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Strategic Asset

Dave Phillips has a not-so-conventional job. In recent years, the civilian electrical engineer at Spawar has been busy getting some aging but vital Navy electronics to play nicely with local power grids — including one in Cutler, Maine, population 507.

Phillips — one of roughly 160 Ph.D.s working for Spawar — was asked to update a heavy-duty electronic component called a “crowbar” in very low-frequency transmitters that deliver messages to Navy submarines around the globe. The transmitters contain gigantic vacuum tubes worth $17,000 apiece. Blowing a bank of them costs Uncle Sam more than half a million dollars. Phillips, a specialist in high-voltage electronics, came up with a solid-state crowbar — or circuit breaker — to protect the tubes without creating power problems in nearby towns, and saving the Navy $20 million per year.

It’s just one of the atypical projects at Spawar, a command that contributes $1.7 billion annually to the San Diego community, according to a recently released, first-of-its-kind “Spawar Economic Impact Study” commissioned by the San Diego Military Advisory Council, a group of civic, business and military leaders.

Spawar — short for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command — pursues its work in a characteristic, understated way. Blink and you might miss it.

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There are actually two Spawars in San Diego. The command headquarters is in Old Town, in a repurposed aircraft factory. Spawar Systems Center Pacific on Point Loma is a research and development lab, among other things. All told, Spawar occupies 3 million square feet of floor space in San Diego and employs 4,900 people. All but a few hundred are civilians.

Spurring Technology and Business

The new economic impact report’s authors at Point Loma Nazarene University, led by economist Lynn Reaser, said that when ripple effects are considered, Spawar can take credit for at least 18,000 local jobs and $2.5 billion of economic activity.

The $1.7 billion that Spawar spends directly in the community includes $961 million in defense contracts. The biggest names in defense get work from Spawar, but the command also sets aside work for small and disadvantaged businesses. In addition, Spawar participates in a broader U.S. Defense Department program offering small business innovation research grants, commonly known as SBIR. The grants aim to bring new technologies to maturity.

Over the decades Spawar has spun out entire private businesses. In 1990, for example, Spawar’s silicon-on-sapphire microchip technology became the basis for Peregrine Semiconductor Corp. (Nasdaq: PSMI). With $202 million in revenue, Peregrine ranks today as the No. 25 company on the Business Journal’s list of largest public companies.

Spawar boasts intellectual heft. It has enough academics to staff a small university. In addition to its doctoral degree holders like Phillips, it has 1,200 people with master’s degrees. The average civilian salary at the command is $105,000.

The report found the government plans to decrease the number of people at Spawar headquarters by 20 percent from 2015 to 2019 — a goal it will likely reach through attrition. Meanwhile, the government plans to increase headcount at Spawar Systems Center Pacific by 3 percent in 2015, and employment will plateau then. Current employment at SSC Pacific is 4,175.

From Cyber to Dolphins

Spawar deals in satellites, computer gear, radio technology and all manner of technical equipment. It works with unmanned undersea vehicles and boasts of employing half the cybersecurity professionals in San Diego.

Spawar Systems Center is the center of the Navy’s marine mammal program, which trains dolphins and sea lions to do in-water tasks such as finding mines. Tragically, an employee of Science Applications International Corp. lost his life while working in the program in late April. SAIC (NYSE: SAIC) holds a marine mammal contract.

Rocket assembly at Spawar’s Old Town plant has ceased, a spokesman said, but the factory buildings are home to three big programs. They are a UHF satellite program called Mobile User Objective System; the Next Generation Enterprise Network, a $3.4 billion program that will provide hundreds of thousands of computers to 2,500 shore bases; and the next-generation shipboard network, called Canes. A Spawar spokesman said Canes amounts to “open heart surgery” for every Navy ship.

On Point Loma, there are upward of 600 projects going on at any one time, a spokesman said.

Cold Science and Radio Power

When considering the Santa Ana weather, Anna Leese de Escobar thinks in Fahrenheit, but inside her Spawar lab, she thinks in Kelvin. That is the scientific temperature scale where water freezes at 273 degrees above absolute zero. The world of cryogenics occurs at lower temperatures such as 77 kelvins — 321 below zero on the Fahrenheit scale and the point at which common nitrogen turns from gas to a liquid.

Leese de Escobar and her small team conduct a spectrum of cryogenic work, from basic research to getting gear ready for the fleet. Unfortunately, she said, people are afraid of the field; they have “cryophobia.”

But cryogenics could well be a sailor’s best friend. Leese de Escobar investigates how very low temperatures can improve the functions of a microchip. Low temperatures can also improve radio reception by helping to reduce noise. She sees cryogenic containers the size of 2-liter soda bottles or coffee cups possibly becoming as familiar as rack-mounted electronics.

SSC Pacific began life as a radio lab around World War II. Over the years the Point Loma facilities have been known by several alphabet-soup names including NUC, NELC and NOSC.

“Every few years we changed the name. That’s why we’re a big secret,” one employee said, tongue in cheek.

Technology comes and goes, but radio is still a key topic on Point Loma.

Randall Olsen, who has a Ph.D. in physics, works on highly directional antennas. Satellites have such gear costing millions of dollars, but Olsen’s team puts together similar antennas for Navy ships, costing thousands of dollars. Like other military technologies, Olsen’s directional antennas probably have commercial purposes. He suggested they could be used in cellphone networks.

SSC Pacific’s engineers and scientists deal in substances such as graphene, which is a sheet made of carbon that is a single atom thick. The material is not yet ready for oceangoing ships, but it may one day be the way to make extra-small, lightweight antennas. Such an approach could “eliminate a forest of antennas on top of ships,” said Dave Rees, another Ph.D. at SSC Pacific. “There’s a lot of excitement about graphene right now.”

SSC Pacific engineers have even been able to turn a stream of seawater into an antenna.

All of this barely uncovers the basic science that Spawar Systems Center explores — including the possibility of harvesting energy from seafloor bacteria. Spawar, however, does not pursue science for its own sake.

Capt. Kurt Rothenhaus, SSC Pacific’s commander, recently spoke to an industry group about never wanting to go into a fair fight. Rothenhaus wants U.S. sailors to have an advantage. Science, technology and geopolitics all change. The advantage goes to those who have the latest in science and technology — and anticipate the same from their adversary.

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