Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 13 – ONR– Rear Admiral Lorin Selby

We just held our thirteenth session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Today’s topic was The Navy and Modern War.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of the previous twelve classes here.


Some of the readings for this week included Defense Primer: Dept of the Navy, Navy Lasers and Railguns, Navy Large Surface Combatants, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles, China’s Navy Modernization.

Our guest speaker was Rear Admiral Lorin Selby, Chief of Naval Research, United States Navy.

Admiral Selby is responsible for the Naval Research Enterprise. It is the “venture capital” of the Navy and Marine Corps. It’s made up of ONR – the Office of Naval Research, ONR Global, the Naval Research Laboratory, and Special Projects (PMR 51.)

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.)

I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of Admiral Selby’s key insights and urge you to read the entire transcript here and watch his video.

The Naval Research Enterprise
This picture is a way I divvy up my Naval Research portfolio:

  • On the left is the division that’s home to cyber and electronic warfare. A little bit of AI but really, mostly electronic warfare.
  • The next area is ocean battlespace. This includes unmanned underwater vehicles – UUVs. 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, 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, i.e. pumps, valves, materials science, corrosion. There’s science to be done in perfecting some of those, and they’re critical in the operation of these platforms. This branch looks at maintenance practices, trying to make sure we protect those.
  • 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, missiles, 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 do we go faster in getting things to the fleet. From an ideation to a thing to a 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. 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 about 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 – separate system commands, one for Air, one for Sea systems, one for cyber systems, supply over here. They’re separate, 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, 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 10 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 just 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, 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 10 years, you’ll find many, many more unmanned things out there, but they will be operating close to the gray hull 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 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 does happen all throughout history as technologies have been introduced. We always try to take it and make it do what the old thing did.

An Example of New Tech First Looking Like the Old – Photonics Masts on a Submarine
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 20 years, 25 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 — adversary, 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 SecDef just announced the 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, but that’s less capable, but easier to replace?
We have this very big appetite for highly complex, which are exquisite, phenomenal, best in the world. No question about it, costs a lot of money to build. And oh, by the way, they cost even more money to maintain over the life of a 30-, 40- or 50-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, 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 10 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, 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, Pacific Northwest, and other parts of country – even to boat builders, 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. And 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 SSNX, which is the next generation of submarine in roughly 2035. You talk to my aviator friends; they want the next-gen fighter about the same time. You talk to my surface warfare friends; they want the large surface combatant about the same time. Well, first of all that’s 15 years from now. So by our traditional design, build standards, that means you’ve got to start like right now, for all three. And we can’t afford that. There’s no way we can afford that.

You may have noticed the SecDef’s 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 we need to maintain that dominance. But Battle Force 2045 doesn’t call for as many surface ships, 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 it we are using OTA’s – 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 SYSCOM 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.

General Stanley McChrystal in his book Team of Teams talked about how he organized to fight in the Middle East. What McChrystal 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, it 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, whoever industry, academia. Because that’s the power.

I’m curious to hear more about why Warfighter performance wasn’t as emphasized as the other areas.
Traditionally, most of the money went to build those high-end destroyers and submarines and next-gen fighters. So that would be my vernacular in code 32, 33 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, that’s also where most of the R&D money went. And most of that was focused on either another submarine, another aircraft carrier, another fighter. And because of that, there was very little left to go do, kind of human forward stuff. 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 NRL 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 Ph.Ds 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% 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, in 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 It’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) Fields?
There’s a lot of concern in the 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, they don’t think it’s cool, whatever. So we’re trying to figure that out.

Read the entire transcript of Admiral Selby’s talk and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the video click here.

Lessons Learned

  • The U.S Navy is a historic crossroads
  • We are going to start seeing uncrewed ships and submersibles
    • First as “wingmen” to existing surface ships and submarines
  • We can get more ships if build these new types of vessels so that they’re semi-disposable.
    • You run them hard for 10 years, but you don’t spend a mint to refurbish them, you recycle them
  • We can build these new types of vessels in numbers by using non-traditional shipyards
    • Keep the existing shipyards building traditional ships/submarines
    • This will create new expertise in different pockets that we’ve never developed before.
  • This is in conflict with the existing major acquisition plans for future surface ships and submarines

Why the Navy Needs Disruption Now (part 2 of 2)

The future is here it’s just distributed unevenly – Silicon Valley view of tech adoption

The threat is here it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier

This is the second of a two-part post following my stay on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Part 1 talked about what I saw and learned – the layout of a carrier, how the air crew operates and how the carrier functions in context of the other ships around it (the strike group.) But the biggest learning was the realization that disruption is not just happening to companies, it’s also happening to the Navy. And that the Lean Innovation tools we’ve built to deal with disruption and create continuous innovation for large commercial organizations were equally relevant here.

This post offers a few days’ worth of thinking about what I saw. (If you haven’t, read part 1 first.)


The threat is here; it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier
Both of the following statements are true:

  • The aircraft carrier is viable for another 30 years.
  • The aircraft carrier is obsolete.

Well-defended targets
Think of an aircraft carrier as a $11 billion dollar portable air force base manned by 5,000 people delivering 44 F/A-18 strike fighters anywhere in the world.

The primary roles of the 44 F/A-18 strike fighters that form the core of the carrier’s air wing is to control the air and drop bombs on enemy targets. For targets over uncontested airspace (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, etc.) that’s pretty easy. The problem is that First World countries have developed formidable surface-to-air missiles – the Russian S–300 and S-400 and the Chinese HQ-9 – which have become extremely effective at shooting down aircraft. And they have been selling these systems to other countries (Iran, Syria, Egypt, etc.). While the role of an aircraft carrier’s EA-18G Growlers is to jam/confuse the radar of these missiles, the sophistication and range of these surface-to-air missiles have been evolving faster than the jamming countermeasures on the EA-18G Growlers (and the cyber hacks to shut the radars down).

Hq9

This means that the odds of a carrier-based F/A-18 strike fighter successfully reaching a target defended by these modern surface-to-air missiles is diminishing yearly. Unless the U.S. military can take these air defense systems out with drones, cruise missiles or cyber attack, brave and skilled pilots may not be enough. Given the F/A-18’s are manned aircraft (versus drones), high losses of pilots may be (politically) unacceptable.

Vulnerable carriers
If you want to kill a carrier, first you must find it and then you have to track it. In WWII knowing where the enemy fleet located was a big – and critical – question. Today, photo imaging satellites, satellites that track electronic emissions (radio, radar, etc.) and satellites with synthetic aperture radar that can see through clouds and at night are able to pinpoint the strike group and carrier 24/7. In the 20th century only the Soviet Union had this capability. Today, China can do this in the Pacific and to a limited extent, Iran has this capability in the Persian Gulf. Soon there will be enough commercial satellite coverage of the Earth using the same sensors, that virtually anyone able to pay for the data will be able to track the ships.

During the Cold War the primary threat to carriers was from the air – from strike/fighters dropping bombs/torpedoes or from cruise missiles (launched from ships and planes). While the Soviets had attack submarines, our anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities (along with very noisy Soviet subs pre-Walker spy ring) made subs a secondary threat to carriers.

In the 20th century the war plan for a carrier strike group used its fighter and attack aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the cruisers to destroy enemy radar, surface-to-air missiles, aircraft and communications (including satellite downlinks). As those threats are eliminated, the carrier strike can move closer to land without fear of attack. This allowed the attack aircraft to loiter longer over targets or extend their reach over enemy territory.

Carriers were designed to be most effective launching a high number of sorties (number of flights) from ~225 miles from the target. For example, we can cruise offshore of potential adversaries (Iraq and Syria) who can’t get to our carriers. (Carriers can standoff farther or can reach further inland, but they have to launch F-18’s as refueling tankers to extend the mission range. For example, missions into Afghanistan are 6-8 hours versus normal mission times of 2-3 hours.)

In the 21st century carrier strike groups are confronting better equipped adversaries, and today carriers face multiple threats before they can launch an initial strike. These threats include much quieter submarines, long-range, sea-skimming cruise missiles, and in the Pacific, a potential disruptive game changer – ballistic missiles armed with non-nuclear maneuverable warheads that can hit a carrier deck as it maneuvers at speed (DF-21d and the longer range DF-26).d21d range

In the Persian Gulf the carriers face another threat – Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC) and speedboats with anti-ship cruise missiles that can be launched from shore.

The sum of all these threats – to the carrier-based aircraft and the carriers themselves –  are called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

Eventually the cost and probability of defending the carrier as a manned aircraft platform becomes untenable in highly defended A2/AD environments like the western Pacific or the Persian Gulf. (This seems to be exactly the problem the manned bomber folks are facing in multiple regions.) But if not a carrier, what will they use to project power?  While the carrier might become obsolete, the mission certainly has not.

So how does/should the Navy solve these problems?

Three Horizons of Innovation
One useful way to think about in innovation in the face of increasing disruption / competition is called the “Three Horizons of Innovation.” It suggests that an organization should think about innovation across three categories called “Horizons.”

  • Horizon 1 activities support executing the existing mission with ever increasing efficiency
  • Horizon 2 is focused on extending the core mission
  • Horizon 3 is focused on searching for and creating brand new missions
    (see here for background on the Three Horizons.)

Horizon 1 is the Navy’s core mission. Here the Navy executes against a set of known mission requirements (known beneficiaries, known ships and planes, known adversaries, deployment, supply chain, etc.) It uses existing capabilities and has comparatively low risk to get the next improvement out the door.

In a well-run organization like the Navy, innovation and improvement occurs continuously in Horizon 1. Branches of the Navy innovate on new equipment, new tactics, new procurement processes, more sorties on newer carriers, etc. As fighter pilots want more capable manned aircraft and carrier captains want better carriers, it’s not a surprise that Horizon 1 innovations are upgrades – the next generation of carriers – Ford Class; and next generation of navy aircraft – the F-35C. As a failure here can impact the Navy’s current mission, Horizon 1 uses traditional product management tools to minimize risk and assure execution. (And yes, like any complex project they still manage to be over budget and miss their delivery schedule.)

Because failure here is unacceptable, Navy Horizon 1 programs and people are managed by building repeatable and scalable processes, procedures, incentives and promotions to execute and the mission.

In Horizon 2, the Navy extends its core mission. Here it looks for new opportunities within its existing mission (trying new technology on the same platform, using the same technology with new missions, etc.) Horizon 2 uses mostly existing capabilities (the carrier as an aircraft platform, aircraft to deliver munitions) and has moderate risk in building or securing new capabilities to get the product out the door.

An example of potential Naval Horizon 2 innovations is unmanned drones flying off carriers to do the jobs fighter pilots hate such as serving as airborne tankers (who wants to fly a gas tank around for 6 hours?) and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), another tedious mission flying around for hours that could be better solved with a drone downlinking ISR data for processing on board a ship.

However, getting the tanker and ISR functions onto drones only delays the inevitable shift to drones for strike, and then for fighters. The problem of strike fighters’ increasing difficulty in penetrating heavily defended targets isn’t going to get better with the new F-35C (the replacement for the F/A-18). In fact, it will get worse. Regardless of the bravery and skill of the pilots, they will face air defense systems evolving at a faster rate than the defensive systems on the aircraft. It’s not at all clear in a low-intensity conflict (think Bosnia or Syria) that civilian leadership will want to risk captured or killed pilots and losing planes like the F-35C that cost several hundred million dollars each.

Management in Horizon 2 works by pattern recognition and experimentation inside the current mission model. Ironically, institutional inertia keeps the Navy from deploying unmanned assets on carriers. In a perfect world, drones in carrier tanker and ISR roles should have been deployed by the beginning of this decade. And by now experience with them on a carrier deck could have led to first, autonomous wingmen and eventually autonomous missions. Instead the system appears to have fallen into the “real men fly planes and command Air Wings and get promoted by others who do” mindset.

The Navy does not lack drone demos and prototypes, but it has failed to deploy Horizon 2 innovations with speed and urgency. Failure to act aggressively here will impact the Navy’s ability to carry out its mission of sea control and power projection. (The Hudson Institute report on the future of the carrier is worth a read, and a RAND report on the same topic comes out in October.)

If you think Horizon 2 innovation is hard in the Navy, wait until you get to Horizon 3. This is where disruption happens. It’s how the aircraft carrier disrupted the battleship. How nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines changed the nature of strategic deterrence, and how the DF-21/26 and artificial islands in the South China sea changed decades of assumptions.  And it’s why, in most organizations, innovation dies.

For the Navy, a Horizon 3 conversation would not be about better carriers and aircraft. Instead it would focus on the core reasons the Navy deploys a carrier strike group: to show the flag for deterrence, or to control part of the sea to protect shipping, or to protect a Marine amphibious force, or to project offensive power against any adversary in well-defended areas.

A Horizon 3 solution for the Navy would start with basic need of these missions (sea control, offensive power projection – sortie generation) the logistic requirements that come with them, and the barriers to their success like A2/AD threats. Lots of people have been talking and writing about this and lots of Horizon 3 concepts have been proposed such as Distributed LethalityArsenal Ships, underwater drone platforms, etc.

Focussing on these goals – not building or commanding carriers, or building and flying planes – is really, really hard.  It’s hard to get existing operational organizations to think about disruption because it means they have to be thinking about obsoleting a job, function or skill they’ve spent their lives perfecting. It’s hard because any large organization is led by people who succeeded as Horizon 1 and 2 managers and operators (not researchers). Their whole focus, career, incentives, etc. has been about building and make the current platforms work. And the Navy has excelled in doing so.

The problem is that Horizon 3 solutions take different people, different portfolio, different process and different politics.

People: In Horizon 1 and 2 programs people who fail don’t get promoted because in a known process failure to execute is a failure of individual performance. However, applying the same rules to Horizon 3 programs – no failures tolerated – means we’ll have no learning and no disruptive innovations. What spooks leadership is that in Horizon 3 most of the projects will fail. But using Lean Innovation they’ll fail quickly and cheaply.

In Horizon 3 the initial program is run by mavericks – the crazy innovators. In the Navy, these are the people you want to court martial or pass over for promotion for not getting with current program. (In a startup they’d be the founding CEO.) These are the fearless innovators you want to create new and potentially disruptive mission models. Failure to support their potential disruptive talent means it will go elsewhere.

Portfolio: In Horizon 3, the Navy is essentially incubating a startup. And not just one. The Navy needs a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets, for the same reason venture capital and large companies have a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets – most of these bets will fail – but the ones that succeed are game changers.

Process: A critical difference between a Horizon 3 bet and a Horizon 1 or 2 bet is that you don’t build large, expensive, multi-year programs to test radically new concepts (think of the Zumwalt class destroyers). You use “Lean” techniques to build Minimal Viable Products (MVPs). MVPs are whatever it takes to get you the most learning in the shortest period of time.

Horizon 3 groups operate with speed and urgency – the goal is rapid learning. They need to be physically separate from operating divisions in an incubator, or their own facility. And they need their own plans, procedures, policies, incentives and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) different from those in Horizon 1.  

The watchwords in Horizon 3 are “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”

Politics: In Silicon Valley most startups fail. That’s why we invest in a portfolio of new ideas, not just one. We embrace failure as an integral part of learning. We do so by realizing that in Horizon 3 we are testing hypotheses – a series of unknowns – not executing knowns. Yet failure/learning is a dirty word in the world of promotions and the “gotcha game” of politics. To survive in this environment Horizon 3 leaders must learn how to communicate up/down and sideways that they are not running Horizon 1 and 2 projects.

Meanwhile, Navy and DOD leadership has to invest in, and clearly communicate their innovation strategy across all three Horizons.

Failure to manage innovation across all three Horizons and failure to make a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets means that the Navy is exposed to disruption by new entrants. Entrants unencumbered by decades of success, fueled by their own version of manifest destiny.

Lessons Learned

  • Our carriers are a work of art run and manned by professionals
    • Threats that can degrade or negate a carrier strike group exist in multiple areas
    • However, carriers are still a significant asset in almost all other combat scenarios
  • Speed and urgency rather than institutional inertia should be the watchwords for Horizon 2 innovation
  • Horizon 3 innovation is about a clean sheet of paper thinking
    • It’s what Silicon Valley calls disruption
    • It requires different people, portfolio, process and politics
  • The Navy (and DOD) must manage innovation across all three Horizons
    • Allocating dollars and resources for each
  • Remembering that todays Horizon 3 crazy idea is tomorrow Horizon 1 platform

Thanks to the crew of the U.S.S. Vinson, and Commander Todd Cimicata and Stanford for a real education about the Navy.

Why the Navy Needs Disruption Now (part 1 of 2)

The future is here it’s just distributed unevenly – Silicon Valley view of tech adoption

The threat is here it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier

Sitting backwards in a plane with no windows, strapped in a 4-point harness, wearing a life preserver, head encased in a helmet, eyes covered by googles, your brain can’t process the acceleration. As the C-2 A Greyhound is hurled off an aircraft carrier into the air via a catapult, your body thrown forward in the air, until a few seconds later, hundreds of feet above the carrier now at 150 miles per hour you yell, “Holy Shxt.” And no one can hear you through the noise, helmet and ear protectors.


I just spent two days a hundred miles off the coast of Mexico aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson landing and taking off on the carrier deck via a small cargo plane.nimitz class carrier

Taking off and landing is a great metaphor for the carrier. It’s designed to project power – and when needed, violence.

It’s hard to spend time on a carrier and not be impressed with the Navy, and the dedicated people who man the carrier and serve their country. And of course that’s the purpose of the two-day tour. The Navy calls its program Outreach: Americas Navy. Targeting key influencers (who they call Distinguished Visitors,) the Navy hosts 900/year out to carriers off the West Coast and 500/year to carriers on the East Coast. These tours are scheduled when the carriers are offshore training, not when they are deployed on missions. I joined Pete Newell (my fellow instructor in the Hacking for Defense class) and 11 other Stanford faculty from CISAC and the Hoover Institution.

I learned quite a bit about the physical layout of a carrier, how the air crew operates and how the carrier functions in context of the other ships around it (the strike group.) But the biggest learning was the realization that disruption is not just happening to companies, it’s also happening to the Navy. And that the Lean Innovation tools we’ve built to deal with disruption and create continuous innovation for large commercial organizations were equally relevant here.

The Carrier
U.S. aircraft carriers like the Vinson (there are 9 others) are designed to put the equivalent of an Air Force base anywhere on any ocean anywhere in the world. This means the U.S. can show the flag for deterrence (don’t do this or it will be a bad day) or to control some part of the sea (to protect commercial and/or military shipping, or protect a Marine amphibious force – on the way or at a place they will land); and project power (a euphemism for striking targets with bombs and cruise missiles far from home).

On an aircraft carrier there are two groups of people – the crew needed to run the carrier, called the ship’s company, and the people who fly and support the aircraft they carry, called the Air Wing. The Vinson carries ~2,800 people in the ship’s company, ~2,000 in the Air Wing and ~150 staff.

Without the Air Wing the carrier would just be another big cruise ship. The Air Wing has 72 aircraft made up of jet and propeller planes. The core of the Air Wing are the 44 F/A-18 strike fighters.

The F/A-18 strike fighters are designed to do two jobs: gain air superiority by engaging other fighter planes in the air or attack targets on the ground with bombs (that’s why they have the F/A designation). Flying on missions with these strike fighters are specially modified F/A-18’s – EA-18G Growlers that carry electronic warfare jammers which electronically shut down enemy radars and surface-to-air missiles to ensure that the F/A-18s get to the target without being shot down.

Another type of plane on the carrier is the propeller-driven E-2C Hawkeyes, which is an airborne early warning plane. Think of the Hawkeyes as airborne air traffic control. Hawkeyes carry a long-range radar in a dome above the fuselage, and keep the strike group and the fighters constantly aware of incoming air threats. They can send data to the fighters and to other ships in the battle group which identifies the location of potential threats. They can also detect other ships at sea.

The other planes in the carrier’s Air Wing are 16 helicopters: 8 MH-60S Nighthawk helicopters for logistics support, search and rescue and special warfare support; and 8 MH-60R Seahawks to locate and attack submarines and to attack Surface targets. seahawk helicopterThey carry sonobuoys, dipping sonar and anti-submarine torpedoes. And last but not least, there is the plane that got us on the carrier, the C2-A Greyhound – the delivery truck for the carrier.

You’re not alone
Carriers like the Vinson don’t go to sea by themselves. They’re part of a group of ships called the “carrier strike group.”  A strike group consists of a carrier, two cruisers with Tomahawk cruise missiles which can attack land targets, and two destroyers and/or frigates with Aegis surface to air missiles to defend the carrier from air attack. (In the past, the strike group was assigned an attack submarine to hunt for subs trying to kill the carrier. Today the attack subs are in such demand they are assigned by national authorities on an as-needed basis.) The strike group also includes replenishment ships that carry spare ammunition, fuel, etc. (The 150 staff on the carrier include separate staff for the strike group, Air Wing, carrier, surface warfare (cruisers with tomahawk missiles) and air defense (Aegis-armed destroyers.)

strike groupThe strike group also receives antisubmarine intelligence from P-3/P-8 anti-submarine aircraft and towed arrays on the destroyers, and additional situational awareness from imaging, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and radar sensors and satellites.

Before our group flew out to the carrier, we were briefed by Vice-Admiral Mike Shoemaker. His job is aviation Type Commander (TYCOM) for all United States Navy naval aviation units (responsible for aircrew training, supply, readiness, etc.) He also wears another hat as the commander of all the Navy planes in the Pacific. It was interesting to hear that the biggest issue in keeping the airplanes ready to fight are sequestration and budget cuts. These cuts have impacted maintenance, and made spare parts hard to get. And no pay raises make it hard to retain qualified people.

Then it was time to climb into our C-2 Greyhound for the flight out to the aircraft carrier. Just like a regular passenger plane, except you put on a life vest, goggles, ear plugs, and over all that a half helmet protecting the top and back of your head while enclosing your ears in large plastic ear muffs. Then you and 25 other passengers load the plane via the rear ramp, sit facing backwards in a plane with no windows and wait to land.

On the U.S.S. Vinson
Landing on an aircraft carrier is an equally violent act. When you make an arrested landing, a tail hook on the plane traps one of the four arresting cables stretched across the deck, and you decelerate from 105 mph to zero in two seconds. When the plane hit the arresting wire on the carrier deck, it came to a dead stop in 250 feet. There was absolutely no doubt that we had landed (and a great lesson on why you were wearing head protection, goggles and strapped into your non-reclining seat with a four-point harness). As the rear ramp lowered, we were assaulted with the visual and audio cacophony of crewmen in seven different colored shirts on the deck swarming on and around F-18s, E2Cs, helicopters, etc., all with their engines running.

flight deck shirts

Captain Doug Verissimo and his executive officer Captain Eric Anduze, welcomed us to the carrier. (One of my first problems onboard was translating Navy ranks into their Army/Air Force equivalents. For example, a navy captain equals an Air Force/Army Colonel, and a rear admiral is a brigadier general, etc.)

flight deckThen for the next two days the carrier’s public affairs officer led us on the “shock and awe” tour. In four years in the Air Force I had been stationed on four fighter bases, three of them in war zones, some with over 150 planes generating lots of sorties. But I had to grudgingly admit that watching F­-18s landing on a 300-foot runway 60 feet above the water, on a pitching deck moving 30 mph at sea – one a minute – at night – was pretty impressive.  And having us stand on the deck less than 50 feet away from these planes as they landed trapping the arrestor wires, and launched via a catapult was a testament to the Navy’s PR acumen. Most of crew on the flight deck are in their late teens and maybe early 20s. (And for me, hard to believe 4 decades ago in some other life I was doing that job.) Standing on the deck on a Navy carrier, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the precision choreography of the crew and the skill of their pilots.

Our group climbed the ladders (inclined at a 68-degree angle – there are no stairs) up and down the 18 decks (floors) of the ship. We saw the hangar deck where planes were repaired, the jet engine shop, jet engine test cell, arresting cable engine room, the bridge where they steer the ship, the flag bridge (the command center for the admiral), the flight deck control and launch operations room (where the aircraft handler keeps track of all the aircraft on the flight deck and in the hangar), and the carrier air traffic control center (CATCC).LPO

At each stop an officer or enlisted man gave us an articulate description of what equipment we were looking at and how it fit into the rest of the carrier.

(What got left out of the tour was the combat direction center (CDC), the munitions elevators, ships engines and any of the avionics maintenance shops and of course, the nuclear reactor spaces.)

During lunch and dinners, we had a chance to talk at length to the officers and enlisted men. They were smart, dedicated and proud of what they do, and frank about the obstacles they face getting their jobs done. Interestingly they all echoed Vice-Admiral Shoemaker’s observation that the biggest obstacles they face are political –  sequestration and budget cuts.

Just before we left we got a briefing from the head of the Carrier Strike Group, Rear Admiral James T. Loeblein about the threats the carrier and the strike group face.

Then it was off to be catapulted back home.IMG_8187

It’s clear that the public affairs office has a finely tuned PR machine. So if the goal was to impress me that the Navy and carriers are well run and manned – consider it done.

However, it got me thinking… new aircraft carrier’s cost $11 billion. And we have a lot of them on order. Given the threats they are facing are they going to be viable for another 30 years? Or is the aircraft carrier obsolete?

Tomorrow’s post will offer a few days’ worth of thoughts about carriers, strike groups and how the Navy can continue to innovate with carriers and beyond.

Lessons Learned – part 1 of 2

Thanks to the crew of the U.S.S. Vinson, and Commander Todd Cimicata and Stanford for a real education about the Navy.

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