Innovation is promoted in the upper echelons of the military. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld continues to promote a military culture that embraces and rewards innovation. The Navy's "Sea Power 21" vision and the Sea Trial pillar embrace the process of innovation from the fleet. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Vern Clark has stated that the Navy will do everything possible to encourage innovation and the Navy "cannot have too many pilot programs under way."1
What does this means for individual war fighters, especially at the unit level? What roles do the individual warfighting units play in the innovation process? How are their contributions made, and what are the potential rewards for their efforts?
In September 2002, the Enterprise (CVN-65) Carrier Strike Group (ECSG) began an experimental innovation program. From the start, the goal has been to improve combat effectiveness by encouraging and capitalizing on unit-level innovation projects using a formalized process run at the strike group level. The motto Innovate to Improve is one of three priorities that guide the operations of the ECSG. Although still developing, the ECSG Battle Group Innovation Cell (BIC) has considered 32 projects, selected 22 for some type of evaluation or demonstration, and taken 8 of these projects to conclusion.
Creating an Innovative Environment
Creation of the innovation cell came from a simple vision that a high priority would be placed on innovation from all members of the strike group and that a formal process would be created to support this vision. The goal was to expend no more than a 10% combined effort on innovation projects, keeping the focus on the number one priority, preparing for combat. A cadre of people was named from the staff to establish the BIC. The innovation process is a collateral duty for all involved.
The creation of a formal innovation process and the associated instruction literally started with a clean sheet of paper. An innovation instruction was developed and distributed across the strike group to guide the BIC and keep the innovation road easy to navigate. Staff members with experience in the test and acquisition world, the CNO's Deep Blue project, other innovators within the strike group, and the newly formed Commander, Second Fleet (C2F), experimentation and innovation shop were tapped for input. Successful models of innovative processes in civilian industry also were researched. Four main principles emerged that helped define the innovation road map:
- Maximize the traffic
- Keep the traffic moving
- Make the road easy to navigate
- Minimize the speed bumps
To maximize traffic, participation has been promoted to the strike group as an all hands effort. Project proposals of any scope or magnitude are accepted by the BIC at any time and from any member of the ECSG. Some projects have been evaluated at no cost to the Navy and in less than a week's time. Others are much broader in scope, such as the Spartan unmanned surface vehicle (USV), a multiyear, multinational, and multimillion dollar project.
After evaluating new project proposals during monthly video teleconferences, BIC members make recommendations based on feasibility, uniqueness, and most important, how the projects will support the two top priorities of the strike group, Preparing for Combat and Serving our People. A lead unit (such as a ship, squadron, or detachment) is selected to develop a plan of action and milestones (POA&M) and execute the project. Emphasis is placed on avoiding duplicating the efforts of other Navy projects. The final products might include published articles, development and demonstration of new tactics, urgent need letters or mission needs statements, and submission of results through the Sea Trial process.
Finally, an effort has been made to minimize the number of speed bumps in the process. There are few restrictions on the types of projects and paperwork required to submit a proposal to the BIC. This helps minimize resistance to new and creative thinking. Templates also have been developed to reduce the effort required to submit and critique the innovation projects. POA&Ms from previous projects are distributed to highlight best practices and streamline administrative requirements. To minimize the effect on operational units executing the innovation projects, the strike group staff assumes a managerial role, handling programmatic and bureaucratic issues that would otherwise bog down progress. Close liaison and frequent interaction with innovation partners within C2F and Fleet Forces Command has proved invaluable in keeping the process on track.
Project execution is not the only goal. To foster creative thinking, a Staff Innovation Fellowship was created. The fellowship allows one officer (ensign to lieutenant commander) to be placed on temporary duty to the strike group staff for 60 days. While on the staff, the Fellow assists in the daily execution of the innovation program and is exposed to the full range of strike group capabilities through a comprehensive training syllabus.
In addition, the strike group staff has taken advantage of the CNO's Chief's Program: Warriors at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program. This fellowship has paid dividends by providing projects such as the E-Wasp micro-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), hand-held language translators, personal water purification filters, and other classified projects.
The true promise of this program rests with the outcome of individual projects. The innovation team has taken a baseball approach to determining overall success. Many projects are considered, a fraction actually pursued, and of that, a smaller fraction provides some potential for improved combat effectiveness. Like a world-class hitter, if even one-third of the projects actually come to fruition, the resulting .300-plus batting average would constitute success. The following descriptions provide a sampling of four diverse innovation projects:
- The Phraselator is one of five DARPA-sponsored innovation projects under evaluation. The Phraselator is a ruggedized personal digital assistant that translates spoken English into one of several selectable languages. The user chooses the desired language, speaks into the Phraselator, and the Phraselator then sounds off the translation. The intelligence department on the Enterprise is running this program in cooperation with Commander, Destroyer Squadron 18, Air Wing One, and SEAL Team Ten. The Phraselator is being used by boarding teams from the Philippine Sea (CG-58), and has potential applications for maritime interdiction operation (MIO) boarding teams, Naval Special Warfare personnel, and during liberty visits.
- Spartan Scout is a first-generation unmanned surface vessel sponsored by the Gettysburg (CG-64) and is considered the "flag ship" of the innovation team. Spartan is a product of the Department of Defense's Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) process and is slated for numerous future spiral developments. The initial spiral that has been accelerated to support the ECSG is an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance version. This prototype features an electro-optical/infrared surveillance turret, a surface search radar, a digital imagery transmission suite, and a command-and-control suite for unmanned operations. Future developments will include mine warfare, undersea warfare, and even armed versions. Spartan was delivered to the Gettysburg while forward deployed and installed during a port visit to Bahrain. It is going through operational testing and is expected to become fully integrated into future operational force protection, surface search and control, and MIO plans. Numerous Navy departments, the U.S. Army, and the Singapore Navy have been involved in this promising effort.
- Prisim is an interactive force protection simulator designed by Advanced Interactive Systems and is an example of one of the commercial-off-the-shelf projects being evaluated. This high-fidelity simulator has been designed into a mobile trailer, complete with an operator's control station and a video screen supporting a simulated range. Training uses customized, real-life scenarios that can be modified on the fly by the instructor based on the actions of the trainees. Trainees benefit from using real weapons outfitted with air-firing mechanisms to enhance realism. The simulation characters return fire using plastic pellets that are targeted and controlled by the instructor. Prisim was placed on board the Enterprise for evaluation and has been used to train force protection personnel, watch-standers, Naval Special Warfare members, staff members, and aircrew.
- E-Wasp is a micro-UAV being developed by DARPA, the Naval Research Lab, and Aeroenvironment. The BIC initiated contact with the project lead to discuss the status and feasibility of fielding a system during the later stages of the turnaround training cycle. This contact was followed by several conference calls between the BIC and Aeroenvironment project engineers to discuss ease of launch and recovery, range, navigation and control, sensor capability, and data transfer paths. These discussions between fleet operators and developmental engineers provided focus and direction for future design and potential missions of the vehicle, and set an achievable timeline for integration into the innovation process. Once the project was determined to have merit, it was handed off to the innovators on the Philippine Sea (CG-58) for operational execution and evaluation.
2. Gopal Ratnam, "$1M Offered to Battle Groups for Innovations," Navy Times, 24 June 2002. back to article