Reimaging Naval Power

This post first appeared on IBM Business of Government. Read the original article.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

A Conversation with RADM. Lorin Selby, Chief of Naval Research

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Naval Research Enterprise (NRE) are the catalyst of future naval power, ensuring technological dominance for its fleet and force. This enterprise is tasked with discovering, developing, and delivering new technology and capability for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps by sponsoring new research and creating new capabilities for America’s sailors and marines. Recently, Rear Admiral Lorin Selby, chief of Naval Research joined me on The Business of Government Hour for a timely and insightful conversation on the critical mission he leads, his efforts in advance unmanned systems and develop a strategic hedge based on “the small, the agile and the many”.

On the History and Mission of ONR-NRE

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) was established by an act of Congress back in 1946. Public law 588, signed by President Truman, established this office to really focus on science and technology and how it will enable and project the future of U.S. naval power.

We manage and fund basic and applied science and advanced technology development using grants and contracts with an array of partners in academia, industry, and government in the U.S. and around the world. We also work in close cooperation with the Navy’s systems commands and their warfare centers located across the country as well as with the other services. As a major supporter of scientific research since World War II, we have a role in fostering scientific and technological innovations in a wide range of fields, as well as in maintaining the basic scientific research infrastructure that makes these breakthroughs possible. The research activities of the environment as well as the organizational structures put in place to manage them, have varied greatly over the agency’s lifetime. In general, however, ONR’s portfolio of research investments has been divided into a series of science and technology programs overseen and managed by program officers.

On Being Chief of Naval Research 

I command the entire Naval Research Enterprise (NRE), which consists of the Office of Naval Research, the Naval Research Lab, the Office of Naval Research Global, NavalX, and PMR-51. As chief of naval research, I am responsible for the Navy and Marine Corps science and technology, which involves managing naval Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation funding. There are about eight buckets of funding rolled up into this area. It includes grants to colleges and universities to do basic research. Eventually, we determine whether the technology that has been developed has naval application. If not, either the research ends or the research pivots in a different direction. Once it has a naval relevance, the project transitions into applied research status and is funded from a different category of RDTE funding. We take technologies to a readiness level up through tier 5 or 6.  At that point, we need to find a home for the technology. We need a transition partner (in the services) that will take the technology and either put it into an existing platform or use it to create a new capability. Sometimes the innovation because of money, timing, or lack of interest doesn’t transition and falls into what is called the “valley of death.”

Not everything will transition that is to be expected, but we need to make sure there aren’t too many fails. Over the past almost three years, I have made it a mission to limit the number of those efforts that fall into the valley.  I have sought to put a bridge across the valley, as it were.  I can tell you what the process is to move more tech across that bridge. If you’re going to fail, then find out quickly. Let these projects fall in that valley sooner and then move on to the next thing.

We execute our mission with an annual budget of about $2.5 – 2.6 billion. Typically, we receive additional money from Congress in the form of plus ups. This year we are looking at close to a billion dollars in additional funding from Congress.  It’s an expansive portfolio. I am also the Naval STEM executive. I also represent the chief of naval operations on matters of science, technology, and innovation capabilities. My days are very busy. It is the best job I’ve ever had. I mean, it is an amazing job. I meet amazing people and am exposed to amazing technologies all day long.

On Developing a Strategic Hedge 

The combination of rapid technological change and determined naval competitors necessitates the creation of a viable alternative naval formation. If carrier strike groups composed of the large and the complex do not turn out to be the dominant naval formation of the 21st century, we must have an alternative—a strategic hedge. Therefore, we are going to build out a novel naval formation made of the small, the agile, and the many. This means building out new formations composed of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of unmanned vehicles above, below, and on the ocean surface using digital principles. We will not do this alone, instead tapping existing sources of innovation through partnerships with our allies and American industry.

The idea of developing a strategic hedge is not new, and our own naval history emphasizes the importance of such a hedge. In 1940, U.S. war planners were preparing for a potential conflict with the Empire of Japan. The resultant plan centered on the use of powerful battleships. Japanese war planners shared that view and orchestrated the surprise attack that left a significant portion of the U.S’ battleship fleet at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. As it turned out, the war in the Pacific was dictated not by battleships but by aircraft carriers; war planners for both the United States and Japan had been wrong. But we had begun operating aircraft carriers decades earlier and quickly adapted to field a fleet centered on aircraft carriers and submarines rather than battleships. We had invested early in a strategic hedge to create a viable alternative to battleships, and that hedge turned out to be the future of naval warfare. We’re looking to do the same for this digital age. We need to be ready. We need to start trying things, experimenting with new concepts and technologies that over time more and more they will become part of our mainstream operations.

On Challenges 

In some ways, it seems we are still fighting the last fight – organized around a Cold War model. There are pockets of excellence, but we’re not going fast enough. It is a real challenge trying to disrupt current approaches while looking for new ways of doing business. We need to attract new talent, different talent. We can’t wait until Program Objective Memorandum (POM) 25 to start a new initiative that’s likely to change and iterate three times between today and fiscal year 25. The department is largely organized around procuring large, complex items such as satellites, nuclear submarines, destroyers, and high-end fighters and missiles. We still need these things. We also need access to a host of less complex systems and sensors that are most often less expensive but still serve a purpose and a function. It is a challenge to try to change the system or develop a parallel system that can respond to “the small, the agile, and the many” things needed to excel in the next generation warfare. These items are software-based, digital systems and sensors. We need a different way to procure these innovations. This is a key aspect of our SCOUT initiative (an ongoing, multiagency experimentation campaign that rapidly brings solutions to warfighter challenges. SCOUT is committed to getting nontraditional, commercial-off-the-shelf, government-developed and/or government-sponsored technologies to the fleet rapidly.)

In working to identify these new systems and sensors, we need to become problem-focused rather than requirements focused. It’s about identifying a problem and then seeking solutions for it. Many of these solutions may be commercially available. We don’t need to design or build it. We just buy it and provide it to the war fighters. Maybe I don’t even have to buy it. Maybe I just contract for it — contract for a service. I am working to open different pathways for solving problems that the war fighters have right now that can be solved much more quickly than following the traditional acquisition process.

On Surprises and Inspirations 

What has surprised me most is that the chief of naval research lacks agility to move money quickly to go solve problems. We have the budget, but these funds are tightly confined to different spending categories. Tracking this funding and being transparent about that is necessary, but we also need some degree of flexibility built into it to permit agility in making decisions and going after technologies as they present themselves. Every single day, I also continue to be surprised by the capabilities found in all the technologies and innovations we encounter. Great ideas keep flowing from our sailors and marines…folks that are on the deck plates. It’s inspiring.

On Leadership 

A leader when they first come into any new organization should gather insight by listening and learning; it’s about getting aligned to current circumstances. This involves leaders being inquisitive and asking probing questions. Leaders shouldn’t be prescriptive too soon. In the beginning, I find it preferable to listen versus to talk.

Secondly, leaders should get to know their staff. Leaders must support their people and remove major barriers that may get in their way. It’s okay to ask them for updates on what they are doing, but leaders should avoid overburdening their people by micromanaging them.  Leaders must build teams that solve problems. Doing this requires putting together diverse team…diversity of people, perspectives, skills, and competencies. Don’t make your team too large because it runs the risk of becoming a committee rather than a team. I love building teams. I love finding problems, looking for new opportunities, and then unleashing these team of people to solve the problem or to help develop kind of a new concept that’s never even been done before. That’s exciting and fun for me.

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