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Home : Home : Warfare Centers : NSWC Dahlgren : Resources : Leading Edge : I&I Leading Edge : Baron Barnes and Moreland
Mission Level Test and Experimentation:
Drive Mission Level Performance During Early Development

By Neil Baron, Darren Barnes, and Dr. James D. Moreland, Jr.

Since the first test shot was fired over the Potomac River Test Range (PRTR) in 1918, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), has answered the nation’s call to support the warfighter. In today’s environment, naval systems are more complex than ever with the need to integrate many systems in order to provide full mission capability. How these systems work and communicate with each other is critical to understanding warfare systems performance. Instead of waiting for shipboard integration and testing to assess integrated capability, NSWCDD has developed the USS Dahlgren capability.

USS Dahlgren connects the PRTR, which provides real target data in a littoral environment to our plan-detect-control-engage-assess labs and systems for end-to-end testing at NSWCDD. Using USS Dahlgren, scientists and engineers are able to plan, detect, identify, track, engage and assess sensorweapons capabilities in a real world environment prior to shipboard integration and delivery to the Fleet. USS Dahlgren also allows us to evaluate new capabilities and assess the benefit to the warfighting system prior to full scale acquisition and development.


Mission Level Test and Experimentation (MLT&E) is a system-of-systems (SoS) approach for validating the development of individual systems by evaluating these systems in a representative operational environment with the other systems that they must operate with to achieve an integrated warfighting capability. The intent of this approach is to gain technical insights on integration and interoperability (I&I) challenges as well as determine the derived requirements for individual systems based on mission success criteria during early development. Individual systems do not produce warfighting capabilities unto themselves but rely on the interaction of multiple systems to execute an effects/kill chain effectively and safely. By addressing I&I issues earlier in the acquisition cycle, we have a better chance at reducing expensive rework and expediting fielding capabilities to the warfighter without delay. MLT&E plays a critical role in determining the right requirements, assessing I&I wholeness for integrated capabilities, and solving issues early, on the left side of the Systems Engineering “V” model, to reduce cost, thus making capabilities more affordable. The technical insights gained are also used to develop the Mission Technical Baseline (MTB) and Integrated Capability Technical Baseline (ICTB) architecture products, which serve as the technical reference documents to drive acquisition development of systems.

In today’s environment, the majority of test and experimentation activities occur for single systems to exercise that system’s ability to meet requirements irrespective of the mission success criteria. This focus on single system testing has driven us down a path of sub-optimizing individual systems and losing focus on the operational context in which the systems will operate when transitioned to the Fleet. As individual systems are matured independently, the integration of these systems within the required SoS has fallen on the Fleet at delivery. In addition, the assessment of Fleet-prioritized effects/kill chains indicates a compelling need to address I&I problems from an end-to-end mission thread perspective to consider all interfaces and relationships across many systems. Figure 1 illustrates a notional effects/kill chain with linkages to architectural products used in the acquisition community for developmental purposes.

NSWCDD leadership developed a forum, Integrated Lab Council (ILC), to provide technical guidance across all departments in order to link the right labs together to make the USS Dahlgren concept a reality. The ILC provided a cross-departmental vision and a strategic plan for integrating NSWCDD Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) resources into a cohesive, net-centric engineering environment. A key aspect of this capability includes connectivity to the PRTR assets to leverage and incorporate real-time, live data from outdoor experiments. This end-to-end integrated capability will foster collaborative RDT&E demonstrations, experiments, integration events, and engineering development tests to accelerate and improve NSWCDD core technical capabilities and products for warfighter use.

USS Dahlgren Definition

In 2011, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), embarked on establishing the USS Dahlgren construct. In response to the driving need to evaluate the Naval fire-control-loop through RDT&E that spans all aspects of the kill chain in a land-based test environment, NSWCDD has established a virtual ship, the USS Dahlgren. As our naval systems continue to increase in complexity and the fire-control-loop continues to expand within and between naval platforms, the need to integrate and conduct MLT&E in a laboratory environment is fast becoming a necessity. Additionally, an emphasis is shifting Test and Evaluation (T&E) to the left in the development cycle to identify design flaws and preferred design alternatives prior to full-scale development or shipboard integration. This shift results in cost effectively meeting performance goals and eliminating corrections after fielding. Although not an uncommon approach in some development cycles, it has proven to be a less common approach when looking across the kill chains and mission threads of larger scale distributed weapon system platforms. The USS Dahlgren envelopes not just one ship combat system variant but all ship combat/weapon system variants that can be assembled utilizing the current distributed laboratory infrastructure. The entire firecontrol- loop must be developmentally exercised in the distributed laboratory environment and not for the first time onboard the intended platform(s). USS Dahlgren is the integration of NSWCDD RDT&E resources into a cohesive, real-time, deterministic, net-centric engineering environment, capable of replicating many of the fire-control (FC) systems including, sensor, command and control (C2), and weapons systems found onboard naval platforms. The unique aspect of USS Dahlgren is the ability to integrate and test new systems or their modification to existing systems early in the development cycle interoperating side-by-side with their already deployed counterparts. USS Dahlgren provides the infrastructure for early verification that fire-control systems perform in standalone and distributed environments, supporting identification of integration issues such as timing, data latency, and throughput early in the development cycle, in a high-fidelity environment. This environment provides for continuous testing across the acquisition life cycle, off-site connectivity to investigate ship, battle force, and joint force integration via Joint Mission Environment Test Capability (JMETC); and the ability to replicate the fleet environment to address issues observed at sea.

Recent focus has been on the interconnectivity of the existing labs as a means to exercise an overall federated warfighting capability capable of supporting multiple mission areas of interest. The USS Dahlgren capability spans the six technical departments at NSWCDD as well as corporate networks, and includes remote connections via the JMETC to include other warfare/system center laboratories as well as our sister service laboratories for joint experimentation and testing.

USS Dahlgren Components

The USS Dahlgren is composed of the many laboratories that house the developmental and in-service systems utilized in the effects/kill chain as found on deployed naval platforms (see Figure 2). Integration of the laboratories is facilitated through local and global secure network connectivity, modeling and simulation environments to generate and exercise the synchronized warfighting scenarios across the disparate locations, and representative architectural lay-downs of the effects/kill chain within (and between where necessary) platforms that house the warfighting capability.

Results from exercising the USS Dahlgren on a specific mission thread scenario can then be evaluated with other model-driven, experimental, and at-sea test data to evaluate the overall performance of the integrated mission capability. In this way, warfighter capability can be assessed earlier in the development cycle, and warfighter expectations can be demonstrated with high precision while still in development (where the cost of modification is minimized) and before taking final products to sea.

Mission Level T&E
Utilizing The USS Dahlgren

There is an urgent need in the naval warfare centers and acquisition communities to develop techniques and procedures to map mission operational demands with system and SoS hardware and software capabilities. This has become increasingly relevant as emerging SoS are required to create, consume, and fuse a vast amount of data with the intent of informing a future decision maker about an operational scenario that has not been fully defined. The MLT&E environment through USS Dahlgren is providing that mechanism to postulate how to map an operational architecture to the system architectures to investigate I&I problems.

MLT&E provides the scientists/engineers a venue to obtain technical insights on I&I issues while executing representative operational mission threads in a system-of-systems environment. This critical information is used to drive system requirements, specifications, and architectures in the acquisition community which thereby increases confidence in early development decisions. In today’s environment, systems are tested individually to determine Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) that focus on the maturity of individual systems. This level of evaluation is necessary but not sufficient to field integrated warfighting capabilities involving dependencies across many systems. USS Dahlgren provides the ability to link all effects/kill chain systems to evaluate and demonstrate performance across an end-to-end mission thread.

The operational test community evolved the test environment from an individual system focus to mission-based test. To prepare the newly developed systems for operational tests in this mission-focused domain, the systems need to be thoroughly tested while being developed under those complex mission conditions. This requires good use of experimentation resources on the left side of the Systems Engineering “V” model. Rather than waiting until late in the acquisition life cycle to perform operational test for the integration of SoS, many I&I issues can be eliminated during system development to make mission-based test a much easier milestone for the transition of capabilities to the Fleet.

Lastly, the operational community can leverage the USS Dahlgren environment to investigate the performance of an SoS under different situations for the development of Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) as well as doctrine. These non-material drivers provide the details on how to operate systems within an operational context while working across legacy and new systems. At the same time, the operational warfighters get a chance to train on new systems under development from the beginning so that human systems integration can be handled as human systems engineering thereby ensuring that the operators’ needs are part of the overall design rather than an added piece.

USS Dahlgren Applications

Utilizing a crawl, walk, run strategy, NSWCDD began the USS Dahlgren initiative in September of 2012 with an initial experiment utilizing the secure connection of an Aegis Combat System baseline located in one building with the Mk 160 Gun Fire Control System located in another building and the Mk 45 Mod 4 Naval gun on the gun line. The combat system generated a firing order, which was passed to the fire-control system, and the gun was fired at a test target at a range of over 8,000 yards on the Potomac River Test Range. As seen in Figure 3, this test was a success yielding multiple hits on the target. This first experiment exercised command and control, weapons control, gun control, river range control and multilevel security through a Cross Domain Solution (CDS) between the laboratories.

In 2013, the USS Dahlgren experimentation campaign continued to advance with the inclusion of an Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) in the mission thread providing target information messages and video utilizing cursor-on-target technology. The information passed a target object to the Naval Fire Control System in one laboratory, which then, through voice command, sent a firing order to the electromagnetic Railgun in another facility to engage the target. The UAV, still on station, was then utilized to stream video for battle damage assessment to a third assessment laboratory. A high-level operational view of this land attack mission thread is shown in Figure 4.

Currently, NSWCDD, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, is investigating the Railgun as one of the next generation electric weapon system development programs. The Railgun uses electromagnetic power to achieve kinetic kill capabilities with a significant increase in speed and range and reduced cost per shot. The U.S. Navy has committed to testing the Railgun aboard a Joint Homeland Security Vessel in 2016; however, before testing commences, a significant amount of RDT&E will be performed at NSWCDD, to include testing of the Railgun on the PRTR. Advancement of the USS Dahlgren laboratory integration construct will include early development of systems such as the Railgun to assure other critical system elements of the mission thread are integrated.

In addition to the Railgun, the technological advancement of lasers as another electric weapon system capability is also continuing. The Laser Weapon System Quick Reaction Capability (LaWS QRC) was tested onboard the USS Ponce (AFSB (I) 15) in late 2014. This testing serves as the first of what is likely to be the eventual wide spread introduction of a High Energy Laser system into the U.S. Navy. Combat System integration of the laser capabilities into warfighting threads will be key in developing and fielding a true directed energy capability at sea. In addition to tackling laser integration issues during the early phases of development through the USS Dahlgren capability, other aspects of the effects/kill chain will be exercised. A laser weapon system can be utilized as both a weapon and as a very high quality sensor for the ship thus able to satisfy multiple elements of many mission threads. LaWS and its follow-on laser weapon system variants are being designed for use against asymmetric threats to include small boats and UAVs, both of which have been tested in the PRTR environment with the USS Dahlgren.

Railgun and LaWS serve as two prime examples of systems early in their development cycle that will benefit from being exercised via MLT&E. Mission testing via the USS Dahlgren does not simply focus on combat system integration, but fully exercises the systems end-to-end capability where other non-material aspects of overall performance can be investigated. Non-material aspects of tactics, training and human performance can also be evaluated in the USS Dahlgren capability.

Challenges and Way Ahead

Under the working capital fund model, Warfare Centers receive and are authorized to execute specific task orders for particular sponsors. The resources required to modify/build infrastructure and laboratories to perform MLT&E are not currently considered a necessity in task statements to get the job done. This is amplified by a fiscally constrained environment where infrastructure investments for extended capabilities are taking a back seat to satisfying immediate tactical needs. In addition, it is extremely difficult to coordinate schedules across multiple labs which all have their individual demands.

It is also a tremendous challenge to fully replicate a shipboard environment at sea in a laboratory environment. This operational context can only be simulated with the major focus of the MLT&E environment devoted to the technical execution of systems across an end-to-end mission thread. The involvement of warfighters in this environment provides a great deal of operational insight while they receive beneficial training on the new systems under development.

NSWCDD continues to develop the infrastructure architecture products to accurately represent the physical laydown of all assets. This allows leadership to develop a prioritized plan on infrastructure upgrades to make the best decisions on impacting operational developments with the largest return on investment from a military worth and affordability perspective. This includes the necessary trenching for logical wiring and physical connections required across individual labs to represent the functional areas of effects/kill chains. In addition, NSWCDD is defining the critical mission threads through effects/ kill chain products to provide the logical sequencing and connection points of individual systems for endto- end mission thread execution.


MLT&E in a laboratory environment is fast becoming a necessity, and even more so during the early phases of development to identify potential I&I issues as early as possible. The ability to resolve these issues early in the Systems Engineering acquisition cycle provides a better chance of getting the right requirements under affordable conditions resulting in integrated warfighting capabilities.

Article Images

Figure 1. Interoperability & Integration/Warfare Capability Baseline

Figure 2. USS Dahlgren - An Integrated Lab Environment

Figure 3. Target Barge, USS Dahlgren Testing

Figure 4.
USS Dahlgren Land Attack Mission Operational View