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The Battle of Locust Point: An Oral History of the First Autonomous Combat Engagement

Fiction Topic Week

By David R. Strachan

TOP SECRET/NOFORN

The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare. This is the first of an eight-part series with Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret), considered by many to be the father of autonomous undersea warfare, where we discuss the development of the Atom-class microsubmarine, and its role in the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

November 17, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

Interviewer: Lt. Cmdr. Hailey J. Dowd, USN


The last twenty-five years have witnessed extraordinary developments in naval warfare. Ever smaller, smarter, more lethal vehicles have revolutionized the way navies fight, and the way nations project power beyond their borders. Historians agree that the genesis of this “micronaval revolution” can be traced to the year 2016, when a disabled Russian Istina-class microsubmarine was recovered off the coast of Cape Charles, Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay Incident, as it became known, was a harbinger of things to come, for just ten weeks later, as crowds descended on Baltimore Harbor for Fleet Week and the commissioning of the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), Russian and U.S. microsubmarines would square off just beneath the surface in what would be the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

Historians also agree that the micronaval revolution can be traced to a single individual, an individual whose name, like Hyman Rickover, is virtually synonymous with the bold thinking that has come to define the modern U.S. Navy.

Admiral Jeremy Baynes Lacy, USN (ret.) graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1989, earning a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He served at sea aboard the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN 735), USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730), USS Springfield (SSN 761), and the USS Pogy (SSN 647), deploying to the North Atlantic, Arctic, and Western Pacific, as well as conducting numerous strategic patrols. Ashore, Lacy earned a Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Naval/Mechanical Engineering, and served as Major Program Manager for Undersea Project 7, the Atom-class microsubmarine program. Following his work on the Atom-class, he established and commanded Strikepod Group (COMPODGRU) 1, eventually serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT). His personal decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (three awards), the Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (five awards), and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (two awards), in addition to numerous unit and campaign awards.

Admiral Lacy is currently enjoying his “retirement” as the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the United States Naval Academy. He was interviewed at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Would you tell us a little of your background? How did you end up in the Navy?

I was born and raised in the rural New Jersey hamlet of Port Murray, nestled among cornfields and cow pastures many people can’t believe exist the Garden State. My mother was a secretary at the local elementary school, and my father managed a printing plant just outside New York City. He grew up dirt poor on a farm in New Hampshire without a whole lot of options, so he enlisted in the Navy the day after he graduated from high school. After basic, he ended up in crypto school in California, then a Naval Security Group detachment in Turkey where he eavesdropped on Soviet communications. When I was little he used to make these veiled references here and there to his time in the service, but he never elaborated on anything. He took his secrecy oath very seriously, and it wasn’t until the mid 80s, when I was a curious teenager, that he felt comfortable opening up about what he did. I was totally captivated by the stories he would tell, and the meaning that the work gave him. As luck would have it, I was a pretty good student, and managed to get accepted to the Academy. Fast forward four years and I’ve got a degree in mechanical engineering, and five years of submarine service waiting for me.

Why did you choose submarines?

Never in a million years did I expect to end up choosing submarines. It was the time of Top Gun, and boy I was gonna fly jets! But during my summer service orientation I went for a cruise on the Nebraska, and that was it. I was hooked, and fifteen months later I’m on the Pennsylvania for my junior tour.

Would you say it was the submarine service that spurred your interest in unmanned vehicles?

Oh, definitely. When I was on the Pogy we worked with some very early prototypes sent up from [Naval Undersea Warfare Center] Newport for arctic testing. Nothing too sexy – ocean survey, bathymetry. But I guess at that time I was intrigued with the idea, and started imagining the possibilities, the implications. What if these things could think for themselves? What if they were weaponized?  And what if the bad guys had them? After my tour on Pogy, I ended up at the Naval Postgraduate School working on my masters, and actually wrote my thesis on UUVs – a survey of current architecture, an examination of future technologies and how these could be leveraged for unmanned systems, and how UUVs could be integrated into fleet operations.

Legend has it DOD wanted to classify it.

[Laughs] Well, not really. It was nothing more than a skillful integration of open sources, some analysis, and extrapolation. It did manage to attract some interest, though.

From ONR? DARPA?

Well, actually it was the folks at Newport who reached out to me initially. My advisor at NPS was friendly with the CO there, and at the time – around early 1999 – they were working with APL, SPAWAR, and some other folks on crafting the Navy’s UUV master plan. So they called me up, asked if I’d like to come aboard, and next thing I know I’m on a plane to Rhode Island.

What was your contribution to the 2000 UUV Master Plan?

Well, by the time I entered on duty, the bulk of the heavy lifting was pretty much complete. But I did manage to contribute some perspective on the vision, CONOPS (especially in ASW), as well as technology and engineering issues. But where I think I added the most value was regarding the feasibility of the SWARM [Shallow Water Autonomous Reconnaissance Modules] concept – the idea of utilizing large numbers of small AUVs to create a dynamic, autonomous sensor grid for wide area mine countermeasures.

Was the SWARM concept a precursor to the Strikepod?

Conceptually, yes. It was an early articulation of an undersea battle group, the idea of numerous autonomous vehicles cooperating together to complete a mission. But while the idea was entirely feasible, I felt that SWARM was rather narrow in its scope. As an MCM platform, I suppose it made sense, with scores of small, relatively inexpensive nodes spread across hundreds of square miles, air dropped from B-2s or Hornets. But what we needed was an entirely new class of vehicle that was flexible, adaptive, and capable of carrying out multiple missions, whether in networks of two or two thousand. So, then, I guess you could say that SWARM inspired both Strikepods and the Atom-class submarine, but for different reasons.

Can you talk about how the Atom-class program originated, and how the Strikepod concept evolved?

I’d been having discussions with some of the Newport and MIT folks while working on the Master Plan, and we were all pretty much in agreement on the core elements of a UUV pod structure – connectivity, redundancy and expendability. We were also in agreement that small is beautiful, if you will, but all of the work on miniaturization was being done in the universities. Long story short, not only did ONR find the funding, but agreed to bring the university people on board, and next thing we have a lovely, windowless compartment in the basement of the Navy Lab. And we had a nice, nondescript name: Undersea Project 7.

It was an exciting time, and it was a genuine privilege working with some of the brightest minds around, people who could have easily been making five times their salaries at Google, or JP Morgan. 

The technology was complex, and the work could be pretty tedious. Lots of highs and lows – two steps forward one step back. For some of the top brass it was hard to justify the expense, pouring all that money into a system that seemed unnecessarily complicated, and, for them, pure science fiction. Do we really need roaming schools of killer fish? Don’t forget, these were guys who came from the era of SOSUS. But that’s what we were offering – and more. A smart SOSUS that could be deployed anywhere, at any time.

We envisioned three variants – one for command & control, or what we called the Rogue, one for navigation and communications, which we called the Relay, and a third that could physically attach itself to vessels, mines, infrastructure. This we called the Remora. Together they could be organized in networks of any size, undersea strike groups capable of communicating with each other and, via the Relay, surface assets and ashore bases.

The Atom-class was under development for nearly fifteen years. Were you at all aware of what was happening with adversary developments, and did that play a role in the design?

Absolutely, and somewhat.  Over time, I became increasingly involved with the intelligence side of things – collection guidance, and analysis. There came a point where I was ping-ponging pretty regularly between Carderock and Suitland, especially by the late 2000s when we were really stepping up our efforts. We were well aware of Chinese interest in unmanned systems, and around 2010 we started receiving reports about the Shāyú program. We were also keeping close tabs on some tech transfer between North Korea and Iran, something reminiscent of their Yono and Ghadir cooperation. There was a real sense of urgency, that we needed to be out-innovating and out-classing our adversaries if we were going to stay ahead of the curve. But we believed strongly in the Atom and Strikepods, and while it was important to know what the other guys were up to, we didn’t let it distract us from our own vision.

The most intriguing stuff was the HUMINT coming out of Rubin [Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering] – concerning a Project S3, or “Istina” – references to unmanned systems, miniaturization, and a breakthrough in energy production. And then there were reports of Russian vessels showing up unexpectedly during our boomer patrols. They seemed to just know where we were. The counterintelligence guys were in overdrive – this was eerily familiar to the red flag that plagued Richard Haver before the Walker ring was exposed. So we couldn’t just stand there and scratch our heads. But everything checked out internally. So, if there was no security breach, then, how could they know?

So, I started compiling data, and mapped it all out. CIA and DIA both believed it could be evidence of a non-acoustic sensor of some kind, and while this was certainly plausible, the evidence was mostly hearsay. We had imagery of SOKS sensors, and journal articles, and public statements by high ranking officials, but no hard data to substantiate the existence of a viable, working platform. We were, however, receiving quality product on the Istina program that suggested the Russians had developed some kind of miniaturized naval platform capable of lurking silently off Groton or King’s Bay, then trailing our boats to expose their positions to the Russian Fleet.

But you couldn’t sell it?

[Laughs] Well, no, which, admittedly, was pretty frustrating. But something that gets lost in all the scandals and the slanted reporting is the commitment to analytic rigor that permeates the intelligence community. These folks understand that their work has a direct impact not only on U.S. policy, but ultimately on human lives. The difference between right and wrong can mean the difference between life and death, and they carry that burden every day. So, no, I couldn’t sell it. And it was back to the drawing board.

And then Cape Charles happened.

And then Cape Charles happened.

Can you tell us about that day?

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning, one of those heavy, dewy August mornings in D.C. I was out getting in my run before the heat of the day, when I get a call from Chandra [Reddy, the ONI liaison for Undersea Project 7]. He tells me I need to come in to the office. We were working weekends pretty regularly, but I’d blocked out that day for a round of golf with my dad. I kindly remind him of this, and all he says is, “Jay – we’ve got something.” An hour later I’m on an SH-60 out of Andrews with Chandra and four engineers from S&T, tracking the Potomac out to the Bay. 

They briefed me enroute. Apparently the Coast Guard in Cape Charles, Virginia got a call around 7:30 that morning from a fisherman about a mile off the coast who said he came across something that “looked military.” They send out an RB-M, and bring back what they believe is a U.S. Navy prototype submersible. They phone it in, and ninety minutes later we’re putting down on a grassy airfield in the middle of nowhere, where we’re greeted by an earnest seaman recruit who proceeds to leadfoot it all the way to the station.

It was being kept in a back room, sitting on a table under a blue tarp. When I first saw it, I thought it was just a radio-controlled sub, like someone’s weekend garage project had gone astray. It was basically a miniaturized Oscar II, maybe six or seven feet long, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, since the Oscar was built for capacity, and why go to the trouble of designing and developing a whole new hull form when you can just miniaturize one that’s already in the inventory? 

We didn’t know how long it had been disabled, or if the Russians were even aware. We did know that the [Vishnya-class intelligence ship] Leonov had been lurking offshore, and there were a couple of fishing boats we were keeping an eye on near Norfolk, but for all we knew the handlers were right nearby, somewhere on shore. We had to assume they would come looking, so we had to act quickly.

We cracked it open and took a look right there on the table. The guys from S&T were like pathologists, very careful and thorough. One of them had a video camera, which I eventually realized was patched in to the White House Situation Room. 

I don’t think I need to tell you that the intelligence value was immeasurable, a holy grail. It confirmed, of course, what I’d been speculating all along, but it also showed us just how far along the Russians were. The propulsion system alone was a quantum leap for them, and was very similar to what we had been developing for the Atom.

Too similar?

I’d say strikingly similar. Maybe alarmingly so. But there was so much information floating around in the public domain – academia, scientific journals – so much private sector R&D going on, the design could have originated anywhere. For sure there was plenty for the counterintelligence guys to lose sleep over, but at that moment we had bigger fish to fry.

Did you bring it back to Washington for further analysis?

Well, actually, no.

You see, during the autopsy, one of the tech guys notices something – a small explosive charge right against the hull, wired to the CPU. The damn thing had an autodestruct! It was right out of Mission Impossible, but it obviously had failed to activate. We’d been toying with just such an idea for the Atom-class – a small blast to punch a hole in the hull and allow it to disappear into the depths, then ping like a black box for eventual retrieval.

Chandra’s on the secure phone, presumably with the Situation Room, when he turns to me, pointing at the Istina. “They want us to blow it,” he says. “They want us to put it back.” Immediately I think – are they crazy? This is the biggest intelligence haul since K-129, and they want to just dump it?  But then I realize – of course!  The Bay is shallow enough that if the Russians come calling, they will expect to find it, and if they can’t, they’ll have to assume we did. We needed them to believe we were clueless, so we had to let them find it. That way they’d never know what we knew.

So we closed it up, drove it back out into the Bay, and scuttled it.

Was it then that the President authorized Operation Robust Probe?

The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: Is this an isolated penetration, or is it part of a larger operation? Prudence required that we take action to sanitize the Bay, so yes, Robust Probe was ordered, and the Navy immediately mobilized.

But as urgent as the situation was, there was also a need for discretion. We couldn’t exactly fill the Chesapeake Bay with destroyers. Even an increased presence of Coast Guard or small patrol craft would likely not go unnoticed, at least by the Russians. So, within hours the Navy had cobbled together a flotilla of private watercraft manned by cleared contractors and sailors in civies. They fanned out across the Bay, banging away with dipping sonar, fish finders, and whatever they could use.

Fortunately, we’d been putting Alpha, the first operational Strikepod, through its paces, and had been having a lot of success. So we fast-tracked sea trials, put a crew together, rigged up a mobile command post – the very first Strikepod Command – in what looks like a plain T.V. news van, and we’re in business. 

Within twenty-four hours Alpha had detected another Istina lurking just off Thomas Point Light. It was an odd mixture jubilation – knowing that the Atom-class was a success – and dread, the weight of knowing of what was at hand, that the Russians had not only designed, developed and deployed a sophisticated micro AUV, but they were using it to brazenly violate our territorial waters.

Was there any other reaction from the White House?

The President immediately convened the National Security Council, and, yes, yours truly was ordered to attend and provide the briefing. He was not happy. How did we not see this coming? I explained how we were aware of Russian efforts, but that our coverage had been spotty. And there were no indications that the Russians were on the brink of deploying a new vehicle to the fleet, much less inserting it into U.S. territorial waters. 

I remember how surreal it felt, sitting there in the Situation Room, the looks on the faces around me. 

Fear?

Not fear. More like a mixture of deep concern and disbelief as if no one could wrap his head around the fact that this was actually happening. And I think everyone in that room knew that things were about to change, that all of our theorizing, prognosticating, and preparing for the future of naval warfare was coming to a head. The future had arrived, right in our back yard. 

The prevailing opinion in the room was that we should move immediately to destroy it and contact the Russian government. The guys from CIA made a compelling argument for restraint – one with which I concurred – that this was more an opportunity than a threat. There was no reason to believe this was Russia’s opening move against the United States, and that if anything it was the latest example of resurgent Russian bravado and Putin’s longing for the Cold War days. This was an opportunity to gather as much intelligence as possible on a new foreign weapons platform. But there was also concern that, if weaponized, the Istinas could be used to stage a terror attack and sow further insecurity and political unrest in the United States. In the end, though, we managed to convince the President to hold off, but if at any point it was determined that there existed a threat to life or property, we would have to destroy it.

Did you personally have any theories as to its intentions?

Not many. There was Aberdeen [Proving Ground]. Theoretically an Istina could get in close enough to extract some SIGINT or MASINT, depending on the vehicle’s sensor capabilities. But who really knew? Maybe the Russians were just interested in ship spotting, or counting crabs.

And then it just kind of hit me. It was September – the following month was Fleet Week in Baltimore. The Navy would be showcasing its wares –warships, the Blues – which normally wouldn’t be such a big deal, except there was something else that year.

Zumwalt? 

Exactly. Zumwalt was on the agenda that year for commissioning. She’d be sailing up the Bay, and then docked for several days at Locust Point. We weren’t concerned with an Istina attacking Zumwalt, per se, but we knew that there was much to be had intelligence-wise. And while we had no desire to enable a Russian intelligence operation, we also wanted to collect as much as possible of our own.

When we examined the Istina in Cape Charles, we didn’t discover a warhead of any kind, so we assumed any others wouldn’t be weaponized either. And even if they were, it was unlikely that a single Istina could inflict any meaningful damage on an armored warship, unless the Russians had managed to develop a super compact, high yielding explosive, but there was no intelligence indicating such. Perhaps a group of Istinas detonating simultaneously could cause a problem, enough to raise some eyebrows or even provoke a crisis, but it would take dozens to equal the yield of even a single torpedo.

It was a delicate, rapidly unfolding situation that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced in the modern era. Of course, we’d ventured into Soviet waters in manned submarines during the Cold War, at great risk to both human life and the delicate balance that defined the Cold War. But had Parche or Halibut been detected or attacked and sunk during Ivy Bells, it would have provoked a political crisis that may well have triggered World War III. Were the stakes just as high now? It was anyone’s guess.

Were you able to deploy additional Strikepods?

Yes. Alpha had been working like a charm, but then abruptly it loses contact with the Istina as it moves under a passing tanker, which was of course disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. In the meantime, we’d deployed two more six-ship Strikepods – Beta to cover the central Bay, and Gamma the southern region. It was a lot of territory to cover, but that constituted the sum total of our Atom-class fleet at the time. There were eight currently in various stages of production, but it would be at least a day or two before we could deploy them.

Pretty soon we get word that Gamma has detected something down near Bloodworth Island.  At first we figured we’d reacquired the original, but an analysis of the acoustic data revealed that it was actually a new vehicle. It was alarming, for sure, knowing that there were now at least two Russian microsubmarines lurking in the Chesapeake Bay.

We tracked it for about two days, and then Beta manages to reacquire Istina number one. About twelve hours later, Alpha detects not one, but two more right at the mouth of the Patapsco River. That’s when everyone’s hackles went up. This was no longer a counterintelligence operation. 

Operation Robust Probe becomes Robust Purge?

Correct. Once we realized that we were dealing with at least four Istinas in the Bay, and they were lingering in Zumwalt’s path, the time for just being sneaky was over. We needed to at the very least disrupt, if not outright destroy them. 

By now the eight new Atoms have come off the line, so we fit them each with a makeshift warhead of C4, designate them Remoras, and deploy them immediately – four for Alpha, which was now tracking two separate targets, and two each for Beta and Gamma. They would only be employed if we felt that there was an immediate threat to life or property.

In the meantime, Zumwalt, Leyte Gulf, and Jason Dunham, and the other ships arrive, and as they transit the Bay, the Istinas take up position about 500 meters astern. Once the ships turn into the Patapsco, though, they back off and assume a position just outside the mouth of the river. They linger there for about twelve hours, until we get a burst from Alpha: One of the Istinas is headed up river.

So now we have a decision to make. Alpha is tracking two separate vehicles. Do we order Alpha to pursue, and break off contact with one of them? Turns out Sea Rays and Boston Whalers aren’t particularly effective ASW platforms, and Strikepods Beta and Gamma were both busy with their own tracks, well to the south, too far away to assist Alpha in time.

Then one of our brilliant engineers suggests splitting Alpha pod. We could repurpose one of the Remoras as a Rogue, and assign it an armed Remora and a Relay for coms. The engineers get on it, and in about fifteen minutes a small splinter pod breaks off and starts trailing the Istina up the Patapsco.  Things get increasingly tense as it nears the Key Bridge, and we decide that if the Istina begins moving toward the bridge supports, we would have no choice but to destroy it.

After a few anxious moments it passes under the bridge without incident, and continues on a path toward Locust Point, where the warships are docked. Word comes down from the Sit Room: The Istinas now present a clear and present danger, so immediately we order the splinter pod to attack. A minute later a Remora detonates about five meters below the surface, and we watch as it and the Istina disappear from the tactical display. Beta and Gamma attack as well, sending their respective contacts, as well as two Remoras, to the bottom of the Bay.

And just like that it was over?

It was over.

The Strikepods and surface vessels continued to prosecute Robust Purge until Zumwalt and the other ships made it safely to the Atlantic. By all accounts, Baltimore Fleet Week, including the commissioning of the Navy’s newest destroyer, came off without a hitch. No one had any idea that the first decisive battle of a new era in naval warfare had just occurred within throwing distance of Fort McHenry.

What were the takeaways?

Well, we had terabytes of data to analyze, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, there were myriad political, security, and even philosophical questions to consider. What exactly were AUVs? Were they vessels? Weapons? In a way they were like spies, but rather than round them up and expel them, or put them in jail, we’d have to disrupt them, or even kill them.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway, though, was the realization that a new form of conflict was dawning. Submarines had of course always been characterized by stealth and secrecy, and had engaged in high risk cat-and-mouse games in order to stay ahead of the adversary. But now that submarines were unmanned, and, like their stealthy manned cousins, operated far from the prying eyes of the public, a kind of limited war was now possible, a war with little or no risk of escalation, or political fallout, and most importantly, no loss of human life. A war characterized by secrecy, anonymity, and non-attribution.

In other words, as we sit here today in my living room, in the year 2033, with the benefit of hindsight, our vision of AUVs as merely an extension of the Fleet’s eyes and ears was really rather primitive.

And only the beginning of the story.

[End Part I]

David R. Strachan is a writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. Contact him at strikepod.systems@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Arctic Sub Base by Jon Gibbons (via Deviant Art)

Finding New Ways to Fight, Pt. 1

How the Mad Foxes of Patrol Squadron FIVE are harnessing their most powerful resource – their people – in an effort to cut inefficiencies and improve productivity.

By Kenneth Flannery with Jared Wilhelm

The U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute recently published a thorough primer by ML Cavanaugh on what it means to drive innovation in the military. The most important takeaway was the large difference between the simple buzzword “innovation,” and the people who actually do the dirty work of driving positive change – oft-cited as “innovation”– within the force: “defense entrepreneurs.” This series focuses on an operational U.S. Navy Maritime Patrol Squadron that is full of defense entrepreneurs, and how their unit is taking the “innovation imperative” from on high and translating it to the deckplate level. Part 1 focuses on the “Why? Who? And How?”; Part 2 reveals observed institutional barriers, challenges, and a how-to that other units could use to adapt the model to their own units. 

The Innovation Imperative

Today, the U.S. Navy remains the most powerful seafaring force the world has ever known, but there is nothing destined about that position. To maintain this superior posture, we must find leverage that allows us to maintain an edge over our adversaries. One of our most powerful levers in the past has been our economy. We were once able to maintain supremacy simply by outspending our rivals on research, development and sheer production. While the United States still has the largest military budget of any nation, that budget is increasingly stretched to counter threats in a dizzying array of locales to include the South China Sea, Arabian Gulf, or even an increasingly vulnerable Arctic. Additionally, the rest of the world is catching up economically. Some assessments indicate that China will have the largest economy in the world by 2030 and they are already producing their own domestically-built aircraft carriers. It isn’t just China on our economic heels; by 2050 the United States could have slid to third place behind India as well. Finally, our adversaries’ continual embrace of technological theft and espionage involving some of our most expensive proprietary platforms has shrunk the technological gap that the U.S. enjoyed for multiple decades. These realities make it clear that the U.S. must find a new way to counter opponents besides technological advantage.

Much like the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” the Department of Defense is experiencing what some might call a “Pivot to Innovation.” Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s “Defense Innovation Initiative” and Third Offset Strategy both signal a reinvigorated focus on maintaining and advancing our military superiority over both unconventional actors and near-peer competitors alike. 

In alignment with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson’s intent, VP-5 is investing time and manpower in the idea that that new counterweight will be the innovative ideas of our Sailors. Just as nuclear weapons and advancements like stealth and Global Positioning Systems kept the U.S. military on top during the conflicts of the Cold War and Post-Cold War eras, it will be our ability to rapidly assess challenges and implement solutions that will guarantee our security in the future. This will require a reimagining of how we currently operate and how we are organized. Our squadron believes the key to this revolution lies with its junior enlisted and junior officer ranks.

Tapping the Innovative Ideas of the Everyday “Doers”

VP-5 is taking a multi-pronged approach to molding an innovation-friendly climate to best tap the ideas of those accomplishing the mission on a daily basis. Patrol Squadron FIVE (VP-5) is currently experimenting with a dedicated Innovation Department in our command structure, but this isn’t the first time that the squadron has embraced change to maintain the technological and fighting advantage over adversaries. The unit is based at the U.S. Navy’s Master Anti-submarine Warfare facility at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, FL, where we became the second squadron Fleet-wide to transition from the P-3C Orion to the P-8A Poseidon aircraft. This successful transition was based on new training and simulation technologies, but also on a rich history that spans from our founding in 1937 to involvement in World War II, Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba during the Cold War, the Balkan Conflict, and our recent involvement in the Middle East. Throughout this time, we have used no less than five different types of Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

VP-5 Mad Foxes
The VP-5 Mad Foxes. Courtesy Ken Flannery

Just as the transition in 1948 from the PBY-5A to the PV-2 brought new tools to the squadron’s warfighting capabilities, today we are augmenting the new technologies of the P-8A with a change to our organizational structure and business practices. A traditional operational naval aviation command administers a standard set of departments including Operations, Training, Safety/NATOPS (Standardization), and Maintenance. By implementing a new Innovation Department led by a warfare-qualified pilot or Naval Flight Officer lieutenant (O-3), VP-5 seeks to elevate the innovation construct to a position alongside the traditional departments required for squadron mission accomplishment. In addition to the lieutenant department head, the Innovation group is staffed by an additional lieutenant and a Senior Chief. Its mission statement reads:

“Lead Naval Aviation in accomplishing our mission by sustaining a culture based on process improvement and disruptive thinking. The force that knows the desired outcome, measures progress in real time, and adapts processes to overcome barriers has a sustainable advantage over adversaries who tolerate their deficiencies. Similarly, the force that can innovate transforms the battlespace to their advantage.”

The establishment of the Innovation Department sends a strong signal to the department heads and the senior enlisted that innovation is a priority, but it may not necessarily trickle down to the average junior enlisted Sailor that VP-5 is a different type of squadron. To ensure the culture reaches everyone, we have implemented large “Innovation Whiteboards” throughout the squadron and encourage all members to post ideas and suggestions. Sailors can see what others have posted and leave reactions of their own. Similar to the “CO’s Sticky Note Board” on the USS Benfold (DDG 65), the ideas written on the whiteboards are then compiled for further action by the Innovation Department.

Whether an idea has been generated via a whiteboard or suggested by means of a more traditional route, the next step in the process is to create a “Swarm Cell.” Swarm Cells are small groups of people that aim to rapidly implement solutions to the problem being addressed. These groups follow a predetermined set of procedures that begin with specifying the desired output. Starting with a clear description of the end result discourages the Cell from veering off course or diluting their product with superfluous features that do little to help the original problem. The Swarm Cells then move to address the actual problem or process for which they were created, all the while making sure that their efforts lead them toward the desired output. Next, the Cells measure their progress to decide if the desired output has been achieved. From there, the members of the group can choose to share their knowledge or revisit their solutions if they have determined that they have not met their output goals.

These Swarm Cells are not on an innovation island. The squadron strives to provide support and guidance for those working to realize their ideas and provides each Swarm Cell with an Innovation Accelerator. This Accelerator may be an official member of the Innovation Department, but is not necessarily so. If the Swarm Cell is like the train conductor, deciding the destination and exactly how fast to get there, the Innovation Accelerator is the train track, allowing room for minor deviations, but keeping the train on course to its final goal. Accelerators need not be intimately involved with the minutiae of their Swarm Cells, and as such may be facilitating two or three different Cells concurrently. By asking simple questions the Accelerator can refocus the team:

1. Has the Cell outlined a clearly defined output?
2. Is the Cell working to achieve that vision, or have they allowed distractions to creep in?
3. Are they continually measuring their progress along the way?

Again, in VP-5 innovation belongs to everyone. Sailors of all ranks and pedigrees are encouraged and expected to turn a critical eye to established procedures in an effort to push our squadron into the twenty-first century. However, change for the sake of change is not one of our objectives. To guard against this, the product or design is subjected to an internal Shark Tank once each Swarm Cell is sufficiently satisfied with their work. These Shark Tank events are open to all hands and are designed to prod for weak spots in the proposal and introduce the idea to the whole team. The Swarm Cell’s program or improvement is critiqued from every angle to determine its overall benefit and structural integrity. These sessions are designed to be thorough in order to weed out underdeveloped initiatives or those that may not provide a quantifiable benefit. If a program passes muster, it continues in whatever form is appropriate, whether that is a new or revised squadron instruction or perhaps a meeting further up the chain of command.

Meaningful Results

Our modest foray into innovation has already begun to bear fruit. One of the most promising results of the innovation process has been the development of a dedicated command smartphone application called Quarterdeck. What started as a search for a better way to communicate has blossomed into a robust “app” which boasts capability far beyond that which was initially envisioned. Currently available on the Droid and Apple App stores, the application meets or exceeds DoD information assurance requirements and includes features like flight schedule postings and peer-to-peer instant messaging, among many others. Thanks to motivated junior officers who attended the 2016 Aviation Mission Support Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG) at Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) in Silicon Valley, the Adobe Company is now conducting market research, has shown interest in acquiring the hosting rights for the app, and is currently developing a professional version based on the VP-5 prototype.

The application developed by the Mad Foxes’ Innovation Department. (Courtesy Ken Flannery)

Another of our most promising innovation programs appeared to be headed toward realization before being dismissed due to concerns about running afoul of the Program Management Aviation (PMA) office. The plan was to implement an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) to replace the existing system of paper flight publications. This innovation would use tablet computers and digital flight publication subscriptions to save each squadron approximately $17,000 annually. PMA is currently developing a parallel program, but the estimated fleet delivery date was still at least a year away at the time our project was initiated. Our program would be able to deliver tablets within months. Every detail of the program had been meticulously researched, and drew heavily upon long established, similar programs used by the airlines.

The EFB program was widely supported among VP-5 junior officers, Fleet Replacement Squadron instructors, our own CO and XO, reserve unit squadrons manned by commercial airline pilots, and even had the interest of Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Group (CPRG). Unfortunately, information security concerns rooted in a risk averse culture combined with the lack of official approval from higher authorities halted the project prior to purchase. Even though our organic EFB proposal was not accepted, our efforts to address the issue sparked broader interest and pressured PMA to move up its timeline. It is a testament to the power of this innovation process that it could conceive and develop a product that rivaled a parallel effort of the standard acquisition pipeline and a regular program office. Tablets are now forecast to be delivered to the fleet by the end of this year.

Other achievements include a redesign of the Petty Officer Indoctrination course, a Command Volunteer Service Day suggested, planned, and led by an E-3, and an “Aircrew Olympics” which pitted two combat aircrews against each other in a variety of mission-related tasks. These ideas were all generated and executed from within the junior enlisted ranks.

Conclusion

We do not intend to suggest that a smartphone application or volunteer service holds the key to dismantling Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear program or China’s grip on the South China Sea. What we are trying to do is develop a framework in which creative solutions can be cultivated. Not every idea is going to be a grand slam, but before you can hit a grand slam you have to get people on base. The most important point we’ve learned is that the ideas are out there, we can cultivate them, and we’ve so far proven that we have “defense entrepreneurs” that can see these innovative ideas through from the white boards to implementation.

Formalizing an innovation process within a squadron is a new way of doing things and this new approach has been met with a variety of challenges. From stubborn, bureaucratic restrictions to “innovation stagnation,” the innovation construct at VP-5 has faced hurdles along the way and been forced to adapt. In the next installment of this series, we will explore some of these obstacles and describe the ways in which the Innovation Department has evolved as a result.

Lieutenant Ken Flannery is a P-8A Poseidon Instructor Tactical Coordinator at Patrol Squadron FIVE (VP-5). He may be contacted at kenneth.flannery@navy.mil.

Lieutenant Commander Jared Wilhelm is the Operations Officer at Unmanned Patrol Squadron One Nine (VUP-19), a P-3C Orion Instructor Pilot and a 2014 Department of Defense Olmsted Scholar. Hey may be contacted at jaredwilhelm@gmail.com

Featured Image: A P-8 assigned to VP-5 (U.S. Navy photo)

Design Thinking for Military Advantage

In collaboration with U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFFC) and Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command (NCDOC)

Introduction

The United States Navy has a proud tradition of mission accomplishment, regardless of the odds. From John Paul Jones taking the fight to the British shores aboard the Bonhomme Richard, to the hard-fought victories of the Pacific campaign, our naval service has been able to find the competitive advantage necessary to win. We have been fortunate that great people throughout our history have risen to the call when necessary. This long and storied list contains names such as Decatur, Preble, Farragut, Morton, Ellis, Puller, Hopper, and Halsey. The right person, with the right answer, at the right time— almost as if fate was on our side.

These larger-than-life figures make for compelling stories, but what if they were never born? What if these legends were not in the right place at the right time to save the day? What if the Navy fostered an environment wherein the creative problem solving, critical thought, and extreme ownership that called these legends to action were core competencies across the force? Imagine a force that spends less time prescribing exactly what to do and instead harnesses the power of the collective, a force where our competitive advantage is not simply people, but rather capable, empowered, and passionate teammates. We should develop teammates truly capable of leading us into the future because we are too comfortable reacting to the present.

To truly realize our potential, we must deliberately build upon our strong history and shape the ongoing cultural change across the force. We must make creative problem solving, critical thinking, and collective ownership core competencies, and go out of our way to enable teammates who reflect these traits. Our training pipeline and personnel system should reinforce those tenets. In the absence of that, or rather in parallel, we must focus on shaping culture at the unit level. This entails the creation of connective tissue across many efforts that seek the same outcomes to ensure scalability while creating new norms and delivering outcomes we have yet to imagine.

This article seeks to shine a light on the unnecessary level of risk aversion and bureaucracy in our organization, describe the fundamental principles behind design thinking and deckplate innovation, and share revealing examples of these principles in action at U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFFC) and Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command (NCDOC). 

A Learning Navy

In the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, the Chief of Naval Operations lays out numerous lines of effort as a vision and strategy for the Navy’s future. The green line of effort, which challenges the Navy to “apply the best concepts, techniques and technologies to accelerate learning as individuals, teams and organizations,” is being realized in an emerging grassroots movement which has taken the challenge to “set aspirational goals” and use a combination of critical thinking, lessons from history, and methods of human-centered design to encourage creativity and innovation to create advantage.

A sustainable competitive advantage is difficult to identify, and often results from an interwoven mass of tangible and intangible factors. Tangible resources are easy to identify and range from financial capital to physical assets like airplanes and ships. Intangible resources, while more difficult to quantify, may be the most valuable assets that an organization possesses. Human resources provide long-term exploitable skills, productive effort, and tacit knowledge that is difficult to replace and hard for competition to replicate. Personal and organizational experience builds tacit knowledge, and can be described as the collective know-how of a group. Organizations often struggle to quantify or pass on this knowledge through verbal or written communication.

In order to prevent stagnation, the Navy must become a learning organization. A learning organization continuously transforms itself by properly unleashing its people’s tacit knowledge. Throughout the rich history of the Navy, innovation and creativity have often ebbed and flowed. As Peter Senge points out in his book The Fifth Discipline, many successful learning organizations share a common vision, willingly challenge their own mental models, and encourage their people to seek personal mastery and engage in team learning. The results are the Googles, Facebooks, Ubers, and Warby Parkers of the world. This is not to say the Navy should model itself in the image of Facebook or Uber. Clearly the business model of fighting and winning our nation’s wars differs from that of social networking or crowdsourcing vehicular transportation. But just as many different corporations with different goals and models have embraced rapid learning to achieve maximum possible performance, so too can the Navy, and the first step in becoming a learning organization is admitting that you are not one.

Though many senior leaders may disagree, our Navy, as a whole, is not a true learning organization–at least not yet. Everyone needs to grow comfortable with a continuous departure from the status quo as the start of a new way of thinking. Through the combination of these ideas, an organization can leverage the knowledge and abilities across the spectrum of its constituents. The core competencies of creative problem solving, critical thinking, and collective ownership will help us break this mold. Our current system fails to assess, develop, or value these competencies. But unbeknownst to many, a deckplate revolution has commenced.

A Revolution in Thought and Action

This revolution continues to bring smart creatives from across the Navy together to create a movement. They focus on reimagining our culture as one founded on the aforementioned core competencies. This is where design thinking comes into play. Much contemporary writing focused on change references design thinking, but what is it exactly? Is it a perceived silver bullet from industry that the military is attempting to latch on to? A fleeting “buzzword” quickly forgotten? Hopefully not.

Design thinking is about embracing the combined knowledge within an organization for maximum possible performance. Creating solutions can be difficult, especially if you have not effectively defined the problem. Design thinking provides a process to focus efforts and achieve results. Though many techniques and tools differ, design thinking is rooted in four major elements: define the problem, divergent thinking, convergent thinking, and refine/execute.

NOSC San Jose Sailors engaged in a 45 minute divergent thinking exercise designed to capture ideas in order to address an opportunity statement provided by NOSC leadership. (Photo by LCDR Owen Morrissey)

Defining the problem is very easy to gloss over, but it can be the most important step. Are you solving the right problem or simply a symptom of a higher systemic impediment in your organization? Design thinking encourages approaching the problem from different perspectives to ensure you are still solving the correct or complete problem. Seek to ask why until you have worked past the easy answers and get to the truly hard question. Don’t just look for the simplest and most obvious solution, but seek as many different solutions as possible. Divergent thinking facilitates this concept, especially with many people working together. The goal is to diverge into as many ideas as possible, where the most opportunities appear when you are not constrained by finding the “best” solution. Think quantity over quality; many people can’t arrive at the right answer without fully embracing their comfort in the group or without pulling ideas from previous ‘bad’ examples.

After generating as many opportunities as possible, design thinking uses tools to group, merge, and then pare down the solutions until, through synthesis, converge on the best functional results. To higher leadership, this can be considered a catch-all in removing the ‘Good Idea Fairies’ from the group and allowing the best solution to bubble to the surface. This solution will be free of emotion and carries with it a vector towards positive change.

After arriving at a solution, seek refinement and development through basic prototyping. Design thinking provides tools to prototype solutions that seek to test the foundations of the idea rather than building a working physical product. This enables testing and further development with minimum resources. For higher levels of leadership, this may work towards an entire command or unit. When implemented from the ground-up – individuals, workcenters, divisions, and departments – this equates improvement across the spectrum.

After the solution has been refined, execute. Ideas without execution are meaningless. It takes action to bring an idea to fruition, and without that action, design thinking is truly just the latest “buzzword” spoken in an echo chamber.

Leadership’s Role

Upon the conclusion of the event, the collaboration and support of the participant’s leadership is necessary to promote the success of these young leaders by providing them with time, trust, and top cover. These core aspects drive the successful engagement of our young Sailors and Marines, and inspire every ounce of our commitment and progress. Without them, we don’t have the perspective to see beyond our silo of thought. The relationship between leadership’s time, trust, and top cover and rank and file empowerment defines the success or failure in the leader-led relationship. All of the time and trust in the world does nothing if you don’t have someone blocking for you along the way. Conversely, there is no top cover that someone can give you that would produce results without the adequate time and trust that goes along with it.

The illuminate Th!nkshop at Fleet Forces

Officers assigned to SEVENTH Fleet in Yokosuka participate in an executive course collaboration exercise focused on developing rapid prototypes in order to gain perspective of the Illuminate effort. (Photo by LCDR Owen Morrissey)

The illuminate initiative at Fleet Forces Command is one grassroots program bringing design thinking courses to Sailors and Marines. Turning the traditional paradigm of learning on its head, they encourage shrugging off bureaucracy, taking ownership, and focusing entirely on problem-solving and process improvement as opposed to passively receiving top-down innovation initiatives. Based in the concepts of design thinking, the Th!nkshops seek to identify solutions through a process of divergent and convergent thinking, coupled with the critical thought and positive mindset vital to the process itself. 

Like many other organizations in this grassroots movement, illuminate champions the fact that the foundations, objectives, materials, and format are designed and taught by a small team of active duty Sailors and Marines. Led by a passionate group of individuals, the course has already made a difference across the Navy. These efforts have primed the pump of an ad-hoc network of like-minded Sailors and Marines that seek to collaborate and achieve results. With the right resources and an expanded inventory of design thinking and organizational learning methods at their disposal, this network could move from an ad-hoc group of facilitators to a connected group of command sponsored representatives that will achieve maximum performance across the Navy.

Refining The Process

Getting the Th!nkshop pilot off the ground would not have occurred without an incubation phase. Illuminate needed people to iterate and a laboratory to experiment in order to refine the course. Enter Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command (NCDOC). The Echelon IV command participated in numerous iteration sessions  and helped develop the Th!nkshop curriculum.  Throughout this process, NCDOC personnel received personal and professional development training and provided candid feedback to the illuminate facilitators. The USFFC Th!nkshop facilitators refined the course based on the feedback. This cycle of iteration, development, and growth continued for several months. As a result, NCDOC adopted and launched its own chapter of illuminate utilizing their own in-house facilitators, while USFFC simultaneously began to spread illuminate across the naval enterprise. 

Since leaving NCDOC in December 2016, USFFC has impacted numerous commands. These include more than 40 commands at Seventh Fleet (C7F), Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), Southwest Regional Maintenance Center (SWRMC), and Naval Operations Support Center (NOSC) San Jose. They are scheduled to travel this summer to NOSC Dallas, East and West Coast Submarine Forces, SWRMC, and SPAWAR. They also conduct a series of Th!nkshops in Norfolk where they have trained Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC), Fleet Readiness Center Mid-Atlantic (FRCMA), National Guard, Reserve Forces (RESFOR), and Naval Information Forces (NAVIFOR); summer plans include OPTEVFOR (Commander Operational Test & Evaluation Force), Transient Personnel Unit (TPU), Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 12, and Special Boat Team 20.

NCDOC’s support and assistance provided the fertile ground for the Th!nkshops to blossom from an amazing idea to a training mechanism directly impacting Sailors and Marines. Their partnership laid the foundations for illuminate to scale across the fleet.

The NCDOC Experience

The time, trust, and top cover of a trusted ally provided the fertile ground for the illuminate Th!nkshops to grow and develop. In its early phases, illuminate took root at Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command (NCDOC). But long before opening their makerspace for Th!nkshop incubation and refinement, NCDOC began a deliberate culture shaping journey. A journey as unique as their mission; one that continues to make them the Navy’s “Purple Cow,” to borrow a term from Seth Godin.

They don’t use a Command Assessment Team to assess climate, they have a Culture Club that shapes culture. They use a 360-degree hiring panel to select new civilian teammates, and conduct 360-degree feedback for all E-7 and above as well as supervisory civilians. They have shaped a culture that truly combines the power of the 21st century mindset with the best of our strong Navy tradition. The foundational experience among NCDOC Teammates is their tailored version of the illuminate Th!nkshop, which is integrated within their 100 Day Onboarding process. Over the last few months, the Th!nkshop alums have reinvented peer recognition, reimagined mentorship using the NFL draft as the model, developed a locator tool to navigate their building, crafted a New Teammate Handbook using Valve’s New Employee Handbook as inspiration, redesigned their next Command Climate Survey, and directly leveraged design thinking to reorient operational execution.

The most visible evidence of the significant culture shift at NCDOC is the aforementioned New Teammate Handbook. It not only serves as a vehicle to reinforce their ongoing commitment to culture-shaping initiatives, it also serves as an example of how the public sector must both lead and engage if they are to give Smart Creatives reason to join the team.

The formatting of the handbook is not what you would expect from a government organization and neither are the words contained within. Everything from the internally developed Waypoints that articulate shared behavior across the NCDOC team, to the “Allowed To” list that compels all teammates to be “Doers,” speaks to a team that truly values competence, collaboration, and character. And because words are hollow when not supported by action, one need only watch their Innovation Cross Functional Team coach “Idea
Champions” at all ranks through the process of making their ideas reality to see that the “Doer” philosophy runs deep across the team and produces results.”

NCDOC’s New Teammate Handbook (Click to read)

NCDOC serves as a visible example that it’s not about the Th!nkshop itself; it’s about the culture it fosters and the operational outcomes that a culture of creative problem solving, critical thinking, and collective ownership generates. The NCDOC team interacts differently than any other within the Navy. Their spaces are different from any other within the Navy, and their approach to just about everything is different from any other within the Navy. It’s not about being different for the sake of being different, but rather about caring enough to question everything, to allow expertise to trump rank, and to prioritize long-term significance over short term success. NCDOC is a prime example of how a sustained commitment to facilitating Th!nkshops impacts thinking, doing, and mission accomplishment at the unit level. A Th!nkshop experience may leave you inspired to do more, but without the visible commitment to the tenets it teaches by leaders at every level, you will quickly be reminded of the short shelf-life of inspiration.

The Future

The work at USFF and NCDOC is not Navy-mandated, but simply the result of some forward-thinking minds within the Navy and Marine Corps, the desire to make a difference, and the opportunity to do so. Th!nkshops have inspired many, but we measure impact by our ability to sustain and scale the transformation ignited to date. Th!nkshops alone won’t generate the outcomes we need; command triads committed to culture shaping and helping each teammate realize their potential will. We offer our Th!nkshops as a vehicle to kickstart local initiatives, and welcome the opportunity to partner with units across the Navy. These partnerships grow and strengthen our network of leaders committed to creating an environment that affords us the opportunity to evolve into a true learning organization. This environment not only ensures great ideas are prevalent, but as our Chief of Naval Operations has made clear, allows us to turn those ideas into something real.

Contact us below for more information on how you can be a part of the Th!nkshop movement.

LCDR Owen Morrissey and LT John Hawley are currently assigned to USFFC in support of the CNO’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority. They can be contacted at owen.morrissey@navy.mil for executive engagement and john.w.hawley@navy.mil for more information and to schedule an illuminate thinkshop. For more information on the NCDOC state of mind, contact Dr. Rebecca Siders at rsiders@ncdoc.navy.mil

Featured Image: Sailors assigned to NOSC San Jose participate in a rapid ideation session during a reserve drill weekend. (Photo by LCDR Owen Morrissey) 

Innovative Leadership Development: Why and How

Leadership Development Topic Week

By Joe Schuman

Introduction

What makes a leader? According to the Navy Leadership Development Framework (NLDF), effective leaders demonstrate qualities such as humility, honor, courage, commitment, integrity, and accountability. While few would disagree that these character traits are necessary for Navy leaders to be successful, the rapidly changing security environment of the 21st century makes it such that these skills are not sufficient. If the Navy is serious about producing leaders who will be “ready for decisive operations and combat,” it must place a stronger emphasis on promoting innovation throughout its leadership development process as a whole.

The definition of “innovate,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.” Innovation, therefore, is essentially a problem solving technique, which can be applied to any number of problem areas – technical, policy, process, and more. Note that innovation is not limited to technological innovation and is distinct from invention – the creation of a new technology. In the context of leadership development, an innovative leader is someone who is forward-leaning, willing to challenge the status quo, and possesses the ability to create value in new ways for the organization to which they belong.

Innovation as a Necessary Warfighting Attribute

Interestingly, the NLDF clearly recognizes the need for innovative leadership. The opening sentence states, “our Navy’s operational and warfighting success requires that we be ready to prevail in an environment that is changing quickly and becoming more complex.” Changing and complex problems cannot be addressed in the same manner as stagnant and simple problems, as the NLDF acknowledges when it stresses the importance of leaders who will “learn and adapt.” Nonetheless, the NLDF falls short of identifying innovation as a critical leadership quality. While the NLDF briefly notes the need for “initiative” and “creativity” in Navy leadership, innovation is only mentioned once within the entire document. In the “Developing Character” section, the NLDF notes that leaders should participate in “innovation opportunities.” Strikingly, this passing reference is included under “self-guided study,” not within the professional education or on-the-job training sub-sections, and is completely excluded from the “Developing Competence” section, as if innovation is not relevant to the competence of a Navy leader.

The deafening silence of the NLDF in regards to innovation is at odds with the military’s own history of innovative leadership. After the Normandy invasion in 1944, for example, American troops found that hedgerows frequently channeled them into ambushes. After discovering that the hedgerows were too thick to cut or drive through, American soldiers designed and welded a mechanism onto the front of their tanks that could successfully cut through the bushes.1 Innovation has historically also taken place on a larger scale. During the interwar period between WWI and WWII, exercises and wargaming at the Naval War College were used to inform actual decisions at the fleet level, which in turn informed the next round of exercises at the War College in an iterative loop. This ideation and testing process was not used to justify current doctrine but, rather, to reveal unanswered questions and possible solutions.2

Innovative leadership has proven its worth in recent conflicts as well. When National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, took command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, he immediately changed a number of policies in order to better align his regiment’s operation with his own view (which was less accepted at the time) that “the key to counterinsurgency is focusing on the people.” McMaster took concrete steps to this end, banning the use of the term “haji,” mandating cultural understanding education for his troops, and setting up a system to poll detainees on how well they were being treated. As a result of these changes, trust began to develop between U.S. troops and locals which, in turn, resulted in thousands of Iraqis signing up to join the local police forces while preventative tips about insurgent activity surged. In the final analysis, because of McMaster’s innovations, U.S. military experts concluded that the 3rd ACR had conducting the best counterinsurgency among similar units operating in Iraq in 2005.3 

Innovation also takes place on a smaller scale. For example, Chief Sonar Technician Benjamin Lebron, of the USS Fitzgerald, changed the way his division analyzes sonar data. Recognizing that he was spending a majority of his time constructing plots during Target Motion Analysis (TMA), Lebron created a TMA tactical decision aid, first in Excel, and then in HTML and javascript,4 that can spot sonar returns that look like submarine movements in real time. Now, Lebron’s code automates the redundant portions of his work, allowing him to focus on analyzing the relevant information instead of spending time drawing it, and, since it is web based, is easily scalable across the fleet.5

Although the aforementioned cases are promising, they are unfortunately the exception and not the rule. And while innovative military leadership has always been important, the increasingly rapid pace of technological innovation and ever-evolving face of conflict place a higher premium on innovative leadership than ever before. Joseph Thomas, Distinguished Military Professor of Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy, notes that  the current military environment, “calls for skill sets more consistent with the leadership of Lewis and Clark than Patton,” yet, “the military education and training structure that produced Patton remains virtually unchanged.” Thomas continues: “If the current and future battlefield can be characterized by an uncertain, non-uniform enemy, vague and rapidly changing missions, cultural sensitivity of warfighters, and a chaotic environment, then leadership development models crafted when there was a certain and predictable enemy, set leadership roles, and a proscribed methods of fighting must be changed.”6

Innovation Competencies

How, then, should the Navy promote the development of innovative leaders within its ranks? The key to answering this question is to understand the factors that influence the innovative competency of organizations as a whole and, by inference, determine the skills and qualities that leaders of these organizations need to posses. Building off the “Entrepreneurial Competency” framework proposed by Bharat Rao and Bala Mulloth in their paper “The Role of Universities in Encouraging Growth of Technology-Based New Ventures,” four competencies of innovative organizations emerge: (i) Opportunity Development, (ii) Championing, (iii) Resource Leveraging, and (iv) Location Leveraging.7 These qualities are essential for creating innovative organizations, and, as such, innovative leadership development programs must create leaders who can contribute to their organizations in these capacities. In the subsequent paragraphs, the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator, a public-private partnership between the Department of Defense (DoD) and a network of national research universities that seeks to reinvigorate civil-military technology collaboration, will be used as a case study to illustrate examples of leadership development programs within Rao and Mulloth’s entrepreneurial competency framework.

The Opportunity Development Competency is defined as “the need to develop a viable business opportunity” in the context of university entrepreneurialism. It is related to “the knowledge and experience of the individual researcher,” which yields an “opportunity recognition capacity” in such individuals.In the context of the Navy, the Opportunity Development Competency requires individuals to (a) posses the methodological tools to frame problems, develop concepts, and make actionable recommendations and then (b) be exposed to new problems to which they can apply these skills. As such, in order to improve the innovative capacity of the Navy, Navy leadership development must (a) promote these skills and (b) create opportunities for the utilization of these skills.

One MD5 program, MD5 Bootcamp, serves as an example of the type of program that the Navy might want to consider implementing more broadly in order to foster the Opportunity Development Competency in its leaders. MD5 Bootcamp is a weeklong intensive education program that was first piloted in November 2016 with United States Pacific Fleet (PACFLT). It provides Navy leaders with the tools for problem framing and solving through a variety of lessons on topics such as design thinking and Lean Startup Methodology, and then encourages the application of these skills through exercises such as co-creation sessions. Future Navy programming should build off the success of MD5 Bootcamp in their professional education schools and formal on-the-job training.

The Championing Competency, in the context of university entrepreneurship, is defined as “the need for championing individuals who provide meaning and energy to the entrepreneurial process.”9 Champions are critical for promoting new ventures to relevant stakeholders, particularly at the early stages of venture development. Given the hierarchical structure of the military, the Championing Competency is even more important. Since innovation works best from the bottom-up, in contrast to the top-down structure of the military, the Navy must develop leaders at all levels who are willing to champion innovative ideas and push the limits of military hierarchy.

MD5 has made efforts to promote the Championing Competency within senior officers through classes like the Adaptive & Agile Leadership Network (AALN) at the National Defense University, which is an elective course that introduces agile-leadership approaches to innovation to mid-career military members. Other organizations, such as The Athena Project, which aims to harness grassroots innovations within the Navy through pitch events and mentoring, focus on creating innovators at the enlisted and junior officer levels. In combination, programs like AALN and The Athena Project create both innovation champions at the senior levels who subsequently promote innovation opportunities within their ranks, and innovators at the lower levels who champion their own ideas.

The Resource Leveraging Competency is defined as “the need to access the resources necessary to develop the new venture.” Rao and Mulloth note that the likelihood of launching university spin-offs increases as researchers have more access to facilities, financial resources, knowledge resources (e.g., intellectual property), and social capital resources.10 This competency is fairly analogous in the context of the Navy. Military leadership must, after recognizing an innovative opportunity, provide resources and access to promising ideas and personnel. Such resource leveraging may be within the purview of a given Sailor or their chain of command, or it may require the aforementioned championing competency to secure resources from higher levels of leadership.

Jay Harrison, André Gudger, Katepalli Sreenivasan and Capt. Chris Wood (l-r) take questions from the audience to kick off the MD5 hackathon. (Courtesy photo)

MD5 has several efforts that encourage resource leveraging. MD5.net, for example, is a web-based platform that allows for the crowdsourcing, vetting, synthesis, and promulgation of problems, solutions, IP, and other innovation-enabling resources. Once fully operational, MD5.net will allow for resource leveraging between internal Navy and DoD innovators as well as civilian entrepreneurs. Other MD5 programs, such as the Proof of Concept Center and the University of Southern Mississippi, which provides digital design and manufacturing resources in support of distributed prototyping, and projected programs, such as MD5 Lab, which will provide innovators with prototyping and experimentation resources, aim to support this resource leveraging competency as well. The Navy must not only utilize existing tools and create similar programs for themselves, but also instruct leaders on how best to leverage both internal and external resources for the innovators within their ranks.

Lastly, the fourth and final competency, the Location Leveraging Competency, is defined as “the need to locate the new venture in the right ecosystem and support infrastructure.”11 In the context of Navy innovation and leadership development, the principal lesson from this competency is that the best ideas today don’t always live inside DoD and as such Navy leaders must be willing to work with non-traditional partners, especially the private sector.

MD5 Hack, a portfolio of hackathon events that brings together practitioners, technologists, and military members over a weekend to build prototypes, is built upon this principle. It is no coincidence that MD5 Hack has taken place in New York City and Austin, TX, and is going to be run in Boston, MA, as these cities harbor some of the best tech talent in the U.S., who bring their expertise to MD5 Hackathons to solve real DoD problems. Efforts such as DIUx, which has outposts in San Francisco, Austin, and Boston, also recognize the importance of the Location Leveraging Competency to solving DoD problems. Navy leadership must be willing to work with new partners through non-traditional approaches; Navy leadership development, therefore, must teach leaders to be willing to attempt new problem solving methods, particularly those that leverage the private sector.

Conclusion

Charles Darwin noted, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Yet, innovation is not considered a relevant leadership quality in the NLDF despite the clear need for innovative leaders in today’s conflicts. The Navy should be cautious not to bureaucratize innovation from the top-down and can do so by following Rao and Mulloth’s framework. And while current MD5 efforts represent positive progress towards the creation of the next generation of innovative leaders, these efforts will not be sufficient on their own. The Navy, and the DoD as a whole, must incorporate innovative leadership development into its standard leadership development programming. Such efforts can tie in with other promising programs and initiatives, such as the Chief of Naval Operation’s High Velocity Learning initiative.12 If done correctly, the Navy will empower the next generation of leaders to solve problems on their own, improving military effectiveness and success. If not, to adapt Roger Misso’s message, without innovative leadership, Alas Our Navy! 

Joe Schuman is currently a Research Assistant at the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator. Prior to MD5, Joe is a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he studied Mechanical Engineering and Political Science. Joe also attended St. Peter’s College at the University of Oxford as a visiting student, where he studied Engineering Science as well as Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). Readers wishing to learn more about the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator should contact Joe Schuman at joseph.schuman@gc.ndu.edu. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government. 

References

1. Tim Kane, “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving,” The Atlantic, February 2011. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/01/why-our-best-officers-are-leaving/308346/.

2. Williamson Murray, “Innovation: Past and Future,” Joint Force Quarterly, Summer 1996.

3. Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

4. “The A. Bryan Lasswell Award for Fleet Support,” National Defense Industrial Association. Retrieved from http://www.ndia-sd.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/LasswellAwards2015Program.pdf

5. Meghann Myers, “Top sailor innovations win big prizes,” Navy Times, March 2016. Retrieved from https://www.navytimes.com/story/military/2016/03/13/award-winning-ideas-navys-top-innovators/81443614/

6. Joseph J. Thomas, “Leader Development in the US Department of Defense: A Brief Historical Review and Assessment for the Future,” The ADM James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership – United States Naval Academy. Retrieved from https://www.usna.edu/Ethics/_files/documents/Leader%20Development%20History%20Thomas.pdf

7. Bharat Rao and Bala Mulloth, “The Role of Universities in Encouraging Growth of Technology-Based New Ventures,” International Journal of Innovation and Technology Management 14(4), January 2017.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. John M. Richardson, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” January 2016. Retrieved from http://www.navy.mil/cno/docs/cno_stg.pdf

Featured Image: U.S. Navy lieutenant speaks before sailors. (U.S. Navy photo)