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Home : Home : Warfare Centers : NSWC Dahlgren : Who We Are : History

The United States Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), named for Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, is located in Dahlgren, Virginia and is part of the Naval Surface Warfare Centers under the Naval Sea Systems Command. It is currently a tenant of Naval Support Activity, South Potomac under Naval District Washington.

NSWCDD consists of two organizations: The NSWC Dahlgren Lab in Dahlgren, Virginia, and NSWCDD DNA, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. NSWCDD employs approximately  with approximately 4,600 civilians, 70 percent of which are scientists and engineers, and over 30 percent have advanced degrees.  Prior to 2007, Panama City Coastal Systems Station located at the Naval Support Activity Panama City was part of Dahlgren Division. As of 2008, it became its own division within the Naval Surface Warfare Centers. The physical base where NSWCDD is located became officially known as the Naval Support Activity South Potomac (NSASP) ca. 2003. The base commander is no longer a secondary function of the NSWCDD Commanding Officer.

Dahlgren Lab

The NSWCDD was founded as the U.S. Naval Proving Ground on October 16, 1918, as a result of the expanded range on large caliber naval guns brought about by the launching of the British battleship HMS Dreadnought that revolutionized sea power. Its recorded first work, the firing of a 7-inch, 45 caliber tractor-mounted gun, occurred on October 16, 1918 and is recognized as the official founding date.

John A. Dahlgren

Rear Admiral John Adolphus Dahlgren

The proving ground was named Dahlgren in honor of Rear Admiral John Adolphus Dahlgren, a Civil War Navy commander, who is the acknowledged “father of modern naval ordnance.

Prior to 1918, the Navy operated a proving ground at Indian Head, Maryland, but it became inadequate as advances in gun designs and ordnance made its range obsolete. During World War I, a range of 90,000 yards was sought by the Navy to prove its new battleship guns. The range was required to be over water but inside the territorial waters of the United States. The area from Machodoc Creek to Point Lookout on the Potomac River was selected because of its relative straight lines and accessibility. The climate and relative calm of the river were also factors as the Navy sought an ice and rapids free testing area. At the time of Dahlgren’s establishment, the area was extremely remote and relatively unpopulated. Thus, to recruit and retain the highly specialized work force required, the Navy promised to supply housing, food and medical services, schools, recreation, and other socially needed infrastructure.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Dahlgren was involved in testing bombsights, including the Norden bombsight, for the Navy’s fledgling air forces. Until World War II, much of the principal work at Dahlgren surrounded the proofing and testing of every major gun in the Navy’s arsenal. Most of the work was done at the Main Range Gun Line, which faces down the Potomac River. During the World War II years, Dahlgren became involved with new computational devices (computers) because of its ordnance requirements. Groundbreaking early computers were sent to Dahlgren to help with ballistic work and other directives, including the Aiken Relay Calculator and the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC). The computer and ordnance work going on attracted a number of brilliant young scientists and engineers to the area during the war, and some were tapped to help with the ongoing Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. Two such people include Dr. Norris E. Bradbury, who later became the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Deak Parsons, the weaponeer on the Enola Gay, the aircraft which dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.

In the years immediately after the war, Dahlgren’s work force suffered cutbacks. the laboratory’s strong computer and ordnance expertise kept the base open and Navy work flowing. Subsequently, the onset of the Cold War and Korea again placed demands for new offensive and defensive ship systems. In 1958, with the former Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik I, a space race began. Dahlgren opened its gates that year to its first tenant activity, the Naval Space Surveillance Center, which selected a site at Dahlgren to be at the center of the laboratory’s growing computer advances. Around this time, Dahlgren became heavily involved with the development of Fleet Ballistic Missiles, later called Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, Dahlgren was on the leading edge of naval surface weapons work with programs such as Tomahawk, which improved the Navy’s capacity to perform attacks on land targets from a distance that decreased the risk to ships. Dahlgren also was critical in work to protect Navy ships from enemy missile and air attacks with programs such as the Standard missile and the Aegis Combat System. That work continues today, along with the electromagnetic railgun, DDG 1000, Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), Chemical Biological and Radiological Defense. Because of the laboratory’s broad-based growth in research and development and with its new missions, Dahlgren’s name officially changed to the Naval Weapons Laboratory in 1959. It was later changed to the Naval Surface Weapons Center in 1974 with the merger of the former Naval Ordnance Laboratory at White Oak, Maryland. In 1987, the name was changed again to the Naval Surface Warfare Center as new and expanded missions were added. In 1992, with the consolidations of naval laboratories into one headquarters center, it became the Dahlgren Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

Engineering projects of historical or military significance developed at NSWC Dahlgren include the triggering device on the Hiroshima atomic bomb, the Norden Bombsight used on most American bombers such as the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator and B-29 Superfortress during World War II, the Standard missile used on modern United States Navy warships, and the warhead for the AIM-54 Phoenix. Current projects include the majority of US research into directed-energy weapons, railgun technology and weapons integration for the Littoral combat ship.


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