Archive for the 'Innovation' Category

The following essay was submitted to the 2015 Capstone Essay Contest by MIDN (now ENS) Steven Hallgren and is published as submitted. This is the first of several essay contest submissions that will be published in the coming weeks.

carrierOn September 25th, 2011 in the Northeastern port city of Dalian, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) brought the newly-refurbished aircraft carrier Liaoning into service.[1] The commissioning came as the result of a decades-long endeavor to acquire such a ship, and perhaps more importantly represented China’s ambitions to establish blue-water naval capabilities. Though the Liaoning itself will only serve as a test bed for Chinese carrier aviation and ostensibly will never see operational service, it nevertheless shows progress towards China’s ultimate goal of bolstering its fleet with home-built carriers.[2] A PLAN fleet with power-projecting aircraft carriers would profoundly expand China’s naval capabilities in the hotly-contested waters of Southeast Asia. As the initial sea trials of Liaoning usher in the age of the Chinese carrier fleet, it is worth examining how the PLAN would employ such assets within its greater maritime strategy.

From a broad perspective, China’s quest for a carrier fleet is a manifestation of its need to defend its territorial claims from foreign threats in much the same way that it had to defend its tremendous landmass from continental threats throughout history. More concrete ideology launched a fervent pursuit of an aircraft carrier dating back to the 1980’s when Soviet-trained Admiral Liu Huaqing began shaping China’s maritime direction.[3] Increasing strain across the Taiwan Strait primarily fueled what he described as the “extremely necessary” urge to manifest China’s maritime—and, ergo, national—power in the form of a carrier.[4] Since the 2000s, waning tensions with Taiwan have shifted China’s maritime focus towards new areas—though the pursuit of a carrier has remained constant.

Liaoning began her peculiar life as Varyag, intended to be an aircraft carrier of the Soviet Navy. Her construction halted with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and Varyag was left incomplete to rust in a Ukrainian shipyard until the Chinese purchased the empty hull in 2000. After an elaborate trek out of the Mediterranean and around the world to Dalian, Varyag entered a decade-long refit period, culminating in her renaming and commissioning as Liaoning.[5]

As with many aspects of its military, the PLAN is far from forthcoming with the features and capabilities of its infant carrier. However, its expected specifications can be approximated based on the small amount of information China has released and the Soviet Admiral Kuznetzov class to which Varyag belonged. The carrier will host a modestly-sized air wing totaling around 50 aircraft, divided between J-10 and J-15 fighters and an assortment of helicopters used for anti-electronic warfare (AEW) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW).[6] Additionally, Liaoning’s ship-board weapons include a CIWS defense system, air-defense missiles, and ASW offensive missiles.[7]

In analyzing the impact of carrier developments on the PLAN fleet, care must be taken to avoid falling into the trap of directly comparing Chinese capabilities to those of the American Navy. As a result of this practice, many analysts tend to be overly dismissive of the carrier. [8] While by any measure the Nimitz class aircraft carriers objectively outperform Liaoning, such comparisons are only illuminating insofar as the two ships would be expected to meet each other in combat. Direct naval combat with the American Navy is not only substantially unlikely, but also entirely beyond the strategic maritime scope of the PLAN.[9]

Further, even assuming the current state of Liaoning to be the effective extent of the Chinese carrier program is rather short-sighted. As mentioned previously, the PLAN does not even intend for Liaoning to become an operational ship. That being said, it serves as a useful proxy for future carrier development as it not only will become a “modestly capable” ship in its own right, but will also serve to train the PLAN in the tactics and employment of such an asset.[10] As such, although direct contrast with the more familiar and transparent capabilities of Western navies is simple, a more useful analysis is achieved through a localized assessment of the impact of a PLAN-operated carrier strike group in the Western Pacific. After all, Asian waters currently host a power vacuum waiting to be filled by the first Asian nation with a fully-operational carrier.[11]

Having broadly established the current state of China’s carrier program, the question then becomes how a fleet with operational aircraft carriers would change China’s ability to achieve its strategic maritime objectives. Naturally, the strategy of the Chinese military is every bit as wide-sweeping and nuanced as that of any other major power. Even still, it is possible to observe recurring themes within those plans, isolate the capabilities needed to achieve them, and analyze the extent to which a carrier navy would bolster those capabilities. From a regional security perspective, perhaps two of the most important strategic objectives are China’s desires to establish a broad territorial claim over the South China Sea and to define itself as a major power of the Western Pacific.[12]

China continues to assert ambiguous and expansive territorial authority over the islands and waters of the South China Sea. Its claims have engendered considerable regional maritime disputes over the status of small islands, reefs, and even rocks that now define foreign relations in the Western Pacific. China’s maritime neighbors and several members of the international community continually contest China’s state position to prevent it from becoming legitimized.[13] One of the primary means by which China strengthens its position in such disputes is through its own maritime patrols conducted by the PLAN.[14] Such patrols aim to simultaneously use military force to assert control over the region while also effectively deterring its Pacific neighbors from doing the same. Analysts typically categorize such operations as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), which describes the general maritime strategy of restricting competitive access to a region.

Ultimately, A2AD campaigns and the defense of territorial claims fundamentally cannot be supported entirely from shore. As a case study, consider the Johnson South Reef Skirmish fought between China and Vietnam in 1988. The Spratly Islands are just one of the numerous contested territories that China lays claim to. These islands, located over 1,000 nautical miles from the Chinese mainland, are also claimed by Vietnam, among other parties in the region.[15] When a skirmish broke out between the two nations, the Chinese faced unexpected difficulties countering attacks on their fleet by Vietnamese aircraft.

During the conflict, Chinese aircraft had to operate from a distant Chinese-controlled airfield. The transit time from the base to the area of operation was so long that the aircraft were left with only four to five minutes of time on station, dramatically limiting their effectiveness against their Vietnamese adversaries. Admiral Chen Weiwen, a commander during the battle, noted later that “if…we had our own [air] cover from a nearby aircraft carrier, we would simply not have had to fear Vietnam’s air force.”[16] Land-based assets play a critical role in their own time and place, but that place is frankly not in rapidly changing, forward operating areas.

Aircraft carriers are occasionally caricatured as being “several thousand tons of diplomacy,” but the aphorism does hold weight. In the Spratly scenario as with the rest of China’s maritime claims, no act of diplomacy or demonstration of force can compare to moving an aircraft carrier on station. For one, even the mere presence of a carrier would be a deterrent against further escalation, as the resource allocation would demonstrate China’s commitment to the claim. Moreover, the capabilities the carrier brings would be better able to respond to emergent threats than perhaps any other tool in the Chinese arsenal. This combination makes the aircraft carrier virtually indispensable for the preservation of maritime claims. In fact, the United States routinely employs its carriers for this exact purpose, as demonstrated by the stationing of the USS Nimitz and USS Independence off the coast of Taiwan during the height of cross-strait tensions in the mid-90s.[17]

Simultaneously, China has shown interest in becoming the leading nation in the region beyond merely maintaining territorial control. The PLAN has noticeably shifted its development efforts towards acquiring naval capabilities beyond mere defense and offense, to include the mission sets of counterpiracy and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR).[18] Such military operations other than war (MOOTW) on behalf of the international community require the foundational capabilities of forward presence and power projection coupled with the platforms and equipment necessary to carry out such tasking.

Accordingly, the utility of aircraft carriers extends far beyond strictly military endeavors. For the same reasons that they are vital to power projecting operations, carriers can also play an instrumental role in virtually any military staging operation far from home. China will almost certainly employ carriers to expand its gradually growing peacekeeping and HADR mission set. Recently, the PLAN has only just begun to dip its toes into these waters. Since 2008, the PLAN has continuously participated in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, marking its first foray into conducting open-water MOOTWs.[19]

Such operations ultimately are diplomatic tools used to not only strengthen China’s reputation in the international community, but also to establish China as a major regional power. While counter-piracy operations can be effectively conducted with a frigate- and destroyer-based fleet such as China currently has, the addition of aircraft carriers into its arsenal opens up substantially more potential MOOTWs.

Consider again an example from the United States. In 2011 after Japan was rocked by an earthquake and tsunami, the United States started Operation Tomodachi to provide HADR support to the region. USS Ronald Reagan served as the centerpiece of naval resources and manpower during this operation and coordinated rescue efforts for nearly one month off the coast of Japan.[20] Arguably only an aircraft carrier could offer the combination of endurance, flexibility, and capability required for such a long-term coordinated effort. A PLAN equipped with an aircraft carrier and a healthy complement of rotary wing assets would be capable of conducting similar HADR operations in the South China Sea. The regular completion of such operations would indisputably mark China as a dominant power in the region, and may even fundamentally alter the perceptions Southeast Asian nations have towards China.

Possessing an aircraft carrier is a tremendously potent tool of diplomacy in a way comparable perhaps only to developing nuclear weapons. Though the PLAN’s carrier program is by all accounts still in its infancy, it is maturing rapidly. As initial carrier training is conducted on board Liaoning, reports indicate that work has already begun on China’s first home-built carrier.[21] The reality of a Chinese carrier fleet is no longer a question of “if” so much as “when.” Whether that fleet would pose a legitimate threat to a US carrier strike group is immaterial. A PLAN with carriers will irreparably alter the nature of Southeast Asian relations and indeed the face that China presents to the world.


[1]. Ananth Krishnan, “China Commissions First Aircraft Carrier Liaoning,” The Hindu, 26 September 2012,


[2]. Stew Magnuson, “China’s Navy Takes Great Leap Forward,” National Defense Industrial Association, April 2014,


[3]. Captain Bernard D. Cole, USN, “Drawing Lines at Sea,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 137, no. 11 (November 2011), 48-51

[4]. Ian Storey and You Ji, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 57, no. 1 (Winter 2004), 76-93.

[5]. Captain Bernard D. Cole, USN, “China’s Carrier: The Basics,” U.S. Naval Institute News, 27 November 2012,

[6]. “Liaoning (Varyag) Aircraft Carrier, China,” Naval Technology,

[7]. Ibid.

[8] See, for instance, James R. Holmes, “Top 5 Reasons Not to Ballyhoo China’s Carrier,” The Diplomat, 2 October 2012,

[9]. Bryan McGrath and Seth Cropsey, “The Real Reason China Wants Aircraft Carriers,” Real Clear Defense, 16 April 2014,


[10]. Andrew S. Erickson et al., “Beijing’s ‘Starter Carrier’ and Future Steps,” Naval War College Review, vol. 65, no. 1 (Winter 2012), 15-54.

[11]. Donald Kirk, “Asian Aircraft Carrier Race—China Vs. India Vs. Japan,” Forbes Magazine, 13 August 2013,

[12]. Vice Admiral R.N. Ganesh, Indian Navy, “Maritime Ambitions of China”, Indian Defense Review, 19 February 2013,


[13]. Kevin Baumert and Brian Melchior, “Maritime Claims in the South China Sea,” Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 5 December 2014,


[14]. Peter Dutton, “Three Disputes and Three Objectives: China and the South China Sea,” Naval War College Review, vol. 64, no. 4 (Autumn 2011), 42-67.

[15]. “China’s Activities in Southeast Asia and the Implications for U.S. Interests,” United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 4 February 2010,

[16]. Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Introducing the Liaoning: China’s New Aircraft Carrier and What it Means,” The Wall Street Journal, 25 September 2012,


[17]. Chun W. Chiang, “Crisis Management in the Taiwan Strait,” U.S. Army War College, 7 April 2003,

[18]. Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Naval Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 23 December 2014,

[19]. Zhou Bo, “Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden: Implications for PLA Navy,” China-United States Exchange Foundation, 30 December 2013,


[20]. Ryan Zielonka et al., “Chronology of Operation Tomodachi,” The National Bureau of Asian Research,

[21]. Charles Clover, “China Media Confirm Second Aircraft Carrier,” Financial Times, 10 March 2015,

Serious students of the US national security enterprise are likely familiar with Dr. Amy Zegart’s Flawed by Design. In her 2000 work, she examines the creation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, concluding that from the start, these organizations never received the appropriate authorities to effectively lead, to ensure our nation’s security and fight our nation’s wars. Her insights proved prescient in light of the 9/11 attacks and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A4_AFPS_Dempsey_wSince the National Security Act created the DoD, JCS, CIA and the Department of the Air Force in 1947, there have been repeated attempts to build using this broken design. Each subsequent reform effort, particularly the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reform Act of 1986, added to the size and complexity of the Pentagon. Layers upon layers of oversight got added to fix and re-fix the fundamentally flawed concept. The total cost to maintain this leviathan of tens of thousands of staff is enormous and takes scarce resources away from actual warfighting needs. Significant overhead costs are not the only negative impact from this flawed design, as many DoD-wide efforts are simply not effective.

In a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus provided examples of the DoD’s “4th Estate” dysfunctionality. He particularly focused on the growth and operating costs of the Defense Finance and Accounting Services and the Defense Logistics Agency but similar criticisms could be made against most defense organizations.

These organizations were created to efficiently provide common support functions for the military services but, over time, that concept seems to have been lost, as the size and roles of the defense establishment expanded. Today, the military services often have to change their practices to support the defense agencies, instead of the reverse.

Similar to Mr. Mabus’s criticism of the 4th Estate, Senator John McCain has been a vocal critic recently of the Defense Acquisition System and has even called for revisiting the sacred cow of Goldwater-Nichols. Sweeping changes to these two broken processes are long overdue.

While the shared interests of Secretary Mabus and Senator McCain are somewhat unusual, some may view them simply as inside-the-beltway political banter. However, DoD’s outdated organizational structure has also hampered military operations over the past decade.

My experience highlights the broad impacts from centralized oversight. Having served in both the Navy and Marine Corps for over a decade apiece, I understand naval integration is difficult to achieve; even after 200 years, it is still a work in progress. To think that four services can fully integrate to support the shared-lie of “jointness,” to confront and solve fast-evolving crises today, is an expensive fool’s errand.

General Stanley McChrystal asserts in his new book Team of Teams, that the “Limiting Factor” in our war against al Qaida was our own management of operations. He experienced first-hand the cumbersome layers of bureaucracy, siloed information sharing and over-centralized decision making, even within his own Special Operations community. My own experience at the MNC-I HQ in 2005 supports his assertions and has made me question the value of joint organizations and processes as well.

Many are familiar with the US Army’s seizure of the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) in the initial run-up to Baghdad in 2003. There was a second, lesser known, battle for BIAP in 2005 – which pitted Marines against the Air Force.

Briefly, the Marines operated in the areas west and south of Baghdad and routinely conducted counter-fire missions through a section of the air space on the same side of BIAP. The Air Force staff at the Combined Air Operations Center wanted to expand the air space control measures above BIAP for safety of flight concerns. This change would prohibit Marines from quickly responding to attacks on ground forces—shooting back, in other words–in the area.

Despite Joint doctrine clearly favoring the ground commander, a joint staff running operations, and even having a neutral Army three star as the Corps Commander, the Air Force refused to support the ground commander’s operational needs. Eventually, a few mid-level officers and Staff NCOs worked out a solution, albeit one held together with duct tape and 550 cord, that resolved the coordination issue.

This event occurred nearly 20 years after the passage of Goldwater-Nichols and following significant investments in joint commands, joint doctrine, joint programs and the brainwashing of an entire generation of military officers on the virtues of jointness. Interservice coordination seemed no better than it was in previous military operations. Problems in Iraq were resolved by military professionals working towards common goals, as I’m sure was the practice in every war before the flawed legislation.

For the past 60 years, DoD and Congress have slowly worked towards unification of the military services. In the industrial age, centralization and the emphasis on process efficiency were widely accepted management practices. However, the complex, interconnected future, characterized by ubiquitous data and technological changes occurring rapidly, will require smaller, decentralized and agile organizations to succeed – just the opposite of our current organization design.

Not only is the idea of creating enormous Defense-wide systems, programs and organizations a bad one, it is a dangerous management approach in the information age. The recent OPM data breaches provide crystal-clear evidence of how catastrophic risk increases when we put our all of our eggs in a single basket. We cannot wall-off our stovepipes in single places and rest assured that no one can get in to our information.

Preparing for future conflict, particularly against modern professional militaries, requires more than simply investing in expensive weapon systems. It requires us to have candid conversations about what’s not working in DoD – far beyond just the broken acquisition process – and recognize the fundamental design flaws of the Department.

Over the next few years, we have a great opportunity to leverage the work started by Secretary Mabus and Senator McCain. With former naval officers Undersecretary Bob Work and General Dunford holding key positions in the 4th Estate, as well as a new Commandant and CNO both recognized for innovating thinking, and several naval officers on the Hill, we may actually be able to make some meaningful changes in the defense organization which will ensure success in the future. Making significant changes to the entrenched DoD bureaucracy are a longshot indeed, but history has shown that naval officers working together are capable of great things.

2015-02-15-ALASAConceptImage2From hapless Norwegian coastal battleships in WWII to last decade’s unarmored HUMVEEs, there are things that look good on paper and are highly functional for a nation at peace, that in hindsight do not seem all that great once an enemy gets a crack at them.

There are a few reliable constants to war at; one is that the things you rely on the most, your critical vulnerabilities identified by the enemy will always be targeted first.

A competent commander is self-aware of his own critical vulnerabilities, and makes a reasonable effort to protect them. Understanding the chaotic and dynamic nature of war, no critical vulnerability can be fully protected and needs backups – you need redundancy, especially if you have a critical requirement that is also one of your critical vulnerabilities.

For so long we have assumed access to the electromagnetic spectrum as a given, and access to satellites – those gloriously exquisite linchpins of the modern navy – as a given, then perhaps we should consider how we can provide Carrier Strike Group Commanders and Maritime Component Commanders the ability to replace wartime losses and complicate the enemies targeting our satellites.

Satellite constellations set up in peace are the fixed coastal defenses of the modern age – easy to target and plan against – and most likely first on an enemy’s targeting priority list.

What if a local commander could re-establish capabilities or even create new ones using those units under his command, at his discretion?

What if that capability wasn’t just an idea, but close to making a shadow on a ramp? This is something I pondered while reading about DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program, or (ALASA);

If all goes according to plan, a series of 12 orbital flights would then commence in early 2016 and wrap up by the middle of the year, DARPA officials said.

“The plan right now is, we have 12 [orbital] launches. The first three are fundamentally engineering checkout payloads,” Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said Feb. 5 during a presentation at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C. “The other nine will be various scientific and research development payloads that we’re after.”

The ALASA military space project consists of an F-15 fighter jet carrying an expendable launch vehicle underneath it. Once the F-15 gets up to a sufficient altitude, the rocket releases and ignites, carrying its payload to orbit. The F-15 would then return to Earth for a runway landing, after which it would be prepped for another mission.

Perhaps we are at the point that it is still too big for anything smaller than an F-15E … but … put the engineers on it. Platform or payload, one of them should be able to be modified at a reasonable cost.

Additional satellite communications, ISR, etc – all just a magazine elevator away. Ponder it a bit.

In war, few things are better than for your opponent to think you are blind and helpless and then they move in for the what they think is the quick and easy victory … or that they think that is what you want them to do … but if you don’t have that capability then, well … you don’t. You miss an opportunity to deceive your enemy, or to sow doubt and confusion in the mind of their commander – two things anyone would like to have in their quiver.

… and no, “Call the USAF and have them do it for you from CONUS.” is not the correct answer. To call the USAF from WESTPAC, you need … ahem … satellites – or still have low-baud HF TTY. Oh, and … well … priorities.


Recent articles such as this one by James Holmes (also covered by Sal) and this Proceedings article by ENS Daniel Stefanus have leveled some very specific criticisms against the industrial architecture which supports our Navy. Holmes writes of the past generations of Sailors:

[They] were expected to make themselves as self-sufficient as possible... Big ships outfitted with machine shops, welding facilities, and the like could help out in a pinch, fashioning spares not stocked on board.

Meanwhile, Stefanus points out other erosion in self-sufficiency in his criticism in the use of contractors to fix things:

If a cruiser’s SPQ-9B radar suddenly goes down in the middle of an engagement, there is no time to fly out a contractor. Only the ship’s crew can salvage the situation… An overreliance on contractors only diminishes this capability.

How did we arrive here? It has its roots in what we do want our Sailors to look like and be capable of–and we have wanted them to act more as operators and less as technicians. This is apparent when we look at trends in submarine enlisted rates. For us, interior communications electricians, radiomen, and quartermasters have all been folded into the same rating: electronics technician. We no longer sub-specialize Sailors in radio division into operating/maintaining either our radio equipment or our electronic warfare stuff–they do both now. We haven’t generalized these ratings because we have less complicated gear onboard or because they had skills we didn’t want anymore. As Stefanus and Holmes pointed out, we’ve simply ceded these skills to shore support. Once we transform a workforce into operators vice technicians, it makes sense to drop the onboard machine and welding shops. Who would use them? When manning decisions no longer focus around staffing a maintenance/repair crew, it becomes about filling out the watchbill. That’s how you get to the 40-person crew Holmes points out.

While Stefanus discussed the business side of the decision to outsource repair and maintenance, I think there’s a deeper logic to it that’s linked to our understanding of naval warfare: we can find technical solutions to human problems. If we can make it more technical, we should make it more technical.

The classic example is the implementation of radar onboard ships post-WWII. As more and more ships got radar, we expected to drive down collision rates. But what actually happened? Overall, collision rates did not fall and collision rates involving ships with at least one radar may have actually grown over time until recently! Largely what happened was that ships didn’t reduce speed as they used to–they had radar and could “see” things they never could “see” before. People found new ways to hit things with “radar-assisted collisions.”

I’m not saying radar is worthless or success in naval warfare doesn’t rely on using new technologies more effectively than your opponent. I am saying that innovations don’t neatly employ themselves and people may interact with a new toolset in ways we could never predict. As we add layers of complexity onto our systems, how much more capable are we really? Do submarines with the latest and greatest tracking systems using widescreen HD computer screens provide a demonstratively greater return than earlier generations which entailed hand plotting? Our assumption is yes, and we have committed ourselves in ways described by Stefanus and Holmes.

I wonder what the data would prove though? Sonar_US_Navy_Technician_Submarines_2nd_Class_Harlie_Williams_III_Los_Angeles_class_attack_submarine_USS

This past week, Navy leaders called for sailors, civilians, and researchers to commit themselves to emphasizing and adopting robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to solve warfighting challenges. In a memo to service chiefs, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus called for the DON to consider “how to adapt recent private sector advances in fields such as machine learning, natural language processing, ontological engineering, and automated planning for naval applications.”

Why do commercially developed AI and robotics offer such promise to the sea service? Are these advances decades away? And how can sailors in the fleet help drive the change Secretary Mabus is calling for? Let’s examine these questions further.

The Virtuous Technological Cycle: Faster and Cheaper Computing


Berkeley Robot for the Elimination of Tedious Tasks – Source Link)

Pop culture is familiar with the concept of Moore’s Law of Integrated Circuits. Simply put, this maxim states that computing power has tended to double every 18 months for the last several decades. This leads to steady advances processing power and resulting technical advances.

But Moore’s Law is not the end of the story. As speed and computing power have increased, the cost of these capabilities has decreased rapidly. Consider the cost required to execute a gigaflop, a standard measure of computing power. In 1984, it cost $42,780,000 in hardware to complete this task. By the year 2000, this figure had dropped to $1,300. Today, it costs less than eight cents in hardware to complete this task.

These factors create a virtuous cycle. More advances in power lead to more applications where a technology might be adapted. More applications lead to more demand, which in turn lead to larger numbers of chips being manufactured. More investments in manufacturing lead to more investment in research and therefore quicker development. The cycle feeds on itself.

As computing power becomes faster and cheaper, it allows scientists to harness machines to complete new and more challenging tasks. Artificial intelligence programs can sift through massive repositories of data to learn patterns they can then recognize. Software can be programmed to observe situations and “learn,” just as a human does from experience.

Consider the Berkeley Robot for the Elimination of Tedious Tasks, or BRETT, under development at UC Berkley. BRETT is programmed to utilize “deep learning” techniques to observe a problem, orient itself, and solve the issue. While it takes several hours to solve a simple task, with increases in computing power, its speed will grow. Just as a child’s simple brain grows into an elegant masterpiece, so too will such machine learning technology develop rapidly as computing power continues to race forward.

Adopting Rapid Technological Solutions: How to Outfit a Truck

In an article in Proceedings in 2012, CNO Jonathan Greenert wrote about budgetary and acquisitions challenges. Due to lengthy development of new platforms, Adm. Greenert suggested that rather than buying “luxury cars” with numerous built in features, the Navy ought to buy “trucks” that can carry modular payloads. Such open architecture systems can easily and rapidly adopt new sensors, weapons, and technology at relatively low cost.

This flexibility combined with rapidly advancing computing technologies makes the near future very bright. While DoD has been and remains at the forefront of research and development, there are many commercial entities building robots and AI products that have dual military uses. Tools like autonomous robots, facial recognition databases, and speech recognition and translation software have all been developed in the civilian sector and offer great promise in military applications. The speed of commercial innovation is regulated by market forces and Moore’s Law. The speed of our acquisitions system is regulated by a bloated process developed by legislators and implemented by managers with a vested interest in its perpetuation. Which system do you think is faster?

By adopting commercial technology in open architecture systems, the pace of adopting new capabilities can accelerate. Enhancements to ensure information assurance and security will be required. Acquisitions processes will have to be respected as well. But this will minimize costs as well as cut down on the multi-year interval between requirements for a weapons system being frozen, and initial operating capability milestones. Open architecture systems in the aviation, submarine, and surface forces that will enable these capabilities to quickly “plug and play,” with upgrades coming in months rather than years. This will bring new capabilities to match the pace of technological advances as closely as possible.

Imagining the (Not so Distant) Future

How realistic, though, is the introduction of machine learning and advanced artificial intelligence into military service? Certainly, the Navy has adopted systems like the X-47 Unmanned Combat Air System. But are these other technologies more pipedream than reality? Let’s conduct a thought experiment.

While writing, I imagined flying a mission in the near future in my most recent fleet aircraft, the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. Such a jet would have an AI system that could analyze the ocean environment, predict the actions of a threat submarine, and recommend to its operators where to search. Acoustic operators using SSQ-125 multistatic sensors would be assisted by an AI system that used machine learning techniques to analyze reflections from underwater targets and provide its judgment whether the return was a submarine or a shipwreck. The aircraft would be equipped with an autonomous communications intelligence (COMINT) recording and translating system. This system would automatically record, translate, and transcribe chatter it received.

Sound like science fiction? If it does, the reader may be surprised to know that all these technologies either already exist in various forms, or are very close to reaching fruition. For over a decade, the MH-60R helicopter has boasted an advanced decision aid called the Acoustic Mission Planner (AMP).[7] By analyzing the ocean, AMP can provide a crew with recommendations on where to employ sensors and search. Updated in real time, its algorithm provides a changing search plan as the hunt unfolds. Similar tools for fixed wing aircraft are being developed.

To detect quiet diesel submarines, the navy has turned to high-powered active sonars. These systems, in theory, are subject to high false alarm rates, and require operators to decipher the returns. The Naval Research Laboratory is developing machine learning software that observes how humans classify returns, and then mimics that behavior. Such “human mimetic” behavior can augment the performance of a less-experienced human operator or speed up classification by a seasoned aviator.

While automatic translation seems to be the realm of Star Trek, such technologies are becoming increasingly common, to the point where they are freely available through services such as Google Translate. Earlier this year, DARPA announced that speech identification and translation software could be available to intelligence analysts and combat troops as early as 2017. Such automated tech could remove the need to carry a linguist onboard, while providing the P-8 a new intelligence gathering capability with no additional manning.

Challenging the Warfighter

Adopting robots and AI systems will not just require warfighters and support personnel to consider how new technology can be employed. It will also require that we consider our relationship with these tools. Far from fearing this technology as a threat to us, or our eventual replacement, we should acknowledge that our role will shift and embrace that reality.

While machines increasingly take on monotonous or computationally intense tasks, we will take on the role of supervisor and analyst. For example, airline pilots frequently discuss their role as one of a “systems manager,” allowing the autopilot to conduct much of the physical task of flying while they observe system performance and make decisions regarding malfunctions, weather, and optimizing their route.

Joining the Conversation

New technologies and warfighting challenges will require solutions from all corners of the fleet. The Navy’s Office of Strategy and Innovation has recently launched a crowd-sourced website known as the Innovation Hatch. In the next month, leaders are challenging sailors fleet-wide to offer their ideas and thoughts on how advances in AI can solve problems they see every day on the deckplates.

The Naval Warfare Development Center has also recently launched a crowd-sourced website known as Navy Brightwork to harvest ideas from the fleet. Brightwork is more focused on warfighting applications and as such has both NIPRnet and SIPRnet portals.

It’s an exciting time both in the Navy as well as society at large as we watch technology grow and change around us. Tools that were rare just years ago are ubiquitous and cheap today. As advances in computing race forward, let us hope that sailors adopt the technology around us to seize the intellectual high ground and win the conflicts of tomorrow.

Untitled1In 2013, an article explored the gulf between creativity and innovation within the U.S. Navy’s ranks. It defined creativity as “investing in our future” and innovation as “finding a new way to solve an identified problem.” Innovation takes place in the Fleet every day. When Sailors are given the room to think outside-the-box in order to solve problems encountered on the deck-plates, it positively flourishes. Now back at sea, I am pleased to see that “Sailorized Innovations” abound. A few months ago, we were faced with a problem exasperated by the cringe-worthy phrase, “This is how we have always done it.”

The ship was moving from the naval station to a civilian shipyard. The assigned berthing barge – where Sailors live and work during an industrial period – was to be placed astern, vice outboard, of the ship. This configuration would require a brow – a “gangplank” for non-Sailors – be run from the pier directly to the barge. To transit between the ship and the barge, a Sailor would have to use the pier. Thus, the ship would need to stand-up extra force protection watch standers to guard the barge. These new posts would add four-thousand man hours to the crew’s watch-standing load during its stay in the shipyard.


Innovation occurs amidst the chaos of our daily lives

The goal was to negate the extra watch-standing requirements. While the command was told that every ship had used the configuration in question and managed to survive, the solution seemed quite obvious and easy to accomplish. If a brow could be rigged from the already-protected ship directly to the barge, the need to guard the barge would be erased. The answer seemed simple, but getting to “yes” was another story.

In the Navy, “the box” is frequently defined by Standard Operating Procedures – usually well-established, sometimes stained in blood, and all-too-often acting as blinders to the here-and-now. These can turn into the sworn-enemy of innovation. As Clayton Christensen suggests in his book of the same name, breaking down these confines and pushing the solution to the identified problem outside-the-box, or looking beyond today, is truly the Innovator’s Dilemma. How does one come up with a new way to solve a problem – innovate – if they are told that they “cannot get there from here?”

Successful innovation requires a questioning attitude. It requires positivity. It requires a clear goal and buy-in. And finally, it requires tenacity.

It is far easier to say “no” than it is to embrace, or even experiment with, change. This is especially true of people who do not have a vested interest in solving the identified problem; ironically, usually the same people who have the power to institute change. When you encounter a problem and are told to make-due, ask questions. Do not be bowled-over. Do not be bullied. A questioning attitude not only improves quality-of-life, but it has the potential to save a life. If presented with the cop-out, “This is how we have always done it,” ask “Why can’t we do it this way?” A questioning attitude will require others to engage in the problem and ultimately defend their position amidst your scrutiny.

Negativity is an anti-body to innovation. The concepts are mutually exclusive. The successful innovator must be positive. They must look for solutions, not problems. They must take set-backs in stride and always keep the good that can be done by their innovative spirit at the forefront of their mind. Maintaining a positive, forward-leaning attitude also has a measurable impact on relationships and networking. The keepers of the purse and the makers of the rules will always choose to work with the positive person over their negative counterpart. The innovator’s team will move mountains for a positive leader.

Possibly the roughest patch in the pursuit of innovation is that place where it intersects with creativity. Creativity involves coming up with a new idea – investing in our future – and normally does not address an identified problem. Creativity may also add more work for the end-user, hence the moniker, The Good Idea Fairy, used so frequently throughout the military. The Fairy comes out of nowhere, taps his wand, creates a new requirement where none was needed, and flies away as the troops struggle to implement his “gift.” Whereas creativity often occurs in a vacuum, successful innovation takes place in the moment and requires a clear goal. What are we trying to solve? This goal ensures that we focus our efforts and maximize the efficiency found in the eventual solution. For the innovator’s efforts to gain any traction, they must have buy-in – both from subordinates, who have the know-how, and from superiors, who provide top-cover and latitude, keeping the innovation-incubator safe from intrusion and exerting influence over outside entities.

Most importantly, the successful innovator must be tenacious. Few people are inclined to expend extra effort on another person’s behalf. When one attempts to solve an identified problem through innovation, they will more-than-likely be met with a resounding “no!” It is easy to give that answer – it requires half a breath and no brain power. The successful innovator – endeavoring to solve a problem – will hear that answer over and over again. Every new approach to the solution will result in more reasons why “it cannot be done.” Innovation is impossible if the innovator does not have the stomach for “no” and gives up in the face of adversity. This is where a questioning attitude, positivity, clear goals and buy-in really count, because with those tools in the innovator’s kit, the tenacious flame will remain eternal.


Running a brow fro the ship’s flight deck to the berthing barge saved the crew 4,000 man-hours of force protection watch standing.

Meaningful innovation is rarely sexy. Though it was not flashy, the ship’s innovative solution – running a brow between the ship and the barge – was a non-starter with the shipyard. The ship was told that this configuration was not the way it was done. Though a seemingly benign situation, the ship’s leadership had their ideas cast aside. Yet, the commanding officer not only supported the plan developed by his innovators, he in fact directed it, knowing that it would be a major win for the crew and most importantly, would ensure their safety and that of their ship. Through willpower, tenacity, and a drop of common-sense, the ship was able to win the day. A brow was rigged from the ship directly to the barge and one team of watch standers was utilized. This configuration endured for 3 months and ultimately proved popular with both Sailors and the shipyard. It was a shining – if not a somewhat mundane – example of successful innovation.

So who cares? A brow was placed in a new spot instead of the usual spot. Big deal. The reason this matters is that our lower echelon units – in this case, our warships – are suffering under the crushing bureaucracy of higher headquarters and civilian support entities. As one colleague phrased it recently, every single waking moment at work seems as if there are a thousand flaming marbles raining from the overhead – ceiling – and letting one hit the deck will bring about the end of the world. All too often we are faced with minor challenges while our hands are tied behind our backs, our ankles are cuffed, our mouths are taped shut, and someone continually pokes us in the eyes. We must not settle for that. We must seek out the small victories. Our units, our equipment, and our people – not to mention the missions we exist to carry out – are far too important to live by the lowest common denominator. Diving in and having the moral fortitude to respectfully push-back and find innovative solutions to every-day problems, produces an exponential return on an investment of sweat-equity. Things are tough these days and throwing up our arms in exasperation is the easy answer; it is not, however, the right answer.

Untitled4In this case, it was a “misplaced brow” that overcame one of the million “face-palm” situations we are presented with on a nearly-daily basis. This configuration did not save lives and it did not win a battle. It did make a positive impact, though, and as leaders, that should always be the goal. Be respectfully stubborn, innovate as if you are trying to find your way out of a scene in Inception, and keep the fire in your belly burning as you stare down Goliath with steely-eyed determination. Our service and our nation will be put to the test again soon enough. Missiles will fly, explosions will roar, and victory will rely on leaders at all levels who can think for themselves when the lights are out and chaos is everywhere. Train like you fight – do not wait for lives to be on the line – innovate today.




Posted by Jon Paris in Innovation, Navy | 2 Comments

IMG_0250Innovation is the buzzword of the day in naval circles. On the heels of Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ “Task Force Innovation,” even Senator John McCain is calling out for innovation in the armed forces. The latter recently signaled the alarm bell in Wired magazine, paraphrasing a famous campaign line by stating, “the Pentagon confronts an emerging innovation gap.”

These leaders often cite the example of Silicon Valley, the mecca of small start-up companies and modern American entrepreneurism. The thinking goes that, if only our services could exude more “disruptive thinking,” or acquire systems faster, or flatten organizational structures—then we will achieve success.

Yet the US Navy is not a small start-up. And while many of our Sailors and Marines have great ideas that will impact technology and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP) across the range of military operations, there is an insidious creep arising amid the growing “innovation gap:” central planning.

Successful innovation in the Navy has no program office, no resource sponsor. Yet as Congress and leaders begin to demand or expect it, we are in danger of morphing the ingenuity of individuals into “capital-I Innovation.” One can imagine a fate not too dissimilar to that of acquisition versus Acquisition.

Since his speech at the Sea Air Space conference in April, SECNAV has been regularly posting memoranda on his website. Each document contains background information on a particular area—robotics, for example—and then a list of “shall” accomplish requirements for the Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps, all to be completed by a specified date.

Make no mistake: this is an important advancement for our Navy. Introducing an element of outside-the-box thinking from on high is part of what our service needs.

But “shall” actions with a defined deadline miss the point of innovation. In fact, the concept of innovation itself stands at odds with the increasingly managerial, assembly-line service we live in. True innovation has no timeline; good ideas and products are tied to neither the Fleet Readiness Training Plan (FRTP) nor the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System (JCIDS). Few people, if any, whether they were in Silicon Valley or their parents’ garage, ever woke up and said, “By tomorrow, I am going to come up with a revolutionary idea.”

Instead of attempting to mandate innovation with deadlines and taskers, Senator McCain and Secretary Mabus should be leading discussions in three important areas:

First, how does the Navy deal with questions? SECNAV is already talking about this, but it is important to have a larger discussion on the topic. Failure to attain qualifications and expertise in rate or platform can still be unacceptable, but what about the few who show up to quarters with ideas on how to make their small corner of the Navy better, more efficient? What about the folks who constructively ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” We should expect excellence in systems and tactics, while also having the capacity to challenge our people to suggest and implement improvements in those systems and tactics. Connecting like-minded service members and making more centers for experimentation available are part of the solution, but so is leadership—from the LPO and Department Head level and beyond— that looks at its “quirky” sailors less as nuisances and more as potential assets.

Second, how does the Navy deal with failure? Operational Risk Management, or ORM, is championed around the Fleet and seems to be a mainstay in everything from work center training to holiday safety briefs. But what do we do with officers or enlisted sailors who have the right intentions and either attempt to push their platforms too far or have a momentary lapse in judgment? Our current zero-defect mentality belies our naval history: Admiral Nimitz, one of our most storied heroes of WWII, ran his first ship aground as a young lieutenant. He was allowed to continue his service, and a court-martial declared that “he is a good officer and will probably take more care in the future.” Have our platforms become so expensive, and has our fear of public relations become so pervasive, that we would fire today’s sailors in a similar predicament? What does that say about the leadership we are actually cultivating? Not all failure is catastrophic or should be treated as such.

Third, what do we do with innovative service members? Can a tinker-sailor-leader-innovator become a commanding officer of a ship, submarine, or aviation squadron if she accepts shore tour orders to a billet in ONR or the Pentagon? What if she delivers benefits to Navy platforms or TTPs while she is in this “non-production billet?” This will speak more to interested sailors—and to coaxing a groundswell of innovation—than dictates from above.

Senator McCain is right in his op-ed: our services need acquisition reform. This is a large part of the solution towards adapting to the pace of technological change.

But the greatest advancement that the Senator or Secretary Mabus could make is to view the current innovation movement not as a program of record or urgent operational need (UON), but rather as a core operating concept. We want a service that is more lethal, agile, and responsive without shelling over outrageous sums to defense contractors. Sailors and civilians, whether they are in the Fleet or in the Pentagon, are capable of outstanding innovation to that end. They need the inspiration to try, make mistakes, and carry on without fear for their jobs or their fitness reports.

This requires no act of Congress and should not be passed down through memoranda. Rather, it is a discussion to have and a change in thinking required both in the halls of the Capitol Building and throughout the Fleet. We must move from a service dictated by metrics and managers to a team inspired by leaders. This is the paradigm shift required for our Navy to move forward in this century.

Please join us on Sunday, 14 June 2015 at 5pm (1700)(EDT) for Midrats Episode 284: 200th Anniversary of Waterloo with John Kuehn:

18 June will be the 200th Anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, fought in present-day Belgium. Just in time, a regular guest to Midrats, John Kuehn, has his latest book out, Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns where he covers the operational level analysis of European warfare from 1792 to 1815, including the tactics, operations, and strategy of major conflicts of the time.

More than just a description of set piece battle, there is a discussion of naval warfare, maneuver warfare, compound warfare, and counterinsurgency.

We’ve got him for the full hour … we should be able to get to most of it.

Dr. John T. Kuehn is the General William Stofft Chair for Historical Research at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He retired from the U.S. Navy 2004 at the rank of commander after 23 years of service as a naval flight officer in EP-3s and ES-3s. He authored Agents of Innovation (2008) and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, as well as numerous articles and editorials and was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011.

His previous book was, A military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century.

Join us live or pick the show up later by clicking here. You can also find the show later at our iTunes page here.


Ghost Fleet. P.W. Singer & August Cole, (2015). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, NY: 416 pp. $28.00.

An editorial in China’s Global Times reportedly said that if the U.S. position is that China must halt its reclamation activities in the South China Sea “then a U.S.-China war is inevitable.” Meanwhile the United States has signaled its willingness to move up the escalation ladder in defense of its position with Freedom of Navigation transits and P-8 flights. Elsewhere, Russia’s rulers seem bent on military adventurism along its borderlands. With such a real-life backdrop readers could be forgiven for fixating on the geopolitical backstory of Ghost Fleet, P.W. Singer and August Cole’s self-described new “novel of the next world war.” After all, the writer/academic/think-tanker/consultant duo chose to portray the three powers* as the plot’s antagonists – opening with a P-8 flight above a Chinese position.

Yet, despite a review of Power Transition Theory examining why these states might come to blows, Ghost Fleet’s expedition into the near future primarily focuses on how such a great power conflict might be fought. Singer and Cole are at their best in teasing out the interplay between potential advances in emerging technologies – backed by impressive end-noting – rather than isolating the implications of a single capability. These range from Big Data and unmanned systems to additive manufacturing and augmented reality. The authors’ depictions of cutting-edge Chinese developments picking apart current U.S. weapons systems might make for queasy reading among some in the military. In this way it effectively serves to warn against complacency in presuming American technological superiority in conflict. But it bears remembering that success in employing the new capabilities detailed in Ghost Fleet, as in life, requires a level of creativity available (and not guaranteed) to both sides.

Singer and Cole also explore how the supposed American Way of War of grinding attrition, popularized by the eponymous 1973 Russell Weigley book, might fare in an age of offensive space and cyber weapons. In doing so they create intriguing portraits of empowered individuals (both socio-economically and skills-wise), expats, and a globalized defense industrial base on a war footing. Some of the most memorable scenes come from the juxtaposition of new capabilities with old operational concepts (occasionally set to the strains of Alice Cooper). Singer and Cole also ably confront readers with a reversal in the traditional role of U.S. forces in an insurgency and the ethical decisions it demands of them.

Ghost Fleet may be the authors’ first novel, but it’s not their first foray into helping tell a story. Singer has consulted on such projects as Activision’s “Call of Duty” video game franchise and honed his prose in such works as Wired for War, an earlier book on the future of robotics warfare. Cole meanwhile has been engaged in the development of insights on warfare by facilitating near-future science fiction writing at the Atlantic Council’s “Art of Future Warfare Project” (full disclosure: I had the opportunity to publish a short story of my own there). These experiences have paid off in a very enjoyable page-turner.

This is not to say Ghost Fleet is without flaws. One of the novel’s driving emotional stories, an estranged father-son relationship, never quite rings true. With an expansive and fast-moving narrative, a character here and subplot there trail off without satisfactory conclusion. Lastly, while the authors investigate many impacts of a war’s fallout on the U.S. Navy, including the resurrection of the ships of the book’s title and a call-up of retirees, they missed an opportunity to look at the complications a mobilization of existing Navy Reservists might cause. But such a minor sin of omission doesn’t detract from the overall merits of the work. Whether on a commute to the Pentagon or relaxing on a beach in the Hawaii Special Administrative Zone, readers will find Ghost Fleet a highly enjoyable, at times uncomfortable, and always thought-provoking read.



*It should be noted Singer and Cole don’t tie those nation’s current regimes to their countries’ futures, and in doing so remind readers that what would follow a collapse of the Chinese Communist Party is not necessarily more amenable to U.S. or Western interests.



Seth Robertson and Viet Tran, electrical and computer engineering students, test their sound-blasting fire extinguisher prototype. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Seth Robertson and Viet Tran, electrical and computer engineering students, test their sound-blasting fire extinguisher prototype. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Water, PKP, CO2, Halon, and AFFF are what we use to extinguish fire (I didn’t miss one, did I?). AFFF shouldn’t really count as it’s own method, since water is still the medium in which AFFF is applied.

A clear eyed view of using water to extinguish flame on a ship floating in water–or a submarine suspended in water–is rather perplexing and counterintuitive, practicality notwithstanding. Especially in regards to the reality that air pressure can now be utilized to extinguish flames.

Reports of using sound waves to extinguish flames date back to 2004, when the University of West Georgia demonstrated the banality of Nickelback the ability of low frequencies to extinguish a candle. In turn, by 2011/12 DARPA then further demonstrated the capability. DARPA’s demonstrator appears large and impractical for real-world applications, but clearly and audibly shows fire being extinguished by nothing more than moving air in a specific way (specific Sound Pressure Level and frequencies).

In the last year, two engineering students from George Mason University built upon work done by other researchers and DARPA, and built a handheld technology demonstrator that is capable of putting out small fires.

There’s still a lot of testing that needs to be done–this technology has to be falsified to establish the limits of what types of casualties are capable of being combated. But, the benefits of this technology fill a few niches that existing technologies do not.

Foremost in my mind is the potential application of this technology in submarines. The closed atmosphere seems poorly suited for introducing particulates like PKP, and unbreathable CO2. Submarines are suspended far below the surface making the notion of affecting the buoyancy by fighting fire with water border on a crazy but necessary evil.

Viet and Seth, the inventors of the handheld device in the above video seem to have produced their prototype for $600. Which should be a small enough price point to allow some real experimentation. We could procure 10-15 of these extinguishers, give them to the DC-men at the Naval Training Centers, and tell them to falsify this technology. We’d ask them to establish what we can and cannot do with this technology, how it could augment our existing fire fighting capabilities, and how the technology should evolve from this demonstrator to a tool ready for the Fleet. Additionally, building an array of transducers into the overhead of an engine room could provide a wide-area suppression system similar to the AFFF systems already installed.

No de-watering after securing from a casualty. No wiping CO2 ‘flakes’ off electrical equipment. Theoretically, the only thing on the MRC for this unit would be checking the battery charge level and the material condition of the transducer. There are significant benefits to adopting this rapidly maturing technology, and I believe it behooves us as a Navy to explore this technology and adopt it.


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