New Maritime Technology for Navy SEALs on the Way
Navy SEALs — some of the U.S. military’s most elite forces — are tasked with carrying out covert, dangerous and challenging missions across the globe. To assist them, Special Operations Command is investing in new maritime technology that will give them a tactical advantage.
“One of the primary things that make the SEALs unique within the [special operations forces] community is the environment that they operate in,” said Lisa Sanders, director of SOCOM’s science and technology office.
While SEALs operate in a variety of domains, they often find themselves conducting missions in the maritime environment. Choppy seas and murky waters present a number of challenges to them, including limited access to communications, she said during a meeting with reporters at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida.
“We have been focusing on technologies particularly in the area of underwater communications,” she noted. Because radio frequency does not travel in the water column, “communicating in that space right now is very, very limited, so we’re working on some underwater communications to help them.”
On the S&T side, the command is looking at a variety of ways to address the need, she said.
“One of the things that we try to do is open the aperture wide,” she said. “We try to identify the problem that we have and seek other people’s ideas on how they could address that. So we talk about the distance that they need to be able to communicate, the amount of information they need to be able to communicate, and allow the technologists to come out with the technological approach to resolve that issue.”
Special Operations Command’s program executive office for maritime is also developing new communication technology, John Bailey, chief engineer at the office, told National Defense.
“Really when you think about where we’re trying to go with maritime communications, it’s the whole network,” he said.
Jim Knudson, program manager for special operations forces combat diving, said this network will connect individual divers to surface assets and to other divers, giving them clear communications and access to text and data.
“We have to have that data rate that allows them to have clear comms, positioning and so forth back to the vehicles, back to the host where they are coming from,” he said. This is particularly important as divers work increasingly in colder and deeper water columns, he noted.
Capt. Chad Muse, program manager for naval special warfare, said such a network could enable man-machine teaming. For instance, a small unmanned underwater vehicle could be used as a scout and send information back to a SEAL delivery vehicle.
“Those type of use cases would be of interest to us if anyone is working on those types of technology efforts,” he said.
A small, body-worn device could give operators increased communication and situational awareness capabilties, Knudson said.
“We are looking to make it compact,” he said. “Not a big bulky system but a wrist-worn, compact, smartphone-type effort” that can be attached to the diver’s body. That system will also need to provide operators precise location information, he added.
“We need to have a good track of direction of where we are headed without floating too many buoys,” he said. “[We are] trying to figure out how do we get that good accurate GPS tracking.”
PEO maritime is working with SOCOM’s program executive office for command, control, communications and computers on the communication relay issue, Bailey said. PEO maritime will take items developed and marinize them for use on its platforms, he said.
The office is reaching out to a variety of organizations to help crack that technological nut and will put out a series of solicitations over the next few years, Bailey said.
“We’re really looking to build a community of academia, industry as well as service labs that are all interested in figuring out how their individual technologies can talk to each other,” he said.
Enhancing communications for divers is one way the office plans to get at SOCOM’s new “hyper-enabled operator” concept, he said. The effort — which was announced at the SOFIC conference — aims to give special operators enhanced capabilities and is focused on communication, computing, data/sensors, and human-machine interfaces.
PEO maritime is also examining new power and energy technologies, Bailey said.
That is “probably the biggest need common across all the platforms” within the office’s portfolio, which includes Navy SEAL equipment, special operator watercraft and other maritime platforms, he said.
The office is interested in developing a safe, high-energy battery or other technology solution that can effectively power up many of the devices and equipment under its purview, he said.
Lithium-ion batteries, which can sometimes present safety challenges, are usually not allowed on submarines. SOF divers are often transported on such vessels, requiring the development of alternative power sources, he noted.
“The reality is that for us to put something into a submarine or … even onto a surface craft or into an aircraft, they all have to meet Navy or Air Force standards,” he said. “Lithium-ion batteries are a challenge.”
Muse said putting a safe, high-energy battery on a submarine is “our Holy Grail in terms of managing our power and energy systems so that we can maximize our ability to project power.”
PEO maritime has been working with the science and technology directorate to test a variety of safe lithium-ion battery technologies, and has embarked on a few “game-changing” efforts, Bailey added. The office is now looking to engage with industry to find options that will work.
The command is also looking at ways to more efficiently transport operators underwater via SEAL delivery vehicles, Muse said.
SOCOM is currently replacing the legacy platform, known as SDV Mk 8, with a next-generation free-flooding wet combat manned vehicle known as the shallow water combat submersible, or SWCS.
“It has been a very good year for that program. We have Teledyne Brown [Engineering] as a prime contractor, and right now we have the first production article … going through government acceptance testing as we speak,” he said during the conference.
The new vehicle will offer increased payload capacity and range in shallow environments, he noted.
This gives “our guys more capacity to project combat power or to get to areas they need to go,” he added.
SWCS has nearly twice the displacement of the legacy system and is also a little longer and taller, he said. However, it is still able to fit in the standard dry deck shelter needed to transport it on modified submarines.
PEO maritime is coming to the end of the performance period evaluation and will soon put five systems on contract.
Dry deck shelters used by special operators are also undergoing modernization, said Capt. John Newton, program manager for SOF mobility. The shelters — which essentially act as an underwater garage for SEAL delivery vehicles and other equipment — are primarily used on Ohio-class submarines, but that capability will transfer to Virginia-class boats when the former undergo decommissioning in the 2020s, he said.
The shelters were designed in the 1970s and built in the 1980s, he noted.
SOCOM will be maintaining the shelters for the next 30 years, he said.
“We think there is enough life left in these to get these shelters really to the next two classes of submarines,” Newton said. There is “a lot of life left in it, a lot of viability left in the shelters.”
The modernization program seeks to give the shelters a 30 percent increase in payload volume and a 300 percent increase in payload capacity and weight through a series of modifications, he said.
“We view this as a building block to the future,” he said. Not only will the modified system be able to hold the shallow water combat submersible, but potentially other equipment such as the Navy’s large displacement unmanned underwater vehicle, which is in the pipeline, Newton noted.
PEO maritime is also looking at developing new training technologies to improve operator performance, Bailey said.
“We do have a pretty long history with undersea trainers,” he said. The office is looking at how to incorporate augmented reality and virtual reality technologies into its systems, and plans to make significant investments, he added.
Signature management is another major area of interest for the office, Muse said.
“We do operate under the water [which] … is the stealthiest environment, but we do have to break that air and water interface to project that combat power over the beach and get to an objective,” he said.
Managing those signatures — whether they are acoustic, electro-optical, infrared or radar — is of interest across the office’s portfolio, he added.
Bailey noted, however, that it can often be difficult for industry to break into that technology field, which tends to be technically complex.
Overall, PEO maritime plans to execute about $1.5 billion over the future years defense program, said Program Executive Officer Navy Capt. Kate Dolloff. It is currently enjoying widespread support in Congress, she noted.
“We have got quite a bit of support on the Hill right now,” she said. “Anytime we’ve gone to Congress and asked for anything they’ve helped us out.”
That’s a marked turn over the past five years, when the office had not received as much support, she noted. The change, she said, is a “credit to the folks that we do business with.”
Bailey noted that the office is open to working with anyone and is interested in utilizing a variety of contracting options, he said. “If you have a technology that we want, we will work with you and figure out how we can get there.”