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University USW Curriculum Leads Resurgence in Undersea Warfare Dominance

Lt. Steve Yang, a 2012 graduate in engineering acoustics, and an undersea warfare student, completed a majority of his research in the physics department’s anechoic chamber. Yang studies into acoustic attraction lay the groundwork for advanced oil, water separation machinery.

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

These iconic words, presented to rousing cheers by then President Ronald Reagan on June 12, 1987 in West Berlin, were the defining moment of a generation. With this single statement, the Cold War had visibly reached its end, the United States had won and the Soviet Union would disintegrate, changing the world forever.

Within the walls of the Pentagon, changes were abundant as well. The enemy was defeated, what was once a peer in the underwater domain would likely see its fleet of aging and expensive-to-operate submarines sitting at docks rather than patrolling the deep waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. With the victor come the spoils, and the United States’ fleet of superior submarines, and the submariners operating them, went into cruise control.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the underwater domain has returned to its former prominence as an immensely critical battle space. Modern day superpowers have invested heavily in assets, both in vessels and weapons systems, clearly dictating their intentions for the deep sea. And Russia has refurbished a portion of that aforementioned aged fleet, and is now embarked on a program of building new classes of highly-capable subs. Just months ago, in fact, Russia claimed one its refurbished subs cruised the waters of the Gulf of Mexico – which has, of course, been since disputed.

The bottom line, undersea warfare is back, and has been for some time … One need look no further than the words of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, himself a submariner, for evidence of that.

View the October 2012 issue of In Review to explore "The Silent Warrior" infographic and learn about how NPS student research has impacted the development and operation of Virginia-class submarines. explore the issue >>>

“Undersea dominance is critical to the security of the nation. It is a warfare area assigned, uniquely, to Navy alone,” he noted in a recent communication. “Our advantage in this domain, as a minimum, provides us assured access to deter and defeat, reassure allies and partners, and better understand the environment and our potential adversaries. This is the one domain in which the United States has clear maritime superiority – but this superiority will not go unchallenged.”

Responding to those challenges, like every critical area of national security strategy, requires highly-competent, well-educated leaders. And the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) has a dedicated educational program in Undersea Warfare (USW) positioned to produce them. The Undersea Warfare Academic Group, or USWAG, was created to develop and guide students through a rigorous curriculum of interdisciplinary coursework and research in the disciplines that impact USW, and they are studies clearly needed in the modern defense landscape.

“We can look around the world and see that our significant threats are going to require anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, etc. There are nations rapidly developing their submarine fleet, and their mine warfare capabilities, and it’s very clear to Navy leadership that undersea warfare is critical,” said Dr. Clyde Scandrett, Chair of the Undersea Warfare Academic Group.

“There are about 400 submarines in the world and it’s growing,” added retired Rear Adm. Jerry Ellis, USW Chair and Director of the USW Research Center at NPS. “A lot of countries have chosen this to be the weapon of choice, because it has a tremendous disproportionate impact. A few hundred million dollar submarine can shoot a torpedo that takes out a multi-billion dollar warship,” he added. Ellis spent 36 years on active duty, with tours on six separate subs including two as commanding officer, and he commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet Submarine Force in his final sea tour.

Unlike most curricula on campus, USW students don’t earn degrees in USW, rather they earn them in conventional programs like mechanical engineering, operations research, engineering acoustics, physics, electrical engineering, physical oceanography and math. And while that means they have to complete the requirements for that degree – on top of the USW technical curriculum and Joint Professional Military Education – the dividends returned to the students are striking.

“USW is a very unique program because it offers the student the ability to choose his or her field of study … This was advantageous for me because originally I chose electrical engineering as my curriculum, but after taking a few acoustic classes, I found engineering acoustics very interesting,” notes Navy Lt. Steve Yang, a September 2012 graduate of the program.

“The knowledge gained here will undoubtedly assist me as a submarine officer in the undersea domain. Obtaining a master’s, with undersea warfare, and specializing in engineering acoustics, will open up doors for me in the future that would be otherwise closed as I advance in my naval career,” he continued.

The USWAG is a compelling example of how interdisciplinary, academically-rigorous programs can be utilized to fulfill unique DON/DOD educational needs. A committee of senior faculty at NPS from all relevant departments, along with several retired Navy flag officers and a close relationship with submarine warfare leadership in the Pentagon, guide an effort that results in graduate-level educational programs with a strong connection to current operational needs.

One of the key players in designing the course matrix is Dr. Daphne Kapolka, a retired Navy engineering duty officer who completed her own doctoral studies at NPS in 1997. In her role as the Academic Associate for Undersea Warfare, Kapolka integrates a careful balance of coursework to the USW program.

“We are taking advantage of the expertise of several departments in a variety of very Navy relevant ways,” said Kapolka. “Our students take courses in mathematics, physical oceanography, physics, electrical engineering, operations research and mechanical engineering … These core courses ensure that, when they go out the door, they possess a strong fundamental understanding of the principles of undersea warfare.”

“The lessons that are learned here at the Naval Postgraduate School put the officers in great step for the future … It teaches them how to think and how to approach problems and its going to provide a phenomenal return on investment for the Navy and for the country both."

“The lessons that are learned here at the Naval Postgraduate School put the officers in great step for the future … It teaches them how to think and how to approach problems and its going to provide a phenomenal return on investment for the Navy and for the country both."

Not only does USW require an interdisciplinary academic approach, it requires an equally diverse group of players within the Navy to execute. For this reason, officers from a number of communities attend the program.

Ellis defines four “pillars of undersea warfare” … Submarine warfare, anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, and sub-sea warfare, a collective for unmanned systems, deep sea infrastructures and certain weapons systems. And all of them require air, surface and undersea to dominate.  

“We have aviation officers, surface warriors, and of course, submarine officers, because USW is a team game,” said Ellis. “Take anti-submarine warfare, for example, which requires ships, submarines, air assets – and officers that are educated to lead them.

“Anti-submarine warfare is probably one of the most important subjects we teach, and it is truly a joint effort. The days where we can use a single surface ship, or a single submarine or aircraft to find and track a submarine are long gone. We have to work together as a team, and when we do, it’s pretty powerful,” Ellis noted.

Lt. Ryan Hilger is a submariner in his first year of studies in the mechanical engineering curriculum. Hilger, however, is capitalizing on his time at the university by completing USWAG’s anti-submarine warfare certificate program, and plans on completing a second certificate in national security studies as well.  

“I believe, as a submariner, that spending the additional time to learn the theoretical foundations of my systems, procedures, tactics, etc., is crucial for my professional development and will help me better execute my role in the ‘Design for Undersea Warfare’ and live up to the expectations set for me, and all submariners,” Hilger said.

“I am doing here what the fleet wants me to do, and that is to use my education to think creatively and critically about real-world problems facing the fleet,” he added. And he was just recently recognized for that critical thinking, honored with a Fleet Literary Award at the Naval Submarine League’s Annual Symposium for his article, “Spurring Innovation at the Deckplate Level in the Submarine Force.”

In addition to the interdisciplinary course matrix, research in USWAG is just as critical to the success of the program, and enables students to apply the intricacies of their chosen degrees to USW. Research topics are not in short supply … In fact, an overflowing binder of fleet-relevant topics awaits NPS students from all programs outside Ellis’ office. “I’m adding to it all the time,” he notes.

Thesis research in the applied sciences and engineering curricula is challenging and technical, and honors the graduate-level coursework students are required to complete.

For example, Yang’s research into acoustic attraction examined the theoretically-predicted acoustic radiation force on a body that is small compared to the wavelength of the sound. Yang’s work is not only excellent science, but may result in significant improvements for the fleet.

“Applications include the use of high-intensity ultrasound to separate unwanted particles from a liquid,” Yang explained. “This research and experimentation lays down the groundwork for future oil, water separation machinery that could replace the antiquated machinery on ships today.”

Another recent graduate, Lt. Michael Mowry, focused his mechanical engineering studies into a different area, but one that he says is a critical issue across the Navy and beyond.

“When I was looking for a research topic, I sought after a topic dealing with the energy storage problem, as I feel that energy storage and energy generation is arguably the most important challenge facing the Navy, military, and nation as a whole,” Mowry noted. “It was very exciting to work on this topic during my time at NPS and I’m proud of the research that we accomplished.”

Mowry focused his efforts on studying the formation of nitrogen-doped graphene at an industrial level. “Graphene is a relatively newly-studied material that has such a high potential all through electronics,” Mowry noted. “But my research was focused on graphene production more suited for energy storage … as a bulk commercial production method for use in energy storage applications.”

And in spite of the drastic differences between Mowry’s research and that of Yang, he echoes much of the same sentiments as his peers in the program.

“The USW program does add a lot of extra course work, in addition to the degree requirements, but I feel as though it is time well spent,” Mowry said. “The additional classes required by the program exposed me to different areas of study than I would have received from just the mechanical engineering requirements, which helped me understand more advanced concepts in physics and acoustics than I would have otherwise. This better understanding in several different disciplines, I believe, will help make me a better submariner and Naval officer, and although I was quite challenged at times I was never overwhelmed.”

The final piece to the USW puzzle is a close relationship with the USW leadership. Recent campus visits by Rear Adm. Rick Breckenridge, Sub Group Two Commander and an NPS alumnus, as well as Vice Adm. John Richardson, Commander, Submarine Forces, provides a direct link between the students’ work and operational leadership.

But it’s the connection between USW leaders in the Pentagon that drive the program. A constant flow of communication between Ellis, Mine Warfare Chair retired Rear Adm. Rick Williams, and USWAG faculty with leadership in the Navy’s Undersea Warfare Division infuses the education with the needs of the forces.

Director of Undersea Warfare for the CNO (OPNAV N97), currently Rear Adm. Barry Bruner, travels to the university annually for a detailed review of the curriculum, its research, and its students. Bruner is himself an NPS graduate, and expressed his own thoughts on not only the program, but on the larger value of an education at NPS.

“The two years that I spent here were two of the best years of my life, and it’s great to see how this great institution continues to get better,” Bruner noted. “The lessons that are learned here at the Naval Postgraduate School put the officers in great step for the future … It teaches them how to think and how to approach problems and its going to provide a phenomenal return on investment for the Navy and for the country both."

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