In a heavily cloistered complex on the old Charleston Naval Weapons Station here, young engineers, mathematicians, analysts and technicians are keeping watch on the world.
From battling terrorist hackers, monitoring combatant countries or installing the technology to launch an “end-of-the-world” nuclear missile strike, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic – or SPAWAR – is the Navy’s first line of defense in the increasingly dangerous realm of cyberwar.
It is also the electronic umbilical that holds the Navy’s communications together and provides it and the Marines Corps what it calls “information dominance” over potential enemies.
“We’re the Navy’s network,” said Tommy Groves, a spokesman for the center. “We’re on every continent, including Antarctica. We’re on the oceans, below the seas, in the air and in space.”
SPAWAR is one of the military’s largest and most complex information technology departments. Bright South Carolinians make up the bulk of its workforce, but attracting them is getting tougher as the state’s private aerospace and automaking industries lure educated and capable candidates.
‘Saved a lot of lives’
SPAWAR’S functions are complex. Basically, its employees design, build, install, manage, analyze, update and protect electronic systems to give sailors and Marines every advantage in combat.
The Charleston-area facility is the main systems center on the East Coast. But SPAWAR also has satellite offices in New Orleans, with about 220 employees, and Hampton Roads, Va., with 600 workers. It also has branches in Europe and the Middle East.
There is another main service center on the West Coast, located in San Diego.
SPAWAR Atlantic workers are dispatched and stationed around the world to install equipment in everything from nuclear submarines to Navy hospitals. The center hires thousands of private contractors to help with their work.
“That triples our numbers,” said Stephen Dunn, the center’s executive director.
At Charleston, in a warehouse so secret visitors have to leave cameras, cellphones, even automobile key fobs with security personnel, workers build entire radio rooms for submarines, test them, box them up and ship them for installation.
Other labs create communications systems for surface ships and aircraft. In the yards outside of the complex, row upon row of roadside bomb-resistant vehicles – called MRAPS – are lined up to receive scaled-down versions of the satellite and communications systems for the Marine Corps and the Army.
It’s equipment that allows commanders to follow every vehicle on the battlefield in real time from a centralized command center. During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the equipment helped crews avoid roadside bombs and ambushes.
“That saved a lot of lives,” said Lonnie Cowart, a SPAWAR spokesman.
Fighting the cyberwar
The heart of the center, however, is a huge, new data center completed in 2012. Also a highly secured area, it holds row upon row of computer banks, which cloud-store data from every sailor, Marine, ship, aircraft, satellite, base and support facility in the Navy.
“It touches everything in the Navy and Marine Corps all around the world,” center spokesman Groves said. “It’s that big.”
The Navy Enterprise Data Center presently handles a million users a day, and it’s only at one-third capacity.
“It’s the only purpose-built center in the Navy,” said Mike Stapleton, program manager.
But the most newsworthy function of SPAWAR, due to the South Korean hacking scandal and the so-called Islamic State’s use of the Internet for recruitment and Facebook attacks, is cybersecurity.
cyberwarfare “is blowing up because of the size of the threat,” director Dunn said
He noted that because of its unified network, SPAWAR is well-prepared to handle threats. “It has a robust ability to defend itself,” Dunn said.
But can SPAWAR also go on the offensive, hacking other countries or groups?
“There is that capacity,” Dunn said. “But we don’t talk about it in the press.”
Competing for workers
Most of the technicians and engineers here are young, highly educated and highly motivated South Carolinians.
Some of those workers have been groomed for the job since elementary school through SPAWAR’s Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) outreach program. New professionals, fresh out of college, are offered $60,000 a year and a taste of military sleuthing.
“There’s a lot of competition for people in the information technology field in South Carolina,” Dunn said. “That’s why our STEM program is so important.”
That competition is getting stiffer with the workers needed for new plants coming online in the Lowcountry like Boeing, Daimler Chrysler and now Volvo. But unlike in private IT departments, all SPAWAR employees have to be U.S. citizens and pass stringent government security clearances.
“That complicates matter for us,” Dunn said.
Veronica Truesdale, SPAWAR’s New Professional Program manager, said the center is looking for super-talented young technicians and analysts.
“We have tons of things for people to do,” she said. “We need people who are willing to get their hands dirty.”
One of those is Sarah Monk of Charleston, who started at SPAWAR as an intern two years after she graduated from high school.
“SPAWAR offers a range of cool things to work on,” said Monk, now 25 with a graduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of South Carolina. “It allows us to not get stagnant and bored.”
Capt. Amy Burin, SPAWAR’s commander in Charleston, has held positions ranging from integrated underwater surveillance to deputy director of Navy Space. She said the best part of her job is interacting with her civilian specialists.
“They are the smartest people I’ve ever worked with,” Burin said.
SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic by the numbers
employees, nearly all civilian
How to apply
SPAWAR Atlantic will likely hire 200 workers in the next year, including computer and electronics engineers, computer scientists and other IT professionals.
For more information go to: www.spawar.usajobs.gov.
Submit your resume at: www.jobs.spawar.navy.mil.
For employment questions, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
SC’s HIDDEN MILITARY
This is an occasional series about South Carolina’s lesser-known military bases and missions.