“This impacts all of the future of the Marine Corps on the battlefield. The small, fast, and light units that need to shoot, move, and communicate…their ability to do all three is vital to the mission. This is a problem that needs to be solved,” says Sgt. Christopher Kock.
Sgt. Kock, 1st ANGLICO, I MIG, I MEF, has experienced challenges conducting operations when he needs to quickly understand the electromagnetic environment—such as understanding when there may be malicious attempts to jam his communications. Sgt. Kock, along with several other Marines from the east and west coasts, was invited to spend a week at a Navy laboratory in landlocked Indiana to work directly with technical experts to find a solution.
Sgt. Kock says participating in this week-long, rapid prototyping event was a new experience.
“I haven’t witnessed something like this in the Department of Defense before,” says Sgt. Kock. “Boots on the ground giving direct feedback to the great minds that think of these systems—this is something I didn’t know existed.”
Warfighter Driven Challenge: Software Defined Radio
Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division (NSWC Crane) hosted this Warfighter Driven Challenge (WDC) which brings scientists, engineers, and warfighters together to work on a problem statement directly from the field. The WDC took place in April and brought together subject matter experts (SMEs) from Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific and NSWC Crane—as well as warfighters from I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) and II MEF in the U.S. Marine Corps. The event was funded by the Office of Naval Research Global (ONRG) TechSolutions program and took place at NSWC Crane’s High Velocity Innovation Center (HiVe), which is designed as a flexible space to facilitate collaboration.
NSWC Crane has conducted many WDC events over the last five years, with this WDC focused on creating a solution to a communications systems-related problem that infantry Marines regularly face in the field. The problem statement submitted to ONRG TechSolutions described the need for technology that could “quickly sense the electromagnetic environment and identify congested or contested communications.”
Having a reliable tool to provide this information allows warfighters on the front lines to make rapid and rational decisions. CWO2 Jonathon Krahnke, a Marine from II MEF with 17 years of service, says he was excited to see the problem tackled during the event.
“Once I read through the problem statement and saw a group of experts intent on addressing the challenges that the ground tactical user experiences—I was excited,” says CWO2 Krahnke. “I was more impressed with the brainpower in the room and how they tackled the problem…then seeing a working prototype with our thoughts implemented…I was impressed.”
The typical process to develop and acquire technology for the warfighter could take several years—and material solutions often emerge after the needs of the Fleet have changed due to rapidly evolving threats or the technology becoming obsolete. The warfighter is also often removed from the technology development process—which could lead to the technology not meeting the specific needs of the Fleet.
CWO2 Dustin Schuitt has 15 years of experience in the Marine Corps and traveled to Crane from his home station at II MEF, Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. CWO2 Schuitt participated in this WDC and says the available avenues to find solutions can be challenging.
“We don’t typically do this with civilian engineers—within the military we can identify a problem and possible solution, but it is difficult getting funds to build solutions,” says CWO2 Schuitt. “So we ask, what’s next? When we reach out to have a problem solved that we face during the mission, the process of building out a solution can take years. Once we get the system, it’s outdated. What we need is something fielded and tested as soon as possible. The procurement process is expensive and solutions end up having too many capabilities—we need a system that is focused on a need, which keeps it low cost.”
The WDC is a NSWC Crane-developed intensive week-long process that brings in both the end user and technology experts in order to co-develop prototype solutions. Trained facilitators at NSWC Crane guide teams through an iterative process which includes refining the problem and brainstorming a wide array of solutions. This was the 12th WDC, two of which were virtual events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, 20 total prototypes have been developed, 7 patent applications or invention disclosures have been created, and more than 150 Naval Research and Development Establishment (NR&DE) SMEs have been involved from five different Warfare Centers. More than 50 warfighters from about 20 commands have participated and seven projects have been funded for follow-on efforts.
The problem statement for this WDC event was submitted to ONR through the TechSolutions program, which is designed to take requests for solutions directly from the operating forces. The request for solutions describes the current scenario where Marines need assured communications in degraded communications environments, describing the immediate need as “the ability to rapidly sense, visualize, and make decisions about the electromagnetic environment is a critical step to identifying and responding to electromagnetic interference (EMI), jamming, or network congestion.” This WDC focused on using low-cost, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software defined radio (SDR) technology to get to a solution that would be affordable enough to get out to the Fleet in large numbers.
CWO2 Schuitt served as an expert to provide warfighter perspective in communications technology.
“We’ve been talking about this problem in the Marine Corps for years now,” says CWO2 Schuitt. “Trying to find a solution is very important to us.”
Adam Parsley, a Chief Engineer on the Expeditionary Warfare Department staff at NSWC Crane, is one of the WDC facilitators. Parsley says having SMEs from different areas of expertise is critical to finding an optimal solution in such a short amount of time.
“It is helpful to have a mashup of users with SMEs—a variety of technical knowledge and experience that can bring different solutions to the table,” says Parsley. “This particular problem set is crucial to the Marines at the forward edge, as they tell us that minutes saved in decision making and better awareness of the spectrum can mean the difference between life and death.”
SDR technology is flexible and programmable, enabling users to implement many different standards on the same radio system much more easily. Read more about SDR technology and NSWC Crane’s involvement here.
By bringing the end user and technical SMEs together, a rapid and tailored tool is developed to meet specific warfighter requirements. Parsley says part of the process includes gaining awareness of the problem set.
“One of the most important facets of these events is that the technical SMEs gain an understanding of how the warfighter operates on the ground,” says Parsley, “which is often lost to the engineer or scientist through the traditional acquisition process. When we civilians are able to look at the problem set from the Marine’s perspective, we receive valuable, nuanced information that we can turn on immediately in designing and building prototype solutions. Everyone wants to get to the hardware solution as soon as possible, but there’s a little bit of process that the WDC process takes us through to make sure we’re getting what this group of Marines really wants, and not some predetermined solution that an engineer built in isolation in a lab. The WDC team had the first prototype working with some demonstrable capability working by the third day of the event.”
NIWC Pacific and NSWC Crane develop a prototype to detect EMI
CWO2 Schuitt says WDC was a worthwhile process.
“The experience has been great at Crane,” says CWO2 Schuitt. “First, we identified the problem and then refined the details. It was great to find people who want to find a solution and want to solve the problem.”
Once the group identified the primary threshold and objectives of the capability, they decided how they were going to work on the problem and organized themselves into three teams. The first team worked on answering the immediate question, ‘Are we getting energy in the frequencies of interest?’ The second team, which included engineers from NIWC Pacific, worked on a solution that would detect a more sophisticated threat which may include more complex jamming. The third team focused on the user interface and building redundant and easy-to-read indicators with a screen so users can better interpret the data.
CWO2 Krahnke says it was a great experience to work with people who had the mission in mind.
“When I’ve talked to the team here and ask them questions—they are excited to talk about their work and how to make it effective and affordable,” says CWO2 Krahnke. “Everyone here has been willing to take five minutes to talk to me and get it right.”
The first team leveraged existing knowledge to develop a prototype that would be able to simply read if there was energy nearby, including developing prototyped hardware and software. Jeff Miller, an Electronics Technician at NSWC Crane, works in the Electromagnetic Warfare mission area at Crane.
“We knew coming into WDC that it was an RF-related problem,” says Miller. “Once WDC began and we read the problem statement, we knew we were kind familiar with their issues. There are Programs of Record that have similar solutions, but they are big, bulky, and have more capability and cost than an infantryman would need. We had something we might be able to tailor to this need."
Erika White, the Loki Director at NSWC Crane, talks about the Loki Effects team participating in this WDC and the Loki mission.
“Loki is a disruptive capability cell akin to a skunkworks that challenges the traditional view of Electromagnetic Warfare (EW) by providing solutions to leapfrog our adversaries,” says White. “Loki focuses on offense vice defense with an emphasis on weaponizing the electromagnetic spectrum. The inclusion of Loki in the WDC is a wonderful opportunity for the Loki team to not only better understand the operational environment and needs but also to introduce the impact of disruptive non-kinetic effects to the battlespace.”
Timothy Ringwald, a Loki Effects Technician at NSWC Crane, was part of the first team.
“We were thinking, what do we have that fits the need? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” says Ringwald. “During the process, the Marines may see something they are missing and could gain new knowledge about other potential applications.”
Katie Parkes, the Loki Effects Lead Engineer at NSWC Crane, was also on the first team. She says WDC is a valuable way to hear about how the warfighter would use the technology in practice.
“It’s good to have many perspectives with a lot of different knowledge in the room,” says Parkes. “Having the warfighter in the room helps us understand the challenges the warfighter experiences, antennae types they carry or don’t carry, and what we can do to fix the problems. We typically have limited exposure to them—and it’s not a direct process. For the Marines, they don’t know what to ask for if they aren’t connected to us—their ideas evolved over the week too.”
The second team worked on developing more robust software which could implemented with Team 1’s prototype. Thomas Buetow, a Radio Frequency (RF) Applications Engineer at NSWC Crane, worked on developing a jam-detection algorithm.
"We asked, ‘How do we know we are being jammed?’—we were focused on making sure the prototype doesn’t show false positives and false negatives,” says Buetow. “It’s important to not have false positives so that a jam-detection is accurate and people pay attention to it. If the device always says you’re being jammed, the warfighter loses confidence. We worked with the warfighters to determine the percentage of bias needed that would result in unacceptable communications.”
Greg Fleizach, an Engineer at NIWC Pacific, was on Team 2 and assisted in creating a robust algorithm.
“It is fantastic to have the undivided attention of warfighters during the problem definition and prototyping phase,” says Fleizach. “To hear their perspective and specific pain points, and then being able to immediately ask follow up questions is huge. It is really invaluable to be able to shorten the feedback cycle so dramatically. It was interesting to work toward a common language since we are coming at the same concepts from different directions. The Marines in this event have tactical expertise and practical knowledge that you can’t read about in a textbook. I think my digital signal processing and RF experience was helpful in defining the problem and focusing on potential solutions. It’s a pleasure to work alongside experts from a wide array of fields and organizations that need to be involved to make a working prototype.”
Nicholas Montgomery, an Engineer at NSWC Crane, was on the third team working on the user-interface.
“The prototype was developed with lights at the top, traffic light-style,” says Montgomery. “That is useful for the warfighter to determine at a glance if he is being jammed. What we are doing is developing a screen that provides more information. The light gives immediate information; the screen provides more information, such as values, the type of jam taking place, and explains why you have the light.”
Rondia Mack, an Engineer at NSWC Crane, worked with Montgomery on the third team.
“The screen looks like a computer monitor,” says Mack. “It has familiarity to the user, like a phone screen.”
Being able to detect malicious jamming or simple interference on the spectrum is a challenge many Marines face.
“There are thousands- of RF emitters on the modern battlespace, especially as we talk about the future and operations in the littorals and near urban areas,” says Parsley. “Understanding the electromagnetic domain, at a glance, and at the most forward deployed unit is crucial to both future and current operations.”
By the end of the week, the team developed the PMP (Propagation-Interference Monitoring Platform) prototype. The PMP prototype can toggle between frequencies and identifies electromagnetic interference above a specific threshold. LED lights on the prototype light up to signal frequency recognized above the noise floor threshold. The LCD screen provides more in-depth details about the detected frequency that can be programmed and stores data that can be downloaded at a different time.
“I’ve never been to an event like this,” says CWO2 Krahnke. “I’m super thankful to be here and work through the problem; everyone here was professional. Having the ability to network at WDC with the SMEs has been beneficial. The technical experts created a level-setting environment, which was fantastic. More people need to know about what Crane is capable of doing; more people need to know how to use the capability at Crane. Seeing the other projects people are working on and the future applications of the networking portion—I plan to stay in contact."
The Office of Naval Research TechSolutions program at WDC
ONRG TechSolutions is a program that allows sailors and marines to directly submit challenges they face in the fleet and find solutions. Tami Relph, the Deputy Director for ONRG TechSolutions, says it was interesting to see how the week transpired.
“This Warfighter Driven Challenge really embodies ONRG TechSolutions mission, connecting the warfighter with technical experts to rapidly produce prototype solutions,” says Relph. “It was very exciting to watch this process unfold from Day 1, where the problem space was beginning to be explored and understood, through initial prototype development over the next few days, to an actual prototype on-hand by Day 5. As the week progressed, the WDC clearly showed the value of bringing warfighters and technical experts into the same room to discuss a specific problem set and then generate a prototype solution real-time.”
Relph says WDC has been an important avenue to finding a solution to this challenge.
“This event is important to TechSolutions, not only to develop a much-needed prototype solution for the Marines that can quickly sense the electromagnetic environment and identify congested or contested communications, but also to see how we can use or adapt Warfighter Driven Challenges to enhance the TechSolutions program and get the right solutions to the warfighter faster,” says Relph.
For more information on ONRG TechSolutions, visit this website.
Out of the lab and into the field
In July 2022, several WDC participants traveled to Camp LeJeune in North Carolina to test the PMP prototype at a II MEF Hide-and-Seek-Exercise (HSX). The ONRG TechSolutions Director, Jason Payne, attended the event along with Parsley, Ringwald, and Parkes.
“TechSolutions’ mission is to understand warfighter technology needs and to have a solution provider deliver a prototype within 12 months. In this case, the NSWC Crane team delivered in half that time and delivered not just a prototype, but a parts list and software package for Marines to recreate their own prototype, wherever and whenever they need it,” said Payne. “By enabling these warfighters and technologists to mix it up at WDC for a week, Marines now carry new knowledge and capability forward and into the field.”
An additional capability was added to the PMP in the few days leading up to the HSX event – the ability to use a directional antenna to interrogate a certain sector. This addition proved invaluable to the Marines as they performed Own-Force Monitoring (OFM).
"We were eyed somewhat suspiciously as a bunch of civilians walking into the landing zone that was the exercise venue,” says Parsley. “But we were warmly welcomed by Marines once it became clear that we were bringing a capability to the field that hadn’t existed before. The PMP became an instant “toy” for the Marines to try out, useful not only in detecting EMI and potential jamming, but also as a tool for OFM, that is, understanding the spectrum emissions emanating from the Marines themselves.”
Parsley adds that the PMP is not yet a field-able capability.
“But it’s a start, and it’s a low cost capability that the Marines could probably even build themselves,” says Parsley.
The NSWC Crane WDC team also met with the 2nd Intelligence Battalion. Parsley says the Marines in the shop were shown the COTS components, design, and layout of the prototype PMP.
“We agreed that the Marines in the shop could easily recreate the capability if given the list of components and brief instructions on how to assemble it,” says Parsley. “The final component is the software that the Crane team developed. Plans are in place to run a trial by which this novel tech transition process of going straight to the warfighter, puts a prototype capability in the hands of Marines for them to experiment further with, both the refine requirements and to prove out how low-cost, COTS technology can be leveraged quickly for warfighting needs.”
About NSWC Crane
NSWC Crane is a naval laboratory and a field activity of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) with mission areas in Expeditionary Warfare, Strategic Missions and Electronic Warfare. The warfare center is responsible for multi-domain, multi- spectral, full life cycle support of technologies and systems enhancing capability to today's Warfighter.
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