Editor’s note: Stanford University is hosting a brand-new class this fall—Technology, Innovation, and Modern War. Steve Blank, who teaches the course along with Joe Felter and Raj Shah, is writing about each class session—offering Modern War Institute readers an incredible opportunity to learn about the intersection of technology and war and hear from remarkable guest speakers. Read about previous sessions here.
Today’s topic was the Navy and modern war.
Some of the readings for this week’s included:
“Defense Primer: Department of the Navy,” “Navy Lasers, Railgun, and Gun-Launched Guided Projectile: Background and Issues for Congress,” “Navy Large Surface Combatant (LCS) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” “Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress,” and “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.”
Our guest speaker was Rear Adm. Lorin Selby, Chief of Naval Research, United States Navy. He is responsible for the Naval Research Enterprise—the “venture capital” of the Navy and Marine Corps. It’s made up of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), ONR Global, the Naval Research Laboratory, and PMR-51, which is responsible for special projects.
His insights on the future of the Navy and reimagining naval power are insightful, innovative, and exciting. (ONR played a seminal role in the formation of Silicon Valley. Founded in August 1946 in the aftermath of World War II, ONR provided support of research projects at universities when government funding to universities had dried up. That same year, Fred Terman became Stanford’s dean of engineering, and he received four ONR research contracts for electronics and microwaves. These grants formed the heart of the Stanford Electronics Research Laboratory.)
The Naval Research Enterprise
The image above is a way I divvy up my naval research portfolio:
- On the left is the division that’s home to cyber and electronic warfare. It includes a little bit of AI but really, mostly is electronic warfare.
- The next area is ocean battlespace. This includes unmanned underwater vehicles. And we do submarine applications and oceanographic research in that division. We take a great deal of pride in really understanding and knowing the ocean environment. Of course, the submarine is critical, but really everything from the weather, to the way our forces must flow, optimizing transit routes—it all depends on currents, winds, weather. We use those factors to help us also determine what potential adversaries might or might not do. All that goes into the calculus of how we position our forces.
- In the middle are mission-capable, persistent, survivable naval platforms. This division looks at the systems that are on our platforms (e.g., pumps, valves, materials science, corrosion). There’s science to be done in perfecting some of those, and it’s critical in the operation of these platforms. This branch looks at maintenance practices, trying to make sure we protect those platforms.
- Warfighter performance looks at how the human body responds to stress. How we can optimize performance of the human body in combat, or in other stressful scenarios? How does the human brain work? How do we think? When I look at reimagined naval power, I think a lot of that is not about things, it’s about processes. It’s about how we present information. It’s about how we process information, how we use machines to help us make decisions. This group traditionally has not had as much focus as the others. But I think it’s something we really need to go after.
- The far right is aviation—jets and missiles, but also directed energy, railguns, hypervelocity projectiles, and hypersonics.
- And across the bottom is the Naval Accelerator run by Rich Carlin. This group figures out how we go faster in getting things to the fleet, from an ideation to a thing to the warfighter. How do we do that faster than anybody else?
Reimagining Naval Power Is about the Way We Think and Organize, Not about Hardware
I know you were assigned to read The Kill Chain—a fascinating read. As I read through this book, it really resonated with me because this is the world we’re in today. Naval officers still tend to think of the solution to the problem set as, “I’ll just get a better destroyer,” or, “I’ll just get another aircraft carrier, or a bigger, faster submarine.” And I don’t think that’s the solution.
This quote out of the book I thought was interesting: “Military innovation is less about technology than about operational and organizational transformation.” I hear you thinking, “You’re the Chief of Naval Research, and you’re saying that it’s less about technology?” Yeah, I am. When I say reimagined naval power, I’m not necessarily talking about new big gray ships or black submarines. I’m talking about changing our processes, changing the way we think and the way we are organized. I think a lot of the problems we have in acquisition today, in trying to go after these new technologies, is because of the way we’re organized. The way the Navy is established, with separate system commands—one for air systems, one for sea systems, one for cyber systems, supply over here—they’re separate so you get stovepipes and you get barriers. There’s friction between them. And all these differences come because of that, and that impedes progress. If we want to reimagine naval power, we have to look in a mirror and recognize we need to change some things organizationally. We’ve got to change the way we do business.
What do you hope the fleet looks like ten years from now to make it relevant in a fight with a near-peer competitor? Is that a 355-ship Navy? Is it squadrons of unmanned vessels? Is it something in between?
I think that it’s something in between. I think that you will see more unmanned, unattended things. They’ll be networked together. I think, initially, what you’re going to see—and again, this is just the way we tend to do things as human beings—when it comes to new tech, we take the new tech, and we jam it into a form factor of something we recognize and know. So what you’re going to see are unmanned surface vessels that look like the Sea Hunter. It looks like a catamaran. It looks like something you recognize and know. That thing, whatever it is, whether its underwater, surface, or air, will initially operate in tandem with a manned platform.
I think the answer is not just to go build bigger, faster, gray-hulled ships or black submarines. We still need this for a while. We’re not going to stop, go to zero, and do something else. It’s going to be a gradual thing. But I think there needs to be a plan with a trajectory of slowly weaning us off of these very highly complex and expensive vessels that takes us into something else. And some of that something else might be unmanned/uncrewed. Uncrewed vessels, unattended sensors, highly networked together, passing tracking information back and forth—I think that’s more of the future, combined with how we make decisions in a more efficient, faster manner than the adversary.
You’re going to have these things as kind of wingmen that’ll be arrayed around your platform. And you may be able to send it a couple hundred miles out front to go do some probing of the adversary. Maybe it’s got some decoys and other things it can do while it’s out there, then it will then come back. You have to refuel it at some point, because it’s still going to have limited range. I think in ten years, you’ll find many, many more unmanned things out there, but they will be operating close to the gray-hull ship or the black-hull submarine, able to go out and do things but come back. So I think that’s step one.
But over time, it’s going to be driven by the younger generations, people like you who are not constrained by thinking that it’s got to be a gray-hull or a black-hull thing. And they will come in and look at us and go, “If you’d change the form factor, you can make that thing.” It could be a surface thing, but could also be a semi-submersible, when it needs to be—make it so it just drops below the surface a foot. And it can still cruise along slowly. Things like that will happen. Because, again, this has happened all throughout history as technologies have been introduced. We always try to take it and make it do what the old thing did.
Example of New Tech First Looking Like the Old: Photonics Masts on Submarines
Submarines traditionally have a periscope. You look into the barrel; it’s got the mirrors and the glass and a prism at the top looking out. And you’re looking through a circle. That’s the world for a submariner. That’s what I looked at for twenty years, twenty-five years. Today, we’ve got these new, cool electronic photonics masts. Guess what? When you look at that picture in the control room of a submarine, you may be on a big flat screen, you may control it with a joystick, but it’s still looking at a slice of the world.
We didn’t go, “Hey, if I put just four cameras or six cameras up there, and I was able to set them around looking, I can have a 360-degree camera all the time.” Well, we’re just now starting to do that. We started some R&D on that several years ago and it petered out because they didn’t have the money to keep it going. But now we’re back to, this is ridiculous, let’s get 360 out of that. That’s the challenge with new tech.
The problem today is, it’s going so fast that if you wait a generation to make those kinds of advancements, you’re so far behind anybody—whether adversaries or other companies—that you’re irrelevant. We’ve got to break that pattern. And some of that is changing those organizational constructs that still have us back in 1994. We’ve got to get to 2020, or 2018, or 2015. I’d be happy with that. But we’ve got to get out of 1994.
As far as size, you may have seen the press. The (former) secretary of defense just announced Battle Force 2045. It talks about between 120 and 240 unmanned things in concert with a bunch of manned things. And it talks about a much bigger Navy. We’ll see what happens. A lot depends what happens with Congress.
How do we find a balance between funding exquisite equipment that costs a lot of money and that’s very hard to replace with building lots of low-cost equipment that’s less capable but easier to replace?
We have this very big appetite for highly complex systems that are exquisite, phenomenal, and the best in the world. No question about it, those cost a lot of money to build. And oh, by the way, they cost even more money to maintain over the life of a thirty-, forty- or fifty-year platform. We need to get away from that. Part of the answer is a lot of these uncrewed surface or underwater vessels. But even those, when we send a design over to my friends in the Pentagon to develop requirements, what they come back wanting is exquisite, too. You take this thing that should cost $10 million or $20 million, and it comes back costing $100 million, or $200 million, or worse.
I think if you could build cheaper systems in more numbers that are maybe complicated, but not complex, that would be just fine. And I would build them so that they’re semi-disposable. You run them hard for ten years, but you don’t spend a mint to refurbish them. You take them back to some yard, you recycle them. You take all materials out and build another one. That’s the way you’ve got to do it.
Another thing we have to do is recognize that we’ve got some constraints. We’ve only got a certain number of shipyards that can build these highly complex destroyers, submarines, and aircraft carriers. Our industrial base is very fragile. Since we are going to still build some of those for the foreseeable future, let those yards build those exquisite things. But we need to go the nontraditional yards down along the Gulf Coast, in the Pacific Northwest, and in other parts of country—even to boat builders or yacht builders. Let’s go to those folks to build some these unmanned things. And let’s give them some money. Let’s move some defense industrial base money around. And we can develop new expertise in different pockets that we’ve never developed before. And let’s do that at scale—build a lot. I think that’s one of the keys to this reimagined naval power. Because again, we just cannot afford to keep building the same things.
If you went right now and asked the submariners what they want, they want SSN(X), which is the next generation of submarine, in roughly 2035. You talk to my aviator friends and they want the next-gen fighter about the same time. You talk to my surface warfare friends and they want the large surface combatant about the same time. Well, first of all that’s fifteen years from now. So by our traditional design and build standards, that means you’ve got to start right now—for all three. And we can’t afford that. There’s no way we can afford that.
You may have noticed that Battle Force 2045 came out saying you need to go to three submarines per year. So there’s a tremendous recognition that we still own the undersea and that we need to maintain that dominance. Battle Force 2045 doesn’t call for as many surface ships, but it does call for next-gen fighters. And there’s a lot of reasons for that, which we can’t talk about here. But it does not call for the large ships. At least not in numbers, and not at the same time. We’ve got to deconflict these things, and we need to build different things that are much less expensive.
How has acquisition has changed? What specifically, if anything, has changed to make us move faster?
Some of what’s changed is that we are using OTAs—other transaction authorities. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. We’re finally really trying to drive this hard. And we’re finally getting contract shops in different parts of the Navy using them. Up until probably only a couple years ago, it was only places like ONR that would do these nontraditional ways of buying things. We’ve now got the big System Command acquisition shops and contract shops realizing, “Hey, there’s something to that.”
How do you think about the development of technologies that cross traditional functional bounds?
How do you get these folks together to solve these hard problems? We go inward, we try to find our smart folks in our own organizations that are somewhat constrained and tainted by the problem set already because they lived it. They’re inside of it.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in his book Team of Teams, talked about how he organized to fight in the Middle East. What he realized was the value of the team of teams. The answers are not all inside my team, they may be in your team, or your team, or your team. The value or the power is how you net them all together. And so he used to do the same every single day. He would have this video teleconference. And he had one guy who ran the meeting. They would have a bunch of topics they would go over every day, a set of stuff you would do, an ops brief. And then they would have someone give a problem statement, and maybe a little bit of a brief. But then they let it go to the teams. The teams, not the team. And the synergy, the interactions of thought, was incredible.
That is the model I’m trying to figure out how to bring to my own ecosystem, and then net in all the other teams around me. Whether they’re different warfare centers, or different parts of the Navy, Army, Air Force, or industry or academia. Because that’s the power.
Why wasn’t Warfighter performance as emphasized as the other areas?
Traditionally, most of the money went to building those high-end destroyers and submarines and next-gen fighters. So that would be my vernacular in code 32, 33, and 35—not 34, which is human performance. That’s the code that was on the right side of that graph. As a result of that, those other high-end things got all the money and that’s also where most of the R&D money went. And most of that was focused on another submarine, another aircraft carrier, or another fighter. And because of that, there was very little human-forward stuff left to do. I still contend that that is really where we as Americans have our advantage.
How do you recruit those people who are traditionally looking at the private sector as their career over to the Navy and to your research center?
The way we traditionally do this is that someone like yourself, someone who’s in a grad program somewhere, gets involved in research sponsored by ONR, or the Naval Research Laboratory, and you get your doctorate and will become a postdoc. And you continue to do that research in some field of study that we are sponsoring. And then at some point, back in DC, a vacancy opens and they say, “Hey, you can apply for this job.” Next, you get a job. A lot of PhDs in my headquarters building came out of academia where they got their doctoral degree in some program sponsored by ONR.
COVID Has Changed Our Thinking About Recruiting for ONR
COVID has taught us a lot of things about how to work. Today, for instance, I was at work, but only about 30 to 35 percent of the workforce was there. Most people are working from home. We do some classified work, but we do enough unclassified work that you can do a lot of work from home. I told my team: “I don’t want to go back to whatever was called normal back in March. Let’s find something good that comes out of this pandemic.” I want to be able to hire people in California, in Washington state, wherever, and tell them, “Hey, you can stay there and still work for me. I may ask you to come to DC once a quarter to do some required training and just to do something else where we want to get together. But I will let you stay remote.”
Because I think we were missing out on talent. A lot of people don’t come to DC and I don’t blame them.
How can the Navy attract more diversity into its STEM fields?
There’s a lot of concern in DoD that we have some issues trying to attract STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) talent. So I’m trying to find ways to really amp up our STEM programs. I’m trying to find ways to attract more women, more diversity into our STEM field, whether it’s undergrad internships or graduate internships. And I’m trying to find ways to get more people involved that we traditionally don’t get.
We put together a panel to give us some thoughts on how to attract the kind of talent we’re not traditionally attracting. We found it’s in middle school where we lose a lot of kids. Most elementary school kids think science is cool. I think for most kids, there’s a wow factor in science, but somewhere in middle school to high school it stops being cool. And that’s really tragic.
So we are figuring out ways to develop a cadre of mentors to go into the schools and help teachers and students, to pull them across that valley of death where we lose them. I think there’s far too many that we lose early for the wrong reasons. They don’t see someone that looks like them or they don’t think it’s cool. We’re trying to figure that out.
Read the entire transcript of Rear Adm. Selby’s talk and watch the video below.
If you can’t see the video click here.
Steve Blank is the father of modern entrepreneurship, an entrepreneur-turned-educator, and founder of the lean startup movement. He is an adjunct professor at Stanford and a senior fellow for entrepreneurship at Columbia University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Moraima Johnston, US Navy