Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper used a July 1984 address to the American Society of Naval Engineers to offer a master class in how the Sea Services should meld technology and innovation to maintain the nation’s advantages.1 Her speech—“Future Possibilities: Data, Hardware, Software, and People”—has so elegantly withstood the test of time, it would have been an attractive entry in this year’s Emerging and Disruptive Technology contest.2 Three key facets of the mind-set that facilitated her contributions to the national advantage would serve the Navy well if they could be embraced today. To outpace adversaries, the Navy must adopt a problem-first, future-focused, and sailor-driven ethos. The best disruptive technologies will be its fruit.
Just as embracing disruptive technology is critical to success, so is avoiding distracting technology. Distracting technology—the flashy new thing—lures program managers into investment, but it fails to improve the chances of mission accomplishment or even hinders those chances. The risk of such distraction is best mitigated by a problem-first approach that ignores hype in favor of deep inspection of specific barriers to success, followed by proposal and validation of technologies that can remove them.
From her perspective at the Naval Data Automation Command, Rear Admiral Hopper warned: “We’ll continue to buy pieces of hardware and software and totally neglect the underlying thing, which is the total flow of information through any organization, activity, company, or what have you.” She detailed an example of “technology for prestige,” in which a department demanded real-time direct access to data because other departments had such access, yet never levied that data once in the six months after it was provided.
At its worst, distracting technology can bring about tragic consequences. Touchscreen throttle and helm controls were a contributing factor in the 2017 collision between the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and the Alnic MC, in which ten sailors lost their lives. After release of the Comprehensive Review, Naval Sea Systems Command realized it had been “a desire to incorporate new technology” that led to the overly complex system.3 Rear Admiral William Galinis, the Program Executive Officer, Ships, puts touchscreens into the “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” category, and the Navy began reverting destroyers back to physical throttles in 2019.4
The Navy has a history of problem-first innovation that can help set things straight. Consider the Burton method of underway replenishment, developed in World War II because of Admiral Raymond Spruance’s analysis that ammunition store depletion would be the biggest risk to eliminating the air threat during the planned invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The Burton method reduced the off-station time between engagements from 12 days to just 2.5 Another example: ARPANet, precursor to the internet, was first envisioned by Bob Taylor as the solution to the duplication of effort and expense in establishing separate computing resources for every research initiative.6 Clear, problem-focused innovation also is evident in the development of Aegis, particularly in how Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer “bounded the complexity of his Aegis management task with a simple statement of the warfare problem: detect, control, engage.”7
A famous observation, attributed to Albert Einstein, says: “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”8 Problem-focused innovation can ensure the United States makes meaningful progress in cementing its advantages by overcoming specific weaknesses.
A national advantage also requires focus on the future. All possibilities—both those in the nation’s favor and against it—require consideration before setting out to solve the country’s problems. Rear Admiral Hopper related experience from a War College correspondence course regarding the importance of “review[ing] my plan in light of all possible enemy actions and all possible future events,” including “the costs of not carrying out the plan.” She went on to repeat her famous mantra: “Probably the most dangerous phrase you can use . . . is that dreadful one—‘But we’ve always done it that way.’”
Future focus is both possible and fruitful. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, for example, was originally designed to last 15 years; it celebrated its 30th anniversary in April, still at the “forefront of scientific discovery,” with contributions expected for many more years.9 Physicist Safi Bahcall describes other examples in his book Loonshots, including that of radar, which was deemed impractical in the 1920s in part because the time necessary for progress might “well exceed two or three years.” But in the 1940s, visionary engineer Vannevar Bush shepherded it to become a textbook example of disruptive technology. Bush and his colleagues imagined many possibilities in terms of electronics beyond what then existed and justified them in light of possible enemy actions. As a result, radar became the now-familiar enabler of U-boat tracking, night and all-weather air raids, missile defense, and so much more.10
Against this, consider the digitization of administrative processes today. The adoption of the Navy’s electronic leave (e-Leave) request process in 2010, for example, aimed to reduce the manpower and processing time related to leave. Given that leave accounts for 21.6 percent of the pay transactions processed by the Navy annually, modernization was a worthy goal.11 Unfortunately, the paper leave process was replicated rather than transformed.
As evidence that “replace all” was used in the transition, instead of a carefully considered transformation, look to the label of block 20, which went from being a “Leave Address” on the paper form to the nonsensical “e-Leave Address” in the digital system. This misuse of the “e-” prefix is evidence of the missed opportunity (and obligation) to disentangle the parts of the paper form needed for enterprise resource planning (leave expended) from those used for deckplate leadership (primary travel mode, leave address, etc.).
The internet is not a safe enough repository for the latter, even if the risk is justified for the former. Compounding the problem, the database stores an archive of leave chits dating back to 2011, six years older than even the recommended storage of most tax records. Those old chits serve no discernible purpose for the Navy but would be a boon to an adversary, full of useful information for spear phishing and password and security question hints—an enormous vulnerability in cyber defense.
A future focus would minimize both collection and storage of such information, seizing the advantages of the information age while better avoiding its dangers. If the Navy is not getting something as simple as this right, can it be sure it is getting more challenging things right?
The strongest of the themes in Rear Admiral Hopper’s speech is that people, particularly sailors, are the source and sustenance of naval innovation. To both harvest and harness the best ideas, look to the sailors.
Rear Admiral Hopper relates the story of a first-class petty officer named Slater. She told how he built a computer on board a ship that gained the attention of Rear Admiral Peter Cullins, commanding officer of the Naval Data Automation Command. Admiral Cullins congratulated ET1 Slater on the computer, and Slater replied with a report on the poor general state of computers in the Pacific Fleet and what should be done about it. The admiral was receptive: He reassigned Slater to a plank-owning position leading the Microcomputer Evaluation Group, setting him up to make a multitude of contributions to the Navy, including the development of computer literacy programs at sea and in shore facilities that also spread to the Air Force, none of which would have happened, she said, without “a young man who spoke up and a senior who listened.”
Similar stories still happen. Consider Naval Algorithms, a team of four junior officers that demonstrated that new ideas—with appropriate top cover—could improve the detailing process.12
The Navy has tried to direct sailor- driven innovation through Task Force Innovation, the CNO Rapid Innovation Cell, and the 2019 Naval Innovation Advisory Council, but these sorts of innovate-by-command initiatives never seem to produce much or endure.
Better would be more cross-pollination between operators and engineers, to give sailor-witnessed problems and sailor-generated ideas traction inside the acquisition apparatus. Warfighters: Invite engineers to your exercises and wargames and get them meaningfully involved once there, at least as a repository for complaints about the state of the art when the pace of operations precludes deeper discussion. Engineers: Beat down the door to attend these opportunities.
As Rear Admiral Hopper put it, sailors “are absolutely terrific, and they are out there, and it’s your job to provide leadership.” Her words empower us to be daring in pushing up our own ideas and to be receptive, aggressive shepherds when passing others’ ideas up the chain.
If sailors are the sustenance of innovation, then the importance is not technology itself, but instead the Navy’s ability to employ it. In Rear Admiral Hopper’s words:
Information by itself never does anything. It has to be processed by a human being, who compares it, evaluates it, correlates it, and changes it into something we might call intelligence, upon which we can base decisions. We have got to prepare for the training of these people who can look at the output of the computer and correlate it, evaluate it, and project it into the future. We had better start training them.
Adopted technology, even if future- focused and designed to solve a specific problem, is useless without a plan to develop sailors who understand it thoroughly and can capitalize on it. Artificial intelligence (AI) without mathematicians and computer scientists is as useless as a (manned) plane without a pilot. Even the leading AI practitioners are concerned that theoretical rigor significantly lags the impressive empirical results.13 They can demonstrate that an image classification system works but cannot explain why, so dissection of even a single classification occurrence is difficult.14 To achieve acceptable results, humans adjust various parameters with limited theoretical basis.15 Many other software-based systems become powerful only through similar continual improvement once initially fielded. Such systems are valuable additions to warfighting, but only if humans are on hand who can do the fine-tuning.
As an organization, the Navy is taking several steps toward a balance between the training and the education necessary to create such people. The Naval Community College, the Naval Postgraduate School’s master of science degree in applied cyber operations, Secretary of the Navy tours with industry, and doctoral studies programs are just a few of the paths open to tech-savvy sailors. Yet, culturally, these and similar programs suffer when they are viewed as personal rather than organizational opportunities and when sailors are told such “time off” puts their next promotions at risk. The Navy must learn to see these programs not as personal benefits for sailors, but as necessary counterparts to acquisition for the organization to wield technologies to their full potential.
Do Not Miss Your Tide
Doug Sundheim, writing in the Harvard Business Review, laid out a path for individuals to develop this innovation-fostering mind-set in an organization: “Just start doing it.”16 When it is embodied by individuals, the organization follows.
Many are already on board with such an ethos—it is echoed in many articles published in this forum. The case studies of triumph, however, are tempered by many shortfalls and even some catastrophes. Maintaining a mind-set is hard, and it requires intentional and continual effort. The Navy and its sailors will have to “restart doing it” a few times over.
U.S. military and naval advantages depend precariously on a technological edge over adversaries that is eroding. By becoming and remaining a Navy of future-focused problem solvers, today’s sailors and leaders can emulate the amazing Grace Hopper and maximize our chances of improving the Navy’s position, sharpening the edge, and cementing the advantage we inherited.
1. Hopper’s rank in 1984 was Commodore, which became “Rear Admiral (lower half)” in 1985. Her rank at retirement is used throughout.
2. RDML Grace Hopper, USN (Ret.), “Luncheon Address: Future Possibilities: Data, Hardware, Software and People,” Naval Engineers Journal 96, no. 4 (July 1984): 45–52; all RDML Hopper’s remarks above are quoted from this speech.
3. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Reverting DDGs Back to Physical Throttles, after Fleet Rejects Touchscreen Controls,” USNI News, 9 August 2019.
4. Eckstein, “Navy Reverting DDGs.”
5. John A. Lukacs IV, “Century of Replenishment at Sea,” Naval History 32, no. 3 (June 2018).
6. K. Hafner and M. Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 41.
7. J. F. Morton, “Profound Simplicity, Part I: Aegis as a High Reliability Organization,” The Navalist, 18 September 2017.
8. D. Spradlin, “Are You Solving the Right Problem?” Harvard Business Review 90, no. 9 (September 2012): 84–93.
9. R. Garner, “NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope Returns to Science Operations,” NASA, nasa.gov, 8 October 2018.
10. Safi Bahcall, Loonshots (New York: Findaway World, LLC, 2019).
11. NAVADMIN 103/10.
12. LTJG Richard Kuzma, USN, et al., “Innovation Talk Is Cheap—Start Innovating,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 4 (April 2019).
13. D. Sculley et al., “Winner’s Curse? On Pace, Progress, and Empirical Rigor,” openreview.net.
14. S. Hicks et al., “Dissecting Deep Neural Networks for Better Medical Image Classification and Classification Understanding,” 2018 IEEE 31st International Symposium on Computer-Based Medical Systems (CBMS), Karlstad, 2018, 363–68.
15. J. Mickens, “Q: Why Do Keynote Speakers Keep Suggesting That Improving Security Is Possible? A: Because Keynote Speakers Make Bad Life Decisions and Are Poor Role Models,” USENIX 2018, August 2018, Baltimore, MD.
16. D. Sundheim, “Successful Innovators Don’t Care about Innovating,” Harvard Business Review 92, no. 10 (October 2014).