the Pacific Fleet removed visible numbers from aircraft carriers and did not return them until the Japanese were no longer a threat.

An island superstructure screen could also be used as a visual aid for flight deck operations. The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is an extremely loud and dangerous work environment. It is often difficult for crews to hear anything but jet noise. Visual messages could supplement audible alarms to indicate emergencies, not only grabbing attention but also relaying critical information. Conversely, an outboard screen could aid in force protection efforts, particularly in precarious situations like anchoring in popular foreign ports. If a wayward sightseer saw his leisure craft on the screen with the word “STOP” written in several different languages, the message would be received loud and clear.

Digital displays can also be a cost-effective means of communicating messages over long distances. In an effort to move the Navy away from highly detectable radio communications, optical communication techniques are gaining attention, but they often rely on technologies such as laser, which require more research and development (R&D) investment. Digital displays offer the possibility of optical communications without any R&D required. For example, a popular manufacturing and advertising concept called a quick reaction (QR) code uses a matrix of black and white squares to store data, which can be read by a camera on a smartphone or other computing device. When large digital displays (such as the aforementioned “superstructure screen”) are coupled with high resolution digital cameras (another readily available technology), ships within sight of each other could communicate optically, much like age old flashing light or semaphore techniques, but with much higher data rates.

QRCode

A driveway turned QR code as viewed from space. Using a screen, this house could become a satellite communications node. Image Courtesy: Google Earth. Retrieved from http://qrazystuff.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/qr-codes-big-is-beautiful/

 

Since the interpretation of QR codes is automated, data rate is only limited by a computer’s ability to process each new code. Data rate, fidelity, and communications range will only increase as display and camera technologies improve. This concept could easily be applied to satellite communications, as shown above. Communication would depend heavily upon adequate visibility, but this “digital semaphore” technique could offer a cost-effective method of optical communication while recapitalizing some of the capabilities lost by the disestablishment of the Signalman rating in 2003.

Perhaps the most ambitious use of digital display technologies would be to disguise an entire ship. Much like “digital semaphore” could revolutionize optical communications at sea, the digital version of deceptive lighting could revolutionize naval deception. Deceptive lighting is a standard technique used by US Navy ships to conceal their identity at night by changing their normal lighting configurations. The effectiveness of deceptive lighting is debatable and, in any case, it offers no cover from the enemy when the sun rises. Digital displays could be used in daylight hours to complete the deception. Research into this concept, called active camouflage[1], is well underway. In fact, in 2011 BAE released an active camouflage for tanks called Adaptiv© that works in the infrared, not visible, portion of the spectrum.

Adaptiv

The frames in the image show an armoured vehicle with Adaptiv off (left) and on (right), where the chosen object is a large car. Image Courtesy: BAE Systems, Copyright © 2011. Retrieved from: www.wikipedia.org.

The visible version is not far off. In March 2012, Mercedes Benz made one of their new vehicles nearly invisible by covering it with flexible LED panels that displayed images from a camera on the other side of the vehicle. The aim of active camouflage in naval applications would not be to make a warship invisible, but rather to appear as a different kind of ship not worthy of the enemy’s attention. Displaying a false hull form instead of trying to make the ship invisible actually could reduce some technical challenges of active camouflage, such as the requirement to know the viewer’s look angle in advance. Furthermore, a warship has several other signatures, such as radar return and visible wake, which are impossible to eliminate completely.

hiddencar

To promote the environmental ‘invisibility’ of the zero-emission, hydrogen-fuelled Mercedes F-Cell, ad agency Jung von Matt covered the car in LED sheets which would display a live video image whatever was behind the car, as filmed by a camera attached to the other side. (Image Courtesy: Mercedes-Benz. Retrieved from: http://amazingstuff.co.uk/technology/invisible-car/)

 

Although the technology still needs to mature in order to be feasible for use on ships at sea, the concept is simple (indeed BAE is already working hard to apply Adaptiv to warships at sea). A ship’s freeboard and superstructure could be covered in conformal LED paneling to display an image of a merchant or some other vessel, provided it is not protected by international treaties like a hospital ship.

adaptivship

Artist rendition of Adaptiv camouflage applied in the maritime domain. (Image Courtesy: BAE Systems, Copyright © 2014, retrieved from: http://www.baesystems.com)

 

Naval active camouflage would be intended to fool routine enemy surveillance from near-horizon distance, not ships in close contact or aircraft conducting targeted search efforts. However, in combination with emissions control (EMCON) and careful maneuver (i.e. staying within shipping lanes and avoiding close approaches to enemy assets), the appearance of a merchant vessel on the horizon would fit the enemy’s expectations and cause him to focus his surveillance efforts elsewhere. Another potential use of naval active camouflage can be found in a historical example. In World Wars I and II, the Allies took inspiration from the art world and painted their ships with irregular patterns of contrasting geometric shapes, called dazzle camouflage, to confuse enemy rangefinders, particularly on submarines. Dazzle camouflage fell out of favor with the advent of radar, but today the digital version could prove valuable, particularly against low end threats. Without advanced fire control radars, terrorists and pirates rely on their vision to target or avoid naval warships, depending on their particular goals. Even without disguising identity, creative use of adaptive camouflage could make it nearly impossible for a threat to determine a warship’s true aspect, just like dazzle camouflage, and consequently, how to engage or maneuver effectively.

mahomet

USS Mahomet (ID-3681) in port, circa November 1918. The ship has a “dazzle” camouflage scheme that distorts the appearance of her bow. Image Courtesy: Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved from: www.wikipedia.org.

Using display technologies to make warships appear as something else is not a completely new concept for the modern US Navy. In September 2011 as part of the 5th Annual Midway American Patriot Awards gala, the island superstructure of the USS Midway was transformed into a waving American flag using a different kind of display technology called projection mapping. AV Concepts, Inc. used 3D projectors, advanced graphics software, and creative lighting techniques to virtually “paint” the flag onto the ship with stunning clarity and realism.

midway

The American flag virtually draped over USS Midway using projecting mapping technology at the 5th Annual Midway American Patriot Awards. The projection of the flag onto the hull was so precise, some guests thought ship was covered with a flat projection screen. Image Courtesy: AV Concepts, Inc. Retrieved from: http://livedesignonline.com/excellenceawards/uss-midway-aircraft-carrier-projection

While not an ideal technology for afloat forces, projection mapping could be used to fool optical sensors by blending shore facilities into their surroundings. Again, history provides an intriguing parallel. After the 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor, Lockheed Martin desperately needed to hide its Burbank, CA aircraft plant from Japanese fighters. With the help of nearby Walt Disney Studios, they used canvas, paint, and chicken wire to cover the massive industrial facility with scenery of a quiet rural community. By employing a little artistic creativity, the Burbank plant was able to continue operations throughout the war. Blending this type of creativity with modern display technology could provide cover against today’s more advanced optical sensors.

base

An aircraft manufacturing plant disguised as a suburban Burbank neighborhood during World War II. With modern display and projection technology, the same concept could be applied to counter modern enemy surveillance efforts. Image Courtesy: Lockheed Martin Corporation. Retrieved from: http://www.themarysue.com/camouflage-aircraft-plant/#geekosystem.

 

The decreasing cost and increasing performance trends of proven display technologies offer the Navy a cost-effective way to generate revolutionary capabilities. Emerging technologies, such as electronic paper (e.g. E Ink® on Amazon’s Kindle®) and phased array optics[2] (think “the Holodeck from Star Trek”), promise to bring even more capabilities into the fold. Certainly, there will be challenges like increased maintenance requirements that must be considered to determine operational feasibility. Also, enemies will undoubtedly adapt to the capabilities described here, but simply affecting an enemy’s operations can have real value. Still, all of these capabilities are useless if the Navy does not have operational concepts for them. Without imagination and an innovative mix of art and science, the Navy will miss this opportunity to increase its combat power and, instead, give potential enemies a few more ways to bring parity to the world’s oceans.

 

[1] Unfortunately, the term “digital camouflage” is already in use to describe patterns on uniforms.

[2] The technology behind phased array optics is still several decades from reaching maturity.