WEST 2024 celebrated its 24th year as the premier Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard event by welcoming about 7,000 registered attendees to learn about operations in the Asia-Pacific region. Held Feb. 13 to 15 in San Diego, the popular conference is cosponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute, and attracts military and industry thought leaders for discussions on state-of-the-art networking capabilities, technologies and defense tech demonstrations. This year’s theme was “Are Acquisition and Readiness on Pace to Meet Global Security Demands?”

All About AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) has dominated public discourse for the past year, and it was also center stage at WEST 2024. Military leaders called it a valuable tool while cautioning that humans still need to be in the loop to optimize AI’s effectiveness.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti described some of the ways the service already uses AI and its machine learning (ML) subset, such as to “to help support conditions-based maintenance to free up our sailors for other, more important tasking.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti delivers the keynote address at WEST 2024, Feb. 13. Co-sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute, WEST 2024 is the premier naval conference and exposition on the West Coast, bringing military and industry leaders together.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti delivers the keynote address at WEST 2024 (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Michael B. Zingaro)

“We’re doing this by using robotics to quickly, accurately and more cost-effectively assess the material condition of our seagoing platforms,” she continued. “These technologies help put and keep more players on the field. And this really only scratches the surface on how we’re using technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning to better support the fleet in life cycle maintenance.”

But AI still needs to overcome technological challenges, added Sam Tangredi, a professor and Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. “AI can be deceived,” Tangredi said. It “soaks up data from the internet, it gets the conspiracy theories, too, and applies that to whatever the subject is.”

Ultimately, AI can augment warfighters’ experience, but it’s not a be-all, end-all, the experts said. Right now, the best application for it is for remote jobs.

“Allow machines to do tasks and calculations that machines do better, and overlay human judgment when it’s required,” said Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. “Never abdicate decisions on human life to machines.”

Exploring Uncrewed Platforms

Uncrewed vehicles were also a hot topic this year. The Coast Guard is testing them for use in trafficking operations, for example.

“Data and new tools are providing us an unprecedented increase in actual maritime domain awareness that enable information-driven operations,” said Vice Adm. Peter Gaultier, deputy commandant for operations at the Coast Guard. “This really includes the private sector, to help us develop advanced capabilities that we don’t even know that we need but that are possible.”

Adm. Samuel Paparo, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, addresses WEST 2024

Adm. Samuel Paparo, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, addresses WEST 2024 (Credit: Michael Carpenter and Jesse Karras)

The Navy is adopting uncrewed systems, too, but slowly, Paparo said, so as not to expose experiments “to an adversary that would emplace a counter to that capability.”

Still, uncrewed systems are crucial to warfighters’ “decisive combat power,” Franchetti said.

“Unmanned systems have an enormous potential to multiply our combat power by complementing our existing fleet of ships, submarines and aircraft through manned-unmanned teaming, especially in areas like maritime surveillance and reconnaissance, mine countermeasures, operations, seabed exploration and carrier airwing support,” she said.

The service is exploring a robotics rating to help form a team who would be responsible for uncrewed platforms. Although she provided no timeline for the rating, she said it could be part of a future hybrid crewed and uncrewed fleet.

Data-Driven Everything

Data is the common thread running through all the technologies that leaders discussed at the conference. Lt. Gen. Robert Skinner, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, said the fundamental questions are: “Is the right information being collected to then enable decision-makers’ calculus? Does it give them the right information to decide what the best course of action is?”

He called on industry to help, emphasizing that the organization that can provide warfighters with clean data the fastest will have the advantage.

But Jennifer Edgin, assistant deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, said that procurement changes are also necessary to ensure that warfighters have access to the best data-driven technologies.

“The ‘buy and replace’ model, we are good at that; [we are] really good at identifying technology,” Edgin said. “But that’s not the space that we need to operate in moving forward. The space that we need to operate in moving forward is a ‘buy and sustain’ model. And that’s not just a statement about cybersecurity patches. That’s embodying the Defense Innovation Board’s notion that ‘software is never done.’”

Meanwhile, the Navy is upgrading its networks to speed the collection and distribution of data. A unique challenge the service faces is connectivity at sea, said Vice Adm. Craig Clapperton, commander of Fleet Cyber Command.

“There’s bandwidth problems, there’s technology problems and there’s how you’re going to move the data through the ship’s network,” Clapperton said.

U.S. Pacific Fleet is starting to use software-defined networking and hyperconverged infrastructure to help move massive amounts of data through existing connectivity, while the Navy’s Project Overmatch looks to increase connectivity fleetwide.

If formalized and adopted, the Marine Corps’ Project Dynamis would also support network modernization. It would have four focus areas, said Col. Jason Quinter, project leader:

  • Modernizing the service’s command, control, communications and computers (C4) network and infrastructure.
  • Developing data and transitioning to the cloud.
  • Federating authoritative data for AI, ML and big data analytics.
  • Educating service members about C4 and cybersecurity.

As these new technologies and approaches take root, we will be watching, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they advance at next year’s WEST event.