Jim Doyle / San Francisco Chronicl – 2008-05-19 01:48:08
MONTEREY (May 18, 2008) — In the 1920s and 1930s, silent film stars Charlie Chaplin and Jean Harlow threw lavish parties and skinny-dipped in the Roman plunge of the Hotel Del Monte near the Pacific’s sandy shores.
The hotel’s swimming pool has long since been filled with sand, and Marine sentries stand guard at the gates of what is now the Naval Postgraduate School — an institution that since 9/11 has expanded rapidly as a think tank, laboratory and testing ground in the war against global terrorism.
“Ten years ago, people thought of us as the school that gives master’s degrees to naval officers. We’re so much more than that,” said Provost Leonard Ferrari. “Even our own Navy doesn’t understand all the things that we do.”
The school has become a major research facility with laboratories embedding artificial intelligence in aerial drones, building electromagnetic railguns that allow warships to fire projectiles farther and faster than any ship in today’s fleet, testing robots that dock in space to help refuel satellites, and developing space-based lasers that are reminiscent of “Star Wars” gunships.
Researchers are field testing unmanned vehicles, pint-size subs and fast boats in Monterey County’s hilly terrain and reservoirs, and working closely with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to test a new generation of radiation detectors capable of spotting “dirty bomb” components in cargo containers.
And that’s just the stuff they can talk about.
In recent years, the Pentagon and private defense contractors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research projects at the school — through low-key funding that has grown 20 percent annually — reaching more than $85 million this year.
“Today, the Naval Postgraduate School touches every continent on the globe,” said retired Vice Adm. Daniel Oliver, the school’s first civilian president. “We have become one of the nation’s top 100 research institutions.”
Diverse Array of Disciplines
The school’s scientists and experts are at the forefront of many disciplines — not only creating futuristic combat systems, but also focusing on such pressing issues as how to rebuild failed states and how to best deliver humanitarian relief.
Wieslaw Maslowski, an oceanographer, recently predicted that global warming will cause the Arctic to experience ice-free summers as early as 2013. William Colson, a physicist, is exploring the potential use of free electron lasers on warships to shoot down incoming missiles. Cynthia Levine is a leading practitioner of computer security. Nancy Haegel developed a “friend-or-foe” patch for soldiers that emits an infrared signature to deter friendly fire incidents during nighttime operations.
One of the school’s joint projects with Lawrence Livermore lab involves work on establishing a wireless network around San Francisco Bay, enabling Coast Guard boarding teams to transmit sensor data to scientists at the lab who can analyze spectrographs to determine whether ship cargo poses a threat. They are also experimenting with “drive-by detection” methods to determine from a distance whether a vessel is carrying a nuclear device. Similar work is being done to deploy radiation detectors on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Still other researchers are exploring the use of ultra-wideband, a radar imaging technology that enables remote sensors and other surveillance equipment to see through walls. One plan is to detect electromagnetic emissions, no matter how small, from nuclear fission-related activity by North Korea and other nuclear states.
The Naval Postgraduate School was founded in June 1909 as the Naval Academy’s school of marine engineering in Annapolis, Md. It moved to Monterey in 1952, in part to distance itself from the influence of Washington politics.
It now is on the site of the Hotel Del Monte, built in 1880 by railroad pioneer Charles Crocker as a resort that became popular among industrialists, business executives and celebrities. Destroyed twice by fire, the resort was rebuilt in 1924 in a Spanish Revival architectural style. Part of the hotel currently serves as the school’s administration offices.
The school’s 627-acre campus, whose clusters of classroom and laboratory buildings echo the hotel’s red-tile ambiance, is a stone’s throw from downtown Monterey. And its lush, botanical gardens are still full of exotic, tropical plants and Canada geese.
School’s Expanding Role
Since its founding almost 100 years ago, the Naval Postgraduate School’s primary mission has been to enhance the technical competence of naval officers. But the school is moving beyond its traditional role and is opening its doors to civilians from key government contractors as well as from federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and various intelligence-gathering operations.
It was the first university to offer a master’s in homeland security. Among its 1,800 students are 250 from the armed services of other nations. Its faculty boasts not only meteorologists and aeronautical engineers, but also historians, political scientists and economists. Offerings include seminars on guerrilla warfare and terrorist financing, cyber-defense, undersea warfare and Islamic fundamentalism, along with crash courses focusing on hot spots where officers will be deployed.
Andrew Marshall, the Pentagon’s futurist, has asked the school to ponder such weighty questions as: In what direction as a society and world power is China going?
“We are all very conscious that it’s not just an academic exercise,” said David Tucker, a former Foreign Service officer for the State Department who teaches courses on terrorism at the Monterey campus. “We apply academic research to the type of real problems that no other institution’s students have. For our students, it’s a very practical business of fighting terrorism. It’s something that distinguishes us as an institution.”
Faculty and students who specialize in “hastily formed networks” were among the first to respond to Hurricane Katrina, setting up a communications web for emergency officials when phone and computer lines in New Orleans faltered.
“Our Ph.D.s are growing, our civilian enrollments are growing. Our research is growing,” Oliver said. “We are here to ensure that our future leaders in national and global security have the knowledge to prevent wars if possible, but to win wars if necessary.”
But it’s the school’s commitment to research with high-tech applications that is most eye-catching.
One major effort involves collaborating with Lawrence Livermore lab to establish the National Security Institute to pursue research and development — with a focus on surveillance, remote sensing, and defeating improvised explosive devices. UC Santa Barbara, a leader in nanotechnology and basic research for the military, is also participating in this joint venture.
The Monterey researchers have also increased their projects for U.S. intelligence agencies. For example, they are exploring ways to protect computer networks, including methods to “harden” critical infrastructures such as power grids against terrorist attacks. And they have worked with the National Security Agency to develop computer search algorithms to monitor suspected terrorists. They are also examining various scenarios forecast by the intelligence community.
On the ‘Bleeding Edge’
“Over the last few years, we’ve been branching out into new areas that we haven’t pursued in the past,” said Dan Boger, the school’s dean of research.
He said the school has developed “bleeding-edge technologies” for the Army’s Special Forces and the Navy SEALs — producing reliable communications that have a low chance of being intercepted, and sensors that provide real-time data that is relayed to battlefield decision-makers. Students who have served as military officers in Afghanistan and Iraq have also devised warlike scenarios in which new or custom equipment such as small, handheld communications devices are field tested and evaluated.
During a recent tour of the school by The Chronicle, a Navy lieutenant could be seen testing a virtual-environment training tool that simulates a terrorist attack on a naval warship.
He was trying to determine whether an approaching vessel was a combatant with a rocket-propelled grenade or a fisherman before squeezing off any rounds from a virtual 50-caliber machine gun.
Other researchers are studying the ways that acoustic waves propagate underwater and can be used by submarines to hide.
They are also examining the effects of low-frequency active sonar used to detect submarines, and exploring whether there are other methods for Navy warships to train while reducing the risk to marine mammals.
In another laboratory, researchers are adding artificial intelligence to an unmanned submarine the size of a golf bag that can detect the shapes of explosive mines in a harbor. By embedding the sub with autonomy, its sensors can help it avoid underwater obstacles.
“What allows this stuff is the miniaturization of computers,” said Doug Horner, a former Navy SEAL who serves as the associate director of the autonomous vehicles laboratory. “We’re able to do things that we couldn’t have done 10 years ago.”
One of Horner’s key projects is a modified Scan Eagle, an aerial drone with a 10-foot wingspan and a streaming video camera that is being designed to provide surveillance on land and river patrols and covert operations.
Anthony Healey, who chairs the school’s department of mechanical and aeronautical engineering, said the pilotless aircraft are useful “any time you want an eye in the sky to help you.”
“This is not made in China, but the Chinese would love to get their hands on it,” he said.
In another area of the facility, scientists are conducting futuristic research on space-based laser technology, with the aim of being able to identify and hit any target with pinpoint accuracy as well as to improve satellite imagery and laser communications, using high bandwidths to relay vast amounts of sensor data.
If the research ever becomes reality, field commanders envision a network of twin-mirror satellites that can relay the high-energy beams of ground-based lasers to any corner of the globe.
The Bifocal Relay Mirror Spacecraft project’s potential military applications include detecting and identifying the use of chemical warfare agents, spotting installations that have been camouflaged, lighting up a battlefield at night, and detecting aircraft as well as emissions from underground structures and bunkers.
Headed by spacecraft designer Brij Agrawal, it is being funded by the National Reconnaissance Office and the Missile Defense Agency, and enables researchers to use a $10 million “inertial reference unit” to simulate spaceflight and find ways to correct jitters on fast-moving satellites. They are also focusing on laser beam control, using adaptive optics to correct for disturbances in the atmosphere that can compromise either the fine-point accuracy of a laser beam, or the imagery it transmits.
In a basement lab, researchers are creating docking mechanisms for small robots that are roughly the size of the robot R2-D2 in filmmaker George Lucas’ mythical “Star Wars” franchise. The robots, once joined, can multiply their power to communicate, transmit images and attend to other chores. Powered by lithium-ion batteries, the robots use compressed-air thrusters and gyros to navigate on an epoxy floor made for race car pit stops. The docking devices were used last year on the military’s Orbital Express satellite, a test flight for robotically refueling satellites.
School’s Value Questioned
A decade ago, politicians and developers eyed the Monterey campus’ pricey real estate, questioning the school’s purpose and the value of its programs.
Some critics question the school’s new direction and quiet transition, calling it a duplication of programs already offered by the Department of Defense and civilian institutions.
They point out that the Navy already has the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where midcareer and senior officers can pursue a graduate program in international studies, policy and conflict.
Provost Ferrari and the Navy’s top brass defend the school’s courses and research programs.
“This is a highly specialized education,” Ferrari said. “It’s a lean situation. We don’t have a football stadium. When all is said and done, I think we’re pretty cost-efficient.”
“This is an important part of the Navy’s future,” said Adm. Patrick Walsh, vice chief of naval operations.
Walsh, a former Navy fighter pilot whose deployments have included tours of duty in the Middle East, said today’s naval officers need not only the technical skills to operate electronic warfare systems, but also in-depth knowledge of the world’s flash points.
“We can be the force that kicks the door down if necessary,” he said. “We’re also capable of providing humanitarian aid.”
E-mail Jim Doyle at email@example.com.
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
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