As conflicts become more complex and uncertain in the 21st century, quick pivots to new technologies will become increasingly important. The starting point for this rapid fielding must begin with more frequent, and more relational, lower level warfighter-technologist interaction.
The current system does this nominally, but the relationships usually are far removed from the waterfront or the front lines where many user-generated solutions could be discovered. Science advisers, often from places such as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory or the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), are stationed regularly at critical commands throughout the services. They provide a useful link between incredibly intelligent technologists and seasoned veterans.
Unfortunately, many of the interactions are only with senior officers and not the muddy boot or deckplate warriors who know best what is giving them day-to-day headaches. Additionally, many of the officers dedicated to acquisition programs are years removed from being actual operators. With the accelerating pace of technological change, even a year away from operational status can leave noticeable knowledge gaps.
Experience certainly is valuable, but after spending a long period of time in the same profession, a person’s creativity sometimes is lost. Even known innovators can get stuck in ruts when not exposed to different views of the world over sustained periods of time. Furthermore, as technology evolves, the quickest adopters usually are the younger generations. They often have better insights into how to integrate emerging, generationally ubiquitous trends to their professions than do their seniors who relied on legacy systems.
Nonrequirement-based technological development usually consists of solutions in search of problems. A vendor comes to a service and asks them to look at a cool widget. If it fits into current methodology, it is bought. If it does not, it is rejected. Military technologists are passionate about helping warfighters; but with little true interaction, it can be hard to tailor great ideas to actual needs.
On the flip side, requirements-based proposals by the services occasionally limit the aperture for new ideas. Indeed, a requirements-based approach necessarily will miss a disruptive technology that no one knows they will want until it actually appears. And when it is wanted, established interests that are entrenched with status quo technology inhibit rapid implementation.
What is needed is more unscripted free play between junior, recently deployed warfighters and developmental technologists. It is amazing what solutions can come about when open-ended conversations develop.
I saw this firsthand a few months ago. A group of junior naval innovators within the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell—of which I am a member—were brought together to think about new ideas for the future. One of their interests was in the area of 3-D printing and additive manufacturing. Currently, this technology is still in a nascent stage, but it may be poised for incredible growth.
Our interest was given free rein, and experimental scientists were found within the Navy to discuss the possibilities of this technology. Over the course of a few hours, 10 waterfront sailors bandied about ideas—ranging from the absurd to the intriguing—for how this revolutionary technology could be integrated aboard ships. The ideas that were created both stunned and motivated the researchers. Our feedback has been integral to the current development of Navy thought processes regarding additive manufacturing, and it helped redirect their trajectory.
Similar sessions need to become more commonplace for both our military service research institutes and vendors at large. Relationships are the element that greatly drives collaborations, and deep relationships are fostered by consistent personal interaction. The services and industry should team more closely to facilitate these exchanges.
One proposal is to identify ships, squadrons and companies to be “adopted” by research entities and defense firms. Young innovators both within the service and on the civilian side could be matched up, one on one, for mutual mentorship and concept development. Both the technologist and the young service member would spend time in each other’s environment, learning firsthand about the issues and ideas the other is considering.
Furthermore, junior military roundtables with firms should be convened on a regular basis. Currently, feedback from fleet to firm is far too formal and scripted with senior officers delivering the results to industry middle management. Engagements of this type must be made between the lowest-level operator and the designing engineer so that both can collaborate on solutions. A myriad of time-consuming, low-level problems in need of solutions already exist, but matching the two often is difficult. These muddy boots/deckplate-corporate exchanges can solve such misalignment more easily.
It is imperative in a world defined by accelerating change that on-the-ground requirements are met with quick solutions. The best way is by creating horizontal, low-level networks able to respond quickly to warfighter needs.
Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN, is an F/A-18 instructor pilot serving in the Innovation and Concepts Department at the Naval Warfare Development Command, part of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell. He is the founder of Disruptive Thinkers, an organization devoted to bringing innovative military personnel together with civilian entrepreneurs. The views expressed in this column are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Navy or of SIGNAL Magazine. We welcome your comments on this column below or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.