Maritime Strategy and Naval Innovation

Maritime Strategy and Naval Innovation: Technology, Bureaucracy, and the Problem of Change in the Age of Competition, Edited by Alessio Patalano and James A. Russell (Naval Institute Press, January 31, 2021, 320 Pages)

After almost three decades of limited innovative success, an environment where sea control has been taken for granted, and Chinese and Russian military capabilities have continued to advance, the US Navy has a renewed sense of urgency to maintain maritime dominance.

To change and adapt, the navy must shed its complacency and deploy technology based on maritime strategies linked to national objectives. This is a key conclusion in the book, Maritime Strategy and Naval Innovation, a collection of essays written by 15 experts in the fields of naval and organizational history, strategy, technology, and international security. Technology alone, however, should not drive the navy’s transformation.

The book identifies the most critical internal and external factors influencing the process of naval innovation. Editors and contributors Alessio Patalano and James A. Russell present lessons from the past and predictions of the future over a broad spectrum of naval missions and geopolitical scenarios. Based on their conclusions, Patalano and Russell propose overarching organizational and institutional changes for strategic innovation.

Key Takeaways

Reviewer Deb Yeagle suggests the conclusions should be considered by the naval innovation ecosystem to manage the innovation pipeline in the navy’s top priorities as defined by the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the 2021 CNO Navigation Plan (NAVPLAN). The following are the key takeaways from Maritime Strategy and Naval Innovation: readiness, capabilities, capacity, and our sailors.

1) Readiness

Part of readiness is planning at all levels: strategic, operational, and tactical. The chief of naval operation’s goal is to improve planning through a deeper understanding of our adversaries’ capabilities and mindsets and to align experiments, exercises, and education to support this goal. This approach is similar to the adapt/react cycle (linking innovation to strategy) used effectively to drive the navy’s innovation during the World War II and Cold War eras. However, he blames the post-1990s innovation cycle failure on a drift away from this strategy. 

2) Capabilities

During the 1990s, the Department of Defense (DoD) moved away from the adapt-react cycle and used “capabilities portfolios” to guide decision making. To avoid repeating history, when evaluating “emerging technologies” such as artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, the navy should again link innovation to strategy to define how these technologies will be employed in the fleet.

Further, Russell attributes Cold War era procurement systems’ constraints (lack of speed and flexibility) to the most recent decline in DoD innovation and its inability to respond to changes in the environment. Both strategy defining documents mentioned above (the 2018 NDS recognizes and the NAVPLAN) recognize the problem. While the DoD has made greater use of more innovative contracting mechanisms over the last four years, both the DoD and the navy need to adapt acquisition processes and systems to streamline procurement. 

One such adaptation has been achieved by the navy in response to the 2018 NDS objective to “organize for innovation.” As Peter Roberts’s essay urges, a new approach to innovation led by government which engages the military, technology companies, the defense industry, and academia is needed to achieve successful innovation. NavalX (an organization enabling innovation sharing), with its mission to reduce barriers between the navy and non-traditional partners, has embraced this concept. It is in operation today with a goal to align acquisition and operational stakeholders to accelerate delivery of capabilities to the fleet.

3) Capacity

In redesigning the 21st century fleet, Russell urges the navy to address acquisition and design mistakes made in aircraft carrier programs (for example, in the LCS, Zumwalt-class DDX, and Ford-class programs). Future ship design, as Milan Vego’s essay explains, should apply lessons learned in modularization, which could realize up to forty percent reductions in construction time. To meet the NAVPLAN goal of delivering the Columbia-class program on time, acquisition system reform must become a priority. In addition, as Peter Dombroski suggests, innovation should be driven by how we envision future warfare and the possibility that our next war will not be fought by aircraft carriers, but by other capital ships, such as submarines or smaller distributed naval systems.

4) Our Sailors

As Roberts’ essay on the role of human capital in future naval warfare notes: “Neither technology, nor innovation, win battles or wars. Instead, it is the people fighting them and how they fight that decides winners and losers.” The NAVPLAN embraces Roberts’ point and has set its priorities on the naval workforce, emphasizing training and educating our sailors. However, Roberts cautions that the pervasiveness of technology threatens the development of interpersonal skills. Further, Patalano and Russell point out that the navy’s career advancement system and leadership development program do not promote innovation nor foster strategic thinking.

Conclusion

As Maritime Strategy and Naval Innovation conclude, the strategy should shape the direction of navy innovation and draw upon the best technology available. To meet NAVPLAN goals, the overarching strategy should guide readiness planning and capabilities requirements. It should also inform war-fighting capacity, future fleet design, and the development of our sailors. The top priority to maintain our advantage at sea should be organizational change, reforming procurement, and personnel systems to develop with technology and achieve a culture of strategy-based innovation.


Review provided by Deb Yeagle who served as a Department of Defense civilian for over 25 years at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, and the Joint Warfare Analysis Center. After leaving civil service to join the federal government contracting industry, Deb supported numerous programs at the following: Office of Naval Intelligence, Naval Air Systems Command, Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Naval Education and Training Security Assistance Field Activity, Naval Research Laboratory, and Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division. She has also held the toughest job in the navy – a navy wife. Deb is currently the president of Plan To Win, Inc., an independent business development, capture, and proposal consulting firm supporting federal government contractors.  Deb can be reached via Linked In and email

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