The Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division works to ensure the reliability and safety and effectiveness of Navy shipboard weapons. All but a handful of its nearly 5,000 federal employees are civilians aided by several thousand contractors. For the second installment in this week’s series looking at Dahlgren’s activities, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the division’s Technical Director Dale Sisson.
Tom Temin: Let’s just give the overview of Dahlgren from your standpoint as the top civilian engineer, if you will. This is not academic engineering at all, is it?
Dale Sisson: It is not. It’s definitely hands-on research, development, test and evaluation. We maintain a workforce of nearly 5,000 government civilians and another 4,000 folks from the contractor community that execute about a $1.9 billion portfolio annually, to deliver warfighting capability to our fleet.
Tom Temin: And the facilities here must be extensive, because of all the range of projects from stuff you can’t see like software to testing, firing, and so forth. Give us a sense of the range of what’s here.
Dale Sisson: Well, the range of what’s here is a great way to put it because we are anchored around the Potomac River test range, that includes really the length of the Potomac River to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, identified in certain increments that allow us to do open air testing on that range. So we fired ordnance down the Potomac River test range now for going on 104 years. And so that’s really the anchor for us as an organization, and where that hands-on research, development, test, evaluation and mindset started. Over the years that’s expanded greatly to include a very broad portfolio. And today is very software centric actually, you mentioned the software piece. Even hands-on work can be done in the software world. So we take great pride in having our technical workforce really ply their trade. So they have an opportunity to come here and work in their areas of expertise to do really critical mission work for the Department of Navy. So that includes the Navy and the Marine Corps. So as one of the 10 Warfare Center’s divisions within NAVSEA [Naval Sea Systems Command], we also serve as the Marine Corps’ warfare centers in a lot of ways as well. Our facilities, we’re larger than 300-plus buildings. So a tremendous footprint in that regard. That’s everything from internal areas to test electromagnetic effects, to software, collaboration, and coding spaces, the ability to do environmental tests and evaluation of our ordnance and weapons systems, and integrated warfare systems laboratory where we have the opportunity to bring combat systems online for the fleet. So we’re really all about doing very complex things in the naval warfighting environment. And we talk a lot about being the leader in warfare systems development and integration. To solving those complex problems that allow us to put ordnance downrange and hit an intended targets. There’s a lot of complex math, science, engineering behind that. And that’s really who we are.
Tom Temin: Yeah, so the original calculations done by ENIAC stopped there. And we have to keep working ever since then, huh?
Dale Sisson: Absolutely. And so as an organization, we’ve for many years been involved in advancing not only the computational scientific analytical capability, but the tools that go along with that. So many of the nation’s earliest computing advancements are a result of our work here. And it really was by necessity, as ordnance and weapons systems became more complex, and understanding the fly out of those weapons, trajectories of those weapons, and how to get them to more and more challenging targets. So really a lot of complex math and science behind that and engineering to make those systems real. And we’ve had to advance our disciplines, like systems engineering, for example, is a discipline that I think you can really say that NSWC Dahlgren Division has played a large part in developing that capability for our nation over the last 60 or so years, probably longer than that. So as we grow specific weapon capabilities, grow our workforce, we have to grow the disciplines within which we operate.
Tom Temin: And you mentioned a lot of how software has become important to calculating how all of these weapons work. Is there also research and development yet to be done? Or do you do it here on the weapons themselves? So the mechanical and chemical aspects of putting that shell on target?
Dale Sisson: Absolutely. There are a number of elements that goes into building a weapons system. We are very much a leader in the sensing side of things. So radar engineering, for example, and the development that goes on there. So understanding how to identify and track a target is a big part of weapons systems development and employment. So we really bring that to bear. Understanding the software side, as you mentioned, it really permeates now throughout everything. So one of the things we’re seeing is that the disciplines of engineering specifically, may not be as clear cut as they have been for so many years. We see the lines really blurring between mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and computer engineers in particular, and the understanding that’s required for software development systems and employment and the hardware that goes along with that. So our folks really are very much multidisciplinary, though there’ll be founded in a specific area, but the complexity of the weapons systems really drives that. We’re not the ones that are working, the energetics formulation and things like that. We have our sister warfare centers that work in that area. But we’re really focused on that projectile, focus on the sensing element and then the fire control that it takes to make those two things meet up to a target.
Tom Temin: And what about industry and academia? There’s a lot of industry located physically near here. What role do they play? How do you interact with them? And is there also a grantmaking aspect to the research and development here?
Dale Sisson: Well, that’s a multifaceted question for sure. We’re about a $1.9 billion organization annually, as I believe I mentioned before. Of that over a billion goes outside of our gates to industry and academia. So the industry partnerships are huge. Whether it’s the local industry community here at Dahlgren, Virginia, or our location in Dam Neck, Virginia, of our 4,930 or so civilians, about 450 of those sit in Dam Neck, so down in the Virginia Beach area. So we have two primary localities that we are very involved with, for sure. So really rely upon those industry partners tremendously, and really also are heavily focused on the academic partnering side of things. That helps us on the academic front, really helps us to push the boundaries on technology, as well as grow our workforce. And we grow our workforce in a couple of different ways. It’s the growth of our existing team members and who we have. Typically we’ll have 300 or more members of our workforce and roles and graduate education at any one time. So we heavily invest in academic education in that way. We also want to have the leading professors from our nation’s leading universities here partnering with us on their areas of technical expertise. And then finally, we want to attract the best and brightest candidates out of these programs to join our workforce. And we know we had the opportunity to give them exciting work to grow their careers as scientists and engineers.
Tom Temin: And I wanted to ask you something specific that I know you’re working on. And that is the whole idea of autonomy, and of uncrewed vessels, in this case the surface, but I know it goes below the surface and in the air for that matter and other components of the Navy. But maybe discuss the idea of true autonomy, versus simply remote crew controls, or which look alike, maybe inoperational but they’re really not the same thing.
Dale Sisson: So we use the terminology of Intelligent Automation. Really one of our five technical strategic thrusts here. And the growth and evolution from what we would call remote control to autonomous systems is one that’s certainly iterative, and will be continuing for some amount of time for sure. With Remote Control Systems, you have the human in the loop, right? And that’s typically very important as we operate ethically in a warfighting environment. So as a nation, we’ll continue to evaluate how weaponized we want fully autonomous systems to be. But there are a number of ways of looking at autonomous systems. For example, a missile system has the ability to identify and reach targets and make some selection on its own there. We’ve worked in that kind of environment for many years. Some of the things that folks will talk about and maybe the more had been viewed as science fiction kind of realm that had the ability to come to reality, or automated soldiers, or sailors and marines and an airman and how we execute that. So how we weaponized some of those autonomous capabilities brings into our calculus, the system safety element. And so system safety is a big part of our portfolio. So we have a leading safety experts in these weapons systems to make sure we understand their operation. And the more autonomous a system gets, and the more decisions that system can make, the more it opens up your risk, the requirement on us to understand how to assess that risk, assume risk in the right places. As the United States of America, we operate under a set of set of ethics and a code of operation and how we not only look out for the safety of our personnel, but how we look out for the safety of those who may be impacted in a warfighting type environment. So all of those elements come into play. It’s not just simply the technology piece. We know a lot about how to do that technology piece. And we’re employing that for surface warfighting solutions. But now it’s also about rolling in the safety piece, the policy piece and how we employ such weapons.
Tom Temin: And as the top senior executive here, tell us what your day-to-day life is like, because if you wanted to visit one building a day, it would take you a year of working. So how do you know that the right things are happening? And what are some of your metrics that you watch to make sure everything is on track?
Dale Sisson: Yeah, well, that’s a great question. And one we’re always trying to figure out. Really the correct answer is that we have a tremendous leadership team here that surrounds me. I have 28 other executives that I directly supervise on the technical front as well as organizationally. So we have seven technical departments, three outstanding business related departments where we do contracts, all of our financial operations, human resources, security, and all of the things that are required to make our technical business tick. And so having that tremendous team around me is really what it’s all about. It’s really my role to set the vision and strategy for the organization, and then to work with that team to make it happen. So as the senior executive, I really get the good fortune of serving as the CEO of this operation and partnering with our commanding officer. And that requires a strong focus, not just on the technical front, but on the business front. I mean, we’re the stewards of $1.9 billion of taxpayer resources annually, not to mention all of the infrastructure that’s part of this organization. So we take that very seriously. Spend a lot of time in the metrics not only just on a technical front, but also on the business side. On the technical front. It really requires a strong personal engagement with the technical workforce. So I invest a lot of my time in doing that, whether that’s out in full day reviews with the technical departments and understanding the progress in specific technical areas. I am the steward of 37, what we call technical capabilities for the warfare centers. And so it’s my job to make sure that we within each of those technical capabilities that we really do have the technical expertise that we’re charged with maintaining and growing. And growing may or may not be in numbers, but it’s growing those disciplines that we’re responsible for. So there are a number of metrics and dashboards that we pay attention to. But it’s really about the one-on-one interaction with members of the team to see the progress that we’re making. You got to lay eyes on the systems and the technologies that you’re part of and have boots on the ground. And that’s the method that I employ.
Tom Temin: And when there are firing tests, do you go down and watch?
Dale Sisson: Sure, and we can do that in a number of ways, whether it’s in remote sites where we have full metrics and visibility and communication [in] what’s happening or actually standing out on the range. And our test range from firing systems down river to modeling and simulation events that are equally as exciting.