Faces: Then & Now


Naval Postgraduate School: Operations Research 

The mission of the Operations Research Department is to provide premier graduate education in military operations research and to produce high-quality, objective academically rigorous research and professional advice in support of military- and security-related operations. In this month's Faces, we hear from NPS' expert faculty on the past and future of Operations Research.

The NPS Operations Research Department is one of the oldest, largest, and most highly respected OR departments in the U.S. It is without peer in terms of the extent to which graduate education is integrated with a commitment to solving real military problems. Our students and faculty use the latest mathematical modeling ideas and computing technology to penetrate deeply into the analysis of important real-world problems. Analysis is a key word; NPS operations researchers frequently influence decisions and serve as agents for change.


Former Chief of Naval Operations, Retired Admiral Michael Mullen on how his NPS education shaped his career and continues to serve him. 

The two years of study [at NPS] really disciplined me and gave me the ability to think critically and practically apply it down the road. I’m a fairly pragmatic guy. It isn’t like I don’t like theory, but in the end, I’m a pretty pragmatic guy. The other thing that it taught me – Monterey – is, I didn’t want a Ph.D. in it. I didn’t want to know that much about any subject. People need to do that, and I have great admiration for them, but for my own practical application, a master’s was where I wanted to be.

One of the great things that the graduate education in O.R. taught me was how to think much more critically than I had before, and really, to frame a problem. Where that really helps me is being able to ‘still frame’ a problem in my mind and to look at it differently than many of the people [who] bring those problems to me.

And then I have an opportunity to ask the right questions, or try to ask the right questions … It’s become a pretty natural part of how I do business … the ability to frame a problem – and this is the systems engineering, the applied math – that I try to bound a problem and then ask hard questions that … would push the system in a direction of an answer that clearly wasn’t forthcoming by the time it got to me.

Retired Adm. Michael Mullen, MS in Operations Research '85, is a distinguished alumnus of NPS and Chair of the NPS Foundation Advisory Council. 


If you didn't have NPS, you might not have...

Operational Search & Detection Models

Distinguished Professor Alan Washburnwas elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2009 for his "analytical contributions to search theory and military operations research and their application to antisubmarine, mine, and information warfare." Election to the National Academy is the pinnacle of recognition by one's peers for their important scholarly work and, in Washburn's case, it is notable that the Academy acknowledged the importance of naval applications. Washburn's 1981 book, Search and Detection published by the Operations Research Society of America, is an excellent example of how lecture notes for an NPS class can connect the dots between mathematical theory and military operations.

Modern Fleet Tactics

Retired Navy Capt. Wayne Hughes, MS inOperations Research '64, returned to Monterey in 1980 to teach a pilot curriculum in tactics as part of a CNO initiative to improve fleet tactical proficiency. In the development of curriculum materials, Hughes wrote a book, Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, which was published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press in 1986. USNI calls Fleet Tactics a "landmark study ... credited with providing decision makers a sound foundation for battle planning and tactical thinking." Hughes' book was the first American book on naval tactics published since the 1930s.


Matthew Carlyle, PhD
Chair, Department of Operations Research
Professor, Operations Research

Dr. W. Matthew Carlyle is a Professor and Chair of the Operations Research Department at the Naval Postgraduate School. He received his bachelors in Information and Computer Science from Georgia Tech in 1992 and his doctorate in Operations Research from Stanford University in 1997. He was in the Department of Industrial Engineering at Arizona State University from 1997-2002, and joined the NPS faculty in 2002. His research and teaching interests include network optimization, integer programming, network interdiction and spreadsheet models in OR. He receives support from the Office of Naval Research for military applications of optimization, including attack and defense of critical infrastructure, delaying large industrial projects and weapons programs, theater ballistic missile defense, sensor mix and deployment, naval logistics, and Navy mission planning.  Carlyle was awarded the Navy Superior Civilian Service Award in 2006 for his work in support of OEF and OIF.

As we begin 2022, what real-world military problems are at the forefront of analysis for the Operations Research Department? 

There are two “classic” areas of military problems that I see as always remaining relevant. The first of these, military logistics, occupies a large part of my own work in collaboration with students and other faculty right now. We see the potential for needing to stand up major operations in key places on the globe, and, as always, the question is whether we can get the right platforms, personnel, materiel, and fuel to the right place at the right time. The second is in manpower planning; we are keenly aware of the problems all of the services have to address in this general area. New promotion, retention, and retirement policies will have impacts on the future force structure, and we have a history of building models to analyze the impacts of these types of changes.

Newer areas of work include cybersecurity and cyber operations, and the rise of autonomous system. As just one example of the many OR contributions to be made in cyber, we need to be able to develop and use statistical models that can help determine if a cyber system has been breached. Autonomous systems applications present a host of OR-related problems and opportunities in the areas of information sharing and real-time analysis of that information, and determining the degree of autonomy needed for different mission types. Artificial intelligence, and, in particular, machine learning algorithms, can have significant impact on the scope and scale of problems we can solve. In addition, many of these topics need rigorous, statistically valid plans for experimentation and for analyzing the results of those experiments, including the use of analytical wargames; these are all fruitful areas of research for our faculty.

NPS’ Modeling, Virtual Reality Center Reimagines Navy Training

Artificial Intelligence, integrated networks, hypersonics, and microelectronics are among the top research priorities for the Pentagon. What expertise does the OR Department provide with regards to how the Navy and the Joint Force can implement research and follow-on solutions when it comes to ever-changing Pentagon priorities?

One of our overarching strategies is to make sure we hire people with deep analytical skillsets, and then mentor them in the art of military modeling and analysis. Topics in the Pentagon change frequently based on changes in our adversaries, changes in technology, and changes in our own goals. However, the research that can advance those topics always comes down to two basic things: our ability to help decision makers frame questions so that the answers are useful, and our core set of analytical tools and their mathematical and computational foundations. Our focus over the last decade on emphasizing computation throughout our curriculum has allowed us to develop the skills to create both relevant analytical models and to deliver decision support tools to decision makers throughout the Navy and the DOD. The fact that we are home to the statisticians, optimizers, and stochastic and simulation modelers on campus means that we have the expertise to contribute to all of these emerging analytical problems.

To specifically address those four topics, for example, statistics and optimization are at the heart of almost every artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithm. Integrated networks need to be functional, but also robust to deliberate damage, a type of modeling that is central to much of our work in infrastructure defense. Hypersonics change offensive and defensive capabilities, and we can incorporate those changes into our combat modeling, run computer experiments to determine the effect of this new technology on current tactics, and even suggest new tactics that account for those changes. Our SEED Center for Data Farming specializes in this sort of combat modeling. Finally, microelectronics as a manufacturing problem has plenty of classic OR modeling and analysis supporting it. The innovative ways in which microelectronics can transform military operational decision making at all levels is a new set of challenges that OR is well prepared to address.

The pace of technological change increased in 2021 and experts only anticipate further acceleration. How does OR and data science improve efficiency with increased prioritization of AI and ML?  

The biggest issue of this decade will be the management and analysis of enormous amounts of information. AI and ML have been identified as important tools for that task because of the speed at which they can process large amounts of data, but we have seen in recent years that fully automated systems can make mistakes, sometimes with severe consequences. The operations research areas of statistics and optimization are at the core of most AI and machine learning algorithms, and one of the things we bring to the table is the ability to ask questions about the recommendations these systems make. “Why does the model end up favoring these types of decisions? What can we do to remove its bias against this type of assignment? How can we avoid mis-classifying this type of target?” Fully automated systems don’t pause to ask these questions, but modelers and analysts can, and should, continue to develop tools not only to improve the recommendations these automated systems make, but to also understand what underlying features are guiding those decisions and how to make recommendations that truly reflect what the decision makers want. Better tools can help keep humans an important part of the decision process. This makes the algorithms and, more importantly, the decisions they suggest more reliable, more transparent, and therefore more efficient to employ.

How does the current budget landscape and overall defense budget uncertainty impact how we analyze and thus optimize our resources to face future wars?  How does NPS’ mostly military student body uniquely position the NPS OR Dept to take that challenge?

The most basic (and accurate) description I’ve heard of operations research is “allocating scarce resources.” If there is one thing that every one of our military officer students understands, it is being given a task or mission with insufficient resources to fully accomplish it. They also have a deep appreciation for how difficult uncertainty can be; planning for a known shortfall is a well understood problem, but if the actual resources you will have available is still unknown you have to dramatically increase the scope of your analysis and figure out what you might do for a range of values. We have a long history of incorporating uncertainty in the models we build and analyze for many of our research sponsors. Sometimes we plan for worst-case outcomes, sometimes we try to plan for the “average” result, and sometimes we experiment by building specific, relevant scenarios to see what might happen. The choices we make for how to model uncertainty depends on the type and priority of the problem being addressed, the specific question we need to answer, and how impactful the result of our decisions will be if the dice fall on a bad outcome. We teach all of this throughout our courses and incorporate it into our thesis advising and our sponsored research.


Jeff Appleget, PhD
COL, U.S. Army (Ret)
Senior Lecturer, Operations Research
PhD Operations Research, NPS '97

Dr. Jeff Appleget is a retired Army Colonel who served as an Army Operations Research analyst at the Center for Army Analysis (2 years) and the TRADOC Analysis Center (10 years, serving tours at TRAC-Monterey, TRAC-White Sands Missile Range, TRAC-Fort Leavenworth, and TRAC Headquarters). He holds a doctorate in Operations Research from the Naval Postgraduate School, a masters in Operations Research and Statistics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a bachelors from the United States Military Academy. He coordinates NPS research projects with the Joint Warfare Analysis Center (JWAC), and is the NPS program lead for a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Lockheed Martin Space Systems. He teaches the Wargaming Analysis, Combat Modeling, Statistics, and co-teaches Modeling and Simulation of Societies in Conflict and Survey Research Methods courses at NPS. He also develops and teaches week-long Wargaming and Modeling and Simulation courses, with the most recent Wargaming course conducted at Offut AFB for STRATCOM, and the most recent Modeling and Simulation course conducted in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, for the Tajikistan government in support of the U.S. Partnership for Peace Training and Education Center. Appleget is the 2021 recipient of the Mills Medal.

Operations Research and Operations Management have brought about significant improvements to operations in diverse domains, including military, manufacturing, services and the knowledge economy. How do you anticipate your work with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and your contributions to the USMC force design will impact the first battle of the next war? 

One word – preparation! By examining future security environments using wargaming and simulation, we can reveal potential challenges and opportunities that will allow the Marine Corps to better position itself, by testing and refining new concepts and technologies, to succeed in future conflicts.

Operations Research (specifically modeling and wargaming) has changed over the years from broader analysis to more specific problems. What are the areas where ops researchers are making the greatest contribution to our nation’s defense today?

Our best Operations Research analysts are stretching the boundaries of their knowledge by embracing new tools, techniques, and procedures to advantage our nation’s defense. Our allies and partners are adding so-called “soft” operations research techniques to their toolkits to great advantage. Hybrid threats both in Europe and the Western Pacific demand that we look at tools such as foresight analysis and morphological analysis to better understand the challenges adversaries employing hybrid warfare will pose to the U.S., NATO and our other allies and partners. Understanding the implications of kinetic conflict is easy in comparison!

How does NPS’ mostly military student body uniquely position the NPS OR Dept to take on the challenges of wargaming?

The students typically bring nearly a decade of tactical and operational military experience into the classroom. This allows us to address the complex and challenging wargaming topics that our DOD, allies, and partners bring to us. We form the students into 4-6 student wargaming teams, and the mix of services, experiences, and sometimes academic backgrounds is critical to providing a broad yet rigorous examination of the sponsor’s key wargaming issues.

How did your education in Operations Research at the various institutions you attended differentiate, specifically between civilian OR and Military OR?

First, while my master’s degree in OR and Statistics from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute was a challenging and valued educational experience, it did not provide the military OR knowledge that we provide our NPS students. In particular, our Joint Combat Modeling, Joint Campaign Analysis, and Wargaming Applications courses are the critical difference makers that ensure the NPS OR degree uniquely serves the best interests of our nation’s armed forces. Through these courses, our students begin paying back their education before graduation by providing DOD sponsors insights into the challenges of our current and future security environments that these courses address. These courses also serve to get the students refocused on the military challenges their services and nations are facing, so when they graduate from NPS they are ready to hit the ground running and apply their OR skills immediately. As an Army Operations Research Colonel, I advocated for EVERY Army OR analyst to attend NPS. I knew that analysts who received a civilian OR education would need six months to a year to come up to speed and fully contribute to the organization’s analytical missions. NPS OR students were ready to go when they came in the door!

How did your own education and experience in the military inform how you educate current students?

I’ve learned that 50 minutes of lecture are usually sub-optimal when I’m teaching applied courses such as wargaming and combat modeling. The students need to get involved, learn by doing, hands on education. My experience as an Army operations research officer and leader taught me that OR problems are almost always best addressed by teams, not individuals, and I apply that in the classroom. So while there are still some lectures and some quizzes in my courses, it’s much more common to see teams of students working on group solutions to real-world military problems that we’ve brought into the NPS classroom through our network of contacts throughout the Navy and our other services, allies and partners.


Sam Buttrey
Champion of Jeopardy's Inaugural Professor's Tournament
Associate Professor, Operations Research

"I am delighted to learn that in all of the subjects that people study, there’s room for numerical analysis. You might have thought that in history and English there’d be no use for statistics and data analysis, but it isn’t true. Historical analysis of all sorts can benefit from data.
One of the great things about my job is that I’ve had the opportunity to learn a little bit about a lot of fields."

David Alderson, PhD
Professor, Operations Research 

Dr. David Alderson is a Professor in the Operations Research Department and serves as Founding Director for the Center for Infrastructure Defense at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is also a member of the NPS Cyber Academic Group, which has academic oversight of interdisciplinary cyber curricula on campus.

Alderson's research focuses on the function and operation of critical infrastructures, with particular emphasis on how to invest limited resources to ensure efficient and resilient performance in the face of accidents, failures, natural disasters, or deliberate attacks. His research explores tradeoffs between efficiency, complexity, and fragility in a wide variety of public and private cyber-physical systems. Alderson has been the Principal Investigator of sponsored research projects for the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

Alderson received his doctorate from Stanford University and his undergraduate degree from Princeton University. He has held research positions at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the University of California Los Angeles, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and the Santa Fe Institute. He has extensive industry experience and has worked for several venture-back startup companies. His early career was spent developing technology at Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York City. Alderson is the 2021 recipient of the Richard W. Hamming Teaching Award.

From DOD to NATO, to state and local governments, you and your many thesis students collect data and perform field experiments around the world, tackling today's complex public and battlefield-centric problems. In what ways do the OR students at NPS contribute to our Nation's ability to maintain its competitive advantage and to solutions that can be applied around the globe?

Operations Research is the science of going "from data to decision." We educate analysts so they can apply the latest tools in data analysis, computation, optimization, machine learning, modeling and simulation, so they are fully capable of conducting independent analytical studies of military problems and advising senior leaders. Our students and faculty use the latest mathematical modeling ideas and computing technology to penetrate deeply into important, real-world problems ranging from capital planning, scheduling and logistics to emergency response and critical infrastructure.

There are many fine schools that teach the theory and tools of operations research, but in many cases their applications are limited to "textbook problems." Solving real problems is more challenging because the real world is messy, with data that is incomplete, incorrect and confusing. Our students use their operational experience as military officers to identify, formulate and solve problems that defy textbook solutions. The growing complexity of the world requires problem solvers who combine quantitative methods and operational art, not just in theory but in practice.

"Our students practice in the real world — by working with real sponsors on real problems in their master's theses and capstone projects — to deliver immediate solutions and gain valuable experience in operational thinking, planning, and execution."

Can you tell us about the Center for Infrastructure Defense and what makes NPS different in its capabilities and methodology for vulnerability analysis and infrastructure resilience? 

NPS has been studying critical infrastructure since (at least) the 1980s, long before my time. Much of the early foundational work focused on targeting critical infrastructure systems to achieve a specific effect (e.g., interrupting electric power). It turns out the same mathematics used for attacking critical infrastructure is important for understanding how to defend it. NPS has been a leader in the development and application of these Attacker-Defender models for critical infrastructures and other systems. 

However, protecting critical infrastructure (e.g., via hardening) is not enough. We continue to see the regular occurrence of surprising failures in civilian and military systems at organizational, regional, national scales—breakdowns that trigger or threaten widespread service outages with large financial, operational, and/or human costs. We see these arise from extreme weather events (and longer-term climate volatility), unintended fragilities that accompany the deployment of new technologies, and/or new paths for adversarial conflict. The real questions have become: How do we better anticipate changing threats and recognize emerging new vulnerabilities in an increasingly interconnected world? How do we learn to offset changing risks before failures occur in these evolving systems? How do we build the capability to be poised to adapt to keep pace and stay ahead of the trajectory of growing complexity? This is where we hope the NPS Center for Infrastructure Defense will continue to make its mark in the years ahead.

How is NPS and the CID addressing the increasing integration of cyber-physical systems into traditional critical infrastructure? How does it affect how we prepare for future warfare?

Many modern critical infrastructure systems, such as the electric grid, are so complicated that it is near impossible to operate them without the support of computer-based decision-support tools, which have become their own type of digital infrastructure. These systems rely on automation, and there is increasing use of advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) tools to provide faster and often better decisions. In the media, we have seen tremendous progress on the development of computers who beat humans at Chess, Go, and just about everything else. Understanding how human-machine teams can perform even better, in infrastructure management and warfare, is an active area of research.

NPS OR educates students in the latest AI/ML tools and techniques, for example via our Certificate in Operational Data Science and Statistical Machine Learning. These tools can find patterns in data that would otherwise be invisible to humans, and these patterns can be used to inform decision-making. However, there are limits to what these technologies can and cannot do. For example, one of the ongoing lessons is the difficulty that computers (including modern AI-based systems) have dealing with surprise. To date, humans are the only ones able to reframe problems when previous assumptions or models are found to be incorrect. Despite the push for AI-enabled decision support, humans (our students!) remain imperative as critical thinkers and decision-makers. This is true when these systems work as planned, and it becomes even more important when they don't work as planned (as always happens eventually). When it comes to deploying such systems, the need for human expertise actually goes up, not down.  

All of this makes our research and work with students across disciplines more important than ever.  


NPS Student's Award-Winning Thesis Helps Naval Station Newport Prepare For Hurricane

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Amanda Jones, a Sept. 2021 graduate, receives the Chief of Naval Operations Award in Operations Research from Senior Marine Corps Representative Col. Randy Pugh. Jones had a rare opportunity to put her thesis research to use before graduating, helping Naval Station Newport evaluate evacuation planning scenarios in August with Hurricane Henri threatening.

“It was very satisfying to be able to see my thesis, that wasn’t even done yet, was actually able to immediately be used in a real-life scenario,” said Jones.     Read more.


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