The Big Picture
Raytheon systems connect the dots for naval defense
Michelle Vagle commutes on an aircraft carrier.
As chief engineer for the U.S. Navy's Cooperative Engagement Capability, or CEC, Vagle leads a team that is developing technology that connects the next generation of Navy sensors and combat systems. The goal: enhance the air defense capability of the fleet.
And that means working on a very big vehicle. "It's definitely a high point of the job," says Vagle. "I've been helo'ed onto carriers, amphibious LHDs*, all sorts of ships. You're the one everyone depends on to make sure your stuff is working."
A Navy strike group has a variety of sensors to identify threats, including surface radars, sonar and airborne sensors, along with weapons systems that can engage a threat at various distances. CEC is the integration layer that moves data from the sensors to the appropriate weapon systems, creating what military strategists call an end-to-end, detect-control-engage capability.
"An individual sensor can't see everything," explains Vagle. "But if you have lots of sensors sharing the same data, you get a more accurate picture of the situation. That means a combat system can engage a target that it otherwise could not see, by using data from other sensors."
The real-time, composite network picture provided by CEC is also more resistant to electronic jamming.
The original technology demo in the 1980s led to deployment on DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers, which were first commissioned in 1991.
Today, CEC supports the Standard Missiles that are part of the AEGIS combat system on DDG-51s, and the Raytheon-developed Ship Self-Defense System used on most other classes of Navy ships. CEC also works with newer sensor platforms like the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS), which deploys sensors carried aloft on an aerostat. Vagle's team is in the process of integrating the Navy's next generation Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) and the multi-function radar on the new DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers.
"CEC provides a detailed single integrated air picture of aircraft and missile threats, that can be shared among all the CEC equipped assets in theater," said Pat Speake, director of Raytheon's Integrated Mission Systems and a colleague of Vagle's. "This means a number of ships, aircraft, and land mobile systems can create an integrated air defense network and share sensor data in real time."
CEC is a key element in the future Navy's Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air capability (NIFC-CA). Building that future takes a step-by-step, disciplined approach to making the right technical decisions.
"Our job is to make the large network picture better, without hurting the picture from an individual ship," said Vagle. "To do that, we have a system kernel that doesn't change, and an adaptive layer for interfacing with different sensors. The decisions and trade-offs in how the data is used make it interesting from an engineering perspective."
The development work is exacting. "We test and test again to make sure each new configuration will work," Vagle said. "We have dozens of preliminary reviews before we can ride along for the full blown technical evaluation sea trial."
Like many engineering leaders, a technical career was in Vagle's DNA. "My father and my grandfather were both engineers," she said. "And I was always good in math, so getting a technical degree was an easy choice."
Since then, she's been working on CEC for most of her career.
"It's a great program and a great team," Vagle said. "We're always getting the chance to work on new technology, like solid state lasers, or making a lightweight version of the system to work on unmanned aerial vehicles."
*Landing Helicopter Deck – a class of flat-deck, multi-purpose assault ships with a primary purpose of transporting Marines for rapid deployment.