As COVID-19 spread across the nation and world in March 2020, an elite group of federal employees developed and executed a strategy to continue development, integration, testing and installation of a laser weapon aboard Navy warships.
Their plan guaranteed that progress on high-energy programs would not be impacted as they pressed forward to operationally install those systems aboard several warships on schedule in spite of the pandemic.
Since November 2020, Sailors – trained by Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) scientists and engineers from divisions located in Dahlgren, Virginia, and Port Hueneme, California – have been operating high-energy systems aboard two Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers.
A third system was more recently delivered and installed on a guided missile destroyer on schedule, according to Dr. Chris Lloyd, distinguished scientist for laser weapon system lethality at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD). Meanwhile, additional systems are under development.
High-energy systems could not have been delivered to the fleet in such a rapid timeframe without the collaboration and coordination between NSWCDD and NSWC Port Hueneme Division laser experts, Sailors and Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) shipyards. The Dahlgren team built and integrated the system and upon arrival in San Diego, the systems were craned aboard the destroyers. At that point, NSWCDD and Port Hueneme engineers worked with Sailors to assemble and interface the system with the ships.
“This is a great example of our organic talent at the warfare centers all working together with ship’s company to deliver a system that will provide game-changing capability,” said Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition James Geurts during a visit to USS Dewey, according to an article in February 2020 by NAVSEA Office of Corporate Communication.
It is apparent that the global pandemic is not affecting the mission accomplishments, and that raises a question. How do NSWCDD government civilians collaborate and produce complex laser technologies and systems – and integrate those systems aboard warships – while complying with maximum telework requirements at naval bases in Dahlgren and San Diego?
“When the Department of Defense went into telework status, everyone thought ‘this will surely impact our on-time product delivery,’ as we looked at the challenge ahead, but the NSWCDD team quickly decided that a setback was not an option,” said Lloyd. “We are getting as much testing done in this environment as we have at any other time, thanks to NSWCDD laser division’s collaboration to work in new ways coupled with the exception process.”
The exception process at Naval Support Facility Dahlgren and NSWCDD allows mission-critical teams to work on base on designated dates.
“It’s impressive how the Navy programs and the laser programs in particular have been able to continue on pace when it comes to the schedule and installation of systems on our ships,” said Lloyd, who also serves as the DoD laser weapon system lethality lead for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. “We’ve been approved for all of the exceptions we needed to get the job done. It’s considered mission critical, so the base and NAVSEA are working with the teams to make that happen.”
Furthermore, NSWCDD laser experts are abiding by strict social distancing guidelines while working on mission-critical programs at Dahlgren and other naval bases as well as aboard ships throughout the pandemic. As they have done pre-COVID, the lethality team was able to conduct two high-energy laser test series simultaneously in the separate lethality laboratories at NSWCDD.
“It was a pleasant surprise and impressive to see our team conducting lethality tests and churning out test data,” said Lloyd. “The test and analysis teams are coming in when they need to. They can work analysis at home and come in when needed to work on necessary classified analysis. From a productivity perspective, we’ve done a great job at getting the mission accomplished.”
A key factor to mission accomplishment is the fact that building and integrating high-energy laser weapon systems – in addition to work on government furnished equipment for other laser systems – was already in place at Dahlgren prior to COVID-19.
“The base and the command did a great job of reacting to the situation when COVID hit,” said Lloyd. “The first thing they did was to determine which programs are mission-critical in order to make exceptions quickly. That is a huge reason why many of these programs have not missed a beat.”
Specifically, NSWCDD reacted to COVID-19 by adapting the command’s operations. The new rules comprised documenting return-to-office standard operating procedures and documenting process flows for positive COVID-19 cases, supervisor reporting, contractor reporting and an action team. In addition, the command created policies for face coverings and cleaning posture, created a Fusion site to share policies and instructions for the workforce, transitioned into a maximum teleworking environment, continued on-site mission-essential operations and adjusted mandatory training methods.
“We have strong leaders who are passionate about getting emerging systems technologies out to the warfighter. We have this great mix of technical folks who like to develop and test new technologies to show that they work and more importantly, directly impact the warfighter,” said Lloyd. “Our scientists and engineers follow a rigorous technical process resulting in increased capability to the Navy. In that process, they totally get to see how these new technologies are impacting the warfighter, warfighting and our future fleet.”