Anyone who has spent much time around either submarines or the Bahamas is likely to have heard of something called AUTEC. Not many people know much about it since it involves submarines and testing to ensure the subs and their weapons work well. AUTEC’s main base is on Andros Island, a short flight from Nassau. A key part of AUTEC is its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Naval Forces Sensor and Weapons Accuracy Check Sites (FORACS), known as NFA. AUTEC was picked for its access to the Tongue of the Ocean, a remarkable site protected from the open Atlantic so ambient noise is at a minimum. Here’s the surprisingly readable and detailed entry on it from Wikipedia:

“Chosen because of its ideal natural characteristics, and its climate which permits year-round operations, the TOTO is a U-shaped, relatively flat-bottomed trench approximately 20 miles (32 km) wide by 150 miles (240 km) long with a depth which varies gradually from 3,600 feet (1,100 m) in the south to 6,600 feet (2,000 m) in the north. Its only exposure to the open ocean is at the northern end, and except for this ocean opening, the TOTO is surrounded by numerous islands, reefs, and shoals which make a peripheral shelter isolating it from ocean disturbances, particularly high ambient noise which degrades undersea tests and evaluations.”

The following piece is a clear bit of advocacy by NFA’s Navy guardians in a time of enormous budget uncertainty. Given how rarely service people reach out to the media to write on the record op-ed pieces – especially about test sites — we decided to run it. The Editor.

Naval operations are complex and risky, particularly against 21st-Century “hybrid” and “irregular” threats and challenges. In these demanding and dangerous environments, commanding officers (COs) must be confident that their onboard sensors, weapons, combat systems and links will work as intended.

For that, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Naval Forces Sensor and Weapons Accuracy Check Sites (FORACS) Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC), known as “NFA” for short, is a “one-stop shop” to assure COs that their ship systems are accurately and precisely instrumented to deliver situational awareness––the foundation for mission success.

Although co-located with AUTEC, a U.S. Navy national test asset, NFA is one of the Navy’s “best-kept secrets.” The NFA test team has a long history testing submarines and surface ships. They are often integrated with other test teams, such as Combat System Ship Qualification Trials (CSSQT) or Weapon Systems Accuracy Trials (WSAT), to maximize test periods and minimize impacts to the ships under test. And yet, people are surprised when they learn of NFA’s central role in assuring weapon and sensor accuracy and effectiveness.

FORACS dates from the mid-1960s when the Navy discovered problems with its torpedo testing range at Dabob Bay off the Hood Canal leading to Washington’s Puget Sound. The range was clocking errors in sonar inputs that were off by as much as 20 degrees. These findings prompted the Bureau of Ships, the predecessor of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), to establish a deep-water test and evaluation facility and test ranges off Florida’s east coast. Headquartered in West Palm Beach, NFA was the Navy’s operational field activity to measure dynamic errors in its platforms.

Back then, the Navy and NATO’s priority was to counter the Soviet submarine threat with accurately calibrated anti-submarine warfare sensor and weapon systems. In the 1960′s NATO navies had also become aware that their shipboard systems were performing significantly below their designed capability, resulting in significant sensor accuracy errors.

In 1977 the NATO FORACS Office (NFO) was established in Brussels as a multinational alliance activity, an early example of what today is called “Smart Defense.” (FORACS exemplifies Smart Defense in this era of tight national defense budgets and reduced national infrastructures. FORACS is a premier, operationally focused example of how NATO is moving toward increased multinational cooperation, interoperability and use of shared assets.)

Four years later the first European range, the NATO FORACS Norway (NFN), near Stavanger, was established. In 1984, the NATO FORACS Greece (NFG) range became operational at Soudha Bay, Crete, and nearby Cape Drapanos. In 1994, the U.S. FORACS V site (co-located at AUTEC) affiliated with the NATO FORACS program as NFA, becoming the Alliance’s third instrumented, fixed test range. In addition to fixed facilities, all three NATO FORACS sites support portable testing teams that can deploy virtually anywhere in the world to test and assess operational combat system performance after repairs to major defects or battle damage.

Sensor/weapon/information exchange accuracy and interoperability are fundamental requirements for intra-service, joint and multinational use of cooperative engagement systems that rely on accurate plots. NFA and its sister FORACS sites provide accuracy assurance by measuring errors in sensor performance and testing the full combat system in static and dynamic conditions. The U.S., Norwegian, and Greek NATO FORACS sites perform precision dynamic calibration measurements of the accuracy of target and navigation sensors against common geographical references to satisfy national requirements and meet NATO material readiness standards. The testing process assesses design specifications of new and upgraded systems, validates performance following new construction and overhaul, and, most critically, assesses real-time operational capability. If a ship has a particular sensor accuracy, performance or interoperability problem, FORACS can design a test tailored to investigate it and to restore or improve overall combat system performance.

NFA facilities test the full range of all in-service systems. At the basic level, testing measures bearing, range, heading and positional sensor errors. The ranges have an undersea capability to test submarine and surface ship sonar and other underwater sensors and communications. All ranges can test for blind spots in antenna radar patterns, and, with mine countermeasures once again a concern, range facilities have installed specific capabilities to test mine-hunting and -avoidance capabilities.

“The United States receives a high return on its investment in our affiliation with the NATO FORACS Project” says Patricia Hamburger, director of integrated warfare systems engineering (SEA 05H) at Naval Sea Systems Command. “The Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe requires all multinational operational units joining NATO formations to use FORACS to ensure interoperability for joint-service and multinational operations. The three sites provide baseline assessments that ensure that U.S. and allied warships can operate together to carry our critical missions and tasks in operations as varied as Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean Sea, Ocean Shield anti-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia, and the naval contributions to International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan.”

The test process has evolved from purely stand-alone sensor technical testing to system-level integrated testing, thus enabling the platform to perform as a fully integrated combat system. Dynamic range testing now includes much more command operationally focused serials––such as the three-day Operational Capability Confidence Checks (OC3s)––that can provide technical analysis of tactical procedures by replicating theater-specific threats.

OC3s deliver relevant operational capability to the entire spectrum of maritime operations. All OC3 tests are tailored to individual needs, and they provide the commanding officer with the assurance that the ship’s combat system has maximized its ability to enter an operational theater and counter all threats. FORACS issues comprehensive reports to ship personnel, to material commands for evaluation of maintenance and design performance, and to operational commands for measurements of combat readiness.

“The leadership and commitment of NAVSEA 05H and Naval Undersea Warfare Center enable the U.S. Navy to sustain this vital sensor accuracy test service,” Hamburger underscored. “We measure and assess reality, not what we think or hope might be the case.”

John “Jay” Ostaffe is NATO’s Fleet Operational Readiness Accuracy Check Site (FORACS) range manager at the Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. Michael D. Overby is the U.S. representative to the NATO FORACS Steering Committee.