November 1, 2006  

A tide to turn

Cuts and red tape threaten the future of Navy labs

Fully loaded, an Arleigh Burke destroyer displaces 8,315 tons. It has four turbine engines, an Aegis Combat System that includes the 53C sonar, and multiple radar and communication systems. Its weapons include the Harpoon, Tomahawk and Standard missiles; 90 vertical launch cells; two Phalanx systems; a 5-inch/54-caliber gun; and two triple torpedo tubes. This array of technologies on one platform makes Navy ships some of the most complex systems of our times, and many have no civilian analog.

These systems are made possible by Navy labs. They have long been a force in bringing together technologies and introducing new ones into the fleet. Moreover, the Navy seeks future naval capabilities. But Navy labs — organizations that translate technology into naval capabilities — are in trouble. They have experienced years of cuts and now operate under a stifling bureaucracy. If fixes aren’t made soon, future naval capabilities will be in trouble.

Over the past decade and a half, Navy labs have been cut dramatically. In 1991, Navy lab personnel totaled 68,236, of which 25,891 were scientists and engineers. By 2004, they had 38,767, of which 20,795 were scientists and engineers — a 43 percent overall loss and a 20 percent loss in scientists and engineers. A big concern is that more scientists and engineers are over 40 years of age. Soon, a generation of experienced staff will retire without enough trained replacements. But as the work force declines, customer needs for lab services and the corresponding investment have risen since Sept. 11, causing work to be outsourced. The overall result is that the labs are losing hands-on work needed to sustain technical competence — the fundamental reason the labs exist.

The labs also are doing less research, which poses big concerns for the future. In 1992, naval warfare centers got 45 percent of the Department of the Navy’s funds for basic and applied research and advanced technology development. By 2004, the centers had 22 percent of a significantly smaller overall investment. Less research means less likelihood of scientific discoveries leading to technological breakthroughs. It also increases our chances of being technologically surprised by somebody else.

But the biggest disruption to the labs’ continuity of service is the bureaucracy. Previously, local management of naval labs was modeled after the Manhattan Project. The special relationship of officer-in-charge Gen. Leslie Groves and science director J. Robert Oppenheimer was a big factor in the project’s success. Similarly, at naval labs, a uniformed officer was the commander, linking the lab to the Navy, while a civilian technical director oversaw technical programs, providing continuity in long-term research and development (R&D). As one former lab commander wrote to his three-star boss, “[T]his team approach to leadership and management has been particularly effective where a balanced view must be taken of current and prospective technology opportunities and fleet requirements.”

That changed. In 2003, the civilian technical directors were removed, leaving uniformed officers to run the labs. Their tenures and, thus, decisions are limited to three years, but R&D requires a long-term perspective. Most have no technical degrees. And few have previously managed a large organization of creative technical professionals, a task that differs substantially from leading sailors. As Navy scientist Albert Michelson said, “If you want to keep a first-class physicist like Michelson, you’ll have to treat him like a first-class physicist.”

Mobilizing scientists

The Navy’s need for labs became apparent when it didn’t have enough scientists and engineers. When Cmdr. A.L. Key inspected the battleship North Dakota being built, he was horrified by its defects. Its design and construction had not been assessed by Navy scientists and engineers. And when World War II broke out, the Navy found it had little to stop German submarines in the Atlantic, ultimately requiring a mobilization of scientists and engineers to come up with counters.

Out of the Navy’s need for science and engineering evolved a system of naval laboratories — warfare and systems centers — across the country. They focus on naval warfare areas and enabling technological superiority on, under and above the sea; on adjacent land areas; and in space. These warfare and systems centers, or labs, include the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Naval Air Warfare Center, and Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

These institutions provide the technological understanding needed for integration of the complex systems of modern naval warfare. They pursue technologies that have unique naval uses, such as ordnance, weapons systems and towed arrays. They also adapt commercial technologies for naval uses. After chat software emerged on commercial networks, a Navy lab adapted it for more fragile, lower-bandwidth networks such as those used by ships, as well as for units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There has been a belief that these labs could be replaced by industry. But Navy labs provide continuity in ways no one can match. First, these labs provide continuity over time. Research and development can be a long, uncertain process, in some cases 20 to 30 years. Not every technology follows Moore’s Law. Yet naval labs will doggedly pursue scientific discoveries that have potential. In the late 1960s, a Navy lab began researching the fire on the aircraft carrier Forrestal. Over the years, this research led to the understanding of basic synthetic organic chemistry for a new class of weapons, a pressure-producing thermobaric munition. When the need arose in 2001, the lab helped field such a munition for use against the enemy in Afghan caves.

Today, Navy labs do long-haul R&D in areas such as sonar, radar and hull forms. And they have the flexibility to maintain a technical base in such areas as chemical and biological defense, gunnery and countermine warfare, which held little interest during the Cold War but are of vital interest today.

The Navy has been hurt when it has relied too much on industry for its continuity in R&D. With a few exceptions, government policy precludes long-term commitments to a particular company. Rather, it encourages competition for the sake of the lowest price. Thus, there is a need for labs to ensure continuity in given fields. The Navy’s engineering in surface-launched missiles once resided in industry. But that was disrupted by a defense industry shakeout, with the engineering capability shifting from a General Dynamics-run plant in California to General Electric and then a Raytheon plant in Arizona. Many who had built missiles for years refused to move. Long-term R&D doesn’t always coincide with industry’s need to show profits to stockholders and owners.

Naval labs also provide continuity across all R&D stages. Innovation involves many customers: One agency may do research that leads to a technology, another may invent it, another may integrate it, and still another may manufacture it. At any stage, a technology may stall because of lack of support.

Naval labs will shepherd technology through such tortuous paths. They are networked with other labs, the Office of Naval Research, acquisition offices and the war fighters. They link those who have the need with those who have the technology. For example, the Navy needed a computing architecture to link Aegis ship radars to fire-control systems, and thus rapidly detect and hit targets. A Navy lab found one, called “Hiper D,” undergoing research at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. That lab facilitated the technology’s movement through all R&D stages and through various customers until it was in a program of record. It’s now in a combat system. That doesn’t happen naturally because one organization seldom has the resources, processes, values and customer set to take really innovative technology through all R&D stages and manufacturing.

Navy labs also provide continuity across naval warfare areas. Naval systems must operate as a team on and under the sea, in the air, on land and in space. Nobody knows those systems better than Navy labs, and they make a concerted effort to integrate them. In the late 1990s, the labs digitally linked their engineering activities, allowing them to collaborate on design, integration and testing of systems bound for Navy strike groups.

Navy labs will be needed even more in the future. The Navy is pursuing technology initiatives for future naval capabilities related to its Sea Power 21 concept. Moreover, rapid technological innovation will be the name of the game in the future. Yet, the labs’ continuity of service and thus future capabilities and innovation are in question.

“The Navy has reached a point where … its institutional capability in science and engineering is in peril,” writes former Navy scientist James Colvard. Navy labs are being micromanaged by headquarters. HQ staffs have input into decisions regarding what work gets done by labs, how much it will cost and who will do it without accountability for the work getting done or meeting program managers’ needs. The result is “an atomized amorphous blob with loss of unit and site identity and cohesion,” a retired rear admiral and two respected Navy scientists concluded in a study of the current system. These headquarters help call the shots for labs in the field but have little or no responsibility for work execution. Additionally, these staffs are creating a burgeoning overhead. They were intended to consist of only a small number of people, but today they number in the dozens. One lab branch head said there is “no time for real work, no time for anything but filling out forms and writing plans.”

Just as lab work is managed by distant headquarters, so are lab tools. Previously, labs were able to readily reconfigure capabilities to meet R&D needs. However, facilities are no longer controlled at the local level but rather by the Navy Installations Command — without accountability for the technical work being done. Consequently, if a lab needs to alter a facility, it must go though a bureaucratic process that could take years. Facility requirements have become an end unto themselves without being balanced against competing technical and customer priorities.

The same is occurring with information technologies. In an age when computers are scientists’ most critical tools, they are being managed by the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet program. This may be efficient for e-mail but not for R&D. Such centralization is like taking hammers and saws away from carpenters.

Additionally, the hiring of lab scientists is controlled by headquarters. Labs must recruit prospective science and engineering students nine months before June graduation. Yet, headquarters sets hiring quotas for three-month periods. The disconnect is obvious. These headquarters are having an unintended consequence on the labs. “The moment a leader allows himself to become the primary reality people worry about, rather than reality being the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity, or worse,” corporate consultant and writer Jim Collins said. The concern here is that labs are expending time and effort on headquarters dictums, which takes away from pioneering the frontiers on science and adapting technology to naval needs.

“That technology would revolutionize tactics was seen by naval officers of all great powers,” retired naval tactician Capt. Wayne P. Hughes wrote about the naval revolution at the turn of the 19th century. That view is probably held by most naval officers today. But what Navy officers may not fully appreciate is where much of this technology must come from — naval labs. They have been treated as more of an expense than an asset. Will the labs survive? Undoubtedly. The bigger question is will the Navy get the most of its labs to achieve future naval capabilities and innovation?

To improve effectiveness, the labs’ work force should be commensurate with their business base as intended by the labs’ unique congressionally mandated financial system. Secondly, the Navy should re-establish civilian technical directors in the labs and emphasize empowerment rather than centralization. And finally, the Navy can change who the labs work for. Presently, they are under the Navy’s systems commands. The long-term solution would be to realign the labs with their principal customers — the Program Executive Offices and the Office of Naval Research under the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition. If the Navy wants future naval capabilities and innovation, it needs to make these fixes — and soon.

Dr. David Skinner was executive director at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City, Fla. He teaches electrical and computing engineering at Florida State University.