Naval Engineers Must 'Lean In' to Advance Technological Agility

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 20, 2019) -- Rebuilding "strategic momentum" and growing advantages in the maritime domain are challenges Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson addressed in "A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0," which updated a 2016 document.

At an annual meeting of the American Society of Naval Engineers today in Washington, Richardson said meeting those challenges is a "human problem" that must be met, in part by naval engineers.

A man in a military uniform stands behind a lectern which bears a logo with the words "American Society of Naval Engineers - 1888."

His plan for how the Navy will maintain maritime superiority relies in part on three aspects of agility. "With the joint force, we will restore agility -- conceptual, geographic, and technological -- to impose cost[s] on our adversaries across the competition-conflict spectrum," the report reads.

For engineers, Richardson focused on their contribution to technological agility.

An aircraft carrier moves through the ocean. In the sky above, 11 aircraft fly in a diamond formation.

"The technological landscape is changing so fast across all of technology," Richardson said. "It's really fueled by this information revolution that we are in the middle of right now. And so as we think about the Navy as a learning engine in and of itself, restoring these technical agilities is really important. We do need to move at pace."

For comparison, the admiral referred back to Dec. 8, 1941 -- a day after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. It was then, Richardson said, that the Navy began a quick transition from battleship-based tactics to aircraft carriers and aerial battles. He said the switch in strategy wasn't a surprise for the Navy, because it had been researching and engineering for that possibility for years.

"We had been 20 years into naval aviation," he said. "This was not just something that we did as a pickup team on Dec. 8. We had been putting investments in with folks like [Joseph Reeves] and [William Moffett] and all those pioneers of naval aviation. We had evidence. A lot of experimentation, a lot of engineering that had gone into that."

A fighter jet lands on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Now, Richardson said, the Navy must again have that kind of experimentation, engineering and prototyping to ready it for the next conflict -- and it must get on that mission quickly to stay ahead of adversaries.

"We do not want to be the second navy on the water with these decisive technologies: the directed energy, unmanned, machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc., you name it," he said. "That's the great challenge now: to get out, start prototyping, get at this pace, plus evidence ... to yield a relevant Navy that is ready to defend America from attack and protect our interests around the world."

An aircraft carrier moves though the ocean. In the background are snow-covered mountains.

The admiral said that a knee-jerk reaction might be to cite Defense Department acquisition regulations, like DOD 5000, for inhibiting the type of rapid development, engineering and research he thinks will be needed to maintain maritime dominance. But he said that's not entirely correct.

"I think a new set of rules would help," he said. "But this is, I think, a human problem at the end of the day. If we are all biased for action, if we all lean into this, we will get it done. There is nothing that will prohibit us or inhibit us from getting that done if we are all leaning in."