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NEWS | Jan. 15, 2024

Ship Self-Defense System Symposium Boosts Sailor Engagement, Ownership

By Thomas McMahon Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division

Keeping the Navy’s Ship Self-Defense Systems (SSDS) combat ready and effective was the focus of a recent fleet engagement event that Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD) spearheaded in San Diego.

Dozens of sailors connected with combat system subject matter experts (SMEs), asked questions and gave feedback on the SSDS program at the 12th SSDS Waterfront Symposium, which NSWC PHD held at Naval Base San Diego on Nov. 8 and 9.

Program Executive Office Integrated Warfare Systems (PEO IWS) 80, which oversees SSDS, sponsored the symposium.

The overarching goal of the event was to help SSDS technicians and operators in the fleet optimize their system, reduce downtime, and know what to do or whom to contact when technical difficulties arise, according to Melissa Bosshardt, an SSDS system engineer with NSWC PHD who coordinates the symposium.

“We provided the sailors with our tips and tricks, how to avoid pitfalls, and insights on what we’re seeing out in the fleet,” Bosshardt said. “There are formal courses sailors can take (elsewhere) on SSDS, but the symposium is a great opportunity for supplementary training.”

Speakers covered a range of topics, such as combat system documentation, cybersecurity, sensor alignment, In-Service Engineering Agent (ISEA) fleet support, and logistics product support for SSDS — along with a recurring message on the importance of system ownership.

Promoting ownership
In addition to the slate of presentations, symposium organizers introduced new features to boost engagement with sailors, including a digital polling platform, awards and a theme that emphasized their critical role in SSDS effectiveness — Set Sail to Success: the Importance of System Ownership — which speakers weaved into their presentations.

“System ownership is key,” said Ken Harris, network and digital systems sustainment division manager with NSWC PHD. “Observations over the years have shown that when sailors take ownership of their systems, their ships have a higher state of maintenance, availability and readiness.”

The sense of ownership also fosters a “culture of accountability” that results in less system downtime and higher reliability, according to Antoin Abboud, availability integration division manager with NSWC PHD.

“System ownership is crucial for effective operation and maintenance of the different systems because when ships deploy, the sailors are more likely to proactively address issues, implement regular maintenance and ensure optimal performance of each combat system element,” Abboud said.

Learning opportunity
SSDS is the combat system for aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships, such as landing platform docks and landing helicopter assault ships, which resemble smaller aircraft carriers.

NSWC PHD serves as ISEA for SSDS, as it does for the Aegis Combat System on destroyers and cruisers.

PEO IWS 80 funds the SSDS Waterfront Symposiums twice per year — one in Norfolk, Virginia, and one in San Diego. The events target sailors whose ships are docked in those fleet concentration sites at the time.

After two years off during the COVID-19 pandemic, the symposium returned in 2022. Attendance in San Diego this year tripled compared to last year, with 70 sailors from 10 ships taking part in the two-day event — up from 23 sailors in 2022.

“I was happy to see the increase in number of sailors who attended and their engagement with all the experts present,” Abboud said. “This is a great forum for the SSDS ISEA to directly engage with sailors, answer their questions and provide training.”

Sharing expertise
Along with the sailors, the latest symposium attracted nearly 70 technical experts on SSDS from various naval commands and industry partners. The total attendance of 137 was up more than 150% from the previous year’s tally of 53.

The SME contingent included 40 NSWC PHD personnel from multiple departments and portfolio directorates. Others came from PEO IWS 80; NSWC Dahlgren Division in Virginia; Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific; the Southwest Regional Maintenance Center; Surface Combat Systems Training Command; and several contractors.

In a change from previous years, the symposium took place at the Naval Base San Diego Theater, which Bosshardt said was a convenient venue for sailors because of its proximity to where warships dock.

One of the sessions covered best practices in casualty reports, or CASREPs. The SSDS product support team instructed sailors how to write CASREPs clearly and with the details that the ISEA needs to respond effectively.

The symposium also highlighted an initiative aimed at avoiding CASREPs — the Fleet Group Owner program. Each SSDS ship has been assigned an SME as its Fleet Group Owner, who communicates regularly with the SSDS fleet technicians to check on the status of their systems and provide distance support to bolster readiness.

Strengthening connections between sailors and SMEs was another goal of the symposium, which added a new online component to the in-person gathering.

Boosting engagement
Organizers deployed new strategies to boost engagement with sailors at the symposium, including use of virtual questions. More than 50 questions came in, and Harris said the online approach enabled off-site SMEs to research the topics and participate in the responses.

The SMEs addressed most of the questions during the event and pledged to follow up on the rest afterward. Bosshardt said that all of the answers would go out in an email to attendees as well as in the quarterly SSDS newsletter.

Another new engagement effort was to recognize sailors for exemplary work on SSDS aboard their ships. The inaugural Outstanding System Ownership Awards went to Fire Controlman 1st Class (FC1) Tyler Bowman of dock landing ship USS Comstock (LSD 45) and FC2 Denicia Villarreal of amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8).

“Recognizing sailors through the System Ownership Awards was a nice touch, and it reinforced the overall theme of the symposium,” Harris said.

The event organizers had told the recipients’ chains of command about the awards in advance, but they kept it a surprise for the sailors themselves.

“They were genuinely shocked,” Bosshardt said, adding that the recognitions were the top highlight for many attendees. “When we asked what their favorite part was, a lot of people said it was the awards, and they want us to do more of them.”

Another highlight was “putting faces to names,” as one attendee put it. While the sailors had often interacted remotely with the SMEs, in many cases they hadn’t met them in person before the symposium. The increased presence of technical experts also gave the sailors a bigger picture of the broad network supporting them and their ships’ SSDS.

“When they go out on deployment, they’re not just out on their own,” Bosshardt said. “There’s a whole team of SMEs behind them.”

Bowman, one of the award-winning sailors, cited the networking aspect as one of the benefits of attending the symposium, along with getting answers to SSDS questions.

“Overall, it was an excellent experience and a great opportunity to keep myself and chain updated on the latest and greatest,” Bowman said. He added that the addition of the awards “keeps sailors like myself motivated and helps recognize the importance of our job on the waterfront.”

For the 2024 SSDS Waterfront Symposiums, Bosshardt said the Norfolk edition is scheduled for April 23-24, while the San Diego event will likely happen in August.