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NIWC Pacific: Its Inevitability, Legacy, and Future

27 October 2023

From Maison Piedfort

SAN DIEGO - Usually, news stories from Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific tell about a person, a team, a breakthrough, or a vision. This one is different: it's about thousands of people, thousands of breakthroughs, countless visions, and how each moved through time and space to shape itself into an information warfare lab headquartered on Point Loma.

It spans 80 years, half the globe, and from sea depths to space. Its source material is an 80-year anniversary book, an 800-page technical history written in the style of a novel, two basements full of historical publications, a technical library, and a small club of people who have collectively lived six or seven more lifetimes than me. 

I only have you for so long, I imagine, so I’ll be direct: the point is to take you on an 80-year ride in the space of a coffee break, full of moments and people which make this warfare center unlike any place else. It’s an invitation to look up from the day-to-day and join me at a vantage point from which we’ll see the dent in the universe likeminded people can make with enough time and dedication. 

We’ll have to go fast — there’s no time for exact dates, names of commanding officers, or the elaborate tree of name changes marking reorganizations. This, rather, is a people’s history, in which the collective visions of ordinary people mean more than any of those things.

Let’s start there: a moment, a person, Tom LaPuzza in 1969, working his first day at NIWC Pacific many name changes ago. By then, pieces of the puzzle that would become the Center as we know it had existed for 29 years, first as two independently established U.S. Navy labs: one for early sonar technology and shipboard antennas; the other for air-launched undersea weapons, ballistic missiles, and undersea vehicles. Both had contributed to the Navy’s preparedness for World War II. 

LaPuzza joined the second of those labs on the cusp of another name change, each rebrand a pivot to answer the Navy’s emergent needs. “I don’t recall the first time I visited Point Loma,” LaPuzza said in “Weapons of Choice, Vol. I,” the narrative non-fiction work he wrote as NIWC Pacific’s historian emeritus. 

“It is probable it was during one of my Omaha family’s visits to my San Diego grandparents. Whenever it was in the late 1950s or early 1960s, we would have been driving to see Cabrillo National Monument, with no idea there was a Navy laboratory out there that would play an essential role in my future.” 

LaPuzza’s family drove past where my own grandfather was stationed then, recruited to the Navy after a short-lived baseball career, far from home in Charleston, South Carolina. There NIWC Atlantic would spin up its own origins three decades later.

Around the time LaPuzza drove by, the lab was making world headlines with bathyscaphe Trieste for its record-breaking 35,800-feet dive into the Marianas Trench. The lab used Trieste for research in geology, marine biology, and for testing its sonar technology.

It wasn’t the first time the lab had made headlines for breakthroughs in submarine technology. Three years before, Waldo Lyon, Ph.D., a physicist and the 13th employee of the lab’s earliest predecessor, sat in the world’s first nuclear submarine as it traversed under the ice canopy during a 1,000-mile, 74-hour voyage. It required no surfacing or ventilation and could submerge for weeks or months.

It was one of many USS Nautilus (SSN 571) missions. In 1958, the submarine passed through the North Pole on its way to the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific, and a parade through New York City’s Fifth Avenue celebrated Lyon’s and the crew’s arrival. Over his 55-year career, Lyon gathered enough data to distinguish himself globally as an expert of the Arctic. Later in 1999, crew on USS Hawkbill (SSN 366) — a vessel no doubt made better by Lyon’s research — placed his ashes on the ice at the North Pole.

Back to LaPuzza. By the time he arrived at NIWC Pacific, the lab had hit its stride in giving warfighters what they need: a perfected Mark 13 torpedo that would contribute to victory in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, and development of five more torpedos over the next 50 years; the Antenna Model Range, built in the late 1940s, for testing antenna communications on ship models 1/48th their actual sizes; and the first Navy shipboard satellite communication system, installed aboard USS Providence (CG 6) in 1968. Satellite communication technology developed at the lab in 1969 would be used in spaceflight Apollo 11, the mission that put humans on the moon.

As public affairs officer of one of the lab’s predecessors, LaPuzza made it his business to tell its stories, and there was plenty to tell over his 37-year career. Everything about LaPuzza — his technical literacy, balanced with his gift for translating to laypeople; and his exceptional memory — seems to have predestined him to become one of the lab’s most memorable storytellers. 

The lab couldn’t always tell its stories to the world, but even so, LaPuzza found his purpose: linking the inventor of the pencil, so to speak, to the inventor of the eraser, by giving a broader perspective of the lab’s vision in its internal newspaper. 

“I think one of the difficulties with human beings is thinking, ‘Oh, the other guys out there working on the other project have nothing to do with me,’” LaPuzza said. “That’s where the vision comes in. They do have something to do with you. It very well may happen that you’re inventing a pencil and they’re inventing an eraser.”

Even when NIWC Pacific couldn’t tell its stories to the world, the world would hear about NIWC Pacific; often, when the Navy made headlines, the lab was there behind the scenes. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was for its breakthroughs in robotics. First it was the recovery of a hydrogen bomb from the Mediterranean Sea with their remotely operated vehicle, the world’s first; then recovery of a NASA film container; then the rescue of two people in the recovery of submersible Pisces III from the Irish Sea floor.

Right around then in 1968, the Center established a lab in Hawaii for its work in marine biosystems and underwater vehicles; now remnants of that lab and other facilities in Hawaii, Guam, and Japan make up the Indo-Pacific Department, which has been providing U.S. Pacific Fleet, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and more than 15 other military commands in the Asia-Pacific region with engineering and operations support for more than half a century.

It was clear NIWC Pacific scientists knew sea, space, and when they led innovations on the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in the early 1980s, they were beginning to know cyber. It was the research network that would later develop into the Internet. When Ron Broersma, who worked on ARPANET then and still works at NIWC Pacific today, was hired in 1976, there was no computer scientist job description; he was an “operational research analyst.” 

“Once the computers could be connected to each other with networking, then you could move information around, and the computers could talk to each other. And then once that was linked to other computers around the world through the ARPANET, you could start communicating with other people, other systems — and so things like email were born,” Broersma said.

Broersma recounted the day he felt email had officially “arrived” — when top management, not just the computer savvy — began using it. “The technical director at the time got an email, but you know what he did? He got his assistant to print it out and hand it to him. He never could move from paper to actually getting on the computer.” The next technical director would get onboard and use a desktop computer.

Soon it was 1987, and my dad was right next door, a yeoman at Submarine Group Five. He never worked at our labs; neither did my grandfather. They were, instead, its paramount customers — warfighters whose lives Navy scientists sought to make a little easier.

In the early 1990s, the lab unveiled the “Command Center of the Future," a place to envision exactly how they’d do that. “The idea is to imagine what doesn't exist. When visitors came, we’d take them there and I’d start with, ‘Here's what we've done. Here’s what we're doing,’” said LaPuzza. “And there would be a vision brief by Jeff Grossman, who invented the Command Center of the Future, who would say, ‘Here's what we see in the future.’”

Remember personal digital assistants (PDAs)? NIWC Pacific scientists imagined their use for the warfighter there, a simple plastic prop in a brief about a handheld device that would store all your data and connect to other computers. “Visitors asked, what are you going to do with it? And we’d say, we don’t know yet.” Not knowing the how didn’t stop them from imagining what could be. 

They imagined voice recognition, and when LaPuzza said, “Doors, open,” they would. What visitors to the command center didn’t know — what LaPuzza’s daughter didn’t know, when she visited — was that someone in the back was listening for his cue to press the button that opened the doors. “She thought that was the best thing about the whole visit. But the point was not smoke and mirrors, it was our trying to visualize what the future ought to be,” he said.

And so the lab kept a foot in the present by responding to warfighters’ emergent needs, as it did in 1991 when it gave Sailors serving in Operation Desert Storm antenna repair kits to keep their equipment operational. It served not just the warfighter, but the nation: in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, the lab’s robots searched for survivors among the wreckage at the World Trade Center. Its marine mammals were airlifted to Iraq and Bahrain to hunt for mines and protect coalition ships. 

It began to plant a foot firmly into the future, where it would soon pioneer a vision for the Navy in which it showed how those who had the most information, and could use it most creatively, had the most power. It was inevitable that the lab which grew up exploring every domain — cyber, sea, space — would eventually lead the vision linking them all together.

And LaPuzza stood the watch for the past, keeping the lab’s stories alive. He still does, from his shared office with Kelly McKeever in the lab’s Technical Library and Archives building. There we meet McKeever, our usher from the past into the present. LaPuzza retired in 2006, but never really left; a little while later, McKeever interviewed for a librarian position in 2014. That week, a feature on NIWC Pacific made the front page of the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

“I worked at a public library at the time, and I remember showing my coworkers the article and saying, ‘This is where I’m going.’ And several months later I got the job,” McKeever said.  

When she interviewed, she was taken down into the library’s basement, a madhouse filled with decades of film, documents, and photo prints. “I will never forget it. I thought, it’s so cool this organization has such a long history and that they’re preserving it.” The library, that basement, was once a combination enlisted quarters and galley, later turned to barracks for women serving in Navy uniform for the first time.

McKeever has a perspective most people don’t, operating at a trisection of past, present, and future: her and her teammates maintain the lab’s archival materials, help scientists source supporting material for their research, and spot trends in where visions for the lab are headed.

“We get regular customers here, so we get a feel for what they’re working on,” McKeever said. “I’m not a subject matter expert on everything we do at the lab, so we rely on our customers to tell us what’s important and what they’re doing next.” McKeever gets historical questions, too — why does this rule or regulation exist? (Someone probably did something they shouldn’t have.) Was the main building really a hospital during World War II? (No.) Is there a ghost in the library moving books around? (No, that’s probably just John, who works late.)

“Knowing the backstory, the context, about why things are the way they are, is fascinating,” McKeever said. “I like knowing the stories about why certain decisions were made and hearing from people who actually worked here during those changes. My work with Tom has taught me a lot about the people who have worked here. That’s our biggest story here, the people — they’re the ones making things happen.” 

Five years after McKeever’s arrival, that story got a new name, one that explained how all the people — all their visions — fit together, whether they worked with dolphins or satellites: Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific. The new name captured the lab’s place in the world as the Navy’s experts in giving warfighters the advantage of information integrated across all domains.

“If you look at how technology drives change in the Navy, you could say the first revolution was the sail, which made a global Navy possible,” said Stephanie Hszieh, Ph.D., strategic operations manager at NIWC Pacific. “Then steam made ships faster and capable of covering longer distances, then iron made them safer and more durable. Gun powder and gun power gave us range. The microchip brought about the development of information communication technologies. The next step is, how do we tie all our technologies together in the information era? NIWC Pacific is at the heart of that revolution.”

The Navy has its experts in ships, aircraft, facilities, supplies. “But we do information — we harness the power of information — better than anyone,” Hszieh said. We’re the integrators, and our expertise is in bringing it all together. 

“You can know how to build a ship, but do you know how to make sure its communications make it to shore? Or to space? Do you know how it fits in with other systems? That’s what we do — we’re the integration group. We understand not only all the technologies, because we were involved in developing almost all of them. But we also understand how it fits into the bigger picture. That’s why NIWC Pacific is uniquely qualified to bring the power of information to the fight.”

The name change legitimized information warfare as a discipline for the lab that had been building its legacy around it for the better part of a century. Part of that legacy, that ability to lead visions for the art of information warfare, is telling stories — just like LaPuzza did when his newspaper brought people together, like Grossman did when he used the Command Center of the Future as a theater of the impossible.

“Storytelling is an essential part of being a leader. You have to be able to articulate a vision and direction in a way those who wish to follow you can understand,” Hszieh said. “Or else you won’t have any followers. That’s a hallmark of a leader.” 

And it’s not just those in positions of leadership who envision what could be. “When we talk about the Center’s strategy we talk about owning your house — your project and all its responsibilities — and that’s something of a tradition that’s been a big part of our culture. We’re not only technical leaders in our various disciplines, but thought leaders, too.”

One form that thought leadership takes is the lab’s detailed technical visions, depicted in the short feature films its been making since the early aughts. Here we visit the future and meet Jess Fuller, NIWC Pacific command “visioneer.” Fuller helped make the lab’s latest short film “Conflict 2043” and co-leads discussions about the lab’s technical vision with Chris Raney, technical director. The film shows just how powerful information dominance can be.

“Missions and visions of government organizations can be dense and fairly difficult to digest,” Fuller said. “We’ve taken the approach of creating stories that highlight the future potential of technologies our scientists and engineers are developing now.” 

It’s an approach requiring both technical expertise and creativity. “Any great organization is molding these two capabilities into a single strategy they are calling innovation. And innovation is, at its heart, about creativity,” Fuller said. “The vision alone isn’t going to advance the technology and physically create that future. We need both the technical excellence required to advance the field, plus the foresight to push the boundaries of what’s possible. That’s how we make the future brighter for warfighters.”

Fuller and Raney share that brighter vision with the workforce, visitors to the lab, and partners across the Department of Defense by showing the film, then leading discussions on how to make the film a reality. While NIWC Pacific hasn’t built all the technologies they imagined in its first short film two decades ago, its visions carve a potential path for information warfare to take. 

It could be that 20 years from now, the next writer who takes my place will report to you about how NIWC Pacific hit all the right steps on that path, how its legacy for giving warfighters what they need made the news this time around. They’ll likely use LaPuzza’s stories to learn the lab’s history; in them they’ll learn about our storytellers and story keepers, our pathfinders and our leaders, and hopefully they’ll know this story needs their voice to carry it onward. 

If they need a little help, they may find their way to the library, and maybe they’ll meet McKeever there. It could be Hszieh with whom they sit down for a few talks about what made us and where we’re going. And it could be Fuller — or Raney, or someone else — a little down the road, briefing a vision for 2063, and setting new aspirations for the lab and the Navy. 

It could be that someday soon, someone we don’t know yet drives past a lab headquartered on Point Loma, with the expertise and creativity to help craft extraordinary visions, only a matter of time before their future intersects with ours. On their first day of work, years later, they might ask exactly what NIWC Pacific does and where their own vision for building a better Navy fits into this lab’s story. Hopefully they’ll read this and find their answer.

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