Editor's Notes: Navy Joins the Innovation ‘Flotilla’

By Stew Magnuson

Photo: Navy

Rare is the defense industry conference nowadays that doesn’t have at least one panel discussion with the word “innovation” in its title. If innovation can just be achieved or harnessed, then all the military’s technology problems will be solved.

The Navy League’s recent Sea-Air-Space conference was no exception to this truism, hosting no less than four such discussions: “Logistics Innovation,” “Innovation in the Use of Gaming for Training,” “Rapid Innovation” and finally, “Innovation in Shipbuilding.”

“The panel’s title amused me. I don’t often see ‘innovation’ and ‘shipbuilding’ in the same title,” quipped Allison Stiller, principal civilian deputy in the office of the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, and the moderator of the latter of the four panels.

Stiller set the tone with the notion that the Navy might be behind in the innovation game.

It wants to join the innovation bandwagon — or perhaps “innovation flotilla” is better, so not to mix metaphors. But the term innovation is squishy, with many definitions and ideas on how to achieve it. Here are just a few of the thoughts put forth at the symposium.

“In the world we are operating in today, innovation isn’t just about stuff. It covers our command and control, tactics or strategy, our acquisition — and stuff. It’s all connected together,” said Vice Adm. William R. Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems.

Stiller found innovation in the ordinary. “Stable plans, healthy supplier base and training our workforce may not sound super exciting, but it does enable innovation in shipbuilding,” she said. All this derives from stable funding from Congress to enable its 30-year shipbuilding plan, she said.

Vice Adm. Thomas J. Moore, Naval Sea Systems Command commander, said: “We are in a digital age. And as we go into an era of innovation in shipbuilding, you have got to be able to embrace the digital age as we start building the ships.”

Rear Adm. John P. Neagley, program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, finds innovation in competitive prototyping. “Take our prototypes, get them out to the fleet and start developing [concepts of operation] and learn quickly to inform the designs and start delivering those at speed and scale,” he said.

Rear Adm. William J. Galinis, program executive officer for ships, said: “Competition is really one of the key drivers to help us drive down costs and foster innovation across the enterprise.”

William P. Bray, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, test and evaluation, said agility is the key to innovation. “It’s figuring out how we can go faster — with discipline — in engineering and acquisition. … Agility kind of primes that engine, primes that pump to allow us to go quickly, be more affordable and get that capability to the warfighter.”

"The term innovation is squishy, with many definitions and ideas on how to achieve it."

Ronald O’Rourke, specialist in naval affairs at the Congressional Research Service, noted that the Navy needed something that cannot be acquired from any company, and no amount of funding can purchase: time. Warfighters — whether they are using new systems being fielded under competitive prototyping or simply taking old systems and trying new things — have to have time to play around with them. And that is something in short supply nowadays, he said.

“They need time and space to discover how to use these things. They can’t do it if they are being run ragged, meeting demands for deployed forces,” he said.

In this new era of great power competition, “we don’t have the luxury of time and capability for overmatch the way we used to,” he said.

The acquisition system has to get innovative, but it’s stuck in the past, he said.

“Avoiding cost growth and schedule delays and problems in testing are still metrics of value … but they are no longer necessarily the only measures of merit in acquisition programs, and pursuing those goals to the exclusion of everything else might only mean so much if it also means in the end that you lose the war,” he said.

The Navy’s Marine Corps brethren want on the flotilla, too. The service also believes in giving operators time to test out innovative technologies, said Lt. Gen. Robert S. Walsh, commanding general of the Marine Corps combat development command, and deputy commandant of combat development and integration.

“We have to have that operational input,” he said.

The new trend — first put forth by the Hacking for Defense program, is to identify and clearly define problems, instead of requirements. Then let industry, academia and research labs come together and “play on the same sandbox” and focus on the problem set, Walsh said.

The first problem it tackled was ship-to-shore maneuver in contested environments.

The Marines held workshops throughout the year, which resulted in new ideas and gadgets that were put in the hands of Marines to be able to see what they can do and how they would impact operating concepts.

“In many cases, it completely opens our eyes to new ways to do business that we weren’t thinking of in the capability development area,” Walsh said.

In summary, innovation will be achieved with agility, more competition, problem solving, stability, a dependable Congress, digital technology, discipline, an improved acquisition system and a healthy dose of time.

Fair winds and following seas to the innovation flotilla.

Topics: Navy News, Defense Innovation, Shipbuilding, Research and Development

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.