ARLINGTON, Va. — The chief of naval research is pushing for the creation of an “experimentation czar” for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, work intended to bring rapidly changing technology to the fleet more quickly. .
Rear Admiral Lorin Selby said the change would mean additional responsibility for him, or his successor, as director of the Office of Naval Research. The idea is to expand the bureau’s funding and powers to catapult promising technologies through the so-called “valley of death,” the time between development and actual supply, he said.
The Marine Corps already has something similar in its Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, whose director is also the vice chief of naval research. MCWL maintains a matrix of training events large and small, all of which can be used to experiment with new equipment or concepts. Lessons learned are incorporated into subsequent experimentation events and rapid acquisition efforts.
Selby told Defense News in an interview that this model could work for the entire naval force – it would likely start with a more limited focus on the US 7th Fleet and III Marine Expeditionary Force in the Pacific, and it would would expand once the model proves useful – but that would require fundamental changes in how money can be spent within the MoD.
Selby said three things need to happen to bring disruptive technology to the fleet: ideation, incubation and scaling.
His office and other organizations receive a steady stream of good ideas from within the military and from partners in academia and industry. About incubation, he said the Navy was good at experimenting but not doing enough. “It’s the result of resources: it’s money and people,” he said, and the Navy must invest to create “a machine of perpetual experimentation.”
Once a good idea is identified and matured, scaling it up is what stumbles the Navy. If the service finds a cheap unmanned system and wants to buy 100 or 1,000 of them to disperse across the fleet, for example, there’s no good way to do that quickly. The research community should find a program executive office to sponsor it, and the PEO should insert it into the budget planning process which could already be two years away. Then, once the money is available, the PEO would have to go through the procurement process to award a contract, and the product might not be delivered in numbers for three or four years.
“We have to understand this coin, which means … flexible funding,” Selby said.
Rather than requiring two organizations to be on the same page on opposite sides of Death Valley, Selby prefers to speak of a “bridge owner”, who would be the new experimentation czar.
“This person needs the contracts shop, the finance shop, the legal shop to do all of that. And the good news is that I have all of that. I would just need those extra permissions rather than extra funds” for prototyping and sourcing efforts, Selby explained. He added that the program offices already have the money; he would just have to convince senior management to withdraw a small portion of that money and give him control of it.
The rear admiral, who has led the Office of Naval Research since May 2020, said he is now having those conversations with key leaders.
“Many of the older people I have spoken to are in complete agreement: yes, we need this experimentation machine. I have had conversations with people connected to the Hill who have said that these are exactly the ideas we’re looking for,” he said. But the federal budget process doesn’t facilitate flexible spending, requiring money from every “program item” to be spent the right way.
A Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution Reform Commission, which was mandated by the FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act and formed earlier this year, could tackle the restrictive nature of today’s line-by-line budgeting and creating a sort of flexible funding pot.
Once this flexible spending account is created, he will need money to fill it.
“That’s the challenge we have: nobody really disagrees with the concept, other than where the bodies come from and how you pay for it.”
Selby said he is currently discussing with Navy leaders how to find money over the next one or two fiscal years, possibly taking on other procurement programs that are experiencing delays and could save a few bucks without hurting them more.
Before he settles on the money issue, Selby tries to demonstrate the process he would bring to this role of experimentation czar.
To that end, the Office of Naval Research leads what the Navy has dubbed the “SCOUT” experimentation effort. In this first iteration, the project focuses on solving operational problems for US Southern Command in narcotics interdiction. Selby said the SCOUT team traveled to Joint Interagency Task Force South headquarters in Key West, Fla., to learn more about the specifics of their challenges – how to search a wide area, how to incorporate the P-8A Poseidon aircraft in their processes, how to aggregate the data. The team came back with four specific issues to fix.
Through an opening of commercial solutions, more than 80 companies have applied to participate in this SCOUT effort. Selby said the ONR has reviewed them and will put together a final set of potential solutions to demonstrate in the southern command area in February or March.
He noted that SCOUT relies on a “pick-up team” made up of ONR and warfare center staff, and he said “this needs to be a permanent team” if the model is to be upgraded. the scale for a Navy-scale experiment czar.
Selby said he was very committed to creating a “perpetual machine of experimentation” so the navy could develop strategic cover: Although the service must continue research and development to support ship modernization, current aircraft and weapons, the Navy must also seek out disruptive technologies. it would give him an entirely different way to fight a fight. He recalled the Navy’s development of naval aviation and aircraft carriers in the 1920s, even despite the commissioning of a battleship-centric fleet. When the Japanese neutralized the US battleship fleet, the US Navy was able to succeed in the war because it had naval aviation technology and concepts ready for rapid use.
“I’m very clear: I’m not trying to replace the big complex stuff because we still need it,” he said. “I’m just afraid that somewhere along the way here someone is going to find a way to counter this – and I want to have a back-up plan.”
Megan Eckstein is a naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported on four geographic fleets and is happiest when recording stories from a ship. Megan is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.