Rear Adm. Christian “Boris” Becker, USN, the commander of the US Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, discusses the integration of the service’s information warfare capabilities, harnessing the power of data and more with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Navy League’s 2019 Sea Air Space conference and tradeshow outside Washington where our coverage was sponsored by GE Marine, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Navy League’s Annual Sea Air Space Conference and Trade Show, the number one gathering of U.S. Navy leaders from around the world including international Navy leaders here to discuss strategy, policy, budgets, technology and more. Our coverage here is sponsored by GE Marine, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Leonardo DRS.
It’s my positive honor to talk to United States Navy Rear Admiral Christian “Boris” Becker, one of my high school not quite classmates, but we went to high school together, one year apart, ’83-’84 at Hunter College High School in the United States, and now the Commander of the U.S. Navy Space and Warfare Systems Command, SPAWAR. Christian, always a pleasure seeing you.
RADML Christian Becker: Vago, it’s a pleasure to be with you today, and what a wonderful event we have here this week, the premier event here on the East Coast.
Mr. Muradian: Absolutely. It’s tremendous, and we’ve had an opportunity to also see you in sunny San Diego which is where you guys are based.
The United States Navy is completely reorienting its entire Information Warfare Enterprise and you guys are a key player in this. We’ve talked a little bit about that integration over the years, but now it’s really, really picked up steam. Talk to us about where you are in the process of integrating the whole SPAWAR enterprise into the whole Navy Information Warfare Enterprise.
RADML Becker: That’s just it. It starts with the IWE, the Information Warfare Enterprise. We just signed that charter this year between Vice Admiral Brown at Naval Information Forces Command, NAVIFOR, and Vice Admiral Kohler, Matt Kohler, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare, and us, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. The three of us are leading this Information Warfare Enterprise.
What does that mean, to lead an IWE? It means making sure that we’re delivering the capability the fleet needs across all kinds of systems. All the systems that deal with information. Our personnel systems, our logistics systems, our C4I systems, from seabed to space, making sure that our sailors are trained and ready to operate and maintain those capabilities and that we are ready to deliver the Navy the nation needs.
Mr. Muradian: You have not only renamed some of your centers, so talk to us about that process, because you’re going from the renaming to actually the reengineering of what they do and how they do it.
RADML Becker: We named the SPAWAR System Centers, Atlantic and Pacific, the Naval Information Warfare Centers. That sort of normalized them with the other warfare centers. You’ve got Naval Sea Systems Command, Naval Air Warfare Centers, NAVSEA Warfare Centers, Undersea Warfare Centers, so now we have Information Warfare Centers. That’s why we did it. Not just to the same, to normalize across those, but to indicate to our people and to those we serve that this isn’t just about systems or engineering. This is about warfighting capabilities. Our men and women at the Naval Information Warfare Center, Atlantic and Pacific, and their sites around the globe are ready to continue to deliver the mission and deliver the mission with passion.
Mr. Muradian: One of the key elements of any Information Warfare Enterprise is harnessing data and figuring out how to use it. The Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Bill Moran, who pending Senate confirmation is going to become the next Chief of Naval Operations, has talked passionately about the harnessing of data, working with industry on data rights and a whole number of issues. Talk to us a little bit about how you guys are harnessing and using data in your enterprise, but also across the Information Warfare Enterprise.
RADML Becker: Data is fundamental. In the past where we had data that would reside in individual programs or regarding individual capabilities, we’re looking for the ways to bring all those data together so that we can mine that for the information gold mine that it represents.
As an example, we’re using data about availability of systems in the fleet today to determine how we should preposition parts. Now we do that for programs individually along the way and we have a plan. But then you check reality and you look to see what actually plays out. We’re using live data from existing databases and mixing them together to determine where we should preposition parts to maintain our fleet’s capabilities at the highest levels possible.
Mr. Muradian: And are there any challenges? Folks talk about the data rights issue. How much of the data belongs to the Navy? Especially if the Navy has paid a contractor for that data. Does that data reside in the contractor? I don’t want to get too bogged down in that, but what is the approach that both sides of this equation need to look at this golden asset to try to get the greatest value out of it at the end of the day?
RADML Becker: I think we have to go in with our eyes wide open. As we look to acquire capabilities, we have to understand what that capability’s based on. For instance if we’re looking at systems that one day we might need to print parts for in austere locations where we can’t get a logistics supply train to deliver parts then we need to understand what the data are, the pedigree of that part so we can deliver it where it needs to be delivered and when it needs to be delivered to maintain warfighting capability.
But also how to see how all those systems integrate together and understand not only how to create what we call a digital twin of those capabilities, but to knit together those digital twins into some sort of a model-based systems engineering environment where we can see how those capabilities come together, predict how they’re going to perform, and then perhaps even, and this is varsity, watch real time as things play out and determine whether it’s mishaps or casualties or battle damage, how best to recreate the capabilities we need across all of those systems, all based on the data.
Mr. Muradian: How is the notion — right now we’re back in a great power competition, although there are some folks who say that some of our adversaries have been engaged in that a little bit more than our formal recognition with the administration’s new strategy looking at great power competition, how did that color and shape — you commanded the organization at a time when it was making that transition, as it was going to supporting counter-terror and counterinsurgency operations around the world to something very, very different and much more Cold War like in the nature that, the nexus of technology, great power confrontation, and how potentially devastating a future conventional war looks like.
Talk to us about how that recognition is coloring some of the decisions and sort of the uncertainties that will exist in space, in the information space, in a great power contested environment.
RADML Becker: In some ways, we’ve never left living in the domain that is running across the spectrum from competition to confrontation to conflict. As forward deployed naval forces, as we used to say, America’s away game, we are always out there, on watch, deterring aggression, and maintaining freedom of the seas. Also enacting moments of diplomacy that can help us stay to the left of that spectrum where we are competing. That really hasn’t changed, although our focus on what that means in today’s environment is telling us how we should deploy capabilities, the kind of capabilities we need, and how we should talk about our capabilities.
It’s definitely a challenging time, but the Navy that we have and the Navy we’re delivering, the Navy the nation needs will be ready, is ready.
Mr. Muradian: Navy leadership has time and again talked about the importance of speed. You’re a trained and qualified acquisition officer who’s trying to deliver capabilities to the field. But sometimes speed has also ended up causing problems. So how are you getting this right to make sure you’re delivering fast but not actually causing downstream problems through lack of standardization and all of those mundane little things that actually are very, very important in a warfighting context?
RADML Becker: As we used to say in aviation, speed is life but you’ve got to make sure you’re going in the right direction and to the right place.
Your answer has at least two parts. One is procedural, and one is technical. How does the technical enable the procedural? Let me tell you what I mean.
The faster we can digitize sea power, the faster we can digitize our capabilities and disaggregate largescale networks to an infrastructure layer, a platform layer, a capabilities layer, then the faster we can move to deliver those capabilities without taking a long time for integration testing, without taking a long time to get the authority to operate in our cyber security domain. That’s the technical answer.
One way we can go fast, and we’ve proven it, we’ve been able to develop capabilities, get an authority to operate or an ATO as we call it, and deploy it over the air to ships within 24 hours. We’ve done that. We’ve shown it works. When you get that technical underpinning.
The other side is procedural. Secretary Geurts, the Assistant Secretary for Research, Development and Acquisition has told us over and over again to use all the rules, use the entire width of the road that we have today. So things like other transactional authorities, things like prize-winning competitions, things like commercial services offerings, everything. FAR Part 15, FAR Part 16. I will use that. All those tools are out there for us and we are exploring all of them. We have an OTA in place at NIWC Atlantic that has been very successful. We’ve used CSOs at NIWC Pacific that’s also proven successful. Again, you change the technology, you can go fast with the technology; you change your acquisition procedures to take advantage of what Congress has given us already. Wow, that gets to be pretty powerful, pretty fast.
Mr. Muradian: I would be remiss if I did not ask you the question that everybody is asking you which I know you love answering, which is what happens when Space Force is created? I know there’s a debate going on exactly what form that takes. The Navy has been very, very proud of its space heritage that spans back to the birth of space in many respects. Talk to us about what the new Space Force would mean for the Navy and what capabilities will have to reside in the Navy, and what capabilities would go into the new organization? All my friends who are Army space people or Air Force space people or Navy space people are very, very proud to be Navy space people and Air Force space people and Army space people, so that’s going to be kind of an interesting construct. But I want to know what it means potentially for your organization.
RADML Becker: Vago, I think first and foremost, almost all of our space people are naval people, whether operators or acquisition folks or engineers. We deliver and operate naval capabilities. Those naval capabilities operate in and through and benefit from capabilities that are space based, whether that’s communications or ISR or meteorological capabilities, PNT. Those things, we —
Mr. Muradian: Precision, timing and navigation — precision, navigation and timing which, just so our audience knows and doesn’t go what the heck was that?
RADML Becker: And of course the capabilities that would later become GPS came out of the Naval Research Laboratory. But that’s part of our heritage of the Navy in space.
I’ll take as an example our acquisition professionals and the aerospace engineering duty officer and engineering duty officer communities. For instance, folks that I send out to the National Reconnaissance Office. They go to the National Reconnaissance Office, they learn how to build ground architectures and space based architectures, and then they come back to the Navy and they bring that knowledge back to ship building and weapons building and information systems building. So to say they’re uniquely space is not necessarily a correct description.
But we know about space based capabilities. So as we look to the future and look at how we will partner with the Space Development Agency to make sure that we’re delivering Navy capabilities that the nation needs for our Navy, we’ll be very close partners with the organizations that are stood up today — Space Development Agency will be stood up, the United States Space Command, and the space forces that develop in the days and weeks and months ahead of us.
Mr. Muradian: That’s understood, that Navy uniforms go into a joint command, for example U.S. Space Command, where they resided for a long time.
Like how many people would go and wear the Space Force uniform, has that been at all decided yet?
RADML Becker: We, the Navy, are working through that with the other services and the department to understand how best to contribute capabilities to a space force as that stands up. So we’ll look to see the best way to accomplish that. But from my perspective as an acquisition member or a space cadre acquisition lead, I’m very focused on how we continue to develop the capabilities that we need to take advantage of space based capabilities. Again, whether communications, ISR, PNT, coms, what we need to deliver to maritime forces and the necessary understanding that we have to have of the segments that are in space in order to inform operators who can then determine what their operational needs are, what those requirements are, how to acquire those systems to meet those requirements and how to operate them. The Navy will stay engaged in that the entire way.
Mr. Muradian: Two more questions.
On space, space and information are undergoing sort of quantum revolutions in terms of capability, in terms of the amount of information we can move, the amount of information we can analyze, and also how space capabilities are being developed. Talk to us on both ends of this. Given how fast the cycles are moving, do you feel that as a naval professional, as an acquisition professional and as a service you know where these trends are moving and you can skate to where the puck is going to be as opposed to kind of chasing the puck.
RADML Becker: It comes back to the word you used. Information. Space systems are a source of information. Space systems provide information that we communicate. Space systems provide information about precision, navigation and timing. They provide information about ISR, meteorological capabilities. It’s information. Ultimately that information has to go to a decision-maker and then there is action.
That’s our business. Information warfare. We are the Navy’s Information Warfare Systems Command. So whether those data that are turning to information come from space based media or from other sources, it’s our job to make sure that our naval warfighters are able to get the maximum value of that information in order to be competitive, to compete, and to win.
Mr. Muradian: Now I want to ask you about the legendary jet you flew, which is the —
RADML Becker: The mighty EA-6B Prowler.
Mr. Muradian: The battle hog. One of the coolest. And anybody who knows the battle hog knows there’s one pilot, but the guys who are really in charge are the three electronic countermeasures officers or ECMOs who are among the world’s, if not the world’s electronic warfare experts. So it’s kind of a two-part question.
First, what did it feel like? The Navy retired the jet a little bit earlier than the Marine Corps but we went down to VMAQ-2 and saw the deactivation of the airplane. What does it mean to you as a crewman of this legendary aircraft to see it go out of service?
RADML Becker: First, Vago, it’s a little bit bittersweet. There are those of us in naval aviation who have gone before and seen their beloved platforms retired. It was a sad day, but also a proud day, when that last Prowler, that last tail landed at Dulles and moved to its final resting place, the Udvar-Hazy Museum. A bittersweet moment. But also a proud moment.
Proud in the sense that I was able to connect that to the last time I was at sea, which was on the Abraham Lincoln for their recent graduation exercise, if you will, before deploying to go do our nation’s business. I got to meet some junior officers, some JOs in the ready room of the E-18G squadron aboard, and they are excited. They are pumped up. They are passionate about their mission. And given the capability of that airplane, they might actually be more capable than us ECMOs in the old days.
I’m really excited where the community is going. I’m excited for the mission of electronic attack. But more importantly, the broader implications for the information warfare fight that that airplane, but more importantly the men and women of those squadrons, our sailors that are taking care of the jets and our air crew that are operating them. There will be none finer. And our friends and allies who will fly along with us.
Mr. Muradian: That’s actually true, because the electronic warfare mission has only increased in prominence, and that’s one of the reasons why the Navy is buying so many F-18, the EF-18G Growlers.
United States Navy Rear Admiral Christian “Boris” Becker who is the Commander of the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in sunny San Diego. Christian, always a pleasure. I look forward to hopefully talking to you again out in sunny southern California.
RADML Becker: Any time, Vago. Thank you very much. Go Navy.