Innovation has been—and continues to be—a business buzzword of choice in an era of rapid technological advance. Whether it is a Fortune 500 company, a small business, an academic institution, a military command, or just about any other entity you can think of, it is likely most organizations include “innovation,” “innovative,” or another version of the word somewhere in their messaging.
For the U.S. Navy, however, innovation is not a buzzword or a passing fad; it has been in the service’s DNA for more than two centuries. In 1776, colonial troops equipped America’s first combat submarine, the Turtle, with the Bushnell Keg (a watertight barrel filled with gunpowder that was floated toward the enemy; a sparking mechanism detonated it if it struck a ship), with the kegs wreaking havoc with the British North American fleet. More recently, however, many Navy commands have attempted to institutionalize innovation by establishing an “innovation cell” or designating an “innovation officer” or taking other steps to signal they are innovative.
This is a suboptimal approach, which can inadvertently signal to individual sailors or other components of a command that they do not need to give innovation a second thought because others are assigned that role. Much ink has been spilled suggesting that the Department of Defense (DoD) acquisition process does not meet warfighters’ needs. This is less important than the fact that DoD 5000.2 (Operation of the Defense Acquisition System) exists to put discipline into the acquisition system. But this discipline comes at a price—specifically, the extended time it takes to procure many platforms and systems.
It is long past time to move past institutionalized command innovation and bureaucratic sluggishness to make every sailor, Marine, and Coast Guard professional an innovator.
Innovative Platforms, Systems, Sensors, and Weapons
For years, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard have conducted a number of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations designed to showcase innovative platforms, systems, sensors, and weapons. (See “REPTX Tests Small-Scale Robots for Big Jobs,” p. 12, November 2022.) But peer adversaries are working to erode the U.S. military’s technological edge, leading the Sea Services to accelerate these events over the past decade.
Operators have field-tested a wide range of emerging technologies during a host of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations: the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation and Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (2017); the Battlespace Preparation in a Contested Environment event (2017); the Surface Warfare Distributed Lethality in the Littoral Demonstration (2020); the annual Dawn Blitz, Steel Knight, Bold Alligator, Valiant Shield, and Trident Warrior exercises. And Integrated Battle Problem 21 was the Navy’s largest crewed/uncrewed integration exercise to date.
These events can be thought of as something akin to science fairs, in which emerging technologies—including commercial-of-the-shelf ones—are beta-tested in an operational environment to show sailors and Marines what is possible. The idea is that if that technology appears to fill a gap in capability, the right individual will create an operational requirement that will have the acquisition system ultimately procure that technology.
The word “ultimately” is used advisedly. The acquisition rules can slow or even prevent adoption of promising technology. Seeing a technology perform in a one-week exercise and then trying to write a compelling operational requirement is likely a bridge too far. It strains credulity because it is supported by only limited data. But if acquiring innovative technology through the current system does not fill a gap quickly enough, there are still steps the Navy can take to get new tech into warfighters’ hands more quickly. Emerging tactics, techniques, and procedures can help innovate within the process of innovation.
One nascent initiative is the Coast Guard’s Blue Technology Center of Excellence (BTCOE) program to put new technology into the hands of Coast Guard professionals for longer durations than simple demonstration events. If Coast Guard personnel see a platform they believe has promise based on a short demonstration or experiment, they can ask to have that technology embarked on a cutter for a discrete period at sea. If the operators like it, they can petition the BTCOE to create a requirement for that technology.
Still, even this approach can involve a years-long acquisition process. Alternative methods, such as COCO (contractor-owned, contractor-operated) or GOCO (government-operated, contractor-owned) models, can get new capabilities into warfighters’ hands rapidly. In these, the government essentially rents facilities or management from contractors. Long-used for land-based operations—such as the GOCO facility of Los Alamos National Lab—with good success, such models could be adapted for fleet units.
Instead of facilities, the Navy would rent technology—for example, a gyrocopter to embark on a Navy surface combatant, next-generation night-vision goggles for a particular aircraft, or an innovative display for a command center. Almost anything a sailor can think of could be tested and in some cases immediately close a capability gap. If operators want to make such technology a permanent part of their kit, so-called other transaction authorities (OTAs) can accelerate its acquisition. (OTAs can be used to reduce the regulatory burden on companies’ ordinary acquisitions for research and prototyping as well as production in some cases.) A number of unmanned aerial systems in use by the Department of the Navy began or advanced, programmatically speaking, with OTA agreements.
Sea Service innovation is not limited to hardware; software looms increasingly large in the Navy’s platforms, systems, sensors, and weapons. While most sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are computer literate and some are proficient coders, most software coding is done by civilians in Navy laboratories or industry professionals working with these Navy civilians. Computer code can deliver innovative technology to close operational gaps, but the Navy needs more agility with it if the service wants to enable extant unmanned Navy aircraft to become “smart wingmen” and work with their manned counterparts.
The technological cornerstone of DoD’s former Third Offset Strategy involved instantiating manned-unmanned teaming to provide a key technological edge for U.S. warfighters. Although the “Third Offset” language has changed, the ideas remain. For the Navy, some key manned-unmanned teaming examples are the pairing of P-8A Poseidons with MQ-4C Tritons and MH-60R/S Seahawks/Knighthawks with MQ-8C Fire Scouts.
While these platforms have been in the Navy inventory for some time, until recently there has been very little teaming beyond embarking MH-60s and MQ-8Cs together on board littoral combat ships. The result is that these two aircraft require more manpower to operate, work in only a limited coordinated manner, and do not yet “team” in any consistent fashion. Computer science professionals in Navy labs and their industry partners are well-equipped to write the code to advance the teaming to enable these platforms to operate in innovative ways.
Accelerating the Journey
These are just some examples of how the Navy can accelerate its innovative journey that do not involve buying expensive new platforms. Rather, new warfighting capabilities can be achieved by enabling sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen to get their hands on emerging technology and to mash up already existing technologies such as modern aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. Sometimes, all that is missing is the right computer code.
There is wisdom in the oft-repeated quote: “The guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot. The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius.” The Navy can bring new warfighting capabilities to the fleet by spending less time trying to invent that all-capable “shiny new object” and more time applying and adjusting extant platforms in genius ways.