Lessons from a high-def periscope

Op-ed: Function is key to new defense innovation push

Virginia-class submarine USS Texas

The Virginia-class submarine USS Texas departs Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for a deployment. Virginia-class submarines have no traditional periscopes, instead using a system of high-definition cameras and other sensors that stream data to an array of LCD screens. (U.S. Navy photo)

Editor's note: The U.S. Naval Institute and Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association International published the following column by retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Richard W. Hunt as part of the 2015 WEST Conference in San Diego. Hunt is the vice president for Navy and Marine Corps Programs at Raytheon.

A few years ago I visited one of the Navy’s new Virginia-class submarines, and something about it really struck me: There was no periscope. At least not the kind we’re used to seeing, where you have to hunch over, wrap your arms around the controls and rotate in a circle to see the surface in 360 degrees.

What it had instead was a photonics mast – a cluster of high-definition cameras and other sensors that streamed data to an array of LCD screens, giving the captain and crew a much clearer and more complete view of the world above than the traditional periscope could possibly produce.

Think about that. They built a better periscope not by thinking about what form it should take, but rather by concentrating on what it should do. They took something every submarine needs – the ability to know what’s happening overhead – and applied advanced imaging technology to develop a new way to do it.

It’s an example of what can happen when our military and industry approach engineering as a series of problems to solve, rather than a checklist of things to build. And that’s the kind of thinking that will keep us ahead in an era when defense budgets are tight, demand is high and threats are multiplying and evolving around the globe.

Last month, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced a task force to develop an innovation agenda for the Navy and Marine Corps. They’re working to attract and retain creative thinkers, to see that the Navy is making the best strategic use of the enormous amount of data it produces, and to ensure new technologies get to the fleet quickly and without obstruction.

The Navy’s commitment to innovation is encouraging, particularly at a time when directed-energy technologies – tools we’ve only dreamed about using in the field – are finally getting ready to break out of the R&D lab.

Lasers, which we’ve been talking about for decades, are at a tipping point. We no longer have to think of them strictly in terms of guidance tools for weapons systems. We’re now testing them as weapons in their own right – weapons with a cheap and nearly inexhaustible supply of ammunition. Raytheon is developing a Humvee-mounted laser for the U.S. Marine Corps and has already demonstrated a separate laser weapon that shot down four unmanned aerial vehicles.

Railguns, another one of those weapons of the future, are also on their way. The Navy announced last year that it will install and test a prototype electromagnetic railgun on a joint high-speed vessel sometime in fiscal year 2016. Its round will move so fast that it will not require a high-explosive payload.

U.S. Navy railgun fires a projectile during a test

A U.S. Navy railgun fires a projectile during a test. Railguns are high-speed, long-range weapons that use electricity rather than gunpowder or rocket motors.

Then there’s cyber warfare. I see a lot of emphasis on offense – shutting down the enemy’s systems, doing battle without inflicting permanent damage. I’m more focused on defense – protecting our systems against exactly those same kinds of devastating attacks. I’m particularly proud of the work Raytheon did on the Navy’s new Zumwalt-class destroyer, designing a cybersecurity system so resilient and redundant we call it the “black core.”

There’s a common thread running through this technology and the Navy’s effort to develop more: It all breaks from traditional wisdom and frees us to achieve the stuff of science fiction.

Innovation is exciting. It gives us periscopes that don’t look like periscopes. It lets us harness the power of things we can’t even see to do things we never imagined. When we work in terms of what we want to accomplish, rather than prescribe what we think we need, only then do we begin to embrace the art of the possible

Published On: 02/06/2015
Last Updated: 12/08/2017