As we look over the horizon, we must ensure that our naval fighting capabilities are agile enough to respond to rapid changes in the future operating environment. Here, we examine the role of innovation as the Navy and Marine Corps enter a new era of information-intensive warfare. What role does innovation play in shaping future capabilities? What conditions are important to generate and exploit innovative ideas? How do we instill a culture that promotes bold, creative thinking? To position our naval forces for success in the future we must find solutions that address these questions.
What is Innovation?
The first question to be answered is “what’s in it for us?” Innovation is defined as creativity applied to a purpose to realize value. Innovation expert John Kao goes a little deeper in his “Innovation Manifesto.”
Innovation enables people to adapt to the waves of disruptive change . . . and the rate is increasing. Changes are brought about by new demographic and geopolitical shifts [and] by new and emerging technologies. The complexity of change is beyond most strategic planning.1
Innovation as applied to military science encourages creativity and original thought to realize value. Technological advances are occurring in abundance in the private sector. The challenge before us—better yet, the opportunity—is to closely follow and rapidly incorporate applicable new technologies. How well the Navy is able to do this may well determine its ability to move forward in the information age.
Kao goes on to state: “Creating what is both new and valuable—is not a narrowly defined, technical area of competence . . . rather, innovation emerges when different bodies of knowledge, perspectives and disciplines are brought together.”2 Our challenge is to develop a cooperative structure to enhance innovation while not crushing it with bureaucracy.
In his book The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson discusses the power of combining two seemingly unrelated fields to produce new ways of tackling old problems. The result is called an “intersectional idea.” His view is that, to truly move in a new direction, it is important to “live at the intersection.”3 One community decided to give it a try. Commander, Submarine Forces sponsored the TANG Forum in November 2011. The effort brought together a diverse set of attendees, none above the rank of lieutenant, to generate a multitude of ideas centering on implementing new technologies for the submarine force. Regarding the outputs of the conference, then-Vice Admiral John Richardson commented:
This was a landmark event for us. For the first time, we really harnessed the creativity and innovative spirit of our young operators, who are perfectly positioned in the intellectual “sweet spot”—they know our problem set in detail, and they are familiar with the intuitive interfaces from their gaming, smart phones, and tablets. The conference was so rich, some of the ideas were so mature, we’ll be incorporating them into our next version of software updates in the next two years. Some were so powerful and sweeping, they will require bigger design changes in future blocks of Virginia SSNs [nuclear-powered attack submarines] and the new SSBN [nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine] class. We’re also looking to expand this approach to other submarine problems.
Innovation in Naval History
History offers a priceless cache of previously purchased lessons to those who will mine it and apply it forward. The Navy of the interwar years and early Cold War periods faced mesmerizing opportunities and challenges similar to those we face today. We must heed their lessons and adopt their innovative zeal to gain advantages in future operating environments.
The period of 1919–39, known as the interwar years, provides a fascinating glimpse at how innovation emerges in challenging environments. The primary constraint of that time was the Washington Naval Treaty that among other things limited the production of battleships and undercut forward-basing options. To overcome those challenges war planners began to think creatively. In building “War Plan Orange,” Navy planners unleashed a torrent of new ideas, such as options for aircraft carrier use, long-range logistics at sea and floating drydocks.
To keep pace with the surge in new ways to prepare for conflict at sea, Navy leadership created the General Board which, as author John T. Kuehn notes, “was the locus where treaty preparation, building policy, and war planning all intersected. The board addressed strategy, the recommendations of the bureaus, policy-making, NWC [Naval War College] wargaming results and studies.”4 The board helped cut through the complexities and uncertainties of the day. It focused innovation by defining the problems, and its largely untethered efforts resulted in the advance of amphibious warfare, carrier aviation, and the formation of a complex campaign of “island hopping,” as leaders considered how they would seize and hold new bases across the vast distances of the Pacific. Their efforts culminated in a clearly defined experimentation and wargaming process that yielded significant results. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz was to later remark: “The wargames with Japan had been enacted in the game rooms at the War College by so many people . . . that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise—absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics towards the end of the war.”5
Before zeroing in on the future, it is important to look at how we currently innovate. Today, the U.S. military is just a small slice of the global industrial complex and as such is no longer in a position to keep pace with the creation of cutting-edge technology. What’s more, attempts to “in-source” new ideas and concepts face the bureaucracy of the acquisition process, the influence of Congress, and the size and focus of Navy staffs. These things tend to stifle the generation and development of new ideas and concepts. The current configuration of the military was largely shaped by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. That legislation shifted power to the combatant commanders, all of whom have a very real need to meet the demands of their theaters on a daily basis. Much of this contributes to what many have called a “lethargy of the mind” when thinking about innovation in the Navy.6
Like the interwar years, we need a clear understanding the issues we face. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding solutions.” John Kao describes this as an “Innovation Audit”—understanding what we have and what we need.7 The first part is easy, the second more difficult. In defining “needs,” the pattern today is to default to things—weapon systems and other material items that can fill a perceived capability gap. Now, more than ever, it is essential to recognize that innovation is much more than technical—it involves broadly questioning how we will organize and execute warfare in future environments. For the Navy, it means thinking, again, about being challenged at sea.
In 2011, senior military leaders, academic experts, and industry representatives converged in Norfolk, Virginia, to spend two days discussing the state of innovation as it relates to our maritime forces. The audience included leaders from all sea services and the joint world. The large local audience was nearly doubled by participants on Defense Connect Online. The purpose of the conference was to begin a larger campaign to reinvigorate the conditions for an innovative culture and overcome our internal barriers to innovation. Admiral John Harvey, Commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command at the time, made his views clear:
The organizations and processes we use are purposefully designed to maintain course and speed—not to allow significant change. Most of what I have seen regarding innovation in our Navy has been activity driven, more focused on getting a program through another step in the process than solving real problems. Our choice is simple. We can either innovate today, or be forced to rapidly adapt in the middle of conflict.8
With the tone and expectations set, the forum concentrated on three lines of discussion: (1) We would need to create conditions conducive to innovation; (2) we would need to identify the type of problems to be addressed; and (3) we would need a channel to develop innovative ideas and concepts.
The issues discussed at the conference are not exclusive to the Navy. At a recent Naval Institute/Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Joint Warfighting Conference, retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula commented that the biggest challenge we face as a military has nothing to do with any particular weapon system, nor is it programmatic or budgetary. “Our biggest challenge will be to overcome organizational inertia, open our minds, and get out of the box.” Concepts such as Air-Sea Battle are good starting points to define future capabilities, yet they will need to avoid the seemingly inevitable descent into a shopping list—especially in today’s austere environment. Instead, it is important to ask deeper questions that could spawn a more innovative examination of future issues.
Looking ahead, to move innovation from a cerebral activity to a practice will require a dispassionate review of how we currently organize, train, and equip our forces. The general theme remains: Future battles will be fought in the context of being challenged at sea. The following questions may help frame how we think about our future:
• Do we train our forces against a thinking opponent? The central piece of maritime power projection remains the carrier strike group (CSG). The incredible range, lethality, and flexibility of the CSG are undeniable. The process of preparing these forces for deployment is a well-defined, qualification-driven process resulting in a high state of readiness for the group. The question is, are we building real tactical capabilities in our main battery or just preparing them for the most likely day-to-day operations they currently face? We need to develop a thinking “red cell” that can use a wide array of capabilities to create new and different high-end scenarios.
• Wargaming is another area ripe for examination. Is our approach on target? During the interwar years, wargaming was a major venue for vetting innovative ideas and discovering new ones. These games were played at the Naval War College pitting flag officers against each other in scenarios mainly focused on the Pacific. Debriefs were detailed and often brutal. As we begin to look at future challenges across multiple domains, the value of operational-level wargaming could be significant.
• Where do integrated tactics live? A large part of responding to challenges at sea will be new and innovative tactics. While plenty of organizations are developing concepts of operation in the important areas of antisubmarine warfare, integrated air and missile defense, and power projection, little attention is being paid to how we will integrate these efforts in the future battle space. Incorporating disparate sets of tactics into our warfighting whole should be a key area of any innovation effort. The challenge may be to successfully integrate platforms and procedures to fight in higher-end environments across multiple domains.
• Are we training our commanding officers to have the personal initiative to succeed in future environments? The ability to execute while cut off from higher authority is often a key to victory on the battlefield. The Army and Marine Corps have begun to empower their leaders through “Mission Command.”
In a recently published paper on the topic, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey noted:
In its highest state, shared context and understanding is implicit and intuitive between hierarchal and lateral echelons of command, enabling decentralized and distributed formations to perform as if they were centrally coordinated. When achieved, these practices result in decentralized formal decision-making throughout the force, leading implicitly to the opportunity to gain advantageous operational tempo over our adversaries.9
Harnessing Our Talent
Becoming more innovative will require us to chart a new way to energize and channel ideas to higher echelons. It remains profoundly difficult for large-scale formal organizations, which prize stability, continuity, and predictability, to establish and maintain within themselves the organizational conditions required for research and creativity. Considering samples from the business world can help the Navy understand how to establish a process for moving forward. The key will be to step away from capabilities and acquisition thinking (things) and look across the scope of thought at new ways to operate in challenging environments. It will require harnessing different perspectives, both from inside and outside the military. It means regaining our innovative DNA.
The Navy is at a critical nexus. After a decade of operations in U.S. Central Command, the Navy and Marine Corps are filled with veterans who have tasted the challenges of combat and are ready to put their lessons to use for the greater good. As one junior officer noted a year ago: “These are bright young minds who have been given tremendous responsibility in combat. Thrust them into a conservative bureaucracy and they are going crazy against its illogic.”10 The key challenge remains—how do we encourage our best and brightest to use their experience to help drive innovation in the Navy?
In his departing comments as Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Norton Schwarz noted: “My one regret is that maybe we de-emphasized innovation more than we should have. We had some things to do early on, and we never really came back to pushing that innovative culture.”11
The Navy Warfare Development Command (NWDC) is taking action on a number of fronts to regain the Navy’s innovation advantage. The centerpiece of this effort is an overhaul of the Concept Generation/Concept Development (CGCD) process. The new process streamlines and channels innovative concepts and ideas from the originators to senior leadership. This includes establishing a Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Advisory Board (CAB) to serve as a lens on the future and champion innovation at the highest levels. Manned by a hybrid mixture of flag officers, scholars, and technology experts, the CAB will look broadly within and beyond the Navy for new warfighting ideas. Its efforts will provide key top-down momentum for innovation. It has worked before and, properly manned and empowered, could work again.
The second development will be a CNO Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC). This small (and junior) group has established broad connections with industry and small-business innovators to germinate and nurture emerging technologies and concepts. Properly insulated, this “group within a group” could do some amazing things. Author Warren Bennis looked at innovative groups, from Disney to the Manhattan Project, and found “one thing great groups need is protection . . . most traditional organizations say they want innovation, but they reflexively shun the untried.”12 The “free radicals” of the CRIC will be at liberty to move as they see fit while engaging at the front lines of commercial innovation.
The next step for keeping the momentum of new ideas rolling will be a significant effort in experimentation. When aggregated, these broad steps can better focus and help turn new ideas into new capabilities. It has been estimated that for every 3,000 new ideas in business, one survives. A focusing process as described previously can improve our odds.
As the Fleet’s center for innovation, NWDC has taken a number of steps to support a “rebirth” of innovation. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has been a key partner in this effort as the leader in science and technology innovation for the Navy. The collaboration between NWDC and ONR is a good first step. NWDC looks through the lens of the warfighter for ways to mitigate challenges or seize opportunities through the employment of new or existing capabilities. ONR is focused on the creation and development of “leap ahead” technologies. Key points of intersection in these processes include experimentation and rapid fielding. Other key actions taken by NWDC include:
• Resumed funding for tactical development and execution (TAC D&E) projects; a series of smaller efforts to tackle fleet-driven problems.
• In coordination with the ONR, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Naval War College, NWDC has created a centralized blog site where innovators can propose, debate, and spawn cross-domain ideas. It has turned into a popular “harvesting point” for new thought.
• U.S. Fleet Forces Command has consolidated concept development and Fleet experimentation programs at NWDC, allowing for a synergistic “one-stop” shop for turning new ideas into experiments leading to future capabilities.
• NWDC published the “Innovators Guide,” dedicated to helping junior leaders, officers and enlisted, to understand how to push their creative ideas up their chains of command and into development.
In the end, the tomorrow we seek may very well depend on how we harness our creative activities today. Building a streamlined process to drive innovation from the deckplates could be the key. As was so clearly demonstrated during the interwar years, visionary leadership that embraces change as a necessary part of growth, combined with a keen desire to harness the energies of the Fleet, can tailor a future Navy ready to prevail at sea.
2. John Kao, Innovation Nation, (New York: Free Press, 2007).
3. Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts & Cultures (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), 19.
4. John T. Kuehn, Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 4, 15.
5. Dr. Donald C. Winter, Secretary of the Navy, speech presented at the Current Strategy Forum, Naval War College, Newport, RI, 13 June 2006.
6. Term coined by ADM John C. Harvey, Commander USFFC, October 2011.
7. Kao, Innovation Nation.
8. Speech by ADM John Harvey at NWDC, 13 March 2012.
9. GEN Martin E. Dempsey, “Mission Command” (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff White Paper, 3 April 2012).
10. Peter J. Munson, “Disruptive Thinking, Innovation, Whatever You Want to Call It Is Needed for a Military in Crisis,” Small Wars Journal (blog), 5 April 2012, http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/disruptive-thinking-innovation-whatever-you-want-to-call-it-is-needed-for-a-military-in-crisis.
11. Interview by Vago Muradian in “This Week in Defense News,” 24 July 2012.
12. Warren Bennis, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1997), 212.