WEST 2023, held Feb. 14 to 16 in San Diego, marked 33 years of being the premier Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard event. The conference attracts about 7,000 registered attendees and focuses on operations in the Asia-Pacific region – an especially close-watched area now, following the recent discovery of a Chinese spy balloon in U.S. airspace. Cosponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute, the conference welcomes military and industry thought leaders for discussions on state-of-the-art networking capabilities, technologies and defense tech demonstrations. This year’s theme was “Readiness, Capability and Capacity: How Do the Sea Services Match Up Against the Future Threat?”
“WEST 2023 was on fire this year, with so many inspiring discussions about the promise and realities of tactical edge networking. It’s great to be here and be part of the conversations as a small business making a big impact,” said Sumner Lee, CEO of Fuse Integration.
“This event is a stalwart in our events calendar, as we spend quality time with our customers
and partners,” said Steve Ziff, CEO of NOVA Power Solutions. “It’s an excellent opportunity for
us to share some of the latest developments and product enhancements, and it continues to be one of the premier shows for the defense market.”
Eyes on China
A panel dedicated to discussing Chinese military intentions urged greater U.S. warfighting presence, especially in the Arctic – an area that China has publicly stated it views as essential to its advancement as a world power.
It’s critical that the United States increase its presence there, said Vice Adm. Daniel Dwyer, commander of U.S. Navy Second Fleet, adding that currently, the military has only two ice breakers covering the North and South poles. “We have to be present in the Arctic and we have to develop our own capabilities,” Dwyer said.
“We do have an icebreaking project that’s going on to provide six new icebreakers, three of which will be heavy icebreakers,” added Vice Adm. Andrew Tiongson, Pacific Area commander for the Coast Guard and Defense Force West.
Others warned of the need to build a safe haven in which the U.S. military can perform cyber operations as tensions between China and Taiwan intensify.
“You can have all the tactical successes you want, but if you’re not winning in the information space, you’re not winning,” said Lt. Gen. George Smith Jr., commander of the I1st Marine Expeditionary Force. He added that improved offensive capabilities are part of the Navy’s “secure, survive, strike” Cyberspace Superiority Vision.
Powering the Future of Warfighting
Officials spoke about their need to strengthen their capabilities not only now, but into the future.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro emphasized a need to decommission aging vessels while adding modern ones. Currently, the Navy has 54 vessels under construction. At the same time, however, he expressed concern about the upcoming budget cycle and told suppliers to reach out to him.
“Since I’ve taken office, I’ve met with many of you one-on-one or in small groups,” he said, addressing contractors. “If you’ve heard a rumor that I want to meet with every company that contracts in the United States Navy, let me address that right now: it’s true.”
Several leaders highlighted the role data plays in enabling intelligence that supports warfighters. Lt. Gen. Matthew Glavy, deputy commandant for information at Marine Corps Headquarters, cited the launch of a satellite fleet.
“I don’t think anybody could realize the ability to put 3,000-plus satellites, 30 at a time, into orbit and do it without breaking a sweat. Did we see that coming? How disruptive is that?” he said.
Naval Information Forces also stressed the importance data and analytics play in warfighting.
“We are looking at integration and how we integrate more autonomy and machine learning support for our forces, particularly to free our intellectual capacity, to focus on what’s most important,” said Vice Adm. Kelly Aeschbach, Naval Information Forces commander.
Other critical technologies they say are unmanned vehicles. Rear Adm. Jeffrey Jablon pointed to the adoption of unmanned undersea vehicles by the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force, which he commands, while Vice Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, commander of Naval Air Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet, said a trend in flights is manned/unmanned teaming.
Another theme that came out of the conference was improving the warfighting workforce through new approaches and capabilities. For instance, the Coast Guard is moving from contractors to full-time engagements.
“We have just released our integrated managed services contract, which is a $900 million, 10-year contract that’s going to reduce from six contracts that we have currently to one,” said Rear Adm. Christopher Bartz, assistant commandant for command, control, communications, computers and information technology, U.S. Coast Guard.
Aeschbach said that training in a metaverse has become important when typical training can’t happen because it would disrupt civilians’ lives or happen where adversaries could eavesdrop. “We are pressing hard to get into live, virtual, constructive, training environments, because as many of you know, information warfare capabilities are typically the type of capabilities that we either don’t have the authorization to fully exercise in our own airspace and waters,” Aeschbach said.
It will be interesting to see how these issues, capabilities and trends advance by next year’s WEST event. We’re looking forward to being there and finding out!