Synthetic guidance could shift paradigm

O’Neil outlines modern-day solution to ’McLean’s dilemma’

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

In the early days of China Lake, Dr. William B. McLean and other Department of Defense scientists were faced with a dilemma: how to defend the United States against infinite and invisible global threats without exhausting the financial constraints of a federal budget.

When an adequate fire-control system proved to be technologically out of reach, McLean dreamed of building a weapon “smart” enough to seek out enemy targets, making a single warhead do the job of a fleet of missiles launched in hopes of hitting a moving threat.

At China Lake, the heat-seeking Sidewinder was born, thrusting modern warfare immeasurably forward and launching generations of smart weapons that have helped ensure that America is the securest nation in the world.

The culture created during the birth of Sidewinder also helped make China Lake a leader of DOD innovation and technological development.

Some 70 years later, innovators continue to marvel at the elegance of a design that merged the required complexity with a simplicity that left little room for refinement.

Fast forward to the present, and Scott O’Neil — who heads the technical development of China Lake and its counterpart at Point Mugu — has a different conundrum. Over the years the progeny of the Sidewinder have gained sophistication undreamed of by McLean and his peers —but at a great expense.

Today’s platforms now carry sensors that rival the most powerful computers on the planet in a disposable package. O’Neil’s solution is to construct what is essentially a secure defense mainframe that allows assets to plug into the brains to download the necessary data for deployment.

“Dr. McLean had it right — there is an elegance in simplicity,” said O’Neil. “With complexity you incur expense and lose reliability. We’ve got to find a way to transition our technology back to that simplicity.”

Not only is this moment right in terms of technological evolution, but O’Neil said that with down-turning budgets (see related story, this page), bureaucracy gives way to outside-the-box solutions.

“We can’t stay in the past. Our costs and complexities are growing exponentially, and we are now at the point where it takes us longer and longer to push new capabilities out into the field. Something has to be done to change that.”

He characterized the evolution of warfare since World War II as shifting from the era of gunslingers — when soldiers found bad guys and shot them — to a wolf-pack style of fighting where scouts shared information with pilots in a collaborative effort to identify and eliminate threats. Today, that “kill chain” is more complex than ever, with multiple interfaces for those collecting data, identifying threats and ultimately removing them.

“Every year we have more problems putting all of those elements together in the battlespace,” said O’Neil.

“What if, instead of having each individual weapon regenerate all of that information, we can capture and move information in a secure fashion?”

Today’s weapons have to be able to track, identify and classify targets, they deliver strikes and assess the damage. “It takes a very sophisticated set of tools to face the threats in front of us.”

To simplify that technology, O’Neil proposes plugging individual weapons into a secure network that provides the calculations currently built into warheads. “We call this synthetic guidance. It will help us take a huge amount of cost out of our weapons. Instead of the silver bullets we are building today, we would move to something more generic.”

With the mainframe providing the heavy lifting, “we can still hit moving targets in any environment with a fairly dumb weapon.”

The evolution of technology over the last several decades has essentially allowed O’Neil to realize a solution for McLean’s original dilemma.

O’Neil acknowledged breach of security as a concern. “It is not a simple problem, but it is one we can solve.

“People say that this will increase our vulnerability, but we are not going to be able to stop progress. That is the battlespace of the future. It’s happening now,” he said.

“The Internet increased our vulnerability, but it’s still a useful tool.”

Other challenges include those relating to interface compatibility. O’Neil also likened this challenge to mainstream technology, which has spawned multiple phone designs that are still able to access one cellular network.

China Lake already hosts an exercise of technological compatibility with the Enterprise Challenge, an annual event where U.S. and allied military forces refine technological communication between individual components.

“It’s working at the Weapons Division. We are already developing the standard, which is why I say we are postured well in the battlespace. We have insight into where we are going and we are out front leading.”

Story First Published: 2013-09-25