World Wide Watchers

Charleston Post and Courier
John P. McDermott
September 15, 2008

In a secured laboratory off Remount Road, engineers at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Charleston fiddle with what resembles a long, rectangular Etch A Sketch screen. As Robert Regal twirls his finger on it in a circular motion, the slick surface springs to life in a kaleidoscope of colors.

He then taps the screen to pull up a digital map showing the real-time locations of dozens of vessels navigating the Atlantic Ocean. Pressing a thumb and a pinky on two of the icons, he instantly can see the exact coordinates and other details that the Navy might want to know in an instant, such as the best course a warship or submarine would need to take to rendezvous with — or intercept — another.

Borrowing “multitouch” screen technology for defense purposes is one of the myriad ways that SPAWAR, as it is known, is looking to bridge the gap between the Pentagon and the iPod. It also reflects a push by the electronic engineering command to come up with ever more creative ways to keep U.S. armed forces a step ahead of “the bad guys,” said Philipp “Phil” Charles, the newly promoted top civilian executive at the Charleston center.

“The idea is not to get hung up on the technology but on the things that the technology lets you do in new ways,” Charles said.

Partly because of the sensitive nature of its work and its cloistered location on the Charleston Naval Weapons Station, SPAWAR remains a local enigma. But among those in the region’s defense contracting world, the high-tech command is widely viewed as the 21st-century version of the old Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard.

Unlike the shipyard, which had been drifting toward obsolescence for years before it was closed in 1996, SPAWAR Systems Center Charleston, and the demand for its high-tech know-how, is expanding.

“Our command is healthy, and we’re growing,” said Charles, whose title is technical director. “The area of business that we’re in … is a growth industry.”

Lots of dollars

Explaining what SPAWAR does can be a challenge. In the simplest terms, it essentially is a government-sponsored information-technology outfit that adapts communication devices for the military. It was created by the Navy to provide sailors and Marines with every possible electronic advantage while in combat.

“We connect them, give them improved situational awareness and help them make better decisions, faster than the bad guys,” Charles said.

SPAWAR differs from most federal agencies because of its status as a “working capital organization,” meaning it receives no direct appropriations from Congress. Rather, the center competes with the private sector and other government agencies to win contracts and fund its annual operating budget.

SPAWAR’s imprint on the region’s economy is significant, with the latest estimate coming in at $2.3 billion annually. It employs 1,500 civilian government workers and boasts one of the highest concentrations of technology engineers in South Carolina. Much of its work is farmed out to private-sector defense contractors — the preferred term at SPAWAR is “industry partners” — that employ about 9,000-10,000 employees. The center also attracts about 6,000 out-of-town visitors every year.

“So there’s a lot of dollars that come through this command and … a lot of impact on the local economy,” Charles said.

Indeed, more than $3.7 billion worth of contract work flowed through the Weapons Station facility during the 2007 fiscal year, up 37 percent from the previous year. This year, revenue is expected to surpass $4 billion, Charles said.

Much of the increased workload and revenue growth at SPAWAR is tied directly to the push to get the armed services to interact more closely — not only with each other but with numerous other agencies. In government-speak, it’s known as “jointness,” and it’s an initiative that has intensified since the 9/11 terrorist attacks seven years ago.

While SPAWAR is at its core a naval organization, its mission “does not stop at the brow of the Navy ship,” Charles said.

“We have to be able to operate with federal and national agencies, as well as local law enforcement. So jointness means a lot more than it used to,” he said.

On a mission

But the increased emphasis on collaboration also creates technical challenges at SPAWAR’s end as the sharing of information increases. Charles said one of his top goals is to make SPAWAR more nimble and break through what he calls the “transformation barrier” by getting a firmer grasp of the high-tech tools the new military will need to do its job efficiently and effectively.

“There’s a greater need for agility and a greater need to do multiple simultaneous missions,” he said. “And, therefore, … to support all these simultaneous traditional and nontraditional missions, we can’t keep building specialized boxes, specialized technology solutions, to support each and every problem.”

To get to the next level, some engineers are being dispatched to ships and other military posts to observe, ask questions and seek recommendations. Also, SPAWAR has launched an in-house innovation program that offers technical employees time and funding to develop new ideas and boost their creativity quotient.

“Our young engineers love this,” Charles said.

The work on iPod-like multitouch screens is another example of where SPAWAR is heading as it seek to meet the growing demands of an increasingly tech-reliant military, he said.

“It’s not only how can we give them more bandwidth, faster computing power and more connectivity, but how can we enable them to do things in new ways … and not limit the way they do things now, like a mouse with a single-focus point and click. Big, big opportunity there, in my mind,” Charles said.

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