Tag Archives: Technology

Innovation Files: Automated Plan of the Day (autoPOD)

There’s been a big uproar lately about innovation in the Navy throughout message boards and the blogosphere – what is innovation, what it’s not, and what method Big Navy should be taking to jumpstart innovation among the fleet, if any at all.  LT Jon Paris and LT Ben Kohlmann, both of whom are very involved in the conversation, had a great discussion about the topic on CIMSEC’s Sea Control Podcast, hosted by LT Matt Hipple.  LT Paris followed up with an excellent blog post.  While there are some contrasting views, it seems like one thing that’s agreed upon is that the deckplate innovation already occurring in the fleet sometimes doesn’t make it “up and out” or isn’t as publicized as it should be.  In that capacity, LT Hipple, and some members from the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell, offered a challenge to start publishing examples of innovation in the fleet.  I’ve decided to take this up head on in a series of “Innovation Files”.

Nearly every command has a “Plan of the Day” (POD) – a widely distributed one-page agenda with at least the current and following days’ schedule of events.  Depending on the command, certain PODs are very long and many regularly contain dozens of events per day, some at overlapping times.  Early on, I noticed a couple glaring inefficiencies particular to my command.  First was the process – A yeoman would be specifically assigned to “do the POD” for the day, a duty rotated among the junior yeomen that nobody wanted.  This task started by opening the previous day’s POD, changing the date, piling through various e-mails and files on the shared drive, and then writing the new daily schedule by hand.  After an hour or two, it would get routed up to the ship secretary, personnel officer, admin officer, training officer, operations department, various department heads, command master chief (CMC), and some others before finally getting to the XO.  Every position in the chop chain had their own changes and events to add, and it required the yeoman to literally go around the ship looking for each of these people, and then going back and correcting the changes for each correction or addition.  It wasn’t uncommon to print in excess of 15 POD drafts before the final revision.  As you can imagine, POD duties were an all-day event, and since the POD needed to be finalized and signed by the next day, it kept everybody around well into the evening.

After much thought, the XO, personnel officer, and I agreed on a plan to create a public calendar on Microsoft Outlook to streamline the POD process.  However, PODs have a very specific format, and Outlook can print nothing close to the format.  For example, asterisks had to be next to times if the event was to be announced on the 1MC, events had to be in bold lettering if the CO was attending, and everything had to fit on the page in two neat columns.  It wasn’t as simple as hand-copying every single event into the old POD format though; the daily schedule constantly changed throughout the day, and there was no process in place to ensure if any late additions or modifications in Outlook were included in the POD.  This, along with other human errors, severely complicated the process, and made it essentially as inefficient as the old method.  If only there was a better way!

autoPOD-1Introduce the automated POD (autoPOD).  We decided to devise a macro app on top of Microsoft Publisher, a computer publishing tool, to automatically translate events on Outlook into the same easy POD format everyone was used to seeing.  Macros are essentially programs, coded in easy-to-learn VBA (Visual Basic for Applications), that are built on top of application documents (in this case Publisher’s and Outlook’s) meant to automate tasks within these programs.  Because of this attribute, it gets around IT policy requirements, which prohibit the introduction of specific executable programs not pre-approved by SPAWAR.  Microsoft Publisher was chosen over Word because it’s specifically designed to manipulate documents with multiple dynamic text boxes.  Through an appropriate script reference, the app asks the user permission to reach out to any designated public Outlook calendar.  Then all the user has to do is click one button, and it automatically inserts the daily schedule into the POD publication – complete with dates, events, headers, etc.  The layout is easily manipulated by different codes inputted into the appointment screen on Outlook.  For example, for an event to appear “bold”, which indicates the CO is attending, an actual Outlook invitation for that appointment is sent to the CO, which is then designated on the user interface with a specific user name.


Along with events, the app supports all sorts of informational headers put in by different users through Outlook tags – for example, the operations officer puts in the appropriate command duty officers and duty sections, and the quartermasters put in sunrise and sunset times into Outlook.  The app supports time structures displayed as “All Day” or “TBD”, and all types of recurring events.  Different permissions (ie: read only, add, or modify/delete) can be granted to different users to modify the Outlook Calendar, and the program is set up for an administrator to view when and who is putting in the events, so it’s not possible to sneak a last minute evolution for the next day without the XO and CMC knowing.

AutoPOD was eventually customized for several other tasks.  By request, we built an automated Plan of the Week (POW) 10-day printable outlook on top of Microsoft Excel for the Planning Board for Training (PB4T), which mimics the POD format each day, for planning purposes.  Other ships had a weekly or monthly outlook summary with important events listed on the back of their POD, and autoPOD was customized for these commands as well, using the “priority” attribute to determine if the item should be displayed on a weekly summary.  We have continuously refined AutoPOD to accommodate every ships’ POD format, meaning there will be little, if any, visible change to the Sailor.  For example, there are options to autoPOD-3modify the font, size, and width for the time and subject columns.  Additionally, it’s designed to be plug-and-play – all contained in one publisher file – so it can be used immediately and without any complicated installation procedures.  Detailed documentation is provided on how to install the program and manipulate the schedule via Outlook.

It is worth noting that the initial concept of autoPOD was not received well in its early stages.  For example, the yeomen were used to a certain way of doing things, and didn’t want to move over from Word to Publisher.  Despite comprehensive training, some department heads and department lead chief petty officers continued to send e-mails to admin with their events, instead of deconflicting and scheduling it themselves in Outlook.  However, after much dedication and patience, everyone slowly acclimated.  The new system is now second nature, and it’s hard to think of how life even functioned in the past.

To date, autoPOD has been distributed to over a dozen ships, across several waterfronts.  It has undoubtedly made the POD process less frustrating, and has saved countless manhours and time, from the junior yeoman who can produce a POD in minutes, to the XO who no longer has to micromanage the process.  Unfortunately, we recently hit a bump in the road when asked to set up the app on a ship that finished an extensive shipwide IT refresh known as a Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) installation.  At the time, CANES strictly restricted ships from creating and using shared calendars, along with other security settings that prevented the app from working properly.  A workaround is in progress, but it illustrates a point that has been brought up in the recent discussions – many Navy policies and procedures are around for valid reasons, but often come at the expense of productivity and innovation.  It’s essential to collaborate between the fleet and appropriate project managers / designers / policymakers to figure out an optimal mix.

Zachary Howitt is a proud American, Naval Officer, and Tech Entrepreneur. He is a designated operations analysis subspecialist and has served in two warships forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan. His 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, the U.S. Navy, or any command.

SC Episode 3: RealClear Podcast (Revised)

defense_logo_home(Edited: Volume Corrected) Dustin Walker, founder and head editor of RealClearDefense, joins us for our third podcast. We talk about Tom Clancy and his legacy, the Government Shutdown our upcoming sacred cows week, African security issues, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and a bit about technology and innovation. SC Episode 3: RealClear Podcast

Low Tech – High Tech: The Dichotomy of Piracy Tactics and Threat Mitigation

Maritime security, specifically counter-piracy, has undergone an evolution. Spikes in piracy and changes in contemporary threat perception first introduced the ‘Generation One’ maritime security paradigm: the presence of armed guards and kinetic means to protect vessels, goods, and people at sea. Pushes by various groups and governments for increased regulation in this sector, however, quickly ushered ‘Generation Two’ onto the scene, marked by decreases in armed personnel along with rapid acquisition and deployment of high-tech equipment.

Increased reliance on technology increases vulnerabilities. The more components that exist in a system, the more chances the system has to break down or fail. Evaluating radio and satellite communications, vital for ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communication creates a weak-link even in the most basic technology. Mostly unencrypted, these virtually open frequencies are susceptible to interception by hostile parties. Pirates, for example, can and do listen-in on radio communications, using gathered intelligence to plot ship courses and plan their attacks. They can wreak further havoc by interfering with communications, jamming signals, or even feeding misinformation. Thus, commercial maritime security has morphed from physical protection of assets to incorporate elements of signals intelligence, electronic, and cyber warfare.

More disturbing perhaps are reports of pirates, leveraging not only conventional communications, but Automatic Identification System (AIS) data to plan attacks. AIS, used for monitoring vessel movements, has now become an intelligence tool for pirates to locate and select targets. Unlike radar monitoring which requires sophisticated hardware and skill, AIS data is readily available online by a variety of commercial Geographic Information System (GIS) providers. Pirate planners, with standard computer and internet connection, or even just a smartphone, can view and monitor AIS connected vessels worldwide. They can then selectively evaluate potential targets, track their movements, and use gathered information to coordinate attacks. This exemplifies the double-edged sword that technology is: on one hand aiding safety and security, allowing precise positioning and geomapping of vessels to aid operators in their daily business and guide search-and-rescue teams should anything go wrong at sea. On the other hand, improvements in technology also open vulnerabilities that multiply risk, proliferating cheap hardware and valuable information to potential perpetrators.

AIS Data
AIS data indicating real-time vessel locations


Interestingly, pirates, just like terrorists, drug-runners, and other criminals, are simultaneously employing low-tech, low-fi solutions to overcome or circumvent high-tech defenses. They are enhancing the performance of engines and hulls; are insulating outboard motors in (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to hide from thermal-imaging cameras; and, are even observed wearing ear-muffs to mitigate effects of Long Range Acoustic Devices (better known as LRADs or Sound-cannons). Such synthesis of simple, yet outside-the-box creative tactics and low-tech equipment, which together are capable of overcoming expensive and sophisticated systems is today’s ‘Generation Three’ piracy/counter-piracy paradigm. It’s exemplified by the continuation of asymmetric threats in the maritime domain, the widening of the technological divide between attacker and defender, and the carry-over of the debate about technology’s ability to reduce risk at sea.

Although shiny kits and gizmos undoubtedly ease processes and enhance operators’ technical situation, experts must evaluate if employment of such sophisticated hardware, whether on a ship, offshore installation, or even in ports will genuinely reduce risk while operationally remaining within legal constraints. They must consider how technology can enhance security, how it can fail, how it can be defeated, and moreover how it can be exploited by potential assailants.

Maritime security planners must not only seek to develop innovative products and procedures to enhance safety in this ‘Generation Three’ paradigm, but must also apply ingenuity in fusing high and low-tech solutions to counter asymmetric maritime threats. They must consider borrowing successful land based tactics from counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and other low intensity conflict operations and find applications for their use in the maritime environment. On land, this blend of hardening assets in conventional ways, maintaining an innovative yet ‘low-tech-low-fi’ profile, and preempting perpetrators actions through better understanding the rules and tactics of their own game has proven triumphant. Replicating this strategy at sea will be a crucial key to piracy threat reduction.

Simon O. Williams is a maritime security analyst specializing in offshore installation and port security, Arctic maritime challenges, naval capabilities, and multinational cooperation. He previously worked in the American and European private sector and US government, but now contributes independent analysis to industry, media, and policymakers while pursuing an LL.M. in Law of the Sea from University of Tromsø, Norway.

Lasers: Not So Fast

She blinded me with science: the LaWS installed on the USS DEWEY.

We may not have servant robots or flying cars, but it America is finally ready to deploy functional lasers. Next year, the USS PONCE will receive the military’s first field-ready Laser Weapon System (LaWS).  The navy, and nation, are justifiably excited to finally embrace military laser technology. However, it is important for us to realize the tactical and technological limitations of our new system before rushing too quickly to rely on them too often. Lasers still face great challenges from the weather, ability to detect hits, and power demands.

Red Sky in Morning:  

Lasers are nothing more than light: deadly, deadly light. Like all light, lasers as at the mercy of the atmospheric conditions they encounter. In particular, lasers are at the mercy of refraction and scattering. Refraction changes the angle that occurs as light moves through an atmosphere of varying density and makeup. As lasers are designed for longer ranges, or short range lasers encounter areas of differing conditions, the trajectory will change. This could pose challenges as targets move through areas of varying range and atmospheric density over long ranges.

Fog and house music, LaWS’ greatest enemy.

Laser light weakens over distance. Navigation types know this as “nominal range,” the range at which light can be seen in perfect conditions. A military laser’s effective destructive range is shorter, but the concepts are the same. “Luminous range” is the actual range of light due to atmospheric conditions. That range can be shortened by scattering caused by atmospheric conditions or precipitation. Lasers will be affected by such conditions as well, their effectiveness ranges shrinking in fog, rain, snow, etc… Depending how far the navy is willing to rely on laser technology, this could pose significant challenges to a fleet more beholden to the weather than before.

Eyes on Target:

Unlike kinetic rounds, lasers cannot be tracked en route to their target. An SM-2 explosion can be detected, the 76MM’s MK 98 tracks each splash and can be corrected by operators, and the CIWS system tracks each CIWS round for automatic ballistic correction. The refraction and scattering effects, combined with the time needed for LaWS to be effective, make judging effectiveness particularly important. The laser is not powerful enough to cause immediate destruction of target detectable by radar. If atmospheric interference prevents an IR tracker from detecting the laser heat signature on target, there is no way to verify trajectory and correct. This imposes, at times, a dangerous “wait and see” aspect to the use of LaWS. If a ship is engaging multiple C-802’s, and a LaWS has (hypothetically) range of 6nm, 37 seconds is not a long time for a ship to worry if its measures are effective.

Not Enough Potatoes in the World:

Enough power for a small city… or an array of space-age weaponry.

Missiles and guns come with the kinetic energy stored either in fuel or a charge; 100% of a laser’s power is drawn from the ship’s power supply. This means greater demands from the ship’s grid, as well as a greater scope of variation on grid demand as a laser powers up and down. This pumping of massive demand could cause problems for EOOW’s trying to maintain plant stability. Lasers will naturally require either vast changes in plant layout to support greater power production, or a collection of either batteries or capacitors to act as a buffer for the fluctuations in power demands. There is also the possibility of adding nuclear-powered defensive laser batteries to our mostly defenseless carriers, especially if they were allowed to increase their power output. What some are starting to call the “most expensive fleet auxiliary” will gain a invaluable punch for self-defense and defense of ships in company. For lasers to be effective, the projected power “magazine depth” under real combat conditions will need to be determined and supported.

Proper Room Clearance:

Pirates: When “arrrr” becomes “ahhhh!”

As Peter A. Morrision, program officer for ONR’s Sold-State Laser Technology Maturation Program has said, “the future is here.” Before calling the, “all clear,” on this future, the navy should properly clear the room. Laser technology has amazing cost savings and lethal possibilities, but still has serious weaknesses in weather susceptibility, verification of hits, and power demands that need solving. Other shadowy possibilities exist, such as enemies employing laser-reflective coatings that would require lasers to change wavelength to increase effectiveness. As the technology stands now, it is a worthy display of American technological supremacy that saves money on CIWS rounds and SM-2’s for limited instances. For the technology to truly carry the battles, it must be far more powerful and far better supported by ship-board systems.

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.