WEST BETHESDA, Md. —
When the Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatants approached Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division’s Eric Silberg in May to take part in a NATO exercise, it was clear that they would face a significant challenge. As the director for Carderock’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Lab, Silberg, took the opportunity head on and in September completed his part of the Recognized Environmental Picture (REP) by Maritime Unmanned Systems (MUS) exercise in Portugal.
“That’s a very short timeline to plan and execute just our small participation in this large international exercise,” Silberg said. “We decided that it was worth the challenge to try and make it happen.”
The annual unmanned exercise provides an opportunity to determine how well each country’s maritime unmanned systems technologies could work in conjunction with others.
With less than five months between the initial request and the start of the exercise, Silberg had to manage funds and contracting; obtain certification to install equipment on a U.S. warship and a Portuguese navy vessel; coordinate international shipping of a large unmanned system; support planning an international exercise; and, ensure that the technical efforts to build and integrate the prototype were successful. Typically, it would take significantly longer than the time afforded to Silberg. He said his team had to be resourceful to get certain tasks done, but they refused to cut corners on their work.
“We needed to do it right, but we also needed to do it quickly, so we got a great team in place who was able to get it done,” Silberg said.
Silberg’s responsibility was to bring the Navy’s Towed Airborne Lift of Naval Systems (TALONS) to the exercise. TALONS is a large, tethered parafoil kite that can carry payloads from a host vessel to 1,000 feet in elevation or more. During REP (MUS), TALONS carried a radar and radio-relay system provided by the United Kingdom in order to extend communication ranges between unmanned vehicles, ships and shore points. Silberg was one of roughly 800 people on hand for the exercise.
For Silberg’s team the exercise began with a week aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78), followed by a week aboard Portuguese navy offshore-patrol vessel NRP Figueira da Foz. TALONS flew off both ships, providing a tactical picture to exercise participants.
Before getting to Portugal, Silberg’s team met USS Porter at Naval Station Rota, Spain, and installed the TALONS equipment. When it was time to move from Porter to Figueira da Foz, the ships pulled into a commercial port a short ways away from the exercise in Sinez, as closer ports were too small to accommodate the large destroyer. Silberg said that they wasted no time getting everything moved over and back out to sea.
While the TALONS team was successful in completing the exercise objective, it was not without some significant challenges. Early in the event, TALONS crashed into the water and the team needed to work through the night in order rebuild and be ready to fly the next day. The overall success of the mission did not surprise Silberg, who said he learned a lot about rapid project coordination in the efforts to be a part of REP (MUS).
“For an event like this, you have to be creative in how you approach the problem,” he said. “With the right team, you can make these things happen.”
That team included Carderock’s industry partner for the project and TALONS developer Maritime Applied Physics Corporation (MAPC) from Baltimore. What was accomplished in Portugal resulted from years of work on the concept between Carderock and MAPC. They were familiar with operations on various U.S. ships, but had never worked with another nation’s navy before. Any concerns faded quickly as they boarded the Portuguese ship and got to work. Silberg said that the crew of Figueira da Foz was very hospitable and professional. They were eager to learn about employing TALONS and other technologies, and they provided an environment conducive to experimentation.
“One of the days, two three-star Portuguese admirals came on board and they wanted to learn about our technology and talk about what we did,” Silberg said. “They were very interested in doing this exercise, participating in naval research and development and how to get the most out of their assets and budget.”
Although the REP (MUS) exercise is an annual event, this year marked the first time the United States participated, and Silberg said he has already been asked to support next year’s iteration. While the role Carderock will play and technologies for experimentation are still to be determined, Silberg is confident that, with a much larger window to plan, 2020 will be even better.