Interview: Dr. Catherine Warner, Director, NATO CMRE

October 15, 2019

Dr. Catherine Warner, Director, NATO CMRE. Photo: CMRE
Dr. Catherine Warner, Director, NATO CMRE. Photo: CMRE

At CMRE, it’s not just about the science.  It’s about building trust and confidence in resilient systems. An interview with Dr. Catherine Warner, Director, NATO Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation, La Spezia, Italy

Tell us a little about yourself and CMRE.  What does CMRE do, and how do you see your mission evolving?

I came here from the Pentagon, where I was the science advisor for the director of operational test and evaluation.  My experience has been working with operators on systems that they’re getting ready to field. Now that I’m here at CMRE, we are trying to make ourselves relevant to the war fighter.  Science and technology doesn’t always get the lion’s share of the funding.  Even in a military command, if the military doesn’t know what you’re doing, we have to show that we are relevant. We have been funded by Allied Command Transformation (ACT), but now we’re a customer-funded center.  ACT is still our largest customer.  They fund about 75% of our work, but it’s mostly basic research, at a very low TRL (technology readiness level). We are also interested in solutions for today, and we’ve been successful working with the NATO Maritime Command –MARCOM. For instance, we’ve been able to make available our expertise in anti-submarine warfare (ASW), mine countermeasures (MCM), and environmental knowledge /operational effectiveness (EKOE), which could be  battlespace characterization, or an environmental assessment of military oceanography.  

Environmental knowledge is basically characterizing the state of the sea and atmosphere, in real-time, on how it will affect an operation. We’ve had some really good recent successes participating in NATO exercises like Dynamic Mongoose, which are annual ASW trials in the GI-UK gap.  We actually were part of the exercise this year, and we’ll do it again in 2019.  We’ve participated in Dynamic Monarch, a distressed submarine exercise where we were able to use our digital underwater communications protocol to chat with the submarine that was playing the distressed submarine.  Instead of trying to understand the garbled underwater telephone, we used an application we called “WetsApp,” which is sort of an underwater WhatsApp, based on our JANUS digital underwater communications protocol that we developed here over a period of 10 years.  
We’re doing another exercise right now off the coast of Portugal to look at how to incorporate this digital communications into distressed submarine doctrine and tactics.  We have also been working with the Standing NATO Maritime Groups – SNMG 1 and 2 – with their exercises.  So working with the operators has been a way to show our relevance.  Twenty years ago people were reluctant to work with unmanned aircraft, but today they’re common.   We want to make operators comfortable with unmanned maritime systems now.  There’s a new generation of sailors who are going to be used to working with unmanned systems. But there is still some unfamiliarity and uncertainty.  So it’s up to us to sort of go in their exercise, show them what these systems can offer. Our new sensors are so much better, with synthetic aperture sonar and automatic target recognition.  So we want to have that conversation with the operators to see what science can do for them, and for our scientists to understand what the operator needs. And that’s important to go to the next step in system development.

Will you continue to do basic research?

Definitely - you have to start there. But I do see us doing more at higher TRL, up to prototypes and demonstrations in the operational environment.

You run the whole spectrum from basic to applied to prototyping?

I don’t see us making systems that transition directly to being deployed in operational service in the fleet. The many integration parts haven’t been solved yet.   We still have to go out in the rubber boat and put them in the water.

I guess it depends on what you are trying to prove – is the concept good, or is the system able to do that particular mission?
You don’t want it to fail. So you want to develop the technology, then a concept technology demonstrator.  I think we can do that for NATO.

You have world-class facilities here.  How would you describe that to someone who doesn’t know what you do?
I’m a perfect person to describe it because I didn’t know about CMRE myself before I came here.  People may have been familiar with the SACLANT Center during the Cold War, and we would later be called the NATO Undersea Research Center (NURC).  Today we are CMRE, but I don’t think we’re well known.  We’re not big – about 150 people – compared to NUWC Newport or NSWC Panama City. But what I find exciting is the fact that we have scientists who come here with their own ideas, and young professionals who have an opportunity to start working on a team. Our engineering department is amazing, and they are able to take concepts and turn them into real experiments that can get meaningful data for the scientists.  I don’t think that our engineering department gets enough praise.  They can make anything, and will make it work. Right outside my window we have an underwater network of acoustic sensors mounted on tripods.  It’s called the Littoral Ocean Observatory Network (LOON), and a researcher can access that network from his or her office anywhere.  They can send waveforms and run them on the LOON and see how they perform in an undersea environment.  Our engineers build and modify systems, and take the systems to sea on the Alliance or the Leonardo, the two research vessels that we own.  As you can imagine, taking science to sea is really hard and it’s really expensive, and not many nations can do that.  In the United States, it’s kind of a normal thing, but most countries can’t really afford to have that capability. When we go out on Alliance with whatever mission packages or trials we’re going to do, we will have several different nations participating. Alliance is a global class research vessel and is ice hardened for operating in extreme latitudes.  We’ve been going to the Arctic pretty much every year. This summer when we were up there we had collaborators from seven different countries and different research institutions. One just had one glider that they wanted to test a new sensor on. Someone else had a whole series of experiments where they wanted to collect solution data.  We collected data from the Faeroes all the way up to Svalbard.  An organization can’t afford to just go there with just one glider.  We had a charter from Woods Hole, funded by the National Science Foundation to operate in waters around Iceland and Greenland from January through March. We are in demand because we are one of the only ice-capable, global research vessels that is going to the high north every year.

Alliance has been around for 30 years.  Do you plan to replace her?

We’ve already started to think about that.  There’s no way CMRE could ever afford to buy another Alliance. It has to be a NATO decision.  We have to go to the nations and ask them, “Do you want to keep this global research capability to do science at sea in the high north?” And if they do, then we have to go through the NATO process of finding funding while writing our requirements and then finding a company to build the ship.
The Research Vessel Alliance. Photo: CMREYou must have a lot of agreements for cooperation and collaboration with partners in either government, the private sector, or in academia.

Part of our governance is the NATO Science & Technology Board, and they have a smaller committee called the Maritime S&T Committee – the MSTC – which includes the maritime nations.  They are advisors who come here twice a year and we conduct a whole review of our program.  The nations give feedback on our programs.  Although ACT is our primary customer, all money in NATO comes from the nations, so they’re ultimately the customer.  

In addition to platforms, sensors or systems you develop here, do you also help the nations with testing or evaluating their own systems?

As nations increase their use of autonomous maritime systems, there will need to be some sort of range where they can go to evaluate their systems and technology.   We think we could provide that capability to nations to test and certify that a particular autonomous system can operate successfully in a specific environment.  We focus on interoperability.  So when the nations are developing capabilities, requirements, and conducting acquisition, we can share information with each other and we can make sure it works together.  We think CMRE is in a good position to provide that evaluation and certification to the alliance.

While the center used to be focused on ASW, today you pay attention to all of the domains.

We are actually developing an unmanned control system that’s multi-domain: under the sea, surface, and air. Because of our experience with JANUS, which is the NATO STANAG, or NATO standard, for digital underwater communications, we actually have some experience in this area.

Do you make your own vehicles and platforms, or do you buy systems on the open market?

We have commercially available buoyancy glider UUVs and USVs, and we’re doing all kinds of work with them.  We have underwater vehicles such as the Bluefin 21, Ocean Explorer and the Remus.  With all of our various vehicles, we get them and then we take them apart and put all our stuff in them.

So your engineers customize them ...

Our engineering department are definitely the crown jewels.  The scientists come up with the ideas, but the engineers actually do it.   JANUS is the underwater communications protocol we developed here, which is now the NATO standard.  We conducted JANUS-Fest this past year, and had all of the different companies that make underwater modems set up around our basin.  Our engineers took the underwater modems apart and made them all so that they’re compatible. We put JANUS on top of them.  That sounds funny – because JANUS is just a protocol—but they all had their own proprietary modems, and we gave them our JANUS open source C++ protocol.  By the end of the week, all of them could talk to each other using their own proprietary modem software, but with JANUS on top. It’s like Google Translate. We’re not competing with industry.  We support the national industries – that’s what we’re for. We develop the concept and then we let the industries build it. And with JANUS, these different modem manufacturers can talk to each other without having to change anything, or give up anything proprietary.

Are the nations willing to come to you for help?

The nations will support us if we help their industries in their country.  We helped the defense company Leonardo here in Italy by designing their towed array, and we brought them here and showed them how to make it.  Now we’re helping them develop the software and the decision aids that go onboard in the combat system, to use it. We cover our costs, but it’s Italy’s industry that’s going to build and sell the system.

So let’s talk a little bit about ASW and MCM.  That used to be the Center’s focus back when it was the SACLANT Center, the NATO Undersea Research Centre.  What’s the state of play here for ASW?

ASW is a very complicated mission area.  ASW is about a third of our program.  But many of our other programs, like environmental assessment, obviously supports ASW, too.  If you know about the water column, for example, you know where to put your sensors.  And I think of mine countermeasures as an extreme extension of ASW, where the target is not moving or radiating noise.  So in some way, they are all related. Here at CMRE we call it “Collaborative ASW – CASW.” ASW will always be hard – it will always be asset-intensive.  Today we use helicopters with dipping sonars; maritime patrol aircraft dropping sonobuoys; frigates with hull-mounted sensors; and submarines with towed arrays -- that’s a lot to do for ASW. 

I don’t think a fleet of a thousand unmanned systems is going to replace all that, but I think it can do part of it.  One of our big thrusts now is doing operational research studies with the nations on which parts of ASW are cost effective and operationally efficient that we should use unmanned systems for. There are many different scenarios we can look at, but one of them is to create a barrier in a certain geographically sensitive location where unmanned systems provide persistent surveillance.  We’re looking at different types of vehicles and sensor packages working together.  We’re looking at things on the floor of the sea, towed arrays, data relays, and multi-static systems.  We’re doing the studies and operations research to find effective, interoperable and affordable solutions.  That’s the studies part.  

And then we do the design and conduct the actual experimental and developmental part, to validate the concepts.  We’ve developed new arrays; we’ve developed new algorithms for processing them; we have the new JANUS communications protocol so they can communicate with each other and back to the mother ship. We will be doing some extensive trials here in the Gulf of La Spezia, looking at some of the new pieces that we have in place this year.  Then, hopefully, we can integrate our experimentation into one of these major NATO exercises, such as the Dynamic Mongoose NATO fleet ASW exercise. We’re trying to figure out where the unmanned systems best fit into operations, and then we’re doing the science to make them better, smarter, interoperable, autonomous, and more effective.

And mine warfare?

We’ve had a good year.  We’ve now been able to deploy our kit on someone else’s ship. NATO MARCOM – the Maritime Command, has a standing mine countermeasures group. And last year the UK ship – HMS Enterprise – was the flagship, and they invited us to bring our systems on board. So we took our unmanned systems, along with our scientists and engineers aboard the HMS Enterprise to participate in the mine exercises, the Spanish Minex and Italian Minex. They each have a slightly different focus, but in both cases we launched our systems from a ship.  In the first one, we were looking at showing how to do the planning and evaluation – which is a huge part of mine countermeasures, and complete the post-mission analysis in more real-time, as opposed to waiting for the vehicle to be recovered and pulling the data so we can process and analyze it. 

We want to know as quickly as possible if we have found a mine-like object.   So now we’re seeing this stuff pretty much in real-time. We’ve done the deep learning, and have the convolutional neural networks to apply to our nearly 60 years of experience with complex acoustical data on mine shapes. We’ve been able to, in the lab, use that to train these algorithms to recognize mine shapes. And we can put that on the system, with the capability on the vehicles to determine on its own when it finds a real target, because it has learned.  It can then talk to another vehicle with a different kind of sensor and they can decide how best to approach and collect information on that target and make collaborative decision.  We’ve proven the deep learning; have put the automatic target recognition onboard the vehicles; and have the vehicles talking to each other. When we did the Italian Minex, the Italian Navy put their Efolaga unmanned vehicles in the water and we talked to them. We used our open-architecture MUSCLE [Minehunting UUV for Shallow Water Covert Littoral Expedition] vehicle, which is a modified General Dynamics Mission Systems Bluefin-21. We didn’t do anything to their vehicles – but our MUSCLE vehicle could determine what kind of vehicles they were, and what kind of communications was needed, and MUSCLE was able to say, “Hey, Efolaga! I’m MUSCLE. Can you go take a look at this picture?” And it worked.

What can you tell us about LOON, the underwater network you have out here in the bay? What is it? How does it work?

It doesn’t look fancy.  It’s basically a bunch of tripods that sit on the bottom, but they have acoustic sensors on them.  They are nodes that can talk to each other.  You can access the network from right here in the lab.  In fact, anybody that has a wave form that they want to try can send it to one of our scientists and see how it performs in the water.

What can you tell me about your staff?

I’ve been bragging about our engineering team. We definitely have amazing engineers, with incredible ideas and a great work ethic and the ideas. We have around 50 engineers. And we have fantastic scientist too. We have always been able to attract the top-tier of scientists from the Nations. Currently we have 47 NATO civilians, as well as more than 20 “visiting researchers” who will come here for several months to work with us.  We have a couple students from the French Naval Academy here right now, and they’re working on deep learning and automatic target recognition. 

We might have a professor, a graduate student, or somebody from one of the applied physics labs in the United States.  They might be here longer, up to a year.  That’s ongoing and rotational. And that’s really the point of CMRE, to have people come here with their expertise, experience and knowledge, and go home with a better understanding of NATO’s challenges and opportunities. That they can share with their colleagues.  A scientist might come here for a three year contract, which might be renewed.  They might even stay longer.  But we really want scientists to  come here and work in their field—whether its signal processing, automatic target recognition, ping stealing, whatever their field is – and go back to their country to continue to develop that work at their national research lab and then send other scientists here.  That was the idea when this center was created.  So we have a very diverse group of scientists and engineers from throughout the NATO nations. We have the ship office to manage Alliance and Leonardo, our research ships.  And like most organizations, we have IT.  But when I say IT, it’s more than managing the local network and the workstations.  We have the scientific network where we can do software development – because some of our products are actually software. We do a lot of big data analytics, and creating decision tools to look at the fusion of different types of sensor data.  We actually develop software for our vehicles. So IT is very important, here.

Are you doing a lot with maritime domain awareness and AIS?

Yes. We have a group that is gathering and fusing together huge amounts of AIS and radar data and doing a lot of prediction, such where a ship might be going if it turned off its AIS.  We do maritime patterns of life to understand what’s happening in and around the sea in a certain area. We’re also trying to teach machines to think like humans.  When it comes to analyzing what a ship might be doing, even with conflicting information, a human is best at understanding what’s happening.  But a human can’t assimilate such huge amounts of data.  We’re trying to teach our algorithms to think like a human, so we do a lot of serious gaming.  One of my priorities is to make our network more robust, more resilient, and to improve and modernize it.

What kind of advice would you have to a student or an academic?  Are there opportunities for them to come here?

Absolutely.  That’s what we’re here for. We have positions for local junior scientists. We collaborate with most of the naval academies in the different countries, and they send their cadets here. Belgium had a student here this summer and they want to keep doing it every year.

You also have a very engaging STEM program.

We work with the schools in La Spezia. This is close to my heart, because we want to encourage young people, and young women especially, to get into STEM. When we look at maintaining our technological edge, one of the things we need are qualified people, and that starts with getting people educated in STEM.  In La Spezia, the school system is very interesting, and different from the U.S.  You get to pick which high school you want to go to, and if you want to be in the technical field, you get to pick the technical high school. In their junior and senior year, they have to work as interns, and we have worked with them to be one of those places where their high school students can come. You wouldn’t believe how technically advanced they are. We’ve done some research here at CMRE on the impact of acoustic energy on marine mammals.  We have done a long series of experiments and have accumulated a lot of data.  This is of interest to our nations, because we want to avoid harming marine mammals.  So we provided this acoustics data to the students and they were able to do a science project to analyze the data, and then they were able to present their findings at this very large and prestigious conference here in May with the European Cetacean Society.  The students gave a series of presentations on the results of their analyses.  It was a huge success, and we hope to continue that relationship.   We hope to have students design their own experiments that they will be able to carry out here at CMRE.

Maybe they will eventually come here to work someday?  

The woman who’s leading this effort for the La Spezia School System actually worked here.  In fact her father worked here.

Your ultimate customer is the warfighter.  What would you want them to know about what you’re doing here?

I’ll go back to what I was saying in the very beginning – that it is so important for us to do these exercises.  It’s not just so we can do science.  We can do that when we have the right environment, the targets and communications links.  But there’s more to it.  For the warfighters, and this new generation of operators, we want them to be comfortable and confident working with autonomous systems.  They need to have trust.  
I want them to know about what we’re doing here – building resilient systems that they can trust.  We want the sailors to trust them so that they will use them.

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